The transport minister opens the door, plucks the cigarette from her lips and says: ‘Be with you in a sec. I’m just on the phone to Cherie.’ As she hastens back to her desk she steps out of her shoes and hops on one stockinged foot while massaging the toes of the other. ‘You were saying?’ she croaks, cradling the phone between chin and shoulder. Her office is still cluttered with unpacked crates bulging with personal effects. These include what looks like the long black Cleopatra wig she wore on the 1971 Morecambe & Wise Christmas Special and the smooth golden head of an Oscar protruding decadently from an art nouveau flowerpot. Along one wall of the room there is a Louis XVI chaise-longue against which is propped a large, luminous painting by and of Gilbert & George in the nude. Next to this there is an ice bucket in which is chilling a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. Catching my eye, Glenda Jackson cups her hand over the receiver, nods at the bottle and mouths: ‘Be a love and open that would you? It’s been a hard day …’
Of course it isn’t like this.
Power has neither corrupted nor mellowed the 61-year-old Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate. Nor has it compromised here reputation for being cold, puritanical and, as she herself once put it, totally charmless. Her office is barren – no pictures, no fronds of green rubber plant, no homely touches. She is, by her own reckoning, not at all sentimental – and she can’t stand untidiness. The only shred of authenticity in this opening scene is that Glenda Jackson has had a hectic day. She rises at 6.30am every morning and its now a quarter to six in the evening, 45 minutes later than the time originally scheduled in her diary for this her final meeting of the day.
We are six floors up in Eland House, the gleaming new glass-and-steel-fronted building into which John Prescott’s merged departments of the Environment, Transport and the Regions moved this year . From this height you can appreciate that a remarkable number of rooftops around Victoria have flagpoles – which fly Union flags and cast long shadows in the low Autumn sun. When Jackson invited me to sit down she shivers, rubs the arms of her magenta-and-black dog-toothed jacket, and mutters, something about the new air-conditioning. ‘God, it’s so cold,’ she adds in that distinctively deep and flat voweled voice. ‘My blood has stopped circulating.’
She isn’t even smoking, which is a bit of a disappointment given that she is said to get through 40 Dunhill a day and there is a rather wonderful rumour doing the rounds that she has requested a special £4,000 air-recycling unit for her new hi-tech, smoke detecting office so that she can puff away at her desk rather than waste valuable ministerial time by trekking back and forth all day along the corridor to the smoking room.
Small talk about the smoking story is dismissed by the Minister with the word ‘allegedly’. Mention of the clean and shining new offices is given similarly short shrift: ‘Have you looked out of the window?’ she asks. There is a thick layer of grime on it. Tch! That’s London air pollution, I say with an ingratiating nod that leaves me more abruptly than planned onto the topic of traffic fumes.
‘Only today I was talking to someone about the inequities between providing company cars and season tickets for employees. One is regarded as a perk on which tax has to be paid, the other isn’t. I also raised the issue of employers offering interest-free loans for their employees to buy a bike and this guy said, ‘I’d buy them all bikes now if I thought that I wouldn’t be taxed for it.’
I raise the point that one of the advantages of being in opposition is that you can make extravagant demands based more on ideology than practicality. Once in power, funds have to be found to implement big ideas, and targets have to be set in order to establish whether they work. Given that the Government is still pretty much enjoying its honeymoon period, Jackson is surprisingly defensive about this truism. ‘You talk about targets,’ she says with a short, forced smile that scares rather than reassures. ‘But there can also be aims you can have. And it is important to have them, otherwise nothing is achieved, nothing develops, nothing is shown to work. That in itself is bad. But is also breeds a sense of helplessness.’
