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Remembering Oscar-winning actor and British Parliament member Glenda Jackson


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we're going to remember Glenda Jackson, who died June 15 at the age of 87. Jackson had two careers. She was an Oscar-winning actress who left acting to become a member of British Parliament, where she served for 23 years. She was elected in 1992 and stepped down in 2015. We're going to listen back to the interview I recorded with her in 2019 after she'd returned to acting and was starring on Broadway in a production of "King Lear" as King Lear. She had already played Lear in a London production that opened in 2016 at The Old Vic. In 2018, she won a Tony for her performance in the Edward Albee play "Three Tall Women."

Before serving in Parliament, she won Oscars for her performances in the 1969 movie "Women In Love" and the 1973 romantic comedy "A Touch Of Class." She also starred in the 1971 movie "Sunday Bloody Sunday." She won two Emmys playing Queen Elizabeth I in the 1971 BBC series "Elizabeth R," which was shown in the U.S. as part of "Masterpiece Theatre." When I spoke with her, we started with a clip from the Broadway production of King Lear. Lear has decided that he's old and it's time to unburden himself of his responsibilities as king and divide his kingdom among his three daughters.


GLENDA JACKSON: (As King Lear) Know we have divided in three our kingdom. And 'tis our fast intent to shake all cares and busyness from our age, conferring them on younger strengths while we, unburdened, crawl toward death.


GROSS: Glenda Jackson, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JACKSON: Thank you.

GROSS: The first thing people always seem to want to know is, why is a woman playing King Lear, and what's it like to be a woman playing Lear? So you first played him in 2016 at The Old Vic in London. Why did you want to play Lear?

JACKSON: Who would refuse the opportunity to work in a play of that stature? I mean, it is such an extraordinary play. Like all of Shakespeare, essentially, he only asks us three questions - who are we? What are we? Why are we? And this particular play, it's just astonishing. Human nature is immutable. And so in a sense, it is the most contemporary play around at the minute. We, in England, had been engaged in a kind of gender-bender war, really. And the marvelous company that was created and succeeded in winning those battles - they did all of Shakespeare's histories with all-women casts. And so in a sense, that battle was over. And what was really - one of the really interesting things for me playing it was that nobody ever mentioned the fact that I was a woman playing a man, having seen the play.

And also, the other interesting thing I found in doing it, when I was a member of Parliament, part of my duties was to visit old people's homes, day centers, things of that nature. And as we get older, those absolute barriers that define gender begin to crack. They begin to get a little bit foggy and break up. And if you think about it, I mean, when we're born, we teach babies - don't we? - to be boys or girls. As we get older, we begin to explore, I think, rather more the alternatives to our defined gender. And that, certainly for Lear, is quite useful.

GROSS: I want you to elaborate a little bit on how you see gender boundaries blurring or falling away with age and to apply it to your own life, as well, if you find it applicable.

JACKSON: Well, I think I'm a bit of a cheat because when things are tough in a kind of direct way in my real life, I don't have any qualms about playing the old card, do you know what I mean? I mean, certainly as far as our underground is concerned, young people do get up and offer me a seat. The first time it happened, I felt absolutely mortified. And now I'm beginning to get to the stage where I expect it and then mortified if it doesn't happen. But 9 times out of 10, it does.

But in direct reference to the play, the things that he kicks out being - you know, he's a guy. No one during his entire life - and he's 80 years old in this play - has ever said no to him. And suddenly, someone does say no to him, and it all begins to crack for him, not in that immediate moment, but that's the story of the play. And so those aspects of him, which were overtly masculine - because that was the era in which he lived, the environment in which he lived - begin to move from absolute I'm right and everybody else is wrong - that's a simplistic way of putting it - to actually evaluating whether he was always right. And he begins to doubt it, and that's very interesting.

GROSS: Are there lines from "Lear" that have the most meaning to you, either personally or that you find most powerful or dramatic to say as an actor?

