“She Lit Up the Screen”
by David Hare and Steven Knight | Radio Times | April 27, 2021
David Hare Section:
One Saturday night in 1995 I sat down to watch a Screen Two film on BBC2. Streetlife, written and directed by Karl Francis, was about a single mother in a caravan in Wales, struggling to provide for her young child.
Although the material was bleak – Jo kills her child because she despairs of her future – it was played with the most extraordinary humour and vitality by a young actor I’d never seen before. She wore a tiny mini skirt, sparked with brave life, and gave one of the most moving performances I’d ever seen on TV.
When I asked friends who on earth she was, they told me, “Oh, she’s the one who’s playing all the juvenile leads at the National Theatre.” I couldn’t believe it. The same young woman who had devastated me in a working-class film was an expert player of Victorian melodrama.
There Helen McCrory was, being brilliant nightly in Pinero’s light-hearted Trelawny of the Wells, and simply unrecognizable form the heroin addict in the Welsh valleys.
A lot has been written about the recent decline of classical theatre acting. But although there are, admittedly, fewer great classical actors than there were 50 years ago, they now move far more easily between different media and different sytles.
One day, on stage, Helen would be starring in Euripides’s Medea or Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea. The next, she would be lighting up Peaky Blinders or a Harry Potter film. She became know for teetering on a lethal edge of self-satire, giving Cherie Blair in The Queen a windswept, chaotic mix of shrewdness and vagueness that rang brilliantly true.
I first worked with Helen in 2001, when I adapted Chekhov’s comedy Platonov for Jonathan Kent to direct. Heading for a secret assignation in the middle of the night with the man she wants as a lover, Anna Petrovna arrives in the forest in riding clothes, with a whip in her hand. At this moment, Helen seemed feral, like a dangerous animal in heat. It was a shocking moment of naked need and total exposure. When I asked her how she did it, Helen said, “Well, I stand in the wings, thinking of nothing, then I go on and put everything I can into desiring the leading man.” The simplicity was genius.
Recently she gave two of her most outstanding TV performances. Stephen Frears, who had directed her in The Queen, cast her as Sonia Woodley QC in Quiz, James Graham’s very funny ITV drama about Charles Ingram, who was accused of cheating on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? As Woodley, Helen smashed the prosecution case to splinters. No real-life lawyer could have done it so forensically.
And then, at the end of her ridiculously short life (she died at the age of 52), Michael Keillor directed Helen as Dawn Ellison, the prime minister in my four-part BBC series Roadkill, about the modern Conservative party. When it aired last October, Helen and co-star Hugh Laurie were universally praised for conveying the sheer energy, spirit and fun that is missing from most dramas about politicians.
Her performance in Roadkill is all the more remarkable when you realise that she was already in some pain from the cancer that would eventually kill her.
In fact, she so revelled in her role that one day she asked me if I could write a stage play for the character of Dawn, since she loved playing a forthright, unapologetic woman of such strength and would relish more time in her company. I would have done it, too. Because Helen – vibrant, witty, passionate and shrewd – was as good as they get.
Steven Knight Section:
Helen McCrory was both the sovereign and the maid, regal and rebellious in the same minute. There was a look she had that pinned the object of gaze to the wall, amused and aloof and time-stopping. It was a look she used to frame the character of Polly Gray, from 2013-2019.
Her first moment as Polly on screen shattered all preconceptions of what a woman of her age living in those times should look like and act like.
I based the character of Aunt Polly on real working-class women I had grown up with: fierce, scary, protective of their own, funny and always aware of the absurdities of life. Helen was the perfect person to bring this amalgam of women to the screen in one stunningly vivid portrayal.
Away from the business, she filled rooms and lit up places with her personality, and I can say now that her work on this planet had only just begun.
The Peaky Blinders audience is very selective, very particular, and to be taken to their hearts is a real achievement. People can spot the real thing, and that is what Helen was. On screen, that is what Helen McCrory is.
Three More Defining Roles…
As Sonia Woodley, QC, the barrister for Who Wants to be a Millionaire? contestant Charles Ingram and his wife Diana, McCrory stepped up to the plate in the final episode of writer James Graham’s three-parter for ITV. Played out as a courtroom drama, her electrifying defence of the Ingrams dominates the episode, as she appeals to the jury to stick to the truth and resist “entertaining falsehood.”
The Queen (2006) and The Special Relationship (2010)
In two films penned by The Crown‘s Peter Morgan, McCrory captured the acerbic wit of Cherie Blair, watching as duty forced her prime minister husband Tony (Michael Sheen) to prioritise two professional relationships. In The Queen, she waspishly laments that all prime ministers go “ga-ga” for Her Majesty; in the follow-up, Cherie again takes a back seat, this time to Bill Clinton, observing that the two leaders have similar tastes – “except for the tarty women.”
Anna Karenina (2000)
In an early TV lead role for C4, McCrory proved herself a force to be reckoned with, both on and off screen, taking no truck with those who accused her of lacking the glamour of Greta Garbo, who played the Russian literary heroine in 1935. Writing in The Guardian at the time, McCrory posited: “Why shouldn’t an actress be case because of her passion for the role rather than because of her looks? Tolstoy didn’t describe Anna as beautiful – he gave her a low forehead and large features – but no reviewer than complained that he had failed to make her a goddess.”
Source: Radio Times