Helen was nothing if not a giver of care but, of course, she excelled as an actress
In my mind’s eye, I see her making a slow entrance on to the Donmar Warehouse stage as Yelena in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.
No wonder Simon Russell Beale’s Vanya has his tongue hanging out; Helen McCrory utterly commanded the stage in that moment. Wide-brimmed hat, long brocaded gown, she echoed a sense of Greta Garbo with the glamour of Marlene Dietrich.
This was one of artistic director Sam Mendes’s farewells at the Donmar in London, before he went on to direct two Bond movies. I chatted about it later with Helen and she explained: ‘Darling, that was Sam’s doing. I chose the hat and he choreographed the walk.’
Like all great actors, Helen McCrory knew the importance of costume and what signals it could convey to an audience.
When Stephen Frears cast her to portray Cherie Blair in The Queen her first thought was ‘getting the bloody wig’ right, though she told me she’d been given a slightly better one when Frears asked her and Michael Sheen to play the Blairs a second time in The Special Relationship.
Frears reunited them for last year’s ITV hit drama, Quiz, where she played the defence barrister of Charles Ingram (Matthew Macfadyen), with Sheen as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire host Chris Tarrant.
She and Sheen had known each other for years, having set up a production company together after leaving college to produce plays. ‘We were exhausted but we laughed so much,’ she recalled.
Laughter — that’s what drew her to husband Damian Lewis when they played opposite each other in Five Gold Rings, not a great play, at the Almeida Theatre in Islington. ‘We just laughed, particularly when we shouldn’t,’ she told me at the time.
We first met nearly 30 years ago, when she spent two hours discussing the tribal politics of Nigeria, where my family comes from. She knew the country well from the time her father was stationed in Lagos as a diplomat.
Last year she told me that a friend over there had been struck with Covid-19 and she felt wretched about it. ‘Nobody minds feeling terrible, it’s just the dying bit that puts you off,’ she said. For a brief time, Helen and I were neighbours in a small, quiet cobbled street in Camden Town, North London, when she moved in with Damian, who adored her.
Well, quiet until Amy Winehouse rented a house a few doors down. Helen and I would bump into each other at odd hours, roll our eyes at the chaos caused by the crowds of fans and paparazzi — and burst into childish giggles over it all.
But I’d actually see more of Helen and Damian at West End first nights, Harry Potter premieres and in Los Angeles at awards ceremonies, where she looked like a goddess. ‘It’s on loan,’ she’d say of the designer gown that framed her slender silhouette.
She treated red carpets as if they were performance art. ‘None if this is real, you know,’ she’d say — followed by her trademark laughter.
Just before lockdown, she went with her family — Damian and their teenage children Manon and Gulliver — to their home in Sudbury, Suffolk. They threw themselves into helping set up ‘Feed the NHS’ to provide hot meals for hospital staff. ‘There was no way we were going to sit around and do nothing,’ she said.
When a close friend’s partner had cancer she was on the phone constantly, offering advice on which doctors to seek out at the Royal Marsden because that’s where her mother had been treated.
Helen was nothing if not a giver of care. But, of course, she excelled as an actress.
And it is on stage that I will remember her: Trelawny Of The Wells, The Deep Blue Sea, Medea, The Last Of The Haussmans, all at the National Theatre; plays with the Royal Shakespeare Company and many others. But above all of these, there is something about her magnetic Yelena at the Donmar that haunts me to this day.
Truly, we have lost a great and luminous star.