Glenda Jackson: I Don’t Know Why Contemporary Dramatists Find Women So Uninteresting

Glenda Jackson
STV Productions

Glenda Jackson’s return to British TV after 27 years, with much of the interim spent as a Labour MP, was widely acclaimed as a tour de force upon its broadcast on BBC One last winter.

In “Elizabeth is Missing,” the 83-year-old actor took viewers inside the mind of a dementia sufferer determined to crack the mystery of one, or possibly two, missing persons despite her unreliable memory.

U.S. public broadcaster PBS, which aired Jackson’s Emmy-winning turn as Elizabeth I in the 1970s, has chosen the 90-minute drama to kick off its 50th anniversary celebrations next year. The show is also in the running for best single drama at Friday’s BAFTA TV Awards and Jackson is tipped to turn her third best actress nomination into a win.

Sarah Brown, executive producer at producer STV Productions, marvelled at how Jackson swung back into screen acting with a “fearless” performance in which she “unflinchingly” tackled some tough scenes of her character Maud, lashing out at her family. “It was so visceral, true and pitch-perfect — and to stand there for 10 hours a day without seeming to flag at all? I hope I can do that when I’m 83.”

Variety spoke to Jackson about the impact of the drama and the precarious situation in which TV drama finds itself as it gets back on its feet after the coronavirus pandemic.

What has been the most positive impact of “Elizabeth is Missing” for you?

After it aired, I was amazed at the number of people who came up to me and shared their direct experiences of family or friends suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia. One thing I’ve been banging on about is that we are, as a society, living much longer and these two illnesses are waiting for us.

One of the sole benefits of the coronavirus pandemic is that social care is going up the political ladder — and not before time. We’ve been walking around that big black hole that is waiting for us. Now we as a society will all realize it’s something we have to look at; this is going to be possibly the new normal. And it’s the same in the U.S. — worse, perhaps, given the coronavirus numbers. It’ll be interesting to see how it’s received when it airs on PBS.

“Elizabeth is Missing” is rare in that it’s a drama written and directed by women and puts an older woman, and largely the female side of her family, center stage. Do you feel the gender balance in TV drama is starting to get better?

Far from it. I am up against some wonderful women at the BAFTAs but our roles stand out because they’re one-offs — people say, ‘Oh look, here’s a hired assassin, a woman who wants to be a man or an old woman with dementia.’ I don’t know why contemporary dramatists find women so uninteresting. Women are rarely the central driving engine of contemporary drama. I’ve been bitching about this for years.

Women have made strides in creating more equality as far as our gender is concerned, but we are no means there yet. Like most industries, most decision makers in TV are still men. Of course there are moves, but it’s still a fence that has to be got over.

The pandemic has paused TV, theater and film production — and on top of that, older actors have had to shield. How worried are you about the future of drama, particularly regarding roles for older actors?

I’ve had years with no employment and every time I finish a show, whether film, TV or theater, I’m convinced I’ll never work again. I hope people will send me good scripts, but it doesn’t matter if they don’t. Casting older roles might be hard but then we keep getting told young people can catch COVID-19, too, so we are all in the same boat.

There is no lack of creativity in the UK — it’s just that now we are in this extraordinary situation where people may be working away at something, mostly individually, but it’s hard to work out how to come together as a group. In a curious kind of way, this could be a furtive time creatively as writers respond to their astonishment at what the pandemic has shown about the kind of country we live in. There is a lot of material.

In theater, it’s not so much having shows to do but whether an audience will be sufficiently confident to come and watch them. It’s good that the British government has found money for the cultural sector because it does earn this country a lot of money. But when will an audience return?

How has lockdown affected you?

I’m very lucky. I live in the basement of my family’s home and I’ve got the garden. My family do my shopping and my daughter-in-law sets up my computer chats. Last week, I went out the front door for the first time in almost four months to get my haircut. It felt quite extraordinary.

People always talk of ‘golden ages’ of TV drama. What is your impression of today’s series?

The U.S. was ahead of the game with “The Wire” and all those other prestige dramas, and we’ve all learned from that. There has been a remarkable shift and I think television writers and producers have become more adept at examining the human condition in depth and at length.

“Elizabeth is Missing” sits in a rich tradition of single dramas commissioned in the best spirit of public service broadcasting, further exemplified by recent BBC works such as Windrush drama “Sitting in Limbo” and Jimmy McGovern’s “Anthony.” Do you feel the BBC is playing to its strengths right now?

There are justifiable criticisms of the BBC but these tend to be of a physical and technical nature. Having worked on this drama and several radio pieces, I’d say they work within the very tight conditions remarkably well. As for its future funding, it’s up to the electorate to make themselves heard.

Finally, will you miss the traditional format of the BAFTA TV awards ceremony?

I would be hard-pressed to think of a happier benefit of the pandemic than not having to walk down all those stairs and along the red carpet!

The Virgin Media BAFTA TV Awards, filmed via a closed studio and with virtual acceptance speeches, air Friday at 7pm BST on BBC One.