JACKSON: I try to avoid that. I try to observe the world through the character's eyes, but people who see the play do point out lines that are particularly meaningful to them. I always rather regret that they do that 'cause then it gets kind of stuck in my head and I have to find another way of finding it for the first time, if you see what I mean.

GROSS: I think I do...

JACKSON: But there are amazing...

GROSS: ...That you don't want to sound like a famous line. You want it to sound like...

JACKSON: It is a thought.

GROSS: ...Speech, like...

JACKSON: It's...

GROSS: ...Thought or speech. Yeah.

JACKSON: ...You know, it's a direct thought. I mean, it's - it arises out of the scene that you're trying to create with the other actors on the stage, yeah. But...

GROSS: So...

JACKSON: I mean, you know, in one's own time, there are lines that sort of reverberate and echo, yeah.

GROSS: So we've been talking about you playing King Lear. Let's hear you as Queen Elizabeth I in an excerpt...


GROSS: ...Of your Emmy Award-winning performance in the BBC series "Elizabeth R," which came to the U.S. as part of "Masterpiece Theatre." So in this scene, you're the new queen. You're 25 years old and unmarried, and your council is trying to pressure you to marry quickly. A member of your council challenges you to accept a suitor in front of the whole court. And by the end of the scene, everyone around you is kneeling. And here's my guest, Glenda Jackson, with actor Esmond Knight.


ESMOND KNIGHT: (As Bishop de Quadra) The Archduke Charles will be most happy to come to England, Your Majesty.

JACKSON: (As Queen Elizabeth I) And I shall be most happy to see him.

KNIGHT: (As Bishop de Quadra) But if he comes, he will come here as your future husband.

JACKSON: (As Queen Elizabeth I) Oh, well, as to that...

KNIGHT: (As Bishop de Quadra) Anything else would be unthinkable.

JACKSON: (As Queen Elizabeth I) I have often told the Imperial Ambassador...

KNIGHT: (As Bishop de Quadra) The Imperial Ambassador does not know Your Majesty as well as I do.

JACKSON: (As Queen Elizabeth I) But he knows how to listen.

KNIGHT: (As Bishop de Quadra) The true Ambassador, Your Majesty, listens to what is meant and not only to what is said.

JACKSON: (As Queen Elizabeth I) Then I will say again and mean it, the Archduke Charles may come to England as our guest.

KNIGHT: (As Bishop de Quadra) As your guest and as the husband of your choice.

JACKSON: (As Queen Elizabeth I) I have not said that.

KNIGHT: (As Bishop de Quadra) But you have invited the Archduke Charles to your court.

JACKSON: (As Queen Elizabeth I) I have said he is welcome.

KNIGHT: (As Bishop de Quadra) Very welcome, Your Majesty, I hope.

JACKSON: (As Queen Elizabeth I) Welcome as any other guest would be.

KNIGHT: (As Bishop de Quadra) I am glad to hear it. I shall write to King Philip and tell him that you have invited the Archduke Charles to England and that he comes here as your future husband.

JACKSON: (As Queen Elizabeth I) If he comes on those terms, he had best not come at all.

KNIGHT: (As Bishop de Quadra) Your Highness...

JACKSON: (As Queen Elizabeth I) He said he wished to come here. I have never invited him. I have never said I would marry him. I have never said I would marry anyone - never.

KNIGHT: (As Bishop de Quadra) Your Majesty...

JACKSON: (As Queen Elizabeth I) Enough.

GROSS: That was a scene from "Elizabeth R" with my guest, Glenda Jackson. So we've heard you as King Lear. We've heard you as Queen Elizabeth. Having played, you know, a fictional king and portrayed an actual queen, did it make you think of gender differences between kings and queens?

JACKSON: Oh, well, very much so, because certainly as far as Elizabeth was concerned - I mean, let's face it, she'd had the most tumultuous upbringing, hadn't she? I mean, her mother's head was chopped off when she, Elizabeth, I think, was 3. She had all these various stepmothers after, a couple of whom also went the way of all flesh at the hands of her father. Her sister, who took over the throne, was not particularly in favor of her. And there was always this pressure upon her, once she did become queen, to marry, to ensure that her line continued.

