The announcement of a damehood for Penelope Wilton in this year’s Queen’s birthday honours list was a universally-acclaimed reward for the Scarborough-born actress. The downtrodden wife Ann in ‘Ever Decreasing Circles,’ playing opposite the manic Richard Briers; a Prime Minister battling the Daleks in Doctor Who (see clip below) and the redoubtable and determined Mrs.Isobel Crawley in ‘Downton Abbey' - just a sample of the roles Penelope’s made her own in 45 years in the business.
Now 70, she was born in the seaside town to Alice Travers – a dancer and actress, through whom Penelope’s related to the actor Bill Travers – and Clifford Wilton, a barrister. She’s known to be a very private person, notoriously difficult to ‘open up’ in interviews – but this perhaps masks a degree of tragedy in her life. Marriages to actors Daniel Massey and Sir Ian Holm both ended in divorce after about ten years in both cases, and with Massey she lost a baby at 31 weeks. A daughter, Alice, was born at 32 weeks weighing just two pounds, but survived. Now in her late thirties, she too works in the theatre.
On the brighter side, Penelope’s one of those actresses verging on ‘national treasure’ status having appeared in tv shows ranging from ‘Kavanagh QC,’ ‘Marple,’ and Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads.’as well as films such as ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman,’ ‘Calendar Girls,’ ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ and ‘The History Boys', ''The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' and its sequel 'The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' where she plays the part of the reclusive Jean, one of a group of pensioners who go to find another life in India.
More recently, she’s turned on a Yorkshire accent – it’s unlikely she ever had one in the first place despite her Scarborough birth – to play in ITV’s drama ‘Brief Encounters’ about a group of saucy underwear party planners in 1980’s Sheffield.
Penelope’s been to Buckingham Palace to pick up a going before – an OBE in 2004 – and now has come the crowning glory of being one of the elite circle of theatrical dames, alongside former co-stars such as Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. Yorkshire too came up with an honour for her – four years ago, the Scarborough campus of the University of Hull gave her an honorary doctorate.