Fearless, sharply intelligent and sometimes caustic, Glenda Jackson, who has died aged 87, “had a career unmatched by any of her contemporaries”, said Michael Billington in The Guardian. From 1957, she enjoyed huge success on film (she won two Oscars) and on stage; then, in 1992, she gave it all up to become a Labour MP. She served diligently, as a junior minister in the Blair government and on the backbenches, for 23 years before returning to the stage in 2016, aged 80, as a “magnificent Lear”.
When she was an MP, some were surprised that her Commons speeches were dry and untheatrical, but off stage, Jackson had always been notably low-key, said The Times. For her, acting was a serious job, and she had no time for glitz or glamour. She didn’t collect either of her Oscars in person (she gave them to her mother, who used them as bookends); nor did she make any effort to ingratiate herself with audiences, “I do not like audiences,” she said. “They mostly want what they have liked before.”
Glenda Jackson was born in Birkenhead in 1936, and brought up in Hoylake where her father worked as a labourer. She won a place at West Kirby Grammar School, but left at 15 to take a job at Boots, selling cough drops and laxatives. Her ambition then, she said, was to work on the make-up counter, but she was interested in the cinema, and after seeing Sir Donald Wolfit on stage, she joined an amateur dramatics group. In 1954, she won a scholarship to Rada in London. “Don’t expect regular work until you’re 40, dear,” was the advice she received on graduating. But after a few years in rep, and a dispiriting period in which she ended up working as a Bluecoat at Butlin’s (where her new husband Roy Hodges was employed as a Redcoat), she joined the RSC for Peter Brook’s Theatre of Cruelty Season, which led to her starring as an insane murderess in “Marat/Sade” on Broadway.
In 1965, she was so powerful as Ophelia, to David Warner’s Hamlet, that one critic wondered why she’d not been cast as the prince. She won an Oscar for her role in 1969’s “Women in Love” (with its famous nude love scene) and her second for the comedy “A Touch of Class” (1973). She also won two Emmys, for the BBC drama “Elizabeth R”. “She was Elizabeth I in every detail,” said Paul Bailey in The Oldie: “imperious, witty, sarcastic, vulnerable, kind, cruel, forgiving and vengeful”. Yet she was also hilarious as Cleopatra on “The Morecambe & Wise Show”.
At Westminster, she made little effort to win friends (she was often referred to as “formidable”), but was dedicated in pursuit of the interests of her constituents. She made her last film this year. She and Roy Hodges divorced in 1976. Although her constituency was Hampstead, Jackson had lived, for decades, in Blackheath, latterly in the modest granny flat of a house occupied by her son, the columnist Dan Hodges, and his family.