Hollywood is just a distant memory for the Member for Hampstead and Highgate. But why did Glenda Jackson swap the glamorous life for the fine detail of Labour's transport policy?
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The Independent Culture
Everyone Had warned me rather gloomily about interviewing Glenda Jackson. I was told by journalists who knew her that she was "very prickly" and "hates talking about her acting career". One of these Eeyores added: "The problem is to stop her banging on about Labour transport policy and get her to talk about Holly-wood." A keen Jackson observer, he couldn't make her out at all, he added, and listed his perplexities. Why does she refuse to wear make-up? Why is she not one of Blair's beautiful people? What does she do in her spare time? Is her life actually empty?

Well, that may emerge later, but after such a bad press the woman who met me in the lobby of her Westminster office came as a welcome surprise. Jackson, who is 60, was not prickly or humourless or a transport bore. She had her red hair cut neatly into the nape of her neck and wore an elegant trouser suit, gold earrings and black pumps. She did not wear make-up. While waiting for her picture to be taken she hummed melodiously to herself (and us) and when the photographer tried to help her on to the table she muttered: "I'm not that doddery yet, you know."

The two of them had quite a jolly chat during the photo session, and when the photographer had finished she got up, still humming, and rehooked the tie-backs around the curtains. I think she might have been nervous, but I was struck by her containment. She holds herself, and speaks, with great precision, a self-discipline evident both in her successful acting career and the long hours she now toils in the Commons.

She is number two in Labour's transport team (where her high profile is said to irritate Andrew Smith, her boss) but tipped for promotion after the election - the job of Heritage Secretary has been mooted. In fact she would prefer to stay with transport, which she talks about cogently and with some passion. As for the arts, she revels rather mischievously in her present indifference: "I can't remember the last time I went to the theatre or cinema," she said unrepentantly at one point, "and what I find particularly ironic is that my office looks directly over the South Bank, and the Tate Gallery is over there" - she flicks her arm - "and the National Portrait Gallery over there, and I don't think I've ever been in any of them for the past four or five years. Scandalous isn't it?"

Clearly she wasn't at all scandalised by it, and smiled serenely. She was less serene, however, when she talked about the Govern-ment, which she thinks does not believe that the British people "can rise to the challenge" and "despises the majority of people in this country". She got quite cross when asked if it did down women.

"Absolutely," she said at once. "Like the report which said that children of single parents, or rather of mothers who permanently work, do less well. I could not believe that, I mean - well - when I say I could not believe it, what I cannot believe is that it doesn't matter how long one seems to live, there is always this desire somewhere for men to blame women. I just find it bewildering."

Over the last five years, Jackson has had plenty of opportunity to become familiar with this bewilderment. If she wanted to avoid sexism, she could hardly have chosen a worse place to work than the House of Commons, where women number less than 10 per cent of MPs and where her election was the subject of intense interest among the remaining 90 per cent. (Actually, it was just as bad in the theatre, she says, where nine out of 10 parts are for men.) The Labour Party, desperate for some glamour, thought she would be a godsend when she arrived in 1992 - but they hoped in vain. Jackson kept her head down and refused to play the Hollywood belle. She only emerged into the spotlight last year on being elevated to transport spokesman after Clare Short was demoted for a series of gaffes. The News of the World gleefully speculated that she and Short were "at each other's throats", and male colleagues grumbled that she had been promoted because of her name.

And who knows, perhaps they are partly right. However, Jackson's description of the discrimination against women in the House of Commons is of an attitude that runs so deep it is almost unconscious. "At a meeting you might present an idea and it will be listened to and someone will say, 'Oh yes, that's fine.' Ten minutes later a man down the table will produce the same idea, but possibly reworked in its presentation, and there will be unanimous acceptance of what a good idea it was. Also you will be talked over, that's the other thing, you sort of become invisible, and if you protest this, you are deemed to be some form of extreme harridan."

This sounded horrific, so I asked what strategies she had developed for dealing with it. For some reason this floored her, and she floundered: "I think in a sense the strategy is not to, um, not to let it deter you." So you don't fight back, but you don't let it get you down? "Well, you can actively say it, but there are ways of saying things ... Once I was down to ask a question and I think I was the only woman down at that section of asking questions and one of my colleagues, in the most well-meaning of ways, said to me: 'You're next, Glenda.' He hadn't said it to any of the men, and I said, 'Thank you. I can read and I can count.' " She smiles faintly at this.

THE THING people who study Jackson cannot fathom is why she went into politics in the first place. This apparent conundrum is based on the premise that she gave up Hollywood stardom to talk about bus lanes, but it is fundamentally to misunderstand her. She has always been politically active, and her career was rooted in the stage, rather than the movies; she trained at Rada, worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the films she made mostly arose from stage success.

