Helen McCrory, versatile actress who dominated the stage and shone on screen in Peaky Blinders and The Queen – obituary

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Helen McCrory (2013) - Andrew Crowley
Helen McCrory (2013) - Andrew Crowley

Helen McCrory, who has died of cancer aged 52, made her name as a subtle and intelligent stage performer, and later bucked the trend that consigns actresses to oblivion in middle age, becoming one of Britain’s most sought-after television stars in her 40s.

In the first decade of the new millennium she was hailed as one of the most promising presences in British theatre. Writing in the Telegraph in 2002, Jasper Rees placed her in the tradition of Judi Dench, Zoë Wanamaker and Imelda Staunton as “the small, punchy actress with a voice that can coat a back wall in honey from 100 paces.”

That year, in Sam Mendes’s valedictory double-bill at the Donmar Warehouse, she played Yelena in Uncle Vanya and, in one critic’s view, a “consummately sexy” Olivia in Twelfth Night.

She was nominated for an Olivier award as Rosalind in As You Like It (Wyndham’s, 2005), and gave a brilliantly understated interpretation of the usually hectoring Rebecca West in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm (Almeida, 2008).

As Medea at the National Theatre (Olivier, 2014): ‘the performance of her career’ - Alastair Muir
As Medea at the National Theatre (Olivier, 2014): ‘the performance of her career’ - Alastair Muir

But although Helen McCrory acquitted herself well in the title role of Channel 4’s dramatisation of Anna Karenina in 2000 and was a deliciously ghastly Margaret Peel in Jack Rosenthal’s adaptation for ITV of Lucky Jim (2003), she did not receive widespread acclaim for a screen role until she played Cherie Blair, opposite Michael Sheen’s Tony, in Stephen Frears’s film The Queen (2006).

She captured Mrs Blair’s mannerisms, but also managed to make her seem a more endearing figure than her public persona at the time suggested. She reprised the role in the follow-up, The Special Relationship (2010), and was gratified when she discovered that the real Cherie Blair approved of her portrayal.

With this boost to her profile, Helen McCrory became one of the busiest actresses on British television. Her best parts included a middle-aged mother embarking on an affair with a 25-year-old man in Tony Marchant’s Leaving (2012); a crusading human rights lawyer in Fearless (2017); the sinister medium Madame Kali in Penny Dreadful (2014-15); and the Machiavellian Prime Minister locked in a battle of wits with her maverick Justice Secretary (Hugh Laurie) in David Hare’s satire Roadkill (2020).

Helen McCrory with Michael Sheen during filming of The Queen in Islington, 2005 - Rex Features
Helen McCrory with Michael Sheen during filming of The Queen in Islington, 2005 - Rex Features

Her most enduring role was as Aunt Polly, matriarch of a family of Birmingham gangsters, in five series of the BBC’s violent, stylised period drama Peaky Blinders (2013-19): the tone was set when she made her first appearance brandishing a pistol and a hatpin. Although she admitted that she sounded like Ozzy Osbourne in initial rehearsals, Helen McCrory convincingly mastered an accent very different from her own refined tones.

Having regarded sex scenes as exploitative in her early career, she embraced them in middle age, delighted to be offered so many roles that explored the sexuality of older women. “Drama never used to reflect it,” she told a Radio Times interviewer. “Suddenly, writers have woken up and thought, ‘I’m 42 and I’m not looking at my wife, thinking, ‘urgh…’ .”

Helen McCrory claimed with some pride to be undistinctive in her looks (“I think I’m very lucky not to be beautiful; I know more actors unhappy about being beautiful than the other way round”) – an asset for an actor, she thought.

She relished the taking-on of disguises involved, and liked to recall the occasion when Lauren Bacall came backstage and mistakenly congratulated her for the performance given by her co-star Emily Watson.

With a quick wit typical of her, Helen McCrory saved the situation after revealing the error to the mortified Ms Bacall by saying: “It’s such a pleasure to meet you, because ever since Philadelphia Story, Miss Hepburn, I’ve always been a great fan of yours.” The Hollywood legend roared with laughter and swept her off to dinner.

With Damian Lewis in Five Gold Rings at the Almeida Theatre, 2003 - Alastair Muir
With Damian Lewis in Five Gold Rings at the Almeida Theatre, 2003 - Alastair Muir

Latterly she would cut a glamorous figure on the film premiere circuit alongside her husband, the actor Damian Lewis, who became an international heart-throb after appearing in the US series Homeland. There was an instant chemistry when they met, acting together in the play Five Gold Rings at the Almeida Theatre in 2003 – “I could have warmed my hands on it. It was like directing a fire,” recalled the director, Michael Attenborough.

