Penelope Wilton

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Penelope Wilton
Penelope Wilton 2013.jpg
Wilton in Stockholm, Sweden, November 2013
BornPenelope Alice Wilton
(1946-06-03) 3 June 1946 (age 68)
Scarborough, North Riding of Yorkshire, England, UK
Years active1972–present
Spouse(s)Daniel Massey (m. 1975; div. 1984)
Ian Holm (m. 1991; div. 2001)
ChildrenAlice Massey
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Penelope Wilton
Penelope Wilton 2013.jpg
Wilton in Stockholm, Sweden, November 2013
BornPenelope Alice Wilton
(1946-06-03) 3 June 1946 (age 68)
Scarborough, North Riding of Yorkshire, England, UK
Years active1972–present
Spouse(s)Daniel Massey (m. 1975; div. 1984)
Ian Holm (m. 1991; div. 2001)
ChildrenAlice Massey

Penelope Alice Wilton,[1] OBE (born 3 June 1946) is an English actress of stage, film, and TV. She starred opposite Richard Briers in the BBC situation comedy Ever Decreasing Circles. She has also appeared in Doctor Who, and in the period drama Downton Abbey. She has twice won the Critics' Circle Theatre Award.

Early life and career[edit]

Penelope Alice 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, 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 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), in Woody Allen's film 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 pedant '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.[citation needed]

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[edit]

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 five times, with no wins:


1972Thirty-Minute TheatreTV series (1 episode: "An Affair of Honour")
1972Country MattersRachel SullensTV series (1 episode: "The Sullens Sisters")
1972Play of the Month:
Mrs. Warren's Profession (BBC)
Vivie WarrenTV drama (G.B. Shaw)
1973The Pearcross GirlsAnna Pearcross/Helen Charlesworth/Julia Pearcross/Lottie MerchantTV series (4 episodes)
1973The Song of SongsLilli CzepanekTV drama
1975Play of the Month:
King Lear
ReganShakespeare, d. Jonathan Miller
1976The Widowing of Mrs HolroydTV drama
1977Joseph AndrewsMrs. Wilson
1977The Norman Conquests: Living TogetherAnnieTV drama
1977The Norman Conquests: Round and Round the GardenAnnieTV drama
1977The Norman Conquests: Table MannersAnnieTV drama
1980Play for TodayHelen/Virginia CarlionTV series (2 episodes: 1980–1981)
1981The French Lieutenant's WomanSonia
1981OthelloDesdemonaShakespeare (d. Jonathan Miller)
1982The Tale of Beatrix PotterBeatrix PotterTV drama
1982King LearReganShakespeare (d. Jonathan Miller)
1984LaughterhouseAlice Singleton
1984Ever Decreasing CirclesAnn BryceTV series (27 episodes: 1984–1989)
1986C.A.T.S. EyesAngela LaneTV series (1 episode: "Good as New")
1986The Monocled MutineerLady Angela ForbesTV series (2 episodes)
1987Cry FreedomWendy Woods
19904 PlayJuliaTV series (1 episode: "Madly in Love")
1992Blame It on the BellboyPatricia Fulford
1992ScreamingBeatriceTV series
1992The BorrowersHomilyTV series
1993The Secret RaptureMarion French
1993The Return of the BorrowersHomilyTV series
1994Performance: The Deep Blue SeaHester CollyerTV series (2 episodes: 1994–1995)
1995CarringtonLady Ottoline Morrell
1998This Could Be the Last TimeMarjorieTV film
1998Talking Heads 2RosemaryTV miniseries (1 episode: "Nights in the Gardens of Spain")
1998Alice Through the Looking GlassWhite QueenTV film
1999Gooseberries Don't DanceShort
1999Kavanagh QCBarbara WatkinsTV series (1 episode: "Time of Need")
1999Tom's Midnight GardenAunt Melbourne
1999Wives and DaughtersMrs. HamleyTV miniseries (2 episodes)
2000RockabyTV short
2001The Whistle-BlowerHeather GrahamTV film
2001Victoria & AlbertPrincess Victoria, Duchess of KentTV film
2001Bob & RoseMonica GossageTV series (3 episodes)
2001IrisJanet Stone
2003Lucky JimCelia WelchTV film
2003Calendar GirlsRuth
2004Shaun of the DeadBarbara
2005FallingDaisy LangrishTV film
2005Match PointEleanor Hewett
2005Pride & PrejudiceMrs. Gardiner
2005Doctor WhoHarriet JonesTV series (4 episodes: 2005–2008)
2006CelebrationJulieTV film
2006The History BoysMrs. Bibby
2007Five DaysBarbara PooleTV series (4 episodes)
Nominated – RTS Award – Best Actor
2007Half-Broken ThingsJeanTV film
2008The PassionMaryTV miniseries
2009Marple: They Do It with MirrorsCarrie Louise SerrocoldTV film
2009MargotB.Q.TV film
2010My FamilyRosemary MatthewsTV series (1 episode: "Wheelie Ben")
2010Downton AbbeyIsobel CrawleyTV series (25 episodes: 2010–present)
2011South RidingMrs. BeddowsTV series (3 episodes)
2012The Best Exotic Marigold HotelJeanNominated - Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture
Nominated - Broadcast Film Critics Association Award for Best Cast
2012The GirlPeggy RobertsonTV film
2013BelleLady Mary Murray
2015The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2JeanCompleted