It has to be said, though, that Glenda Jackson does not sell well the Integrated Transport Strategy – or ITS as it is bound to be known. It would be ungracious to quote verbatim one of her statements on the subject – not least because, on the occasion we meet, she seems fraught and distracted. And, though I’ve never met her before, in comparison even with recent photographs, she seems weary, drawn and under-nourished. There is no passion in her delivery. Her answers seem stilted, repetitious and, at times, quite inarticulate. The way she can get tangled up in a subclause, by slipping in expressions such as ‘by virtue of’ or ‘which is a movable feast’ (three times in one answer alone), makes the syntax of her boss, John Prescott, seems positively lucid.
All politicians are, of course, trained in the art of not giving answers to questions you never asked. It’s just some are better at it than others. When you hear flannel from, say, Kenneth Clarke you want to believe it because it’s said with a mixture of cheery confidence and bluster. He’s a performer. Why then, you find yourself wondering, does Glenda Jackson not call upon some of her formidable powers as an actress to do the same? We know from one performance at least, ‘A Touch of Class’ (1973), that she can act flirty, personable and funny when she has to; why then does she not deploy a little of this to counter her apparently natural freezing manner?
The only answer that makes sense is that she overcompensates for the bohemian image of her first career. After all, as ‘Gudrun in Women in Love’ (1971), she seemed to capture the Dionysian spirit of the late Sixties, early Seventies. She symbolised all the hedonistic urges of which politicians are supposed to disapprove, in principle if not practice. But what’s the problem? Hers was a distinguished career. She was appointed CBE. It wasn’t as if she was a call girl or a game show host in her previous incarnation. She feels, you suspect, that her flamboyant past undermineds the authority of her dour present.
Her acting career, of course, is the prickly subject which dare not speak its name. There’s not much she enjoys in life, she has said. She’s not really the enjoying sort. But her life in acting is something she seems to have actively not enjoyed. She found it artificial and strained. Now she looks back on it with neither affection nor regret. And her two Oscars lurk unloved in a box somewhere at her sister’s house.
There is then a perverse, giddy pleasure to be had from daring yourself to ask about it. Will the eyes narrow and the lip curl as they did so chillingly in Elizabeth R? As an actress Glenda Jackson was unconventionally beautiful, and then only when she was playing the part of one who was angry. Hers was the dark, Promethean beauty of the mountain range that could be truly appreciated only by the sufferer of vertigo who forced himself to look down from its peak. My question, then, when it comes, is so cunningly obtuse it seems not to be about acting at all – the equivalent of lying on your back with just your head over the edge of the abyss, looking down at the plunging precipice through a mirror held at arm’s length. Ahem. If she had gone straight into politics from working at Boots, would she have been a different kind of politician?
(Glenda Jackson, it should be explained, is the eldest of four sisters brought up in the small seaside town of Hoylake on the Wirral. Her father, Harry, was a bricklayer, her mother, Joan cleaned houses. She left West Kirby Grammar School at 15 and, before getting involved in amateur dramatics and then going on to RADA, she worked for two years at Boots. On the laxative and bilious attacks counter.)
‘I honestly don’t know. I don’t know,’ she says without any sign of hostility. ‘I think people’s attitudes to me would be different.’ But presumably she learned some presentational skills and actorly tricks that have proved useful when performing in the House? ‘You say that but the most salutary lesson you learn if you are fortunate enough to act a lot is how, little you know and easy it is to act badly. And how hard it is to act well. Yes I suppose there are benefits. I’m not bowled over by the thought of having to speak in front of a room full of strangers. But then again I never considered acting a process of covering up. It was more a process of stripping away. I think the best drama aspires to be truthful and so does the best politics. I am not frightened by speaking in public. The thing people are most frightened of, after dying, is speaking in public.’
Glenda Jackson does have fears, she says of flying and of dentists. But she is not afraid of being alone. She was married at the age of 21 to Roy Hodges, a theatre director. They divorced in 1976 and then she lived for five years with a lighting engineer, Andrew Phillips. She now lives in Blackheath with her 28-year-old son Daniel Hodges, who worked for a while as her parliamentary researcher before taking a job with the Road Haulage Association.
