Family & Companions
One of the most respected English stage actresses of the late 20th century and beyond, Penelope Wilton also enjoyed a lengthy career as a film and television actress with appearances in "Cry Freedom" (1987), "Calendar Girls" (2003) and most notably, the hugely popular "Downton Abbey" (ITV/PBS, 2010-16) TV series. Frequently hailed for her versatility, which allowed her to move successfully between classical and modern drama, as well as for what critics often described as her "quintessential Englishness" - which translated into finely calibrated performances that allowed her to express layers of emotion through dialogue alone - Wilton came to be regarded as an "actress's actress," a performer who could deliver a memorable turn, no matter the material or author. The stage dominated her career for several decades before she began appearing in British TV and features, as well as the occasional international feature like "Shaun of the Dead" (2004) and "Match Point" (2005). But it was her turn as the steely, staunchly middle-class Isobel Crawley on "Downton" that brought Wilton international acclaim as the series drew in audiences around the globe in devoted numbers. "Downton" fans soon discovered what English theatergoers had known since the early 1970s - that Penelope Wilton represented the best that her country could offer as a performer.
Born June 3, 1946 in the North Yorkshire town of Scarborough, England, Penelope Alice Wilton was the second of three daughters of businessman and barrister Clifford Wilton and his wife, Alice Travers, a former dancer and actress. Wilton's family counted several noted performers in its number, including her uncle, actor Bill Travers of "Born Free" (1966) fame, as well as her aunt, actress Linden Travers of "The Lady Vanishes" (1938) fame, while a cousin, Richard Morant, appeared frequently on English television and the stage. Wilton struggled with dyslexia as a young girl, which prevented her from learning to read properly until her teenaged years. But she persevered, graduating from a convent boarding school in Newcastle upon Tyne with her sisters, Rosemary and Linda, before fulfilling a childhood wish to follow in her family's footsteps by training at the Drama Centre in London. A successful career on stage in both London and on Broadway preceded her television debut in a 1972 production of George Bernard Shaw's "Mrs. Warren's Profession" on BBC One's "Play of the Month" (1965-1983) series. Her feature film debut in the bawdy period comedy "Joseph Andrews" (1977) came soon after, though the stage continued to be her most successful showcase. Wilton netted the first of two Critics Circle Awards in 1981 for a production of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" and the first of five Olivier Award nomination for Shaw's "Man and Superman" that same year.
During this period, she married actor Daniel Massey, with whom she had a daughter, Alice, born prematurely in 1977. Wilton and Massey divorced in 1984, after which he married her younger sister, Linda. That same year, she enjoyed a five-year run on the popular BBC comedy "Ever Decreasing Circles" (1984-89), which cast Wilton as the long-suffering wife of a self-appointed suburban community leader (Richard Briers) whose obsessive nature sparked an attraction to their more adventurous neighbor (Peter Egan). Wilton also co-starred in the British comedy "Singleton's Pluck" (1985), in which she played the wife of farmer Ian Holm, who would become her second husband from 1991 to 2001. The exposure afforded by her stage work, which included a second Olivier nomination for "The Secret Rapture" (1988) and her television appearances, led to a steady stream of feature roles, most notably as Wendy Woods, wife of journalist and anti-apartheid activist Donald Woods, in Richard Attenborough's "Cry Freedom" (1987). The 1991 miniseries "The Borrowers" (BBC2), based on the children's fantasy novel by Mary Horton, with Wilton and Holm as tiny people living in the floorboards of an English manor, was also a sizable hit, earning both a BAFTA nomination and a 1993 follow-up series, "The Return of the Borrowers" (BBC2). The following year, Wilton netted her second Critics Circle Theatre Award for a production of Terence Rattigan's "The Deep Blue Sea," which also brought her a third Olivier nomination.
The new millennium saw Wilton add a London Evening Standard Theatre Award nomination for a 2001 production of "The Little Foxes" to her list of accolades. Her feature film résumé also continued to grow with supporting turns in a wide variety of English features, from intimate dramas like "Iris" (2001) and thrillers like Woody Allen's "Match Point" (2005) to comedies like "Calendar Girls" (2003) - a project she initially rejected due to its requirement of semi-nudity - and Edgar Wright's global hit "Shaun of the Dead" (2004). On the small screen, she enjoyed two choice roles thanks to writer-producer Russell T. Davies; as the supportive mother of a gay man (Alan Davies) involved with a straight woman in the acclaimed comedy "Bob & Rose" (ITV, 2001) and as a meek member of Parliament who came to aid the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) in Davies' revival of the venerable science fiction series "Doctor Who" (BBC One, 1963-1989, 2005- ). In between assignments, Wilton's long and celebrated acting career was paid tribute by her appointment as an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) in 2004.
After receiving her fourth and fifth Olivier nominations for Henrik Ibsen's "John Gabriel Borkman" in 2008 and "The Chalk Garden" in 2009, Wilton enjoyed a string of well-received projects on television, including a turn as Mary, the mother of Jesus in "The Passion" (BBC/HBO, 2008). However, none of these efforts could match "Downton Abbey" for sheer worldwide popularity. Wilton's character, trained Isobel Crawley, personified the middle-class perspective on the series, which often put her at odds with her new relatives at the titular location, most notably Maggie Smith's Violet, Countess of Grantham, and Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), with whom she clashed over the operation of an convalescent home established at Downton Abbey during World War I. Her attitudes toward the Crawleys changed with the news that her son, Matthew, had suffered injuries in the war, and with his marriage to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). The global popularity of "Downton" was soon followed by more television assignments, as well as a reunion with Maggie Smith and many of her film and theater peers, including Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Celia Imre, in the surprise hit feature "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel."
By Paul Gaita