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Penelope Wilton

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Basic Information

Penelope Wilton

Date of Birth: 3 June 1946
Place of Birth: Scarborough, North Yorkshire, England, UK
Birth Name: Penelope Alice Wilton


Penelope Wilton, Lady HolmOBE (born 3 June 1946) is an English actress.


Penelope Alice Wilton was born in Scarborough, North Riding of Yorkshire to a former actress mother and a businessman father. She is a niece of actors Bill Travers and Linden Travers and a cousin of the actor Richard Morant. She and her sisters, Rosemary and Linda, attended the convent school in Newcastle upon Tyne at which their mother had previously taught. Penelope had a successful stage career before breaking into television, and her West End debut was opposite Sir Ralph Richardson. 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).

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. In it she played Anne, long suffering wife of Martin (Briers), an obsessive pedant 'do-gooder'. Throughout the run Anne 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]

Between 1975 and 1984, she was married to the actor Daniel Massey who, following their divorce, married her sister Lindy. During Wilton's marriage to Massey they had a daughter, Alice, born in 1977. Between 1991 and 2001, she was married to Sir Ian Holm (and in 1998 after he was knighted became Lady Holm) and they appeared together as Pod and Homily in the BBC's 1993 adaptation of The Borrowers.[citation needed]

In 2005, Wilton guest starred as Harriet Jones, MP for two episodes in the BBC's revival of the popular 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 Christmas Invasion", the Doctor Who 2005 Christmas special. 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 to 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).

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). She appeared on Desert Island Discs in April 2008.

Awards and recognition

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.



  • Joseph Andrews (1977) — Mrs. Wilson
  • The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981) — Sonia
  • Clockwise (1986) — Pat Garden
  • Cry Freedom (1987) — Wendy Woods
  • Blame It on the Bellboy (1992) — Patricia Fulford
  • The Secret Rapture (1993) — Marion French
  • Carrington (1995) — Lady Ottoline Morrell
  • This Could Be the Last Time (1998) — Marjorie
  • Gooseberries Don't Dance (1999)
  • Tom's Midnight Garden (1999) — Aunt Melbourne
  • Iris (2001) — Janet Stone
  • Calendar Girls (2003) — Ruth Reynoldson
  • Shaun of the Dead (2004) — Barbara
  • Pride and Prejudice (2005) — Mrs. Gardiner
  • Match Point (2005) — Eleanor Hewett
  • The History Boys (2006) — Mrs Bibby
  • Half Broken Things (2007) — Jean


  • An Affair of Honour (1972)
  • Mrs. Warren's Profession (1972) — Vivie
  • The Song of Songs (1973) — Lilli Czepanek
  • King Lear (1975) — Regan
  • Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd (1976)
  • The Norman Conquests (1978) — Annie
  • Othello (1981) — Desdemona
  • Country (1981) — Virginia Carlion
  • The Tale of Beatrix Potter (1982) — Beatrix Potter
  • King Lear (1982) — Regan
  • Laughterhouse (1984) — Alice Singleton
  • Ever Decreasing Circles (1984) — Anne Bryce
  • The Monocled Mutineer (1986) — Lady Angela
  • Screaming (1992) — Beatrice
  • The Borrowers (1992) — Homily
  • The Return of the Borrowers (1993) — Homily
  • The Deep Blue Sea (1994) — Hester Collyer
  • Talking Heads 2 (1998) — Rosemary
  • Alice Through the Looking Glass (1998) — White Queen
  • Wives and Daughters (1999) — Mrs. Hamley
  • Rockaby (2000)
  • Victoria & Albert (2001) — Princess Mary Louise Victoria
  • The Whistle-Blower (2001) — Heather Graham
  • Bob and Rose (2001) — Monica Gossage
  • Lucky Jim (2003) — Celia Welch
  • Falling (2005) — Daisy Langrish
  • Doctor Who (2005, 2008) — Prime Minister Harriet Jones
  • Five Days (2007) — Barbara Poole
  • Celebration (2007)
  • Half Broken Things (2007) — Jean
  • The Passion (2008) — Mary
  • Downton Abbey (2010)
  • My Family (2010) — Rosemary Matthews


Penelope Wilton commenced her professional career at the Nottingham Playhouse, and famously appeared alongside Nicholas Clay in The Dandy Lion. She was Regan to Michael Hordern's marvellous King Lear at Nottingham Playhouse in 1970; Anna Calder-Marshall played Cordelia, and Thelma Ruby was the elder sister, Goneril.

