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Penelope Wilton

Penelope Wilton
Wilton in Stockholm, Sweden, November 2013
Born Penelope Alice Wilton
(1946-06-03) 3 June 1946
Scarborough, North Riding of Yorkshire, England, UK
Occupation Actress
Years active 1972–present
Spouse(s) Daniel Massey (m. 1975; div. 1984)
Ian Holm (m. 1991; div. 2001)
Children Alice Massey

Penelope Alice Wilton,[1] OBE (born 3 June 1946) is an English actress. She starred with Richard Briers in the BBC situation comedy Ever Decreasing Circles.

She is also known for playing the character "Isobel Crawley" in the period drama Downton Abbey, "Ruth" in the film Calendar Girls, and "Homily" in the films The Borrowers and The Return of the Borrowers.

She has twice won the Critics' Circle Theatre Award.


  • Life and career 1
  • Awards and recognition 2
  • Roles 3
    • Television and film 3.1
    • Stage 3.2
  • Personal life 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

Life and career

Wilton was born in Scarborough, North Riding of Yorkshire, the daughter of Alice Travers, a tap dancer and former actress, and Clifford William Wilton, a businessman.[2][3][4][5] She is a niece of actors Bill Travers and Linden Travers[6] and a cousin of the actor Richard Morant.[7] Her maternal grandparents owned theatres.[4] She and her sisters, Rosemary and Linda, attended the convent school in Newcastle upon Tyne, at which their mother had previously taught. She attended the Drama Centre London.[8]

Wilton had a successful stage career before transitioning into television acting, and her West End debut was opposite Sir Ralph Richardson. She played Ruth in the original 1974 London stage production of Alan Ayckbourn's Norman Conquests trilogy.[9] Her television acting career began in 1972, playing Vivie Warren in Mrs. Warren's Profession opposite Robert Powell. She then had several major TV roles, including two of the BBC Television Shakespeare productions (as Desdemona in Othello and Regan in King Lear ).

Wilton's film career includes roles in The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), Cry Freedom (1987), Iris (2001), Calendar Girls (2003) and Shaun of the Dead (2004), Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (2005), Woody Allen's Match Point (2005), and in The History Boys (2006).

However she did not become a household name until she appeared with Richard Briers in the 1984 BBC situation comedy, Ever Decreasing Circles, which ran for five years. She played Ann, long suffering wife of Martin (Briers), an obsessive and pedantic "do-gooder". Throughout the run, Ann seeks a more adventurous lifestyle than that offered as a pillar of the community, and mildly flirts with their considerably more charismatic neighbour Paul (Peter Egan) but ultimately she remains faithful to Martin.

In 2005, Wilton guest starred as Harriet Jones for two episodes in the BBC's revival of the popular TV science-fiction series Doctor Who. This guest role was written especially for her by the programme's chief writer and executive producer Russell T. Davies, with whom she had previously worked on Bob and Rose (ITV, 2001). The character of Jones returned as Prime Minister in the Doctor Who 2005 Christmas special "The Christmas Invasion". In the first part of the 2008 series finale, "The Stolen Earth", she made a final appearance, now as the former Prime Minister who sacrifices herself for extermination by the Daleks so that the Doctor's companions can contact him. She appeared in four episodes overall.

Wilton has also appeared on television as Barbara Poole, the mother of a missing woman, in the BBC television drama series Five Days in 2005; and in ITV's drama Half Broken Things (October 2007) and the BBC production of The Passion (Easter 2008). Since 2010, she has appeared as Isobel Crawley in the hit period drama Downton Abbey. She was the castaway on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs in April 2008. In December 2012 and February 2013, she was the narrator in Lin Coghlan's dramatisation of "The Cazalets" (Elizabeth Jane Howard) broadcast on BBC Radio.

Awards and recognition

She has twice won the Critics Circle Theatre Award – in 1981 for her performance in Much Ado About Nothing, and in 1993 for The Deep Blue Sea. In 2001, she was nominated for the London Evening Standard Theatre Award for her performance in The Little Foxes at the Donmar Warehouse. In 2004, she was made an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) for her services to drama. In 2012, she received an honorary doctorate from The University of Hull's Scarborough Campus.

