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Penelope Wilton: a woman of substance

Nina Myskow / 30 January 2015

Penelope Wilton talks about her TV, film and stage career, love in later life and the burden of child loss.

Actor Penelope Wilton
Penlope Wilton talks to Saga

It’s in the dying minutes of the interview that I get a sudden glimpse of the real Penelope Wilton behind the respected and celebrated actress. 

Up until this point, five minutes into overtime, with the car waiting outside to take her home from the photoshoot and interview, Downton Abbey’s Isobel Crawley has been charming and polite and obliging, despite the fact that you sense that this whole process is not really her cup of tea.

Ever the professional, she gamely enters into the spirit of it all however, trying on colours that she would never normally wear, eventually swaying to the music in the studio as the camera shutter clicks away. Afterwards she talks enthusiastically and fluently about her work.

With an OBE and an honorary Doctor of Letters, both tributes to her acting skills, Penelope is undoubtedly at the top of her game at the moment.

Stage, screen and sitcom

A familiar face since Ever Decreasing Circles, the Eighties sitcom in which she played Ann, the long-suffering wife of Richard Briers’ obsessive Martin, she puts paid once and for all to the theory that older actresses struggle to find parts unless they’re Judi Dench or Maggie Smith, both of whom she works with and counts as friends.

Best known these days for Downton (which also stars Peter Egan who played her 'will they? won't they?' neighbour Paul in Ever Decreasing Circles), she is not only returning in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a sequel to the surprise hit film, which pulled in $135 million, but is also starring on the West End stage in Taken at Midnight, a powerful new play set in Thirties Nazi Germany, which garnered her glowing reviews on its run at Chichester Festival Theatre.

Theatre, television, film? She seems to have them all sewn up right now. ‘I’m astounded, myself,’ she laughs, and in typically modest fashion says: ‘It’s marvellous and I’m really delighted, but it’s happenstance: these things happen from time to time. I have to thank my agent.’ 

I expect it’s the other way round (her performance in this compelling version of an unknown true story has been hailed as ‘superb’ and ‘magnificent’), but she’d be too unassuming to think that.

Taken at Midnight

Penelope plays the mother of a celebrated young lawyer, Hans Litten, who in 1931 put Adolf Hitler on the witness stand, subjecting him to a searing cross-examination. As soon as Hitler came to power two years later, Litten was seized in retribution, and incarcerated in Sonnenberg concentration camp. ‘It’s the story of a mother’s struggle to save her son,’ she says. The play is about the high price of resisting tyranny.

‘Her son disappeared, like thousands in Germany of the wrong political persuasion at the time. It was before the war and the big round-up of the Jewish population. She didn’t want him to be forgotten. It’s a wonderful play and I can’t believe my luck.’ 

It is, though, emotionally draining: ‘I don’t do much else when I’m doing this,’ she says. ‘But I’ve got over being depressed, that’s self-indulgent. I’m just telling the story, and delighted it’s out there. It’s about freedom of speech and reminds us that democracy is a fragile thing. We take it for granted – that’s what democracy is – but we do have to guard it. It’s a sacred thing, really. Very precious.

Mothers of the 'disappeared'

‘It’s about mothers who will do anything, who fight for their children, and it speaks for mothers who are in Argentina, in Chile, in Bosnia and Egypt. Mothers of the disappeared. It’s happening now. Boko Haram have taken all those girls away in Africa, and it’s the women who always stand there on the front line, and they won’t let them be forgotten. It’s instinctive for mothers. We look after our children, they come first.’

Family ties

Penelope has a daughter, Alice, now 36, a theatre projects manager, from her first marriage to the late actor Daniel Massey. On cue her phone rings (a whistle ringtone), and it’s Alice. Penelope apologises as she takes the call quickly to tell her the coincidence of our location, Sunbeam Studios in West London. We are in the same vast-ceilinged space where Alice married a couple of years ago.

‘Do you remember Sunbeam cars?’ she asks when she hangs up. Sunbeam Rapier, I ask? ‘That’s the one. This building used to be the Sunbeam showroom before it was turned into studios. We hired it for the wedding. It was marvellous, we had a lovely time. So I have a lovely son-in-law called Elliott and a grandson Daniel who’s two and a half.’

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

As a complete contrast to Taken at MidnightThe Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a romp and great fun. In the sequel to the story of a bunch of retirees who move to a hotel in India for a last chance at life, Penelope returns as Jean who, unlike the others, loathed the experience and exited her marriage to Douglas (Bill Nighy) and India in high dudgeon.

Rather playing against type? Penelope has innate moral authority, integrity, a kind of goodness that you sense. ‘I assure you I’m not that good,’ she laughs. 

‘Well, poor woman, she was having a nervous breakdown. Not everyone is going to be filled with sweetness and light in India. And if you’re having an unhappy marriage, going to another place, you take that with you. You take yourself with you.’

Marriage lines

Penelope has been twice married and divorced. As I’d read that her first husband married her own sister two years later, we discussed marriage. Her second husband, Sir Ian Holm, was also an actor. I ask if two actors understand each other better and she says they understand the insecurity of the profession, but adds, ‘Any success or failure you have in a marriage is a personal one’.

