Penelope Wilton

Dame Penelope Alice Wilton DBE[1] (born 3 June 1946) is an English actress. She is known for starring opposite Richard Briers in the BBC sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles (1984–89); playing Homily in The Borrowers (1992) and The Return of the Borrowers (1993); and for her role as the widowed Isobel Crawley in the ITV drama Downton Abbey (2010–15). She also played the recurring role of Harriet Jones in Doctor Who (2005–08).

Penelope Wilton

Wilton in Stockholm, Sweden, November 2013
Penelope Alice Wilton

(1946-06-03) 3 June 1946
Years active1969–present
Daniel Massey
(m. 1975; div. 1984)

Ian Holm
(m. 1991; div. 2001)

Wilton has had an extensive career on stage, receiving six Olivier Award nominations. She was nominated for Man and Superman (1981), The Secret Rapture (1988), The Deep Blue Sea (1994), John Gabriel Borkman (2008) and The Chalk Garden (2009), before winning the 2015 Olivier Award for Best Actress for Taken at Midnight. Her film appearances include Clockwise (1986), Cry Freedom (1987), Calendar Girls (2003), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Match Point (2005), Pride & Prejudice (2005), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012), The Girl (2012) and The BFG (2016).

Early life and background

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] Her maternal grandparents owned theatres.[4]

She attended the Drama Centre London from 1965 to 1968.[7][8]


Wilton began her career on stage in 1969 at the Nottingham Playhouse. Her early roles included Cordelia in King Lear, both in Nottingham and at The Old Vic.[9]

She made her Broadway debut in March 1971 when she played Araminta in the original Broadway production of The Philanthropist, and made her West End debut in August 1971 opposite Sir Ralph Richardson, in the John Osborne play West of Suez at the Cambridge Theatre.[10] She had previously appeared in both plays at the Royal Court Theatre. She played Ruth in the original 1974 London stage production of Alan Ayckbourn's Norman Conquests trilogy.[11]

Her television acting career began in 1972, playing Vivie Warren in the BBC2's adaptation of Mrs. Warren's Profession opposite Coral Browne in the title role and Robert Powell.[12] The production was repeated as part of the Play of the Month series in 1974 on BBC1.[13] In 1994, Wilton portrayed Browne in a radio adaptation of An Englishman Abroad for the BBC World Service[14] and repeated on various BBC radio formats since.[15] Following from the broadcast of 'Mrs. Warren's Profession', Wilton then had several major TV roles, including two of the BBC Television Shakespeare productions (as Desdemona in Othello and Regan in King Lear ).[16]

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), Woody Allen's Match Point (2005), and in The History Boys (2006).

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 and pedantic "do-gooder". 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 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.

Wilton 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). Beginning in 2010, she appeared as Isobel Crawley in all six seasons of 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 Elizabeth Jane Howard's The Cazalets, broadcast on BBC Radio.[17]

Personal life

Between 1975 and 1984, Wilton was married to the actor Daniel Massey. They had a daughter, Alice, born in 1977.[18] Before this, they had had a stillborn child, a son.[19]

In 1991, Wilton married Ian Holm. In 1992, they appeared together as Pod and Homily in the BBC's adaptation of The Borrowers. A year later, they appeared together in a follow-up The Return of the Borrowers. In 1998, Ian Holm was knighted and Wilton became Lady Holm. They divorced in 2001.[20]


Wilton was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2004 New Year Honours and was elevated to become a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2016 Birthday Honours,[1] both for services to drama.

Awards and recognition

In 2012, Wilton received an honorary doctorate from the University of Hull Scarborough Campus.[21]

Year Theatre Nominated work Result
1981 Olivier Award for Actress of the Year in a Revival Man and Superman Nominated
1981 Critics' Circle Award for Best Actress Much Ado About Nothing Won
1988 Olivier Award for Actress of the Year in a New Play The Secret Rapture Nominated
1993 Critics' Circle Award for Best Actress The Deep Blue Sea Won
1994 Olivier Award for Best Actress Nominated
2001 Evening Standard Award for Best Actress The Little Foxes Nominated
2008 Olivier Award for Best Actress John Gabriel Borkman Nominated
2008 Evening Standard Award for Best Actress The Chalk Garden Won
2009 Olivier Award for Best Actress Nominated
2015 Olivier Award for Best Actress Taken at Midnight Won
Film / Television
2012 Critics' Choice Movie Award for Best Acting Ensemble The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Nominated
2012 Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture Nominated
2012 Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series Downton Abbey Won
2013 Nominated
2014 Won
2015 Won



