Interview: Penelope Wilton

© Rob Greig
Posted: Thu Apr 28 2011

Penelope Wilton talks about Edward Albee, 'Downton Abbey' and four decades in the theatre.

When Penelope Wilton steps onstage at the Almeida in 'A Delicate Balance' this week, she will be a big name in a cracking cast - Imelda Staunton, Tim Pigott-Smith and Ian McElhinney all join her in Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. But when she made her West End debut, 40 years ago, it was Sir Ralph Richardson - that great, eccentric star - who topped the bill.

'It was in a play called “West of Suez” by John Osborne, which started at the Royal Court' she recalls. 'I was the younger sister and Jill Bennett played one of my elder sisters. I think each sister was based on one of Osborne's wives.'

It was Osborne's twelfth play and the writer was struggling bitterly with his disastrous fourth marriage to Bennett: in the year that followed, he contemplated suicide, almost killed Bennett and himself by driving his Merc deliberately into a roundabout during a row and - most bizarrely of all - found their names had been on the hitlist of Carlos the Jackal, discovered with explosives in a flat in Bayswater.

Back in 1971, that must have been quite a scene for a convent-educated theatrical debutante to come out in. At least gallant knight, Sir Ralph Richardson, pushing 70 when he played her father, took her for spins around Sloane Square on the Norton Dominator motorbike he rode to rehearsals every day.

'I loved Ralph. In the curtain call, he would lean over and say, “Whom have you got in tonight?” And I'd say, then ask him. A man called Mr Gordon used to come a lot to see him and he was so loyal. At very end of the run Ralph's dresser came all the way up to my dressing room with a tray, two glasses and a note that read: “With the compliments of Mr Gordon.” This visitor was Mr Gordon of Gordon's Gin.' Four decades on, Wilton thinks that much of the eccentricity and flamboyance of the knights-of-the-theatre era been ironed out - 'not just out of the theatre, but out of life'.

Now 64, Wilton is elegant and poised: so much so, that it would be easy to misinterpret her restraint and cut-glass accent as froideur. Divorced twice (from actors Daniel Massey, father of her daughter
Alice, and Ian Holm), she's more forthcoming about her work than her life. When she describes Agnes, the character she plays in 'A Delicate Balance', the description could perhaps be applied to the actress:

'I think she is rather hidden,' she muses, 'She reveals herself by not revealing herself in a way. She's very enigmatic; you can't always read her and she's kept a lot down.'

It's that delicate balance between restraint and feeling which has made Wilton such a moving and influential actress. Lots of younger women cite her as a role model: Anne-Marie Duff told me that she was so overwhelmed when she finally got to work with Wilton that she kept on bursting into tears.

Wilton can be tart and very funny too: we bump into Imelda Staunton, who tells her, 'I've just spent my whole interview talking about you.''I certainly hope so, darling,' Wilton snaps back, pretending to be a bitchy, glory-hogging diva. It's funny because, in this case, the cliché is pretty far from the truth. Onstage, Wilton is generous: one of theatre's best listeners, who can elevate others' performances by her intense, charged attentiveness. When she played mother to Jude Law's Hamlet, she made sinful old Gertrude into the moral centre of the whole play.

Wilton is so good at silence that she was recently approached as an expert by an academic writing a book on the subject. 'I've learnt to listen,' she reflects. 'I don't think I always did listen. Not just in plays, but in life. And you have to hear what people are saying before you can respond.'

It was acting in Pinter - specifically 'Betrayal', the 1978 play about his long affair with Joan Bakewell - that taught her that 'silence is created in plays: not silence for the sake of silence, but silences that come out of some very emotional situation where people regroup then go on.'

Perhaps it's that capacity to act beyond the wordcount that makes her so prickly about being called a supporting actress: 'I don't think I've been in a supporting role in any of the plays I've done, ever. In the nineteenth century, women's role in life was being the wife, so you play the wife. And there isn't a Mrs Lear. There is no female equivalent of Lear. But I can't let that worry me.'

What does worry her is the decline in the power of actors. Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier created the Old Vic but Kevin Spacey as an actor-manager is an exception in today's director-led theatre. 'When the National Theatre had a company they could run a play for quite a long time and keep in rep because an audience would come to see that group,' she recalls. 'People don't know the actors so well and the young ones are never given any billing, nobody knows who they are - which is sad. If you're playing Juliet you ought to be allowed to say who you are: you'll never get a chance to play Juliet again.'

Juliet is one of the few Shakespearean roles Wilton hasn't played. But she has made the journey from Cordelia to Gertrude with unusual ease. 'Ever Decreasing Circles', which ran on BBC1 from 1984 to 1989 , was 'very handy… it helped me step through an age when I was going from being people's daughters to people's mothers'.

But the theatre is 'home'. 'A Delicate Balance' is her first foray into the bitchy, Westchester world of Edward Albée, but in many ways it's been her ability to pick great scripts by living writers which has defined her career in theatre and TV. 'I've had very close relationships with some twentieth-century writers,' she says. The closest? 'Pinter, certainly.'

Wilton's career started under the wing of Jonathan Miller at Nottingham Playhouse. For a girl who went to a London convent school then 'majored in needlework at a rather bad boarding school', Miller, a notoriously clever 'behaviourist' who told her to read Frankfurt School philosopher Erich Fromm, might have been daunting. Instead, it was a call to learn: 'I have spent my whole life educating myself, she explains.

In her thirties, she graduated to Pinter and Peter Hall. Her forties were the Almeida years: Karel Reisz's 1993 revival of 'The Deep Blue Sea' in which Wilton starred, did much to revive Terence Rattigan's reputation. 'Then in my fifties it was Michael Grandage,' she says. 'I've been terribly, terribly lucky.' Grandage is the antithesis of the flashy auteur: does she admire him because he helps actors to shine? 'Yes. The invisible director is the best director: he allows the play to be there, not him.' But style can also be beautiful. '

Wilton's also been part of the current renaissance of TV drama. Welsh writer Russell T Davies got her in on 'Doctor Who', where she played Harriet Jones, MP, then PM, and finally, noble ex-PM. 'Even in the direst of states, on the brink of being killed by the Daleks, she would still state her position and present her pass card. Apparently there were lots of little girls going around flashing their bus passes and pretending to be Harriet Jones.'

She puts the success of 'Doctor Who' and ITV1's Sunday night blockbuster, Downton Abbey', in which she played Isobel Crawley, down to the writers. 'Julian [Fellowes]'s scripts were awfully good. But even he was amazed by the reaction it had.'

Edward Albee's play is a different sort of period piece and 'a rather particular American accent - that moneyed, Anglicised accent of the East Coast elite.' Vocal coach Penny Dyer has had her listening to women like Eleanor Roosevelt on the internet: 'She doesn't have that very strong pedantic voice which Americans are inclined to now, because they're laying down the law.'

Agnes, a woman whose alcoholic sister, husband, married neighbours and divorced daughter all come to her home to roost, is based her on Albee's adopted mother. 'But she's so articulate that she's probably based on him as well.'

The play's about 'reaching a time in your life when you realise there is less time to live than there has been in the past, which can be quite frightening'. Wilton herself doesn't have so many regrets - though she would have liked to have had more children. But she has had, and is still having, an exceptional career. And Agnes, despite that unfamiliar accent, is just the sort of deep and feeling character she has so often played so well.