FilmGlenda Jackson 1936-2023

Glenda Jackson: No room for compromise in a career as an actor and politician marked by stubbornness and originality

Not afraid to embrace difficult material, by the early 1970s Jackson was established as the most emotionally intelligent female actor of her generation

Glenda Jackson, who has died in London aged 87, was among those rare actors to forge a prominent career in an unconnected profession. Labour member of parliament for a north London seat from 1992 until 2015, she served as a junior minister under Tony Blair, later offering criticism of her leader from his leftward flank.

On the death of Mrs Thatcher, she was one of the few MPs to break from emollient platitudes in the house. “To pay tribute to the first prime minister denoted by female gender, okay,” she said in her characteristic sandpapery voice. “But a woman? Not on my terms.” Jackson was not at home to compromise.

The obituaries will, nonetheless, focus mostly on an acting career that, after a faltering start, saw her classed among the finest of her generation. She won two Academy Awards for best actress within four years. She secured a Tony and three Emmys.

Performances in films such as Women in Love and Sunday Bloody Sunday remain seared in the brain. In the 1960s, she broke ground in avant-garde work such as Peter Brook’s still legendary production of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade.


It would not be entirely facetious to further note that, in a 1971 Christmas episode of Morecambe and Wise, she played Cleopatra in one of the plays what Ernie wrote [sic]. That Christmas show was quite an honour at the time.

Jackson was born in Birkenhead, the daughter of a builder and of a mother who worked various low-paid jobs to keep food on the table. Glenda strived in Boots, the chemist, for two years before securing a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Never an easy performer to categorise – her undeniable lead-actor presence came without the starry glamour of a Julie Christie or a Vanessa Redgrave – Jackson struggled to find roles for two or three years after Rada. What changed things was her collaboration with Peter Brook on his famous (some might argue “notorious”) Theatre of Cruelty season at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her performance opposite Patrick Magee and Freddie Jones as the inmate of a mental asylum in the challenging, disturbing Marat/Sade took her to Broadway and Paris.

Jackson arrived as the British film industry was entering a period of forced retrenchment, but her collaborations with the incorrigible Ken Russell helped keep the lights on. Her first Oscar came for playing Gudrun Brangwen in Russell’s playful variation on DH Lawrence’s Women in Love from 1969. That remains one of the director’s more restrained productions (despite famous nude wrestling).

He was in full flight with The Music Lovers two years later. Jackson played errant wife to Richard Chamberlain’s Tchaikovsky in a film Russell famously sold as “a story about a homosexual who fell in love with a nymphomaniac”.

For all that hype, Jackson was, by the early 1970s, established as the most emotionally intelligent female actor of her generation. Nobody else could match that scratchy, often aggressive delivery. Confirming her desire to embrace difficult material, she appeared opposite Peter Finch and Murray Head in a love triangle with, controversially, Murray Head at its bisexual centroid.

Defying the myth that movie stars did not then appear on TV, she had a great success as Elizabeth I in Elizabeth R for the BBC in 1971. Her second Academy Award came for the comedy A Touch of Class in 1973.

Receiving her last Oscar nomination as long ago as 1975, Jackson did not maintain that level of movie stardom, but she remained a consummate theatre actor and acted as inspiration to those who came after her. Politics largely deprived the world of her acting talents for two decades, but, following her retirement from the house in 2015, she returned to win an Evening Standard award for playing King Lear in 2017 and a Tony for Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women a year later.

The stubbornness, the originality and – a word impossible to overuse with Jackson – intelligence were all still firmly in place. And (as Eric and Ernie knew) she was funny. “If I have to cry, I think of my sex life,” she said. “If I have to laugh, I think of my sex life.”