Glenda Jackson looks back: ‘Marlon Brando wrote to me when I became an MP’

Glenda Jackson. Picture: Polly Hancock.

Glenda Jackson. Picture: Polly Hancock. - Credit: Archant

After 23 years in parliament, Glenda Jackson retired as Hampstead and Kilburn MP ahead of last month’s general election. Tim Lamden met with the former actress to reflect on the end of an era and find out what lies ahead for the inimitable star of the political stage and the silver screen.

Marlon Brando wrote to Glenda Jackson to congratulate her on becoming Hampstead and Highgate MP in 1

Marlon Brando wrote to Glenda Jackson to congratulate her on becoming Hampstead and Highgate MP in 1992. Picture: PA. - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images

For the first time in a long while, Glenda Jackson is not sure what she is going to do next.

Sitting in the lobby of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) headquarters in Bloomsbury – her temporary base since leaving parliament in March – the 79-year-old is characteristically irritated by questions about her next move.

“Will you stop trying to get me to decide what the future holds,” she barks. “I don’t know! I keep saying to people, I’ll sit down and take a deep breath.

“I haven’t been in a position where I haven’t been working for more than 60 years.”

Since departing Westminster, Ms Jackson and her team have been gradually winding down her parliamentary operation from their interim TUC office.

The team recently embarked on a weekend trip to Paris, described by Ms Jackson as an “end of an era treat”, and expect to complete the process of transition to Hampstead and Kilburn’s new Labour MP Tulip Siddiq by the end of June.

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Back in 2011, Ms Jackson announced that she would retire this year, signalling then that it would be time for a younger face to represent the constituency.

At the age of 32, Ms Siddiq fits the bill and has the full backing of her predecessor.

“She has worked so hard and in such a dedicated way,” says Ms Jackson. “I can’t find sufficiently glowing words to underline how committed she is.”

But Ms Siddiq is in no doubt about the size of the shoes she is filling. Before her election, she told the Ham&High she could not “compete with a woman who has had two successful careers”, describing Ms Jackson as a “powerhouse” and a “celebrity”.

Indeed, Ms Jackson is unique as a parliamentarian with two Best Actress Oscars in her trophy cabinet; both were won two decades before her 23-year political career had even begun.

Few politicians could boast of receiving a letter from one of the world’s most iconic screen actors upon their first election to public office. Ms Jackson can.

When she won the now defunct constituency of Hampstead and Highgate in 1992, Marlon Brando wrote to congratulate her, even though they had never met.

“He was a passionate man over a whole range of social and political issues,” recalls Ms Jackson of the late star, whom she rates as her all-time favourite thespian along with Paul Scofield.

As for a return to stage or screen herself, Ms Jackson will not rule it out now politics has taken a backseat.

“It would depend on what it was,” she says. “But I don’t think you can necessarily go back.”

Having spent 30 years as an actress before immersing herself in politics for the last quarter of a century, Ms Jackson can see parallels between both worlds.

At their best, she says, actors and politicians are both “trying to define or put into place how human beings can create a society that works for everyone,” adding: “The best dramatists are always asking, ‘Who are we? What are we?’”

In 1989, Ms Jackson was approached by Labour and asked if she would stand in the Conservative-held constituency of Hampstead and Highgate at the next general election.

Having already been active in Labour circles, she agreed and in 1992 she beat off young Hampstead-born Tory hopeful Oliver Letwin, now one of David Cameron’s closest allies in government, to win the seat vacated by a retired Geoffrey Finsberg.

Today, she is unequivocal about the motivation that lay behind her decision to go for parliament in the first place: it is a familiar sentiment to anyone who witnessed her vitriolic contribution to the House of Commons tribute debate to the late Margaret Thatcher in April 2013.

“Anything that I could have done that was legal to get rid of Margaret Thatcher and her government I was prepared to do,” says Ms Jackson.

“I had been engaged in the political life of my country since I was 21, so the idea that I only became interested in politics when I sat on those green benches is totally incorrect.”

The mother-of-one, whose son from her first and only marriage is well-known Daily Telegraph political writer Dan Hodges, insists she has no regrets about her career in parliament.

Ironically, she considers Labour’s landslide victory under Tony Blair in 1997 as the high point, while regarding his decision to go to war in Iraq six years later as the lowest point of her time in Westminster.

As for the state of the Labour Party now, Ms Jackson is optimistic that it can bounce back.

She says she has come to no decision on who she would back in the leadership battle but points out she is willing to listen to what all the candidates have to offer.

On Ed Miliband, she feels “very sad” that he didn’t win and resigned so immediately as leader. His message did not get through, according to Ms Jackson, but she does not offer more on why she feels he failed to connect.

Asked what she will miss about the MP’s life, Ms Jackson admits there is little, aside from political friends and the constituents of Hampstead and Kilburn.

“The biggest loss is the constituents because I can’t state strongly enough what an extraordinary privilege it is to be an MP and how humbling it is,” she explains.

“At my advice surgeries, a total stranger would come into the room and lay their life out on the table and that is an extraordinary privilege.

“They come to you because the MP is their last port of call and that illustrates what is fundamental about a democratic system.”

Ms Jackson is evidently taken aback by the pace of change in the modern world but she is reassured by the enduring character of Hampstead and Kilburn.

“What I’ve always admired about the constituency is its capability to think beyond its borders,” she says.

“People are genuinely concerned about what’s happening in other parts of the country and other parts of the world and are prepared to put those concerns into action.

“It still has a genuine commitment to a sense of community. It’s a really great constituency.”