Helen McCrory: Stage and screen star who carved out complex characters

Alex Green, PA Entertainment Reporter
·3-min read

Across a 30-year career, Helen McCrory carved out a reputation for playing fiery, complex characters on stage and screen.

The actress, who has died aged 52 from cancer, was best known for starring as matriarch Polly Gray in Birmingham-set BBC crime thriller Peaky Blinders and as politician Clair Dowar in the James Bond film Skyfall.

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She also portrayed Cherie Blair in both 2006’s The Queen and 2010’s The Special Relationship, royal and political dramas written by The Crown’s Peter Morgan.

Elsewhere, she appeared as Narcissa Malfoy, mother of Draco, in the final three Harry Potter films.

McCrory was born in Paddington, London, in August 1968 to a Welsh mother and Scottish-born father, the eldest of three children.

Film Festival Awards – BFI London Film Festival 2017
Helen McCrory at the BFI London Film Festival (Matt Crossick/PA)

She attended school in Hertfordshire, then spent a year living in Italy, before returning to London to study acting at the Drama Centre.

In 1990 she made her stage debut as Gwendolen Fairfax in The Importance of Being Earnest at Harrogate Theatre.

She appeared in some 25 productions during the 1990s through to the mid-2010s, with credits including Macbeth, As You Like It and Pride And Prejudice.

McCrory and Homeland star Damian Lewis married in 2007 and had their daughter Manon in 2006 and son Gulliver in 2007.

Helen McCrory death
Helen McCrory and her husband Damian Lewis (Matt Crossick/PA)

Her first pregnancy forced her to pull out of Harry Potter And The Order of the Phoenix, in which she had been cast as Bellatrix Lestrange.

The part went to Helena Bonham Carter but McCrory was later cast as Bellatrix’s sister Narcissa.

She also took the role of villainous Rosanna Calvierri in the Doctor Who episode The Vampires Of Venice.

In 2014, she played the title role in the National Theatre’s production of the Greek tragedy Medea, directed by Carrie Cracknell.

The same year she guest starred in TV series Penny Dreadful before returning in the following series as the main antagonist.

In Peaky Blinders she played Polly Gray, aunt of Cillian Murphy’s Tommy Shelby and the treasurer of the Peaky Blinders crime family.

McCrory with Peaky Blinder's co-star Cillian Murphy
McCrory with Peaky Blinder’s co-star Cillian Murphy (Joe Giddens/PA)

She also lent her voice as a daemon to His Dark Materials on the BBC.

McCrory was made an OBE in the 2017 New Year Honours for services to drama but almost missed the commendation after mistaking the notification letter for an unpaid bill for her husband.

Collecting the honour at Buckingham Palace, she told the PA news agency she was particularly thrilled to receive her gong from the Queen, saying: “I am so excited, I am so elated.”

On April 16, Lewis announced in a statement his wife had died from cancer, describing her as “beautiful and mighty”.

Some two months before her death, McCrory appeared alongside her husband on Good Morning Britain via a video call to promote the Prince’s Trust and the work it was doing during the pandemic.