Wilton has been nominated for an Olivier Award six times, winning in 2015:


Television and film

Year Film Role Notes
1972 Thirty-Minute Theatre TV series (1 episode: "An Affair of Honour")
1972 Country Matters Rachel Sullens TV series (1 episode: "The Sullens Sisters")
1972 Play of the Month:
Mrs. Warren's Profession (BBC)
Vivie Warren TV drama (G.B. Shaw)
1973 The Pearcross Girls Anna Pearcross/Helen Charlesworth/Julia Pearcross/Lottie Merchant TV series (4 episodes)
1973 The Song of Songs Lilli Czepanek TV drama
1975 Play of the Month:
King Lear
Regan Shakespeare, d. Jonathan Miller
1976 The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd TV drama
1977 Joseph Andrews Mrs. Wilson
1977 The Norman Conquests: Living Together Annie TV drama
1977 The Norman Conquests: Round and Round the Garden Annie TV drama
1977 The Norman Conquests: Table Manners Annie TV drama
1980 Play for Today Helen/Virginia Carlion TV series (2 episodes: 1980–1981)
1981 The French Lieutenant's Woman Sonia
1981 Othello Desdemona Shakespeare (d. Jonathan Miller)
1982 The Tale of Beatrix Potter Beatrix Potter TV drama
1982 King Lear Regan Shakespeare (d. Jonathan Miller)
1984 Laughterhouse Alice Singleton
1984 Ever Decreasing Circles Ann Bryce TV series (27 episodes: 1984–1989)
1986 Clockwise Pat
1986 C.A.T.S. Eyes Angela Lane TV series (1 episode: "Good as New")
1986 The Monocled Mutineer Lady Angela Forbes TV series (2 episodes)
1987 Cry Freedom Wendy Woods
1990 4 Play Julia TV series (1 episode: "Madly in Love")
1992 Blame It on the Bellboy Patricia Fulford
1992 Screaming Beatrice TV series
1992 The Borrowers Homily TV series
1993 The Secret Rapture Marion French
1993 The Return of the Borrowers Homily TV series
1994 Performance: The Deep Blue Sea Hester Collyer TV series (2 episodes: 1994–1995)
1995 Carrington Lady Ottoline Morrell
1998 This Could Be the Last Time Marjorie TV film
1998 Talking Heads 2 Rosemary TV miniseries (1 episode: "Nights in the Gardens of Spain")
1998 Alice Through the Looking Glass White Queen TV film
1999 Gooseberries Don't Dance Short
1999 Kavanagh QC Barbara Watkins TV series (1 episode: "Time of Need")
1999 Tom's Midnight Garden Aunt Melbourne
1999 Wives and Daughters Mrs. Hamley TV miniseries (2 episodes)
2000 Rockaby TV short
2001 The Whistle-Blower Heather Graham TV film
2001 Victoria & Albert Princess Victoria, Duchess of Kent TV film
2001 Bob & Rose Monica Gossage TV series (3 episodes)
2001 Iris Janet Stone
2003 Lucky Jim Celia Welch TV film
2003 Calendar Girls Ruth
2004 Shaun of the Dead Barbara
2005 Falling Daisy Langrish TV film
2005 Match Point Eleanor Hewett
2005 Pride & Prejudice Mrs. Gardiner
2005-2008 Doctor Who Harriet Jones TV series (4 episodes: 2005–2008)
2006 Celebration Julie TV film
2006 The History Boys Mrs. Bibby
2007 Five Days Barbara Poole TV series (4 episodes)
Nominated – RTS Award – Best Actor
2007 Half-Broken Things Jean TV film
2008 The Passion Mary TV miniseries
2009 Marple: They Do It with Mirrors Carrie Louise Serrocold TV film
2009 Margot B.Q. TV film
2010 My Family Rosemary Matthews TV series (1 episode: "Wheelie Ben")
2010–present Downton Abbey Isobel Crawley TV series (25 episodes: 2010–present)
2011 South Riding Mrs. Beddows TV series (3 episodes)
2012 The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Jean Nominated - Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture
Nominated - Broadcast Film Critics Association Award for Best Cast
2012 The Girl Peggy Robertson TV film
2013 Belle Lady Mary Murray
2015 The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Jean
2016 The BFG The Queen Filming


Penelope Wilton commenced her professional career at the Nottingham Playhouse, and appeared alongside Nicholas Clay in The Dandy Lion. She was Regan to Michael Hordern's King Lear at Nottingham Playhouse in 1970; Anna Calder-Marshall played Cordelia, and Thelma Ruby was the elder sister, Goneril.