And one of her extraordinary strengths, it seems to me, having read the histories and one thing or another, was that her great strength was that she didn't make a fast decision, which is in marked contrast to what Lear does. She would vacillate. She would put things off. She would delay stuff. And then if something happened, like, for example, the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her execution, she would blame everybody around her for having done something that she claimed she didn't want to happen. Now, she wasn't lying when she said she didn't want it to happen. She didn't want it to happen. And yet there must have been part of her that knew that it had to happen. But of course it was taking away the divine right of kings, even though at that time the ruler was a queen.

GROSS: We're listening to my 2019 interview with actor and former member of British Parliament Glenda Jackson. She died June 15. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering Oscar, Tony, and Emmy award-winning actor Glenda Jackson. She died June 15 at the age of 87. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with her in 2019 when she was starring on Broadway in a production of "King Lear" in the role of King Lear. Jackson had taken a long break from acting, during which she spent 23 years as a member of British Parliament.

So you've played kings and queens. You've served in Parliament. You were elected to Parliament in 1992. You've played powerful people, and you've had political power - not kingly or queenly...

JACKSON: No, no, no, no.

GROSS: ...Power, but...

JACKSON: No, no, no. Backbenchers - I cannot stress this strongly enough. For me, one of the most humbling experiences was being a member of Parliament. I mean, I give you - I mean, obviously I think it's amazing that somebody puts an X next to your name. It's not just you, of course. I mean, they obviously support your party and hopefully that party's manifesto.

But all members of Parliament hold what we call advice surgeries, and you hold them in the constituency, and any constituent can come in, and they would, and in some instances, they - well, in all - no, in the really serious ones, they sort of lay their life out on the table in front of you. You don't know them. They don't really know you. And not infrequently, their lives are tragic or disastrous through no fault of their own. And they come to their member of Parliament because their member of Parliament is their port of last resort. You can get a response to a letter. People will ring you on the phone.

In my experience, I didn't always get the result that my constituent wanted, but without exception, whether I did or whether I didn't, they always said thank you. And that is very, very humbling. And it is a great privilege to be elected to be a member of Parliament. And that kind of responsibility is something that really makes you realize who you are, and you're pretty damn small.

GROSS: Yes. OK. I can see what you're saying. You're helping people with constituent services and things like that. But you also stood up against the Iraq war when Tony Blair...

JACKSON: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...Joined with President George W. Bush. So, like, you stood up to power in a way that's different from, you know, being an actor. I mean, sure, you might want to stand up and object to direction that you're getting, but it's different than standing up to a prime minister who wants to take your country to war.

JACKSON: Well, as I've had occasion to say, it was the first time in my experience of being a member of Parliament that I had voted against my party's policy. And I presume, rather like murder, once you do it for the first time...

GROSS: (Laughter).

JACKSON: ...It gets easier after.

GROSS: Why did you want to serve in Parliament?

JACKSON: Anything I could have done - I mean, I was a member. I've always voted Labour. I'd been asked by the party to do various things for them, raise money. I once did the worst party political broadcast ever - things of that nature. And I'd been approached by various constituency parties to consider standing as a prospective parliamentary candidate. And in '92 the election was looming, and I think it was in 1989, I was approached by Hampstead and Highgate, which did indeed become my constituency. Anything I could have done that was legal that got Margaret Thatcher and her government out of office, I was prepared to have a go at. I didn't expect to be selected. I don't think I really expected to win. But we did win that seat. We didn't win the majority to put us into government until '97. But, yeah, that's why.

GROSS: What made you...