‘I think we generate our own fears,’ Jackson says. ‘And sometimes they can be useful and sometimes they can be crippling. I used to worry when I didn’t get stage fright. You have a heightened awareness which you can trace to physiological things. But you have to be as ready as you can be. If you watch an athlete, I noticed this particularly in the Olympics, I found I could know who was going to win in the single events because the people who won, and we are talking about minuscule time differences between winning and coming second, but the person who a fraction of a second before the gun went off just let go. Some inner voice, and that is a process I can relate to. It’s not about becoming free of self-consciousness it’s just about, well, letting go. Harder to explain than to do.’
Despite recognising the need to let go, Jackson has said in the past that she feels the lack of a brain trained to work in a particular way. For her, she said, things are a really hard slog. Has this ever made her doubt her abilities as a politician?
‘Of course. It would be a sad day if you didn’t. Just think what you are as a constituency MP. To represent the needs of 68,000 people is a huge responsibility. Surely you have to do the best you can just in terms of the hope people invest in you. If being up to it can be achieved by dint of hard work and acknowledging you don’t know everything and having no pride about saying to people that you don’t know what they are talking about. The people around you are very good about helping you get on top of the information. And, of course, you are informed by the principles of your particular party….’
Her party has principles? ‘My absolute belief that this country is the best by virtue of its people is very clear to me, and as I said, one of the things I found most heinous under the Tories was the sheer waste of this country’s greatest natural resource. It’s people. Their energy. Their imagination.’
Jackson resents the idea that she has only been engaged in politics since she won her first seat in 1992. ‘I’ve always been a supporter and voter for the Labour Party. And I’d been asked to do thing by them because I had a high profile. When I was approached to become a prospective parliamentary candidate I was motivated by an overwhelming desire to get rid of Mrs Thatcher because she was trying to turn the country in which I was born, and which, please God, I will die, into a country I couldn’t identify with. And turn vices into virtues and virtues into vices. And I think this is probably a myth I’ve created for myself – because I don’t think the timing is right – but I’m convinced that it was hearing that speech about there being no such thing as society which made me so angry I walked into a post. But anything I could do, anything to get rid of that appalling, immoral philosophy and to get a Labour government.’
When she first started canvassing to become an MP, people would ask her for her autograph because she was a famous actress. Now that she is a government minister has she noticed a difference in the way people treat her? ‘To be honest,’ she says, ‘One of the big differences about becoming a Member of Parliament was that people can talk to you as a representative. You do have that. There is no pretence that you are not who you are. There is no blurring of who you are. There’s none of that, “Oh I expected Queen Elizabeth and then you arrived.” There’s none of that. So, no, people always speak their minds to me.’
This said, she says she is aware of her hard image and thinks it has a lot to do with her portrayal of Elizabeth R. But her reputation for being cold and frightening is unfair, she thinks, because she is not like that royal sourpuss in real life. She doesn’t believe she has ever experienced an uncontrollable passion, for instance. Although she does loose her temper, she doesn’t lose it often – and then only over some minor irritating thing that has come at the end of a lot of other minor irritating things.
An abrupt manner is often a defence against feelings of insecurity. At school she suffered badly from acne and was self-conscious about being overweight. She had, she says, no sense of herself being physically attractive in any way at all, either then or now. No wonder she didn’t enjoy the close scrutiny of the cameras when she became an actress. Ironically though, the social awkwardness, brittleness and discomfort she often brought top her screen roles were precisely the qualities that made her such a compelling, sultry, unpredictable actress to watch. And they are exactly the same qualities which limit her appeal as a politician. She has no bonhomie about her, and this makes the attempts by her Transport Press Office to turn her into Our Glenda look farcical (GLENDA LAUNCHES SAFELINE SCHEME IN SHEFFIELD ran a headline on a recent press release. Not Jackson. Glenda.)
