Penelope Wilton: A head for heights

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Yorkshire-born Penelope Wilton tells Phil Penfold how she went from Downton Abbey to starring in The BFG

Penelope Wilton has just celebrated a notable birthday. She marked turning 70 with a dinner with family and friends. It was, she says, a quiet affair, but don’t take that as a sign that she is in any way slowing down.

In fact, she’s currently starring in a new television series, which takes her about as far away from her Downton Abbey image as it is possible to get, and in the movie version of The Big Friendly Giant, directed by no less a Hollywood legend than Steven Spielberg. In the latter, she plays the Queen, opposite Mark Rylance (as the eponymous Giant) and Rafe Spall.

“I am,” she says, with a resigned, if gracious, sigh, “doing rather a lot of publicity at the moment.”

The new ITV six-parter Brief Encounters is set in 1982, and was filmed entirely on location in Sheffield earlier this year. “What a marvellous city, really spectacular,” she says. “But, while we were there, it was cold. That is capital letters COLD. And wet.

“I remember one day above all the others. We were filming in a disused council estate that was earmarked for redevelopment, and one of the houses had been converted by the very clever set people into a hospital. Well, it was freezing in there. I could see my breath forming little crystals in the air. I looked around at our lovely crew, who were all snugly warm inside layers of coats and scarves and woolly hats and sensible boots. That proved conclusively who the sensible ones were.”

Among Penelope’s co-stars in this new and rather quirky series are Angela Griffin and Sophie Rundle. “It’s all about a group of very different women who, for their own reasons, decide to join the Ann Summers organisation, to sell their range of lingerie and… well, other items. One does it because her husband is made redundant, and there’s hardly any money coming into the house. Another does it because she loves the party planning. And me? Well, I’m Pauline, a housewife with a lovely home, a faithful husband, who’s the local butcher, and enough cash to do whatever she really wants. Comfortable. And so very, very bored.

“When her cleaner suggests that she might loan her home for one evening so that the ladies can get together and see if there’s any of the products their friends want to buy, she reluctantly agrees. And then her life turns around totally, and she’s swept up into a whole new world of excitement. She goes from being very prim and rather proper, frustrated and socially restricted, into someone who is far more liberated and open. It’s a wonderful transition to play.”

She says the location managers helped her get into the mood for Brief Encounters by discovering a house in Sheffield that was stuck in a wonderful time warp and persuading the owners to “loan it” as Pauline and her husband Brian’s home.

“It is still immaculate. Exactly of its time – cork walls, orange appliances, all that sort of thing. It hasn’t moved on a second. I adored it. The second thing was the clothes that we had to wear. It brought back a lot of memories – especially of that time of sexual revolution.

“I remember one day when I was with my mother at home. We were in her bedroom and as she was chatting away to me, I just happened to look over to my father’s side. Dad was a very keen fisherman, and sandwiched between two books, with titles like Fly Fishing for Salmon, was one with a cover that proclaimed Sex and the Older Woman. My jaw must have dropped a little, and I remember saying ‘Oh, Mum, you haven’t?’ And she looked at me and said ‘Read it? Of course I have. And it’s rubbish. Older woman? What does she know? She’s only 38!’”

Wilton was born in Scarborough, but the family moved when she was very young so she has few memories of growing up in the town. The maternal side of her family had acting blood, since her mother had been a performer, and her family were involved with cinemas on Tyneside. Her uncle and aunt were the acting brother and sister couple Bill and Linden Travers, both of whom made a mark in British films, and Bill went on to marry “the very wonderful” Virginia McKenna.

She still keeps in touch with her Calendar Girl colleagues (Celia Imrie is a close friend) and she misses the camaraderie of Downton Abbey. “I am very proud indeed to have been part of that international success” she says firmly, “and I really do miss all the camaraderie. Fortunately Maggie [Dame Maggie Smith] and I see quite a lot of each other, and we always have a good old gossip.

“I thought that the ending was just perfect, however. My character, Isobel Crawley, got her man, and became Lady Merton. With a nice house, and none of the worries of a big estate.”

She has just finished her involvement with new play Taken at Midnight, which opened at the Minerva in Chichester to rapturous reviews, and then went on to sell out at the Haymarket in London. “I was playing the mother of a real-life German activist who was foolish to denounce Hitler as the dictator began his rise to power. It was a harrowing play, but it was very timely, with today’s rise of all those far-right politicians across Europe. Nasty people with even nastier values and aspirations. Hateful and divisive.”

So, apart from that “hospital” set in chilly Sheffield, what have been her memories of less-than-impressive locations? She thinks for a second or so and says: “I think the worst place I’ve ever filmed was deep down in a coal mine, a real one, in North Wales. I was making a couple of episodes of Doctor Who in 2005, and I was playing the Prime Minister… I have never been so cold, wet and miserable in my life. It was simply awful and the hours seemed to stretch into eternity.

“The PM was killed off in a Dalek invasion of the Earth – it wouldn’t have surprised me at all if it had been pneumonia that carried her off!”

Talitha Bateman as Janice.

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