They were married in 2007, and although Helen McCrory joked that it sometimes felt like they were in a performance Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? every day, they were a conspicuously devoted couple. Although Lewis’s career was the more glittering, he never missed an opportunity to champion hers: “I fully expect to be the butler to her Dame one day”, he said in 2014.

Helen Elizabeth McCrory was born in London on August 17 1968. Her mother, Ann, a physiotherapist, was Welsh, and her father Iain, a diplomat, was Glaswegian; both came from working-class families, which she credited with keeping her grounded and un-neurotic.

Her childhood was spent at embassies in France, Norway, Tanzania and Cameroon. She loved the outdoor life in Africa and bore a scar from an injury sustained when she was chased by a rhinoceros.

“The advantage of travelling and different cultures is that it teaches you to adapt and use your intuition, because you have to go to different schools and you want to be popular and you know you’ll only be there a couple of terms,” she said. Her upbringing made her thrive on constant change, and throughout her life she never had a consistent style of dress, but would always wear something as different as possible from the day before.

Helen McCrory, centre, as Narcissa Malfoy with Jason Isaacs, left, and Tom Felton, right in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, 2011 - Hollywood Archive
Helen McCrory, centre, as Narcissa Malfoy with Jason Isaacs, left, and Tom Felton, right in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, 2011 - Hollywood Archive

At 13 she was sent to board at Queenswood School in Hertfordshire, which was “a huge shock to the system”. Her report asserted that Helen was “not one of nature’s schoolgirls”, but she fell in love with drama under the tutelage of her teacher Thane Bettany, the father of Paul Bettany.

She studied at the Drama Centre in London and in 1990 made her professional debut as Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest at Harrogate. Her breakthrough role was in the National’s 1993 revival of Pinero’s Trelawny of the “Wells”.

As the young theatre star Rose Trelawny “she deftly charts her character’s progress from brittle, self-regarding beauty to real generosity and grace,” wrote The Daily Telegraph’s critic Charles Spencer. For the next decade she would largely divide her time between the National and the Donmar.

In The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre, 2016 - Richard Hubert Smith 
In The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre, 2016 - Richard Hubert Smith

“I don’t think I slept between the ages of 19 and 36 – I was always working and playing hard,” she remembered. For a time she had a relationship with Rufus Sewell and they were briefly touted as the new Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson.

In 1994 Helen McCrory made her film debut as “2nd Whore” in Interview with the Vampire, and she won a Welsh Bafta for her role in the Screen Two production Streetlife (1995).

But apart from Cherie Blair she never really had a cinema role worthy of her talents, although she made the most of cameos in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), the later Harry Potter films (as Draco Malfoy’s mother Narcissa), and the James Bond picture Skyfall (as a prickly MP taking Judi Dench’s “M” to task in a public inquiry).

In 2019 she gave a searing performance as the estranged wife of a businessman played by Richard Gere (in his first big television role) in the miniseries MotherFatherSon (2019); she gatecrashed the auditions and persuaded the producers to cast her, even though they had been looking for an established movie star. The critics unanimously declared that she was on the cusp of a considerable film career.

As Polly Gray in Peaky Blinders - Robert Viglasky
As Polly Gray in Peaky Blinders - Robert Viglasky

She did not neglect the theatre, however, despite the demands of her screen work. Charles Spencer, who placed her in his “personal pantheon [of] actors whose name in the programme always creates the anticipation of pleasure”, praised her Medea at the National Theatre in 2014 as “the performance of her career … Small in stature though she is, McCrory commands the Olivier’s huge stage.”

Among other highlights were Simon Gray’s The Late Middle Classes (Donmar, 2010); Stephen Beresford’s The Last of the Haussmans (National, 2012 – she received another Olivier nomination); and (Hester Collyer in) Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea (National, 2016).

Helen McCrory with her husband Damian Lewis backstage after a reading of Romantic poetry at the 2013 Telegraph Hay Festival - Clara Molden
Helen McCrory with her husband Damian Lewis backstage after a reading of Romantic poetry at the 2013 Telegraph Hay Festival - Clara Molden

Helen McCrory had a strong social conscience and early in her career founded a production company with Michael Sheen, focused on promoting the work of radical young writers.

She and her husband were active in charity work, notably for the Prince’s Trust, and in the early months of the pandemic they helped to found Feed NHS, which provided meals for frontline health workers.

Helen McCrory was appointed OBE for services to drama in 2017. In an interview with the Telegraph that year, she said that she felt “lucky, but mostly because I’m personally very happy” and speculated on the future of her career: “When I am older I shall be carried down Old Compton Street in my ebony bath chair to have my whisky mac at the Groucho after yet another ragingly successful first night in the West End, at the age of 92. I shall look forward to that moment. And I shall still have jet-black hair.”

Damian Lewis survives her with their son and daughter.

Helen McCrory, born August 17 1968, died April 16 2021

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