Is drama necessary to politics and is politics necessary to all good drama? Is the ability to control drama the key to being a successful leader?
All good leaders are brilliant communicators. In order to be elected, candidates have to make you believe in them, believe in their political vision and believe they will best represent you. But would good politicians make good actors? Who better to ask than Oscar-winning actress and MP Glenda Jackson?
Glenda Jackson was, of course, a hugely successful actress in film, theatre and TV long before being elected to Parliament. Before making her mark in politics, she drew wide-spread acclaim doing everything from Shakespearean dramas to comedy sketches on Morecambe and Wise. In the course of a glittering career, Glenda won two ‘Best Actress’ Oscars- her first in 1971 for her performance in ‘Women in Love,’ and her second in 1974 for ‘A Touch of Class’.
But is a talent for the dramatic arts essential to politics? Glenda says; “There is a link. When I was first elected people said to me, ‘you’ve simply exchanged one form of theatre for another’ and I said rather glibly, ‘Well, if I have the Commons is remarkably under-rehearsed, the lighting is appalling and the acoustic is even worse.”
She adds; “But the link for me is that the best drama tries to tell the truth, tries to find and tries to tell the truth. Essentially the prime example, of course, is Shakespeare. It doesn’t matter where he sets the play, doesn’t matter what the story is. Essentially all he’s ever asking is who are we, what are we, why are we; admittedly in the most brilliant form ever known to man. I think that is what the best politics is trying to find.”
If there is one essential quality needed to be a successful actor or politician it’s charisma. Lack of charisma costs politicians elections- ask Mitt Romney or Gordon Brown. Similarly charisma can save a politician’s political life- ask Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. Obama’s charisma likely gave him the edge over the bland and unappealing Romney. Bill Clinton is the perfect example of successfully using personal charisma for maximum political gain. It’s doubtful someone with less charisma and weaker persuasive skills could have survived the Lewinsky scandal.
However Glenda offers a different view on this most outrageous of political scandals, suggesting Clinton weathered the media storm around his infidelity by making a sincere apology. “I think that is something people recognise. There was a genuine antipathy, I don’t think it was limited to America, of what possible business is it of an electorate what goes on behind closed bedroom doors, even though in his case it wasn’t a closed bedroom door, it was an office door”.
Would good politicians make good actors? I can’t help but feel Bill Clinton would have made one of the finest actors America has ever seen. He deserved an Oscar for his ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky’ performance. Similarly Tony Blair’s ability to convince many sections of the public to go to war with Iraq on the basis Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction while in possession of desperately flimsy evidence, hints at great acting potential.
Fascinatingly, when asked if Blair would have made a good actor, Glenda said, “No because you would always know when he wasn’t telling the truth.” In regards to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, Glenda explained “They could both perform but there’s a difference between a performance and acting”.
I would personally argue Blair’s acting ability was an asset for the first part of his political career, as his performance skills enabled him to rise to the leadership of the Labour Party and become Prime Minister. However, his talents had a limited shelf-life and by the time of the Iraq War, many people had seen through his act.
Glenda Jackson is one of only twelve women in history to have won two ‘Best Actress’ Oscars. She keeps with illustrious company in gaining this distinction, claiming a place alongside Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep.
However, unlike most actors for whom winning an Oscar is the be-all and end-all, Glenda takes a most refreshing and modest attitude to having won the awards saying, “Well, it’s due to I didn’t win them, I didn’t do anything for them. There was nothing that I did, over and above what I’ve always done, I mean, you know, you do a film and you do the best you can, but you don’t win them. People who win I suppose in a sense are the people who voted for you because their choice is the one that had the biggest number.”
Glenda elaborated; “What do they mean? Someone said it’s like winning a gold medal. No it isn’t. At the Olympics everyone starts at the same point, they know exactly where the finishing line is and you either get there first or you don’t. Acting isn’t like that. If the part isn’t there, if that aspect isn’t there; you know we’ve all seen loads of stuff but there are people who should have got Oscars and never did. Because the part wasn’t showy enough.” Glenda added, “They certainly don’t make you act any better.”
Glenda Jackson says her decision to give up acting and stand for Parliament is not so shocking as it might first appear as she has been politically active all her life: “My political life, my political engagement if you like, didn’t just begin when I sat on those green benches.” I think as political activists we can all relate to this; you don’t have to be elected to Parliament to be fully committed to politics.
I asked Glenda if there were any acting roles she particularly identified with. “I didn’t identify in that sense,” she responded, “the point about every part you play; you can’t be judgemental, you have to see the world through that character’s eyes.” However when looking back at our work, we all have things we would like to have another go at. “The only two that I would have wanted to have another crack at was ‘The Three Sisters’ and probably ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’. You could mine them forever and never find it all.” I asked if this was because of the complexity of the roles. Glenda said, “Absolutely. And words are very ambiguous you know.”
In my experience there is nothing more dramatic than an Election Night. The most exciting political campaign I’ve ever worked on was Glenda Jackson’s own in 2010. The race in Hampstead and Kilburn was the closest in the country; Glenda won by only 42 votes!
Hampstead and Kilburn was one of the only constituencies where it was a genuine three horse race between Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Election Night was absolutely thrilling. Alfred Hitchcock himself couldn’t have conjured up a more suspenseful atmosphere. This was an election where literally every vote counted. I knew Glenda would win. Politics if nothing else makes a believer out of you. But this really was the stuff of great drama.
So, does Glenda feel that drama and politics are intertwined? “The real drama doesn’t come from politicians, it comes from the press, it comes from a 24/7 media furore. To go back to what Harold Macmillan said, when someone said to him what the big thing about being Prime Minister was, he replied: ‘Events, dear boy, events’. The events now are almost second by second.”
Originally published in the Winter 2012 Edition of Anticipations, the Young Fabians magazine (which I am Deputy Editor of).