Year Title Role Venue
1971 West of Suez Mary Royal Court Theatre, London
1971 The Philanthropist Araminta Royal Court Theatre, then Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York City
1972 The Great Exhibition Maud Hampstead Theatre Club, London
1973 The Director of the Opera Sophia Royal Court Theatre, London
1973 The Seagull Masha Chichester Festival
1974 Something's Burning Dikson Mermaid Theatre, London
1974 The Norman Conquests Ruth Greenwich Theatre, London
1974 Bloomsbury Dora Carrington Phoenix Theatre, London
1975 Measure For Measure Isabella Greenwich Theatre, London
1976 "Play," Play and Others Second woman Royal Court Theatre
1978 Plunder Prudence Malone National Theatre Company, Lyttelton Theatre, London
1978 The Philanderer Julia Craven National Theatre Company, Lyttelton Theatre
1978 Betrayal Emma National Theatre Company, Lyttelton Theatre
1979 Tishoo Barbara Wyndham's Theatre, London
1981 Man and Superman Ann Whitefield and Dona Ana National Theatre Company, Olivier Theatre, London
1981 Much Ado about Nothing Beatrice National Theatre Company, Olivier Theatre
1982 Major Barbara Barbara Undershaft National Theatre Company, Lyttelton Theatre
1988 The Secret Rapture Marion French National Theatre Company, Lyttelton Theatre
1988 Andromache Hermione Old Vic Theatre, London
1990 Piano Cottesloe Theatre, London
1993 The Deep Blue Sea Hester Collyer Almeida Theatre, London
1999 A Kind of Alaska, The Collection, and The Lover Deborah Donmar Warehouse, London
2000 The Seagull Arkadina Barbican Theatre, London
2001 Lillian Hellman's Little Foxes Regina Donmar Warehouse
2002 Afterplay Sonya Gielgud Theatre, London
Gate Theatre, Dublin
2005 The House of Bernarda Alba Bernada National Theatre Company, Lyttelton Theatre
2006 Eh Joe Female voice Gate Theatre, Dublin
Duke of York's, Westminster, London
2006 Women Beware Women Livia Swan Theatre, Stratford
2007 John Gabriel Borkman Ella Rentheim Donmar Warehouse, London
2008 The Chalk Garden Miss Madrigal Donmar Warehouse, London
2008 The Family Reunion Agatha Donmar Warehouse, London
2009 Hamlet Gertude Wyndham's Theatre, London
2011 A Delicate Balance Agnes Almeida Theatre, London
2014–15 Taken At Midnight Irmgard Litten Minerva Theatre, Chichester/Theatre Royal Haymarket, London

Personal life

Between 1975 and 1984, Wilton was married to the actor Daniel Massey. They had a daughter, Alice, born in 1977.[10] Before this, she had a stillborn son born very premature. She has remarked that this was one of the saddest things in her life. In 1991 Wilton married Sir Ian Holm (in 1998, after he was knighted, she became Lady Holm) and they appeared together as Pod and Homily in the BBC's 1993 adaptation of The Borrowers. They were divorced in 2001.[11]


  1. ^ "Penelope Wilton". BFI. Retrieved 16 February 2015. 
  2. ^ "Penelope Wilton, the winner of discontent". The Times. 30 April 2011. Retrieved 2012-03-06. 
  3. ^ Andrew Billen (26 April 2000). "Time for Penelope to soar". Evening Standard. London. Retrieved 2012-03-06. 
  4. ^ a b "Former students - Central Saint Martins". Retrieved 2012-03-06. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ "What'sOn: Wicked role for Penelope means it's Women Beware Wilton; Theatre.(Features)" Coventry Evening Telegraph (England) via HighBeam Research
  7. ^ "Biography for Richard Morant" at IMDb
  8. ^ Drama Centre: watch this face. Central Saint Martins, 22 March 2009. Accessed August 2013.
  9. ^ "Institute of Directors - IoD". Retrieved 16 February 2015. 
  10. ^ Kellaway, Kate (30 September 2001). "A study in emotion". The Observer. Retrieved 25 August 2015. 
  11. ^ Olga Craig (15 November 2008). "Penelope Wilton: an actress who epitomises all things quintessentially English". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 21 November 2012. 

External links

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