Year Title Role Notes
1977 Joseph Andrews Mrs. Wilson
1981 The French Lieutenant's Woman Sonia
1984 Laughterhouse Alice Singleton
1986 Clockwise Pat
1987 Cry Freedom Wendy Woods
1992 Blame It on the Bellboy Patricia Fulford
1993 The Secret Rapture Homily
1995 Carrington Lady Ottoline Morrell
1999 Gooseberries Don't Dance Short film
1999 Tom's Midnight Garden Aunt Melbourne
2001 Iris Janet Stone
2003 Calendar Girls Ruth
2004 Shaun of the Dead Barbara
2005 Match Point Eleanor Hewett
2005 Pride and Prejudice Mrs. Gardiner
2006 The History Boys Mrs. Bibby
2012 The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Jean
2013 Belle Lady Mary Murray
2015 The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Jean
2016 The BFG The Queen
2017 Zoo Denise Austin
2018 The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society Amelia Maugery
2019 Downton Abbey Isobel Grey, Baroness Merton
2019 Eternal Beauty Vivian
TBA Summerland Post-production


Year Title Role Notes
1972 Thirty-Minute Theatre TV series (1 episode: "An Affair of Honour")
1972 Country Matters Rachel Sullens TV series (1 episode: "The Sullens Sisters")
1972 Play of the Month: Mrs. Warren's Profession (BBC) Vivie Warren TV drama (G. B. Shaw)
1973 The Pearcross Girls Anna Pearcross/Helen Charlesworth
Julia Pearcross/Lottie Merchant
TV series (4 episodes)
1973 The Song of Songs Lilli Czepanek TV drama
1975 Play of the Month: King Lear Regan Shakespeare, d. Jonathan Miller
1976 The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd TV drama
1977 The Norman Conquests: Living Together Annie TV drama
1977 The Norman Conquests: Round and Round the Garden Annie TV drama
1977 The Norman Conquests: Table Manners Annie TV drama
1980 Play for Today Helen/Virginia Carlion TV series (2 episodes: 1980–1981)
1981 Othello Desdemona Shakespeare (d. Jonathan Miller)
1982 The Tale of Beatrix Potter Beatrix Potter TV drama
1982 King Lear Regan Shakespeare (d. Jonathan Miller)
1984 Ever Decreasing Circles Ann Bryce TV series (27 episodes: 1984–1989)
1986 C.A.T.S. Eyes Angela Lane TV series (1 episode: "Good as New")
1986 The Monocled Mutineer Lady Angela Forbes TV series (2 episodes)
1990 4 Play Julia TV series (1 episode: "Madly in Love")
1992 Screaming Beatrice TV series
1992 The Borrowers Homily TV series
1993 The Return of the Borrowers Homily TV series
1994 Performance: The Deep Blue Sea Hester Collyer TV series (2 episodes: 1994–1995
1998 This Could Be the Last Time Marjorie Television film
1998 Talking Heads 2 Rosemary TV miniseries (1 episode: "Nights in the Gardens of Spain")
1998 Alice Through the Looking Glass White Queen TV film
1999 Kavanagh QC Barbara Watkins TV series (1 episode: "Time of Need")
1999 Wives and Daughters Mrs. Hamley TV miniseries (2 episodes)
2000 Rockaby TV short
2001 The Whistle-Blower Heather Graham TV film
2001 Victoria & Albert Princess Victoria, Duchess of Kent TV film
2001 Bob & Rose Monica Gossage TV series (3 episodes)
2003 Lucky Jim Celia Welch TV film
2005 Falling Daisy Langrish TV film
2005–2008 Doctor Who Harriet Jones TV series (4 episodes: 2005–2008)
2006 Celebration Julie TV film
2007 Five Days Barbara Poole TV series (4 episodes)
Nominated: RTS Award – Best Actor
2007 Half-Broken Things Jean TV film
2008 The Passion Mary TV miniseries
2010 Marple: They Do It with Mirrors Carrie Louise Serrocold TV film
2009 Margot B.Q. TV film
2010 My Family Rosemary Matthews TV series (1 episode: "Wheelie Ben")
2010–2015 Downton Abbey Isobel Crawley (Baroness Merton) TV series
2011 South Riding Mrs. Beddows TV series (3 episodes)
2012 The Girl Peggy Robertson TV film
2016 Brief Encounters Pauline Spake TV series (6 episodes)
2019 After Life Anne TV series