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.

1971West of SuezMaryRoyal Court Theatre, London
1971The PhilanthropistAramintaRoyal Court Theatre, then Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York City
1972The Great ExhibitionMaudHampstead Theatre Club, London
1973The Director of the OperaSophiaRoyal Court Theatre, London
1973The SeagullMashaChichester Festival
1974Something's BurningDiksonMermaid Theatre, London
1974The Norman ConquestsRuthGreenwich Theatre, London
1974BloomsburyDora CarringtonPhoenix Theatre, London
1975Measure For MeasureIsabellaGreenwich Theatre, London
1976"Play," Play and OthersSecond womanRoyal Court Theatre
1978PlunderPrudence MaloneNational Theatre Company, Lyttelton Theatre, London
1978The PhilandererJulia CravenNational Theatre Company, Lyttelton Theatre
1978BetrayalEmmaNational Theatre Company, Lyttelton Theatre
1979TishooBarbaraWyndham's Theatre, London
1981Man and SupermanAnn Whitefield and Dona AnaNational Theatre Company, Olivier Theatre, London
1981Much Ado about NothingBeatriceNational Theatre Company, Olivier Theatre
1982Major BarbaraBarbara UndershaftNational Theatre Company, Lyttelton Theatre
1988The Secret RaptureMarion FrenchNational Theatre Company, Lyttelton Theatre
1988AndromacheHermioneOld Vic Theatre, London
1990PianoCottesloe Theatre, London
1993The Deep Blue SeaHester CollyerAlmeida Theatre, London
1999A Kind of Alaska, The Collection, and The LoverDeborahDonmar Warehouse, London
2000The SeagullArkadinaBarbican Theatre, London
2001Lillian Hellman's Little FoxesReginaDonmar Warehouse
2002AfterplaySonyaGielgud Theatre, London
Gate Theatre, Dublin
2005The House of Bernarda AlbaBernadaNational Theatre Company, Lyttelton Theatre
2006Eh JoeFemale voiceGate Theatre, Dublin
Duke of York's, Westminster, London
2006Women Beware WomenLiviaSwan Theatre, Stratford
2007John Gabriel BorkmanElla RentheimDonmar Warehouse, London
2008The Chalk GardenMiss MadrigalDonmar Warehouse, London
2008The Family ReunionAgathaDonmar Warehouse, London
2009HamletGertudeWyndham's Theatre, London
2011A Delicate BalanceAgnesAlmeida Theatre, London
2014-15Taken At MidnightIrmgard LittenMinerva Theatre, Chichester/Theatre Royal Haymarket

Personal life[edit]

Between 1975 and 1984, Wilton was married to the actor Daniel Massey. They had a daughter, Alice, born in 1977.[10] 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. ^ Biodata at BFI Film & TV Database
  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. ^ After Hours magazine. Accessed 19 February 2013
  10. ^ A study in emotion, 30 September 2001, The Guardian
  11. ^ Olga Craig (15 November 2008). "Penelope Wilton: an actress who epitomises all things quintessentially English". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 21 November 2012. 

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