But it was films which made her famous, notably Ken Russell's Women In Love, in which she starred and stripped. That won her an Oscar in 1970. In 1971 she scored another hit with Sunday, Bloody Sunday, and also played Tchaikovsky's nymphomaniac wife in The Music Lovers, again directed by Russell, a film of such visual and sexual excess that critics recoiled. She won a second Oscar for A Touch of Class in 1973. Later she made a minor industry of playing Elizabeth I, first in the television series Elizabeth R, and then in the film Mary, Queen of Scots, opposite Vanessa Redgrave.

But it was not as if she turned her back on the high life for politics, she says, because she never had it in the first place. "I never did! I was never part of the glitzy, glamoury, showbizzy part of the entertainment world. I don't think I could ever have been. It wouldn't have interested me and, you know ... I wouldn't have been any good at it." Acting was just a job, she continues: a rather hard-working job with anti-social hours. But does she look back on it with affection? "Neither with affection, nor disaffection."

This relentless pragmatism has its roots in her childhood in the Wirral, the eldest of four daughters. Her bricklayer father joined the Navy when war broke out, so she grew up surrounded by women. Jackson remembers the rationing, visits to the public library, and playing out every day on the beach. She also remembers how proud she was as a 15-year-old shop assistant to come home with her first pay-packet from Boots. She had never felt the lack of money, but her parents had: "Balancing the budget was something my mother had real worries over."

Her austere upbringing has left her apparently without materialism and with a work ethic to rival Baroness Thatcher's. I asked if she'd like to be rich (she denies press reports that she is a millionaire) and she replied, as if she'd never thought about it: "I don't think so, no." Why not? "Partly because one doesn't really have time to spend, and partly because I was raised to believe that you have to earn everything. When you don't have anything you tend to be fairly - what's the word? - economical."

Money did help when she was bringing up her only child, Daniel, now 27 and her parliamentary researcher. She became a single mother after her divorce from Roy Hodges, a theatre director and art dealer, in 1976. Was that amicable? "I wouldn't go so far as to say that." Did she still see him? "Occasionally." Why did the marriage end? "I have no idea. Why do relationships end? The reasons can be as many and varied as the individuals involved. The practical reason," she says matter-of-factly, taking me by surprise, "was that I was sued for divorce on the grounds of adultery and I didn't contest that because it was true."

Was that with the lighting technician she lived with for five years? "Mmm-hmm." She looked up. "Do you know why I paused then? I can't remember his name. That's scandalous. Really scandalous. No, that's really awful. I shall put it down to old age." (She didn't look in the least concerned.) "Is his name Andy?" I suggested, and a look of pleasure washed over her face. "Thank you!" she said. "You did know that!" I accused her. "I didn't, I swear to God I didn't!" "Andy Phillips?" "Thank you!"

For the last 15 years she has lived alone - or rather with her son Daniel (she says she throws two clean sheets into his room once a week and leaves him to it). Does her celebrity scare men off? "I don't know, you'd have to ask them that. I spend most of my time in England and," she lowers her voice conspiratorially, "I don't think men like women very much in this country, do they? But I've no sense that my fame frightens them."

It is hard to fathom, after an hour with this impressive woman, why she ever agreed to strip for her films (earning her the tabloid title First Lady of the Flesh). Answering this is the closest she comes to the coldness others have detected. "That would presuppose that those scenes were gratuitous, or irrelevant to the story being told that particular way," she tells me. "I don't see they were."

Jackson is drumming her fingers on the table. Is she itching to get back to real work? I want to know if, as has been suggested, she felt obliged to put on her rather stern persona to impress the male MPs. But she says not. "I don't feel that at all! I am told I present a cold front because I don't smile enough, but I don't think that."

So she hasn't shunned frivolity? "No! No, I haven't. I think that's partly because I've never necessarily enjoyed myself. Or - "she catches herself "- perhaps I should put that another way: my definition of what would be frivolous enjoyment would not necessarily be other people's." And what is that? "Reading a novel in the morning in bed!" This raises the inevitable question about make-up, but she says refusing to wear it is not some sort of statement.

"No it isn't! I mean, I never did, well that's not true, certainly when I was about 18 or so, when I was at drama school, I would not have gone out of the house without some form of make-up on, but it would have been comparatively slight. But my professional life was always putting it on myself or having others put it on and so ..."

She looks over at the monitor, which she has switched on for Prime Minister's Questions. "And also," she says, forcing her attention away, "because my skin reacts badly to a lot of putting on and taking off. And I'm lazy. I'd sooner have an extra five minutes."

The allotted time for our talk is up, and she rises and replaces her chair precisely under the table. "Do you ever long not to work so hard?" I ask, and she looks surprised. "No," she says. So work is pleasure? "Well," she says, "after you've worked hard there is an intense pleasure when the phone doesn't ring and you don't have to dress up." But you have to have earned it? She nods and gives a rueful smile. "Because otherwise," she whispers, "you feel guilty."