I mention her second husband and suddenly she says: ‘Actually I don’t want to talk about my marriages, if you don’t mind.’ She is polite but firm. ‘I think we’ll just say they were very good actors.’ She laughs, a bit nervously. 

‘It’s not worth speaking about really.  I was very happy at certain times in both marriages, but they didn’t work out, so probably best to leave it like that.’ Fair enough.

We stick to safer territory, working on the film in India. ‘My character Jean’s not in it as much as the others because she’s gone back, but she returns with her daughter.’ And with a fabulously waspish line. Surveying all the other retirees she declares, ‘I couldn’t resist the chance to come back and visit the crumbling old ruins – and to see how the hotel building’s going as well!’ She loves doing comedy, and working with old chums such as Judi Dench and Maggie Smith is a treat. 

‘Maggie and Judi are lots of laughs, great fun. And all of us, it’s a very easy group of people.’ There are shopping trips with Celia Imrie as well. ‘India has lovely fabrics but you’ve got to be careful. They look wonderful over there, and then you bring them home and think, “Why on earth did I buy that?” But wonderful cottons, nighties and dressing gowns, stuff for children.

‘Because you hang about a lot with filming, we play a lot of Bananagrams, a very quick sort of Scrabble.’ They play it on Downton, too: ‘They put up a table for us off-set. Maggie mostly wins, but Laura Carmichael, who plays Lady Edith, is extremely good at it. Great game.’ 

The romance between Isobel Crawley and Lord Merton is currently stalled. 

‘His sons are very anti the wedding,’ she says. ‘They don’t think she’s good enough to take their mother’s place. However, he’s been asked back for the next series,  so perhaps things will move on!’ she reveals with a laugh.

Love in later life

The thought of late-flowering love is very uplifting. ‘Oh, it is,’ she agrees. ‘And it happens a lot. I mean, look at Judi. Her late husband Michael Williams was such a darling man. But now David [her current partner, David Mills] is extremely nice, and she’s very happy. So it’s really lovely.’ 

But what about her? ‘Oh, I’m very happy as I am,’ she says. ‘I live on my own. I’ve lived on my own for quite a while now. I don’t mind it at all. I have visitors, especially my grandson, who likes to be in my bed more than anything in the world. So that’s who shares my life.’ And your bed, I suggest. We laugh. 

‘I’d never say never,’ she confesses. ‘I’m not looking out thinking I’m only half a person if I’m not with someone. But who knows?’ 

Who knows indeed? She looks terrific. At 68 she is slender and fit, healthy, with glowing skin and twinkling, intelligent eyes. 

‘Age is not something I think about,’ she says. ‘Age doesn’t come into it.’ She doesn’t eat much processed food, and loves cooking. ‘I love a glass of wine, red mostly. I like white too. Well, I like any old thing!’ She giggles. ‘And prosecco’s nice.’ 

She’s a great walker, often goes  for walking holidays in the north of England and does about five miles every morning through the parks in London: ‘Much more interesting than going to a gym, so boring. And it gives you time to yourself. You can sort out your day, clear your mind.’ 

She loves London, and makes great use of the art, the classical music: ‘Looking at paintings, going to concerts, and walking. Sounds rather po-faced but it’s what I like.’ 

In her younger days she loved The Stones, The Beatles, Tom Jones: ‘But with children you miss out on a generation of music.’ Stevie Wonder makes her dance: ‘He had a daughter at the same time I had Alice, so Isn’t She Lovely seemed to epitomise what I felt about her.’ 

The interview is drawing to a close and I ask if she has any regrets in life. She pauses and rather surprisingly confides, ‘I wish my marriages had worked, but there you go. I wish my first marriage had worked more.’

Loss of a child

She hesitates. ‘I wish I’d had more children, but I lost one before I had Alice. I had a little boy before Alice, whom I lost. Alice was only two pounds nine ounces, so she was tiny. She was ten weeks early. I would have liked to have had three children, but I’ve got her.’ 

She just lets it out: ‘I went in at 12 weeks and had her at 30 weeks. I was in the hospital four months waiting for her, and all that time they looked after me at St Thomas’s. But I’ve got her, so there we go, I’m very lucky.’ But what a dreadful experience, how traumatic, I sympathise, and she continues: ‘He was premature, a week younger than Alice, 29 weeks, and he just didn’t survive, poor little chap. And yes it was dreadful, but it was a long time ago.’ She is marvellously stiff upper lip. 

But these things hang on, linger in your mind, don’t they? ‘They do, but I’m so lucky I’ve got Alice, and this little grandson now.’ Did she name the baby she lost? ‘No,’ she says. ‘You didn’t in those days, they didn’t even tell you. He was just taken away.’ 

As she gets up to leave, she says: ‘But that’s all gone. And this little chap is called Daniel, after Alice’s father. And it’s all right now. Yes, it was a difficult time, but one doesn’t want to make too much of it. It’s just one of those things that happens, and it happens to a lot of people.’ 

And, as she’s on her way. ‘Has it changed me? I think I appreciate things. I appreciate my daughter more than I can say.’ 

For more on Downton Abbey visit the wiki/downton abbey site

Read more about Penelope's career on IMDB

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