The biggest surprise in the recent New Year Honours List was that Vanessa Redgrave became a dame. She more than deserved it, of course. She has been one of Britain’s finest, most emotionally affecting, intelligent and nuanced actresses for an astonishing 60-plus years. The surprise was that she should suddenly be recognised at the age of 84, when contemporaries such as Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright received the award years ago, and all at much younger ages. Indeed, Kristin Scott Thomas was made a dame at the age of 54.
So why did it take so long for Vanessa Redgrave? After all, it is more than 60 years since her performance as Rosalind in As You Like It mesmerised audiences. It is more than four decades, too, since David Thomson in A Biographical Dictionary of Film described her as “the best actress alive”.
Part of the answer, I would venture, is that she was deliberately ignored for decades because of her politics. In the 1960s and 1970s Redgrave was a member of The Workers’ Revolutionary Party, the far-left organisation, and a publicly vociferous member at that, a constant presence in demonstrations and other shows of activism. Politics was meat and drink to Redgrave, literally at times, as she confessed to having taken to drink when Ted Heath imposed wage controls in the early seventies. Her very first performance in an amateur show at the age of six was to raise money to send ships to help with the fight against Nazi Germany.
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