Not many could say that they have had two highly successful careers, but Glenda Jackson is a shining example that anything’s possible.
Born in Birkenhead, she went to school in Kirby and worked at Boots for two years after leaving school before applying to RADA. Her first film role was a minor part in 1963 drama This Sporting Life, then she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company for four years. It was Ken Russell’s adaptation of the DH Lawrence novel Women in Love that shot her to fame and won her an Oscar.
A long career in TV and film followed, with roles in which she shaved her head to play Elizabeth I in Elizabeth R, and was shoved off the stage in the Morecambe and Wise show during a dance routine.
Politics beckoned and in 1992 Jackson was elected as Labour member for Hampstead and Highgate. After the 1997 general election she was given a junior role in Tony Blair’s government, and was later a backbencher for many years.
She stepped down in 2015, but not before delivering blistering speeches criticising Margaret Thatcher and Iain Duncan Smith, whom she described has having destroyed the welfare state.
In her Letter To My Younger Self, she recalls with gratitude her manager at Boots who advocated on her behalf, and the directors who coaxed some of her greatest performances.
I was still at school when I was 16. Then I left and my first job was working in Boots the Chemist, and my wages went straight to my mother. I lived in Hoylake in the Wirral and the Boots in Kirby was just a bus ride away. I was a good student until I was about 14. Then I think I just got bored and I didn’t do particularly well in my exams. It became a very popular thing for me to hide in the cupboard making irritating noises during English lessons, I think I probably went on doing that for a good while. I came up with the idea but then everyone joined in. My classmates pretended not to hear the noises. We were just being beastly to the teacher. I can’t remember whether I was actually ever discovered.
Most of my time was spent reading and, if I could afford it, going to the cinema. I can’t remember the names of the black-and-white films I went to see, but I do remember the women in them. People like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. I had no idea what I might do for a career but a friend of mine was with an amateur dramatics society and encouraged me to join it, which I did. And one of the people who ran it said I should go in for acting. So I wrote to the only drama school I’d heard of, which was RADA. And after an audition they offered me a place, but I couldn’t afford to go. Then one of my managers at Boots – I’m ashamed to say I’ve forgotten his name – wrote to Cheshire county council telling them about the offer and they paid my fees. I can’t see that happening these days.
My family were very distressed that I was going away. My aunt who lived just around the corner thought she’d never ever see me again. But for me every day was exciting. I made a friend who was Canadian, and I stayed in the same digs not only for the two years at drama school, but after I left drama school, and got a job down in London.
When I left RADA the chief told me not to expect much work before I was 40 because I was essentially a character actress, and that seemed quite reasonable to me at the time. But when I left I got work immediately. However, after working quite assiduously for about two years, I then didn’t work in the theatre at all for another two years. That’s the theatre for you. So I didn’t have much money, but a very small amount of money meant you still could live in London in those days.
I never got to a point when I didn’t worry that I wouldn’t work as an actor again. I always felt that the last performance of whatever I was doing would be the last time I’d ever work. It’s a very overcrowded profession, and particularly overcrowded if you’re a woman. Authors don’t find women that interesting. It was nice to win an Oscar [for 1969’s Women in Love, after which she won again for 1973’s A Touch of Class]. It’s nice for a role to be appreciated. But it’s the work that matters. Making Women in Love was amazing. It was the first time I worked with Ken Russell and he was absolutely remarkable. I’ve been very lucky with the directors I’ve worked with.
I think, looking back, the most career-changing work I did was with Peter Brook [the legendary multi award-winning film and theatre director]. He is probably the greatest director the world has ever seen. To actually work with him and within the Royal Shakespeare Company was just amazing. The marvellous thing is, the work was just so – not overwhelming, but he was constantly finding new ways and new ideas. He was just extraordinary. The really great directors don’t dictate – they wait to see what you’re going to do. And then they sort of nudge you around.
I was always at the tail end of the group when I was young so I’d be amazed to find out that when I got older, people actually wanted to know me. To work with me. I don’t think I was particularly confident then. And of course it was a different world. There was only a certain amount expected of you as a woman, especially a working-class woman. An interest in politics in terms of how the country was changing was a common theme with many millions of young people like me growing up after the Second World War. The differences in the classes in this country had begun to fracture. And an awareness of that was part of the changes that came about in me. But it was many years later that I decided to get seriously involved.
What persuaded me to give up acting and go into politics? [She retired from acting and became the Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate in 1992, joining the Labour front bench as shadow transport minister in July 1996]. It was Margaret Thatcher. That was the extremity of everything I thought was the worst way for the country to go forward. I was very fortunate to be re-elected five times. And to occasionally be able to really help the people in my constituency. It’s such a privilege to be a member of Parliament, to be able to open those doors to help people if they need it.
Of course the House of Commons wasn’t welcoming for women, but in my generation we’re so used to that. In a funny kind of way you’d be surprised if it wasn’t immediately apparent. You expect to be ignored, so you have to be prepared for that. When I was elected in 1992 there were 35 female MPs I think [there were 60, of whom 37 were Labour], and that was considered quite a lot. I gave my maiden speech to a virtually empty House. But that was OK. Of course it makes you angry, but even that marks you up as ‘woman, failure’.
It’s not that I don’t agree with what the modern [#MeToo] women are saying or trying to do, but I think we are still in a society where what women say, think, do, has to be scrutinised and pursued. Look at this whole argument about HRT [women going through the menopause are still frequently denied access to, or steered away from, what can be life-enhancing treatment]. What older woman hasn’t experienced that? Yet it’s taken until the middle of the 21st century for Parliament to actually air it and talk about it. It’s still the case that whatever men do is widely accepted, whereas when the media consider what women do, there’s always an element in the reportage that is critical. I do think that culture is beginning to crack, but it’s by no means equal yet.
If I could have one last get-together with people I’ve lost over the years – well, I’d be hard pushed to pick just one of my family. I imagine they’d all be there and the conversation would mainly be them criticising me. And I’d be fine with that. As any working-class person knows, humour is a large part of how families communicate, but it also involves being immensely critical of you and all the neighbours and everyone else.
If I could live one moment of my life again it would be seeing my son [the newspaper columnist Dan Hodges] for the first time. They knocked me out during my labour. When I came round I was in a hospital bed and they brought this baby in, and that was my son. That kind of responsibility can feel frightening of course. But to see this tiny creature in my arms. Oh, it was amazing.