Glenda Jackson obituary: British screen star of Elizabeth R and Sunday Bloody Sunday

Forthright and quietly ferocious, Jackson won multiple awards on stage and screen before a long break from acting to become a Labour MP.

Glenda Jackson attending an in conversation event at BFI SouthbankTim Whitby

Despite earning two Academy Awards for best actress, Glenda Jackson, who has died at 87, didn’t bother collecting either in person. Indeed, she gave them to her mother, who used them as bookends. Jackson took acting seriously, but had no time for showbiz, and this combative forthrightness characterised her performances on stage and screen, as well as in the House of Commons.

Glenda May Jackson was born in Birkenhead on 9 May 1936 and was named after Hollywood star Glenda Farrell. She was the first of four daughters raised in nearby Hoylake by builder Harry Jackson and his odd-jobbing wife, Joan. Having grown too tall to become a dancer, Glenda started acting with the Townswomen’s Guild drama group and made her debut in a 1952 YMCA Players production of J.B. Priestley’s Mystery of Greenfingers.

Bored with life in the West Kirby branch of Boots, Jackson applied to RADA and received a council grant to move to London in 1955. Despite acclaim while still a student for Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables, she struggled for work for almost three years, and spent one summer as a Bluecoat at Butlin’s in Pwllheli with actor husband, Roy Hodges. 

Having made her screen bow with an uncredited bit in Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963), Jackson made her name as the asylum inmate playing Charlotte Corday on stage in Peter Brook’s 1965 production of Marat/Sade, which formed part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s celebrated Theatre of Cruelty season. She collaborated with Brook on the 1967 film version, as well as the anti-Vietnam tract, Tell Me Lies (1968). In fact, she would do her best work for iconoclastic directors, as they encouraged the unconventional approach to characterisation that was rooted in Jackson’s lack of vanity and her disdain for the trite and sentimental.

Glenda Jackson (right) in Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969)

Fresh from playing half of a Crippen-fixated couple in Peter Medak’s Negatives (1968), Jackson was cast as free-spirited artist Gudrun Brangwen in Ken Russell’s adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1969). Co-star Oliver Reed compared acting with Jackson to being run over by a Bedford truck. But her quiet ferocity gave the film its potency and she was rewarded with an Oscar, in spite of Variety’s mean-spirited notice: “The girl’s no stunner in the looks department, but she has a punch and intelligence which gives a sharp edge to all her scenes.”

A reunion with Russell as Tchaikovsky’s nymphomaniac wife in The Music Lovers (1971) was less lauded and she opted for a cameo in Russell’s musical The Boy Friend over the lead in his The Devils (both 1971). Her decision allowed her to take the title role in the BBC series Elizabeth R (1971), for which she shaved her head and wore painfully cumbersome costumes in order to show the loneliness that Elizabeth Tudor endured in creating the character of an all-conquering queen.

Having won two Emmys, Jackson reprised the role opposite Vanessa Redgrave in Mary, Queen of Scots. An Oscar nomination and a BAFTA followed for John Schlesinger’s Sunday, Bloody Sunday (both 1971). Schlesinger had sought Redgrave for divorcée Alex Greville, as he feared Jackson would be stagy and strident. However, she shaded her growing desperation with lover Murray Head, as he dithered between her and gay doctor Peter Finch, with a dry wit that exposed the futility of bourgeois civility.

Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)

She reunited with Finch to play Emma Hamilton and Horatio Nelson in Bequest to the Nation (1973), in which Jackson fearlessly portrayed the hero’s mistress as a cursing, drunken harridan, who appals polite society while being acutely aware of her own foibles. By this time, she had convinced Melvin Frank to cast her opposite George Segal in the sardonic screwball A Touch of Class (1973), on the strength of her performance as Cleopatra on The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show. Channelling the spirit of Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell, her divorced fashion designer retained her integrity and independence while having a frustrating affair with a married American.

A second Oscar duly followed and she received a fourth nomination as Henrik Ibsen’s ruthless wife in Trevor Nunn’s RSC transfer, Hedda (1975). But Hollywood didn’t know what to do with someone who refused safe roles and could be androgenously ferocious, playfully sensual and disarmingly naive. So she went her own way in biopics like The Incredible Sarah (1976) and Stevie (1978), in which she respectively let rip as 19th-century French actress Sarah Bernhardt and displayed laconic grace as English poet Stevie Smith. She also schemed archly as the aspiring head of a convent in the Watergate allegory, Nasty Habits (1977).

A successful pairing with Walter Matthau in the romantic comedy House Calls (1978) reminded Hollywood that Jackson could be funny, and reteamings followed with Segal in Lost and Found (1979) and Matthau in Hopscotch (1980). Robert Altman also found her ensemble slots in HealtH (1980) and Beyond Therapy (1987). But this phase of Jackson’s career has been unjustly overlooked, even though it contained intriguing work like Turtle Diary (1985), in which her children’s author helps Ben Kingsley’s equally lonely bookseller liberate the turtles from London Zoo.

Glenda Jackson on stage at BFI Southbank in July 2022

This outing, along with the gritty snapshots of Thatcherite Britain, Giro City (1982) and Business as Usual (1988), suggested that politics was becoming as significant as acting. Untempted by the offer to play M in the Bond movies, Jackson bade farewell to Ken Russell in The Secret Life of Arnold Bax (1992) and dedicated 23 years to her London constituents as a Labour MP. In one of her finest performances, she drew the ire of the Tory benches on the day Margaret Thatcher died by condemning her for transforming Britain by turning vices into virtues. 

She returned to acting after leaving parliament in 2015. Feted for her King Lear in 2016, she won a Tony for Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women (2018) and a BAFTA for playing a woman disappearing into dementia in the BBC adaptation of Emma Healey’s novel, Elizabeth Is Missing (2019).

Jackson died shortly after completing her scenes in The Great Escaper (2023), the story of a D-Day veteran and his wife that reunited her with Michael Caine for the first time since Joseph Losey’s The Romantic Englishwoman (1975). What a shame there won’t be more.

  • Glenda Jackson, 9 May 1936 to 15 June 2023
BFI Player logo

Stream hand-picked cinema

A free trial, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Get 14 days free