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‘In the last 12 months of her life, Helen McCrory used her power to help those who help us

In her final year, living with an illness she kept private, McCrory used her remaining energy to give back

Helen McCrory and Damian Lewis launched a project to provide NHS workers on the frontline with hot meals. Lewis had just halted production on Billions and flown back from New York for lockdown; McCrory had paused filming the sixth series of Peaky Blinders. Parents to two children, they could have been excused a rest. Instead the couple’s campaign #FeedNHS raised more than £1m.

When Lewis announced that his wife of 14 years had died, aged 52, “after an heroic battle with cancer”, that campaign took on an added poignancy: in her final year, living with an illness she kept private, McCrory used her remaining energy to give back.

I interviewed McCrory and Lewis about #FeedNHS exactly a year ago. They were in lockdown in Sudbury, Suffolk, with their children, Manon, 14, and Gulliver, 12, and sounded less like television’s most eminent couple and more like professional fundraisers.

Time was of the essence. Chitchat was ushered aside, they had been up early every day, hitting the phones, learning about supply chains, calling in favours and putting words into action.

“We have a lot of friends in the NHS, so we spoke to them about what it’s like on the frontline,” McCrory explained. They discovered that access to hot meals was a challenge while hospital canteens were closed, so contacted John Vincent, CEO of Leon. Soon, they’d raised £1m, and built a coalition that delivered some 25,000 meals to staff across 55 hospitals.

“I think we do feel we have a sense of purpose, [but] I’ve found it quite stressful, being all hands to the pump,” Lewis said. “For some it’s been time to switch off, but we were flat out.”

The house had been turned into a control room; sleep had been relegated to second place. But McCrory remained energised.

“I think being able to control something does make you feel much more able to get up and have a focus on what you need to do,” she told me. We know now that she may have had more than just the pandemic to worry about.

Energy and action were her defining qualities.  McCrory often played the kind of women who could silence any room with a hitch of her skirt, stomp of her foot and withering glare, and in the last 12 months of her life, she used that power to help those who help us.

And she kept going, right until she couldn’t. Just six weeks ago, McCrory’s final television appearance, alongside Lewis, was to promote the work of the Prince’s Trust. There was still no mention of her illness.

“I’ve lived life at 150 miles an hour and I’ve never really stopped…” she said on Desert Island Discs last year. Lewis, who was with her until the forced stop came, echoed that sentiment on Friday. “She blazed so brightly,” he wrote. “Go now […] into the air, and thank you.”

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