If I lost my seat, I'd be an actress again

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The Independent Online
IN A BARE rehearsal room in 1966, a group of screaming actors chased a young woman around, while an authoritarian Polish director barked instructions. The exercise, which continued for five hours, was designed to bend Glenda Jackson to his will.

"You are a deer and you others are bloodthirsty hounds," the director yelled at the headstrong young actress. "You have escaped from concentration camp and they are guards relentlessly pursing you." His gruelling routine did not have the desired effect. Jackson strolled out of the rehearsal room. "Let's have a cup of tea instead," she told her tormentor.

Thirty years later, the Member of Parliament for Hampstead and Highgate is still being pursued by those who would like to see her break down. Recent press reports have suggested that the Transport Minister is so unhappy with the "bitchiness" of politics that she wants to leave the House of Commons. Furthermore, her detractors claim that she is too "dour" and "wooden" and that she has few political friends.

While Ms Jackson admits she is "really irritated" by such charges, she adds, "You have to laugh about it", without apparent bitterness. "It's one of those myths. I have never found the theatre bitchy and I have not found this place bitchy either. It's totally untrue." she said last week. "It's simply that the opportunities to sit down and be sociable are few and far between."

When Ms Jackson arrived at the House of Commons in 1992, she found Parliament a lonelier place than the theatre. "We gather in the chamber and everyone scatters off into their own little cell to get on with their own work," she said, "which when I first came here I did find surprising, because in theatre and films you are part of a team."

Since becoming a minister, Ms Jackson has resolutely refused to capitalise on her celebrity status as an Oscar-winning actress. Although she surprised Westminster earlier this month with a guest appearance at the BAFTA awards to celebrate the work of her friends, the late Morecambe and Wise. Indeed, she has sought to establish herself as a serious politician, whose loyalty to Labour thinking has become almost as famous as her nude appearance in Women in Love.

But her commitment to the Blair project has brought accusations of stoniness. Yet this is hard to square with the slight, friendly woman who sits hugging her knees on a windowsill. The photographer remarks on how relaxed she seems in front of the camera. Ms Jackson might have been destined to a life in showbusiness. Her family, headed by her father, a Wirral builder, had a keen interest in film. Had she been born a boy, she would have been named Rudolph after Rudolph Valentino, instead she was named after Glenda Farrell, an American leading lady of the Thirties.

These days, she seems genuinely delighted that her fans still send her photos to sign, and her face lights up as she tells stories about her former life. She recalls how she offered to relinquish her famous role in Women in Love after discovering, two weeks into filming, that she was expecting a baby. The director refused and employed "the clever use of handbags" to disguise her bump. "I had the best bust I've ever had," she jokes.

Thirty years ago while exploring the "fog of war" for a new play about Vietnam, she and the rest of the cast had to march around the room with paper bags over their heads. She suggested that the director, Peter Brook, and his staff should share the experience. Once the bosses were sitting in a circle - bags on heads - she peeped out and led the other actors down the stairs to the pub.

But when it comes to discussing Labour politics it is as if she has picked up a well-rehearsed script. She insists her only political ambitions are to be reselected by Hampstead Labour Party, to win her seat again and to see Tony Blair "walk through the door of Number 10 with an even bigger majority", not to beat a path upwards through the ministerial ranks. But she says that if she lost her seat she would return to the stage because it's "one of the two things I know how to do".

When asked if she would like to be Mayor of London - she has been widely touted as an official Labour candidate - her eyes do not light up with enthusiasm. "As I have always said, who wouldn't want to be the mayor? But who will be the Labour Party's candidate will be a decision that the Greater London Labour Party will make," she says.

As a minister, she has stuck loyally to the Blairite script and says she finds transport a "very, very interesting subject". But even a double Oscar-winner would find it hard to add sparkle to announcements about bus lanes, fuel emissions and traffic jams. Perhaps she should toss away the script, put a paper bag over the director's head, and improvise a little.