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Glenda Jackson has already had an extraordinary acting career by any measure but, incredibly, at 84, she is still hitting new heights. This evening the star will learn whether she has been awarded her second Bafta almost half a century after her first, for the 1971 film Sunday Bloody Sunday. Because of the pandemic, the awards are being held over a video conferencing app, which is fine by Jackson. “I hadn’t been outside my front door in three months until I went and had my hair cut last week,” she tells me over the phone (landline, she doesn’t have a mobile). “It was marvellous just to hear some different voices. I live just opposite Blackheath in London and there was a helicopter there yesterday. I went to the front gate to see what was happening and neighbours I haven’t seen for months came out as well. We had quite a nice time.
“It’s been a very bizarre time. Thank God the papers are still being delivered otherwise I wouldn’t know what day of the week it is.
“Mind you, I’m very fortunate. I live in the basement of my house so I’ve got a garden and my family (her son, the journalist Dan Hodges, 51, his wife and their teenage son, Jackson’s only grandchild) live in the rest of the house. They’ve been able to get my shopping and things like that. I pity people living in small flats with small kids – how they’ve coped with lockdown is just miraculous.”
Jackson was born into a working class family in Birkenhead in May 1936, the eldest of four girls.
Her father was a bricklayer and her mother a cleaner and shop worker.
The family lived in a two-up, two-down with an outdoor toilet and no bathroom – on Sundays the sisters would go to an aunt’s house for a bath.
Their life was transformed by the reforms of the post-war Labour government, the roots of Jackson’s lifelong support for the party.
She left school at 16 and worked behind the counter at Boots for two years during which time a friend persuaded her to join an amateur dramatics group.
At the age of 18, she applied to Rada and was accepted.
In 1963 she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and her career caught fire.
There were Emmys for her performance as Elizabeth I in the BBC’s 1971 series Elizabeth R.
Women in Love, also in 1971, earned her an Oscar.
She bagged another three years later for a romcom with George Segal, A Touch of Class.
She’d been cast after appearing on The Morecambe & Wise Show, an experience she describes to this day as “the apotheosis of my career”.
After the second Academy Award, Eric and Ernie, below, sent her a telegram: “Stick with us kid and we’ll get you a third.”
She became, in short, one of the finest actresses of her generation.
Not bad for someone who, during her lean early years, used to think: “If I’d played my cards right, I could have been an area manager at Boots the chemist.”
She laughs when I remind her of this. “Well, I could have!” she insists.
Jackson was also, although she pooh-poohs the idea, something of a sex symbol.
She appeared nude on stage and screen at a time when it was far from the norm.
MP Chris Bryant, Jackson’s biographer and former colleague, revealed that Sir Patrick Stewart once told him that when he appeared in Hedda Gabler with her, he struggled to contain his passion for her on stage.
However, at the age of 55 she turned her back on acting and stood for Parliament as a Labour candidate, with the aim of doing whatever she could to get rid of Margaret Thatcher’s government.
She had been so infuriated by Thatcher’s remark that “there’s no such thing as society” that she accidentally walked into closed French windows.
Elected in 1992 to represent Hampstead & Highgate, she spent 23 years in Parliament during which time she didn’t even visit a theatre, let alone act in one.
Her political career was not quite so glittering as her acting career.
She served as a junior transport minister for a time but fell out with Tony Blair over the Iraq War.
She stepped down at the 2015 election and says she doesn’t miss politics, although she keeps up with what’s happening.
She thinks Sir Keir Starmer is doing “very well” as the new leader of the Labour Party.
“I’m delighted with his attitude,” she says.
“Having got through those horrendous couple of years and that disastrous result at the last election, he is focused, quite rightly, on bringing the party together.
“He hones in on what is important, he asks the right questions, he’s going in the right direction.”
Unsurprisingly for an old Leftie, she doesn’t think much of Boris Johnson, and is scathing about his inability even to “comb his hair” properly.
But after deciding to end her own political career, she breezed back into acting at the age of 79 as though she had simply never been away.
She gave a ground-breaking performance as Lear in King Lear at the Old Vic in 2016, her first theatre role in more than twenty years, to great critical acclaim.
She was awarded a Tony for Three Tall Women on Broadway, making her one of only a handful of people to have won the so-called “triple crown” of acting – an Oscar, Emmy and Tony – alongside the likes of Ingrid Bergman, Al Pacino and Dame Maggie Smith.
Live theatre is “enormously important,” she says.
“It’s not mere entertainment, theatre at its best.”
She believes it can be a positive, life-affirming experience that leaves both audiences and actors energised.
Jackson approves enormously of the Daily Express’s Raise The Curtain campaign.
“The intention is great,” she enthuses.
“There is a short-term question mark over when audiences will feel confident enough to go back but live theatre will return – it’s too important to lose.”
Despite the excitement of this evening’s Bafta announcement, she has no real remaining ambitions for her acting career.
That said, it does sound as though she has projects in the pipeline, though she won’t be drawn on them.
“Everything that one was considering, they’re all in lockdown now so there’s nothing immediate but we’ll just have to wait and see how things transpire.”
Despite her stature in the industry, she still doesn’t feel she can rest on her laurels.
“I remember all those years when I couldn’t get a job of any kind. My feeling when I finished a job was always ‘I’ll never work again’ and that sensation doesn’t go away,” she says.
She is up for the Leading Actress Bafta for Elizabeth is Missing, an adaptation of Emma Healey’s award-winning novel of the same name, available on Acorn TV.
She plays Maud, an 80-something woman suffering from dementia.
When her friend Elizabeth fails to meet her at the agreed time, Maud is convinced something awful has happened but is also troubled by memories of the disappearance of her sister Sukey 70 years ago.
We described it as a “knockout performance” and an “emotional wipeout”.
It has been reported that she doesn’t care for awards.
She didn’t show up for either of her Oscars, nor on the two other occasions when she was nominated.
“It’s not that I’m not a fan [of awards],” she says. “It’s nice to be acknowledged and to have your work recognised. What I object to is that they say, whoever gets the award, ‘won’ it, as though they are in direct competition with the other nominees. Whoever gets the award didn’t ‘win’ it. The people who ‘win’ are the people who vote for you.”
The other Leading Actress nominees are Jodie Comer for Killing Eve, Suranne Jones for Gentleman Jack and Samantha Morton for I Am Kirsty.
Jackson enjoyed meeting and chatting to them on Zoom – which she refers to as “artificial intelligence”.
As a self-confessed “complete Luddite”, that’s her term for all digital technology.
“They’re all interesting people,” she says.
“Actresses tend to be. Yet despite the steps that have been taken, mostly by women working together, we’re by no means fully equal as yet. If you look at theatre and cinema, a woman is never, ever the driving dramatic engine and I find it completely bizarre that contemporary dramatists still don’t find women interesting.”
Jackson added: “Of course, you do get marvellous shows such as Killing Eve and Gentleman Jack but everyone says, ‘Ooh, look, this is unusual – a woman.’ We are still in a situation where if a woman succeeds she is the exception that proves the rule. If she fails, well, that’s just par for the course.”
You feel it would cut little ice with her to point out she has succeeded again and again and again.
The bookies have her as the Bafta outsider, with Jodie Comer odds-on favourite.
So she’s a long shot but, then again, all those years ago, who would have bet the 16-year-old behind the medicine counter of Boots in West Kirby would ever come this far?
• Elizabeth Is Missing is available to stream now on Acorn TV
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