(Michael Coveney’s and Julia Langdon’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/15; Photo: Glenda Jackson in 1984. At the height of her fame in the 1980s, she continued to appear in London stage productions of ambitious, difficult plays. Photograph: Jane Bown/The Observer.)

Actor who was a fearless, ferocious presence in theatre, cinema and television, then turned to politics as a Labour MP

Many leading British actors have mixed art and politics, but no great actor ever made such a decisive break from one to the other as Glenda Jackson, who has died aged 87, when she was elected Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate in 1992.

For the previous 30 years, she had been an outstanding, ferocious presence in theatre and on screen, a leading light of the Royal Shakespeare Company in its most radical phase, and as memorable in film comedies with George Segal and Walter Matthau as she was in more tempestuous movies by Ken Russell.

She never had to prove a point about her politics: she was known for having concerns rather than ideas, and these were rooted in her background of Lancastrian working-class poverty, and her belief that the arts had both a higher purpose and a responsibility to educate and inform.

It is extraordinary that, at the height of her fame in the 1980s, she appeared in London stage productions of ambitious, difficult plays by Botho Strauss, Eugene O’Neill, Jean Racine, Bertolt Brecht, Federico García Lorca and Howard Barker. She evinced an uncompromised intelligence, and a scrubbed beauty that had nothing to do with makeup or vanity.

She was always strong, never sentimental, with a great aptitude for sarcasm and sourness. She was impatient with frivolity, except when it came to working with Morecambe and Wise. She first appeared on the great comedy duo’s TV show in 1971 as Cleopatra in a typically tawdry, but hilarious, cod-classical sketch – “All men are fools and what makes them fools is having beauty like what I have got” – and returned on four of their subsequent Christmas shows.

Jackson was as fearless in sending herself up as she was in going for the jugular on stage; she was totally without affectation. She did not think much of her looks, having been “an archetypal spotty teenager who suffered the tortures of the damned because I wasn’t like those girls in the magazines”, and she never tampered with her imperfectly aligned teeth; for her legion of admirers, such honesty redoubled her sensuality.

And there was a deep-seated unhappiness about her that she could always turn to dramatic advantage. “When I have to cry,” she once said, “I think about my love life. And when I have to laugh, I think about my love life.” The American director Charles Marowitz said: “It was always the sense of being close to elemental forces that accounted for Glenda’s fascination; the knowledge that she is capable of manifesting those potent inner states, that in most of us remain contained or suppressed.”

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