Year Title Role Venue
1969 King Lear Cordelia Nottingham Playhouse (then at The Old Vic, London, February 1970)
1969 The Dandy Lion Nottingham Playhouse
1969 The Hostage Nottingham Playhouse
1970 The Philanthropist Araminta Royal Court Theatre, (then at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York City 1971)
1971 West of Suez Mary Royal Court Theatre, London / Cambridge Theatre, London
1972 The Great Exhibition Maud Hampstead Theatre Club, London
1973 The Director of the Opera Sophia Royal Court Theatre
1973 The Seagull Masha Chichester Festival Theatre
1974 Something's Burning Dikson Mermaid Theatre, London
1974 The Norman Conquests Ruth Greenwich Theatre, London
1974 Bloomsbury Dora Carrington Phoenix Theatre, London
1975 Measure For Measure Isabella Greenwich Theatre
1976 "Play," Play and Others Second woman Royal Court Theatre
1978 Plunder Prudence Malone National Theatre Company, Lyttelton Theatre, London
1978 The Philanderer Julia Craven National Theatre Company, Lyttelton Theatre
1978 Betrayal Emma National Theatre Company, Lyttelton Theatre
1979 Tishoo Barbara Wyndham's Theatre, London
1981 Man and Superman Ann Whitefield and Dona Ana National Theatre Company, Olivier Theatre, London
1981 Much Ado about Nothing Beatrice National Theatre Company, Olivier Theatre
1982 Major Barbara Barbara Undershaft National Theatre Company, Lyttelton Theatre
1988 The Secret Rapture Marion French National Theatre Company, Lyttelton Theatre
1988 Andromache Hermione The Old Vic
1990 Piano National Theatre Company, Cottesloe Theatre, London
1993 The Deep Blue Sea Hester Collyer Almeida Theatre, London
1999 A Kind of Alaska, the Collection, and the Lover Deborah Donmar Warehouse, London
2000 The Seagull Arkadina Barbican Theatre, London
2001 The Little Foxes Regina Donmar Warehouse
2002 Afterplay Sonya Gielgud Theatre/Gate Theatre, Dublin
2005 The House of Bernarda Alba Bernada National Theatre Company, Lyttelton Theatre
2006 Eh Joe Female voice Gate Theatre, Dublin/Duke of York's Theatre, London
2006 Women Beware Women Livia Swan Theatre, Stratford
2007 John Gabriel Borkman Ella Rentheim Donmar Warehouse
2008 The Chalk Garden Miss Madrigal Donmar Warehouse
2008 The Family Reunion Agatha Donmar Warehouse
2009 Hamlet Gertrude Wyndham's Theatre
2011 A Delicate Balance Agnes Almeida Theatre
2014–2015 Taken at Midnight Irmgard Litten Minerva Theatre, Chichester/Theatre Royal Haymarket, London
2018 Fanny and Alexander Helena Ekdahl The Old Vic
2019 The Bay at Nice Valentina Nrovka Menier Chocolate Factory, London


  1. "No. 61608". The London Gazette (Supplement). 11 June 2016. p. B8.
  2. Powell, Lucy (9 June 2008). "Penelope Wilton, the winner of discontent". The Times. London, UK. Retrieved 30 November 2018.
  3. Billen, Andrew (26 April 2000). "Time for Penelope to soar". Evening Standard. London, UK. Retrieved 30 November 2018.
  4. "Acting Alumni Win Big at Olivier Awards". Retrieved 12 June 2016.
  5. Billington, Michael (8 January 2015). "Massey, Daniel Raymond". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/69552.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  6. "What's On: Wicked role for Penelope means it's Women Beware Wilton; Theatre (Features)" Coventry Evening Telegraph (England) via Questia Online Library
  7. Drama Centre: watch this face Archived 2 March 2014 at the Wayback Machine,, 22 March 2009; accessed 14 June 2016.
  8. "The Wheatleys of Houghton-le-Spring: The sweet success of a family" (PDF). Houghton-le-Spring Heritage Society.
  9. "Performance Details – King Lear". Designing Shakespeare Collection – Performance Details. Retrieved 8 June 2016.
  10. "Interview: Penelope Wilton". TimeOut London. 28 April 2011. Retrieved 8 June 2016.
  11. "Institute of Directors — IoD". Retrieved 16 February 2015.
  12. "Mrs Warren's Profession". 28 September 1972. p. 35 via BBC Genome.
  13. "Play of the Month: Mrs Warren's Profession". 18 April 1974. p. 23 via BBC Genome.
  14. "Play of the Week: An Englishman Abroad". 27 October 1994. p. 115 via BBC Genome.
  15. "An Englishman Abroad". 15 September 2005. p. 143 via BBC Genome.
  16. "Early TV appearances: Penelope Wilton and Brenda Blethyn – King Lear (BBC, 1982), Shakespeare Lives". BBC. Retrieved 12 December 2017.
  17. "Episode 1, Confusion, The Cazalets – BBC Radio 4". BBC. Retrieved 12 December 2017.
  18. Kellaway, Kate (30 September 2001). "A study in emotion". The Observer. Retrieved 25 August 2015.
  19. Myskow, Nina (30 January 2015). "Penelope Wilton: a woman of substance". Saga magazine.
  20. Olga Craig (15 November 2008). "Penelope Wilton: an actress who epitomises all things quintessentially English". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 21 November 2012.
  21. "Annual Report 2011/12". Retrieved 12 December 2017.
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