'I'd have been told if I hadn't been any good'

It was Glenda Jackson's smallest supporting role. Not so much Women in Love as "young woman with loofah". Few of the staff at a West Kirby branch of Boots expect to win two Oscars and a parliamentary seat. Understandably, these were not the immediate ambitions of 16-year-old Glenda Jackson when she left school with just three School Certificate (GCSE- level) passes.

"I have often thought, 'If only I'd played my cards right, I could have been an area manager for Boots,'" she says now. Passing cough syrup over the counter must seem a comforting alternative to a West End first night or, since 1992, a sometimes stormy career as an independent-minded Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate.

If customers asked for advice on anything more complicated than a cough, there was always the resident pharmacist to pass them on to. As the youngest employee, she had to clean the shelves, a task she did actually enjoy. "It was my first experience of being employed and getting a pay packet. I was on the medicine side of the shop, not cosmetics, unfortunately - never the twain shall meet. Shops were still shops then: I would have been told if I hadn't been any good."

So why isn't she a Boots area manager? "I joined an amateur dramatic group and someone said, as they do, 'You ought to be a professional.' I went to audition at Rada, which was the only drama school I'd heard of." And that was the end of her Boots career.

What did she take away from her two years behind the counter, apart from a pay packet? "It was a useful experience. I could always get a job in a shop." This proved handy when she was a drama student, and then a tyro actor. She was left with something else: "A lifelong dedication to Boots products."

She even appeared in a television advert for the company, giving the fee to a children's charity; this must be one of few celebrity endorsements that actually meant something. The boss of Boots, which had never done a TV ad before, was somewhat overwhelmed by the news stories along the lines of "Famous actress does commercial for chemist's" and rang up the head of the ad agency to complain: "We're getting too much publicity!" (He should be so lucky.)

Another echo of her time at Boots is that any MP putting down an EDM - Early Day Motion - on work conditions in the retail trades can count on her support. Incidentally, just as she never aimed at being an area manager, she discounts speculation about her being the dark horse on the list of candidates for Tony Blair's job as leader of the Labour Parliamentary Party. "There should be a woman's name on there somewhere, but it won't be mine," she declares.