Perhaps a more rewarding tack would be to play to the small minister’s transport strengths and cite the description Oliver Reed gave of his co-star: ‘Working with Glenda was like being run over by a Bedford truck.’ Or, perhaps, the one given by Les Dawson, that hers was the face that launched a thousand dredges.
In terms of appearance, then, the minister for transport (and shipping) seems to have overcompensated for the ephemeral image of her youth by becoming Labour’s answer to the gloriously uncompromised Ann Widdecombe. Even Barbara Follett MP, who was charged with giving New Labour MPs a makeover, couldn’t remove the whiff of carbolic that lingers about her. She has strong cheekbones, her mousy-auburn hair is cut in a severe Bauhaus style and there is something about the arrangement of her teeth that makes her smile look like a snarl. Last year when Glenda Jackson – wearing a suit with temperatures in the eighties and looking like she’d just sucked a lemon – did her photo-opportunity walk on the beaches of Benidorm, in order to tell startled British sunbathers why they couldn’t trust the Tories, Sir Tim Bell, the Tory PR guru, was tempted to run the picture of her as an advert saying: ‘New Labour: less style more substance.’
The small minister for transport finds such considerations trivialising. As well she should. She says she sees herself as female rather than feminine, which is something she equates with being ‘frilly and pink and frothy and lacy’. And she cannot understand the fuss always being made in the press about what Ffion Jenkins or Cherie Blair is wearing.
‘I wonder why we waste time worrying about it,’ she says. ‘It is actually an impediment to the work being done. It really acts as a bar to women achieving what women are capable of in virtue of their abilities. But again I don’t think it is serious. And I don’t think we should allow ourselves to be trapped into an agenda which is irrelevant. And why should women be trapped into not being attractive or not being interested in fashion or not being interested in those kind of things? Why should we be? That’s got nothing to do with images, be they powerful or weak, it’s got to do with the story of the day. It’s coming from a different angle. It’s a different kind of scenario. The whole thing about image and image-making is in itself an artificially created area, I believe, for another scenario as well.’
Even so, she did take part in the group photograph of what the tabloids dubbed ‘Blair’s Babes’. Presumably she agreed because, like her famous, goosepimply nude scenes, the plot demanded it. The Prime Minister didn’t feel the need to have a group photograph taken of himself with all his male MPs, but perhaps to raise this point is to miss a greater one. After all, as Glenda Jackson points out, the number of women MPs now elected to the House of Commons represents a brisk stride forward. ‘I think it’s wonderful,’ she says. ‘But I would like to see an equal gender split sitting on those benches. What are we now? 658 MPs? There are certainly not 329 women sitting there. But I think it has made a difference already in the atmosphere of the place. It can make a difference in the practical reality of the place.’
You can just imagine that atmosphere when the female (not feminine) Jackson is around. The real essence of her intimidatingly graceless manner was defined by a long-serving Hampstead party worker who said: ‘She can be very cold and hard work. Even by the standard of the Labour Party she hardly has a sense of humour.’ There is evidence of wryness, though. On her first day at Westminster, she says she kept getting lost but no matter where she walked she seemed to end up next to a statue of Winston Churchill. She names her chief pleasure as reading Hansard in bed. And she once laughed approvingly when she heard that her ex-husband had said of her: ‘If Glenda went into politics she’d be Prime Minister. If she went into crime she would be Jack The Ripper.’
It is now dark outside and Jackson leans forward, squints at a clock on the opposite wall and says; ‘It’s quarter to seven. We’ve got to make a move.’ As she walks over to her desk in the corner of her office a light comes on above it. ‘They are movement-sensitive to save energy,’ she explains. ‘Sometimes when I’m working late and sitting very still they turn off.’
It leaves a melancholy image lingering in the mind. Glenda Jackson sitting very still at her desk, long after everyone else has gone home. She is looking thoughtful, determined. Her pen is poised in her hand. Suddenly the lightbulb above her head dims and she is left in darkness – without even the orange glow of a cigarette for comfort.