JACKSON: This woman who said, what had the suffragettes ever done for her? That question, whether there was such a thing as a society - that had destroyed local government in many ways, which, before her power seat, if that's what it was, you know, was responsible for delivering services to people in local environments. Every school in what became my constituency spent - the teachers, parents, not infrequently the pupils spent spare time trying to raise money to buy things like paper and pencils. I know it sounds ridiculous, but that was the case.

GROSS: As a woman who feels strongly about women's equality - and I assume you consider yourself a feminist - was it disappointing to you that, finally, a woman becomes prime minister and she's so conservative and stands for so many things that you are against?

JACKSON: Well, I mean, the overwhelming disappointment, actually, was that my party didn't win, I mean - do you know what I mean? - even, I mean, at that time. But it was just that she seemed to me to be so out of touch with what were the realities of life for the majority of people in my country. And, yes, of course, it was a disappointment that the first woman elected as prime minister was her, but I think rather more at the time, it was that she was conservative. It was only after years that one saw what were, for me, disastrous policies wreaking such damage.

GROSS: Let's hear what you had to say in parliament after Margaret Thatcher died. And this was in 2013, and there were many tributes made in parliament. And this was a day, I think, when most of the Labour members of Parliament stayed away. And so Conservative members were saying - you know, giving many tributes to Margaret Thatcher. And then you stood up and made a pretty scathing speech while Conservative members of Parliament basically jeered you. So let's hear what you had to say.


JACKSON: We were told that everything I had been taught to regard as a vice - and I still regard them as vices - under Thatcherism was in fact a virtue - greed, selfishness, no care for the weaker, sharp elbows, sharp means. They were the way forward. We heard much of and will continue to hear over the next week of the barriers that were broken down by Thatcherism, the establishment that was destroyed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We can't take it.

JACKSON: What we actually saw - the word that has been circling around with stars around it - is that she created an aspirational society.


JACKSON: It aspired for things as, indeed, one of the former prime ministers who himself had been elevated to the House of Lords spoke about selling off the family silver and people knowing, under those years, the price of everything and the value of nothing. What concerns me is that I am beginning to see possibly the reemergence of that total traducing of what I regard as being the basest spiritual nature of this country, where we do care about society, where we do believe in communities, where we do not leave people to walk by on the other side. That isn't happening now.

GROSS: Wow (laughter). So did you expect that reaction when you decided to make those comments?

JACKSON: Oh, yes, of course. I mean, I'd sat there in the chamber for several hours, as one does for these kind of events, before I was called by the speaker. And, yes, I mean, I sat there, listening to her party rewriting history as far as I was concerned. The United Kingdom that they were describing under Thatcher was not the one I lived in. It wasn't the one my constituents had lived in. And it certainly isn't the one that was there when she left.

GROSS: Now, you had said that you always get nervous before...

JACKSON: Yes, yes.

GROSS: ...Going on stage. And I'm wondering if that's changed with age in the sense that - I know some people feel, as they get older, that they can take more chances and enjoy things more because...

JACKSON: I did a play with the most marvelous actress called Mona Washbourne. It was called "Stevie." It was about the poet Stevie Smith. And she - I think Mona came, I think, from a theatrical family. She'd certainly appeared, I think, on a professional stage at a very young age - I mean, 8 or 9. She had a very successful, highly honored career. I mean, she was a marvelous, marvelous actress. Her reputation in the theater was absolutely secure. She sat on the sofa before the curtain went up. I sat on a chair by her side. And every performance, she sat on that sofa, and she would say, please, God, let me die. Please, God, let me die. And then the curtain went up, and there she was, firing on all fronts. It doesn't get any less. In fact, I think, the more you do, the worse it gets 'cause you realize how desperately easy it is to act really badly and how very, very hard it is to act well.

GROSS: Well, it's been a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you so much.

JACKSON: Well, thank you.

GROSS: My interview with Glenda Jackson was recorded in 2019. She died June 15. She was 87. After a break, we'll go back to 2005 and listen to my interview with Neil Diamond. The current Broadway show "A Beautiful Noise" is about Diamond and features his music. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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