Acting and politics

Glenda Jackson was an extraordinary person – not only was she was one of the best actors of her generation, but she also succeeded in a second career as a politician, renowned for her integrity and commitment to social inequality, human rights and feminism.  It is that combination of achievements that fascinates me, not least because my two major pursuits in retirement are politics and drama/theatre.

The BBC has unearthed an interesting interview from 50 years ago:

Actors are always at a disadvantage when they speak out on political issues, because some members of the public assume that they must be “acting”. Hugh Grant came up against this prejudice when he put his weight behind the Hacked Off project. Of course, he was pitting himself against some of the most powerful media personalities in the country so he must have braced himself for a very public attempt at character assassination. They did their best to imply that actors could not be trusted as they were good at “lying”.

(Incidentally I was on a committee that was arranging a fringe meeting on press regulation at Lib Dem Conference in 2011.  Dr Evan Harris had persuaded Hugh Grant to speak. “We will need a bigger room”, I said.  The women around the table nodded; the men all asked “Why?”)

One quote that is often repeated in drama classes is that “acting is living truthfully in imaginary circumstances”.  That is a summary of the thinking of Sanford Meisner, an American actor who developed an approach to drama derived from the teachings of Stanislavski. Actors strive to find the deep human truth in the characters they portray and in the way that they respond to others. They use a variety of techniques to do this, but all are designed to find an authentic voice, whilst remaining sufficiently detached and observant.

The point I am making is that acting technique is not about learning to lie, but about learning to be truthful. Glenda Jackson’s professional exploration and portrayal of some extraordinary characters on stage and film must have informed her political understanding and values.  And once fully involved in political life it didn’t take long for her to convince people that she was genuinely concerned about social issues. That sense of conviction, conveyed through a wonderfully expressive voice, enabled her to puncture the superficial prejudices and impress with her authenticity.

The worlds of drama and politics are poorer without her.


* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Lorenzo Cherin 19th Jun '23 - 12:56pm

    Fine tribute to a great figure. I was involved in her campaign to be mayor, pre my active Liberal Democrat support. A real character in herself, she played them brilliantly as other people.

    I agree with you Mary about this oft heard criticism of actors in political campaigning. It’s usually, and in recent years more so, carping from media hacks, as detailed here as shown, re: Hugh Grant.

    In the States, nobody could say that Reagan was only acting, acting meaning, faking. He stood for things, whether one agreed or not on policies. This was true of him when President as well.

    Many US actors were and are active in politics or society. Who knew that John Forsythe, while playing the tycoon of oil, Blake Carrington, was a lifelong active moderate liberal Democrat, who, even with actor Reagan in the Presidency, in reality Forsythe was not a supporter, in fact he spoke for Hart on the campaign trail and then Mondale as candidate at the Democratic Convention in 1984.

    The Uk has its own .The man who inspired the Forum I work for, The Ustinov Prejudice Awareness Forum, Sir Peter Ustinov, was quietly, a lifelong Liberal, and Liberal Democrat. And as for Floella Benjamin…!

    Mary you are correct, acting, done with depth or humour, drama or satire, is revealing the truth.

    Acting requires instinctive understanding and empathy, and often research and inquiry.

    I have always seen the connections to acting and the human feeling at the heart of humanitarian involvement.

  • I’ve always thought Peter Ustinov’s ‘Nero’ had a great deal in common with the former Member for Uxbridge, Lorenzo. Did Ustinov know something about the future that we don’t ?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 19th Jun '23 - 3:29pm

    Nice one David!

    Trust everything is ok, been a while since an interraction here old chum!

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