The British actor and former MP returned to the screen in 2019 after a 27-year break for the BBC One drama Elizabeth Is Missing. Her portrayal of Maud, a woman living with dementia, last year won her a Bafta TV award and an International Emmy for best actress.
Glenda Jackson is something of an awards ceremony veteran. Throughout her career, she has amassed an enviable range of statuettes: two best actress Academy Awards (one for Ken Russell’s notorious Women in Love, the other for A Touch of Class), a Golden Globe, several Emmys, Baftas and a Tony, among others. At one Oscars ceremony, she was introduced on to the stage by Frank Sinatra. But that, she says, was in the early days, “years before they became what they are now. Which are mainly fashion shows, aren’t they?”
Last July’s TV Baftas were quite different. Jackson spent the evening in her living room, looking at a screen and waiting for her category to come up. When she was announced as the winner of the leading actress award, you could see several emotions flicker across her face: surprise, elation, and, unmistakably, a hint of boredom. She says: “I’m not very good at dressing up, so that side of it I quite appreciated. But the major difference was that you couldn’t speak directly to everybody else involved. Awards are something you share with everybody you worked with – the camaraderie was completely absent.”
Ask any actor and they’ll tell you they’re not motivated by awards, but in Jackson’s case you get the sense she means it. She says: “An award is a gift, isn’t it? Somebody gives you a present, which is very nice of them.” But, she says, she chooses her roles not for the awards but “because they are so fascinating to do”. She adds: “You’re so fortunate to be given work in the first instance, particularly if you’re a woman. The best award is a job.”
And not all jobs involve red carpets and evening gowns. In 1992 Jackson quit acting to become a Labour politician, serving for 23 years as MP for Hampstead, fighting for causes such as welfare reform and fiercely opposing the Iraq war. In 2015 she dipped a toe back into acting with a Radio 4 play based on the work of Émile Zola, returning to the stage the following year to play the role of King Lear at the Old Vic. Elizabeth is Missing, which aired in December 2019 on BBC One, was her first screen role in 27 years. She was tempted back by the script, based on Emma Healey’s novel, and by the subject matter: a woman living with dementia, trying to piece together what is happening through fragments.
Jackson has long been concerned with the lack of social care around illnessessuch as dementia and Alzheimer’s, which are “like this big black hole that’s waiting for us”. The character of Maud spoke to viewers on a personal level: “Total strangers would come up to me and say they had direct experience of dementia,” she says. “And it is heartbreaking, because people’s partners and parents don’t recognise them.Now that people are speaking about these issues more, I hope some of that sense of helplessness will be taken away.”
Jackson has, like many others, spent the past year sitting out the pandemic at home; she thinks she has only walked out of her front door about four times. She is characteristically sanguine about the situation: “I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve got the basement flat in our house, which leads straight down to the garden; my family live in the rest of the house, and they feed me at night”.
While film, stage and TV have taken a battering, she is hopeful about the industry’s ability to recover, at least once audiences feel safe enough to return to theatres. She says: “It’s not a profession anybody really goes into expecting to work 365 days a year: we are very adaptable, because those are the realities.”
More generally, Jackson hopes the pandemic will lead to lasting change. Though she is no longer an MP, she continues to fight for the causes she cares about, saying: “I think it’s become clear to everybody now the kind of country we live in, and its gross unfairness and inequality. But the positive side is the way people have, simply out of the goodness of their hearts, helped those they could help. That’s an aspect of society which has been really heartwarming.”
Best award you’ve ever won?
I don’t take pride in that – I’m grateful to all the people who watched whatever it may be, but you don’t work for an award.
What do you look for in an awards outfit?
That it fits, I suppose [laughs]. Always the problem with me – I’m not good at dressing up.
Worst thing about awards ceremonies?
Some of them are very long. Hanging around can be extremely tedious.
Where do you keep your awards?
My family have them upstairs on the bookshelves. I haven’t had the Baftas yet – I don’t know what they’ve done with them, but they certainly haven’t managed to send them to me.
• Elizabeth Is Missing is available to rent on Amazon