Dame Penelope Wilton returns Friday (January 14) in the third and final season of Ricky Gervais' bittersweet Netflix sitcom After Life. To whet your appetite, we're making her our British Icon of the Week and celebrating 10 of the reasons we enjoy and admire this prolific actress.
1. She's half of Downton Abbey's finest double act.
Lady Crawley (Wilton) and the Dowager Countess (Dame Maggie Smith) are frenemies with very different views – Lady Crawley tends to be progressive where the Dowager Countess is a stickler for tradition. But however vehement their disagreement, they always make up in the end, which makes their verbal jousting even more pleasurable to watch.2. The two actresses also have a sparky real-life relationship.
As you’ll see in this very funny behind-the-scenes video.3. She played the Prime Minister in Doctor Who.
When we meet Wilton's character Harriet Jones in the 2005 episode "Aliens of London," she's a hardworking Member of Parliament who helps the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) to thwart an alien invasion. In that year's Christmas Special, Harriet Jones has been promoted to Prime Minister, which means she has to make some tough decisions that not everyone agrees with. She appears one last time in the 2008 episode "The Stolen Earth," where she makes the ultimate sacrifice in an effort to stop the Daleks. Thank you for your service, Harriet Jones, Prime Minister.4. She has also played Queen Elizabeth II.
Wilton portrayed the British monarch in Steven Spielberg's 2016 movie adaptation of Roald Dahl's The BFG. Wilton told The Independent that her performance wasn't supposed to be an impersonation of the monarch, saying: "I mean it was Roald Dahl's queen and [book illustrator] Quentin Blake's queen, with a little bit of Steven Spielberg's queen and then I threw in my ten-penny worth.”5. She starred in a fondly remembered 1980s sitcom.
In Ever Decreasing Circles – which aired on the BBC between 1984 and 1989 – Wilton plays patient and level headed Ann Bryce, the long-suffering wife of Richard Briers' testy and impetuous Martin Bryce. Ricky Gervais has said this is where he "discovered" Wilton, calling the show "a sitcom masterpiece."6. She believes in keeping a certain mystique so she can be believable in a range of roles.
"I don't think I can turn into other people if everyone knows my inside leg measurement," is how Wilton put it, quite wittily, in an interview with The Independent.
7. She also shone in the two Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies.
Wilton plays Jean Ainslie, the uptight and pessimistic wife of Bill Nighy's more laidback Douglas, in these charming "golden oldies" movies co-starring Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, and Dev Patel.8. She provides some of After Life's most poignant moments.
Wilton plays Anne, a local widow who dispatches sensible (and sensitive) advice to Gervais' character Tony from their favorite bench in the town graveyard. Their conversations about life, love, and death are often very touching indeed.9. She's an acclaimed stage actress.
Wilton has been nominated six times for an Olivier Award, the top prize in U.K. theater. She finally won in 2015 for her performance in Taken at Midnight, a play about a woman whose son, a lawyer who once cross-examined Adolf Hitler, is arrested without warning by the Nazis in mysterious circumstances. 10. She was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II in 2016 for services to drama.
Wilton has also received several honorary doctorates over the years – one of which you can see her collecting below. We think you’ll agree they’re thoroughly well deserved.
Have we missed out one of your favorite Penelope Wilton performances?