  • Mary, West of Suez, Royal Court Theatre, London, 1971
  • Araminta, The Philanthropist, Royal Court Theatre, then Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York City, 1971
  • Maud, The Great Exhibition, Hampstead Theatre Club, London, 1972
  • Sophia, The Director of the Opera, Chichester Festival, Chichester, England, 1973
  • Masha, The Seagull, Chichester Festival, 1973
  • Dikson, Something's Burning, Mermaid Theatre, London, 1974
  • Ruth, The Norman Conquests, Greenwich Theatre, London, 1974
  • Dora Carrington, Bloomsbury, Phoenix Theatre, London, 1974
  • Second woman, "Play," Play and Others, Royal Court Theatre, 1976
  • Prudence Malone, Plunder, National Theatre Company, Lyttelton Theatre, London, 1978
  • Julia Craven, The Philanderer, National Theatre Company, Lyttelton Theatre, 1978
  • Emma, Betrayal, National Theatre Company, Lyttelton Theatre, 1978
  • Barbara, Tishoo, Wyndham's Theatre, London, 1979
  • Ann Whitefield and Dona Ana, Man and Superman, National Theatre Company, Olivier Theatre, London, 1981
  • Beatrice, Much Ado about Nothing, National Theatre Company, Olivier Theatre, 1981
  • Barbara Undershaft, Major Barbara, National Theatre Company, Lyttelton Theatre, 1982
  • Marion French, The Secret Rapture, National Theatre Company, Lyttelton Theatre, 1988
  • Hermione, Andromache, Old Vic Theatre, London, 1988
  • Piano, National Theatre Company, Cottesloe Theatre, London, 1990
  • Deborah, A Kind of Alaska, The Collection, and The Lover, Donmar Warehouse, London, 1999
  • Arkadina, The Seagull, Barbican Theatre, London, 2000
  • Regina, Lillian Hellman's Little Foxes, Donmar Warehouse, October 2001
  • Sonya, Afterplay play by Brian Friel, Gielgud Theatre, London, England, UK/ Gate Theatre, Dublin, September 2002
  • Bernada, Federico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba, National Theatre Lyttelton, March 2005
  • Female voice, Samuel Beckett's Eh Joe at the Gate Theatre, Dublin and the Duke of York's in the West End. 2006
  • Livia, Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, for the RSC. February 2006
  • Ella Rentheim, Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman at the Donmar Warehouse, February 2007
  • Agatha, The Family Reunion, Donmar Warehouse, London, 2008
  • Gertude, Hamlet, Donmar Warehouse's West End season - Wyndham's Theatre, London, 2009


  • Sister of Lindy Wilton and mother of Alice Massey.
  • Daniel Massey married Penelope's sister Lindy Wilton, after he divorced Penelope Wilton.
  • She was awarded the O.B.E. (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in the 2004 New Year's Honours List for her services to drama.
  • Niece of actor Bill Travers and actress Linden Travers
  • She was awarded the 1981 London Critics' Circle Theatre Award (Drama Theatre Award) for Best Actress of 1980 for her performance in Much Ado About Nothing.
  • Cousin of the actor Richard Morant
  • She was awarded the 1981 London Critics' Circle Theatre Award (Drama Theatre Award) for Best Actress of 1980 for her performances in Much Ado About Nothing and Man and Superman.
  • She was awarded the 1993 London Critics Circle Theatre Award (Drama Theatre Award) for Best Actress for her performance in The Deep Blue Sea. Her former husband, Ian Holm , was awarded Best Actor for his performance in Moonlight at the same awards.
  • She was nominated for a 2001 London Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Actress for her performance in The Little Foxes at the Donmar Warehouse.
  • She was once married to Ian Holm, who played Frodo Baggins in a BBC Radio 4 dramatization of The Lord of the Rings. In Shaun of the Dead (2004), her husband is played by Bill Nighy, who played Sam Gamgee opposite Holm in the same Radio 4 production.
  • In the 1970s she married actor Daniel Massey, by whom she had one daughter. Before that she lost a baby boy, born very premature.
  • Appeared on the BAFTA Film shortlist for Best Supporting Actress in the following roles: 1986 for Clockwise, 1987 for Cry Freedom and 1994 for The Secret Rapture.
  • Appeared on the BAFTA Television shortlist for Best Actress in the following roles: 1985 for Ever Decreasing Circles, 1987 for The Monocled Mutineer, 1993 for The Borrowers, 1999 for Talking Heads 2: Nights in the Gardens of Spain and 2006 for Falling.
  • Nominated for the 1981 Laurence Olivier Award - Actress of the Year in a Revival for "Man & Superman" at the National Theatre (Olivier).
  • Nominated for the 1988 Laurence Olivier Award - Actress of the Year in a New Play for "The Secret Rapture" at the National Theatre (Lyttelton). She played the same character (Marion French) in the film adaptation of David Hare's play in 1993.
  • Nominated for the 1994 Laurence Olivier Award - Best Actress in a Play for "The Deep Blue Sea" at the Almeida and the Apollo Theatres in the West End.
  • Ex-stepmother of Melissa Holm, Barnaby Holm, Harry Holm, Jessica Holm and Sarah-Jane Holm.
  • Nominated for the 2007 London Evening Standard Theatre Awards as Best Actress for John Gabriel Borkman at the Donmar Warehouse.
  • Nominated Best Actress at the 2008 Olivier Awards for John Gabriel Borkman at the Donmar Warehouse.
  • Nominated Best Actress at the 2008 Royal Television Society Awards for Five Days, Celebration and Half Broken Things.
  • Named Best Actress (along with her co-star Margaret Tyzack) at the 2008 London Evening Standard Theatre Awards for The Chalk Garden at the Donmar Warehouse.
  • Nominated Best Actress at the 2009 Olivier Awards for The Chalk Garden at the Donmar Warehouse.