Penelope Wilton smiling Credit: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Focus Features

Penelope Wilton: A class act

As she returns to the big screen, Dame Penelope Wilton discusses being a grandmother, why retirement’s not on the cards, and whether Downton Abbey will be back.

The measured and composed actor Penelope Wilton is, on the whole, not a woman given to pronouncements on a grand scale. There is one subject, however, on which she is vehement. “I would hate to retire,” she declares. “There’d be no point. I mean, what on earth would I do? So I’ll carry on for as long as I can.”

Now 76, and doyenne of a stage and screen career of more than half a century, we must certainly hope Penelope is as good as her word. She is a stalwart of some of our most dearly loved comedies and dramas, from 1980s sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles to Downton Abbey.

Her presence on a cast list is a hallmark of quality – and that’s certainly the case with The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, her latest screen outing, in which she stars alongside Jim Broadbent.

Based on Rachel Joyce’s novel of the same name, it follows the decision of the titular hero, played by Broadbent, to walk more than 250 miles to visit a dying former colleague, driven by the belief that in doing so he can save her life. Penelope plays his bewildered, tricky wife, Maureen, and the film traces their relationship as Harold gains the strength to face the unspoken grief that has driven them apart.

Penelope Wilton and Jim Broadbent sitting down and looking at each other in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FryCredit: Entertainment One
Penelope Wilton and Jim Broadbent in the movie The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

“It is a beautiful story,” says Penelope. “As you see in the film, the revelation of the great sadness in their lives comes through very slowly, and you realise what has driven this man to do the walk. It’s wonderful storytelling.”

Joyce’s book sold more than five million copies worldwide and Penelope devoured it after being offered the role of Maureen. For all the sorrow at its heart, it proves to be an uplifting story of forgiveness and redemption. “I think that’s what ultimately drew people to it,” she says. “It’s about people finding a way out of a terrible sorrow, and the kindness of strangers.”

Penelope is no stranger to grief herself, having endured the trauma of losing a son at 29 weeks pregnant, before later giving birth to daughter Alice, now 46. With horribly poignant timing, she also lost her older sister Rosemary to Covid shortly before filming.

Nonetheless, she is careful to separate her own experience of loss with that portrayed on screen. “You don’t equate that with the real thing – it was a different sort of grief,” she says of her recent loss. “I was terribly sad, while my character, Maureen, is terribly angry.

“Of course, you can’t separate yourself entirely from how you’re feeling, but imagination is so important.”

“As you get older there are fewer parts in the theatre for women so I’m lucky to have done some wonderful things in film and TV”

This is doubtless the key to Penelope’s long-standing success both in theatre and on screen. She is resolutely unshowy – she was made a Dame in the 2016 honours list, but describes it modestly as “very nice” – and politely guards against revealing too much information about her private life. Twice married, to the late actors Daniel Massey and Ian Holm, she prefers today not to say if she has a partner on the basis “[when acting] you can be more convincing when others don’t know too much about you”.

Nonetheless, it did cause a stir when it emerged that Massey, who is Alice’s father and who died in 1998, later married Penelope’s younger sister, Linda, although apparently not to the detriment of their relationship. They remain close: Penelope has just finished her regular morning walk with Linda in the park near her London home.

“When I’m not working, I meet my sister and we walk in the mornings,” she says. “It’s marvellous energy, moderate exercise, and you see seasons changing.” There is an area of her private life about which Penelope is joyfully open, and it comes in the form of her grandchildren, Daniel, ten, and six-year-old Ella, by daughter Alice. Penelope adores being a grandmother.

“As a grandmother, you don’t have to bother with rules”

“I love them,” she avows, unable to contain her enthusiasm. “I love being with them and hearing their conversations and doing things with them. And, of course, being a grandmother is a very nice thing because you don’t have to bother with any of the rules. They can eat what they like, and they can do what they like, and they can be on their computers for ever if they want to be – that’s a grandparent’s privilege.”

Of course, the role also comes with none of the juggle that so often accompanies working motherhood. “I think it’s still very difficult for people to have a career and to have children,” says Penelope. “You never quite reconcile it because you always think you should be somewhere else.”

She was born in Scarborough and raised in Sussex. Her father was a businessman, her mother an actor and dancer. One of her earliest memories is putting on a show for her parents – and theatre remains her greatest love. “There’s nothing quite like it,” she says. “In cinema and TV, the director is in charge, but on the stage, aside from the writer, it’s the actor who tells you where the focus is and that’s rather special.”

Penelope, who was nominated for an Olivier award six times, laments the fact that stage roles tend to dry up for older women. “As you get older there are fewer parts in the theatre for women, so I’m lucky there have been some wonderful things in film and television that I’ve been able to do.”

That’s no understatement. She may have initially found small-screen fame as the put-upon Ann Bryce, wife of Richard Briers’ pedantic do-gooder, Martin, in Ever Decreasing Circles, but she has also enjoyed latter-day screen success, notably as Anne, who shares the grief of Ricky Gervais’s grieving newspaper reporter Tony in Netflix’s After Life, and the strong-willed Isobel Crawley in Downton Abbey.

Her scenes with friend Dame Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess became the beating heart of the hit series, and she confides that should there be another Downton film she will miss them terribly, as Maggie’s character Violet died at the end of 2022’s Downton Abbey: A New Era – its second big-screen outing. “We used to love those scenes and they were such good fun to do,” she recalls. “Maggie and I enjoyed sparring with one another, and it added a sort of acerbic quality to the drama, too.”

“It would be churlish to turn down a third Downton Abbey film if it came along”

Will there be a third Downton film? Penelope is unsure, although she would happily take part should it come to pass. “There have been rumours and I think you have to finish something once you’ve started it, don’t you?” she muses. “We’re quite a large group of people who have worked together on and off over many years, so it would be churlish to turn it down if it came along.’

After Life, however, is resolutely finished. After three series, Gervais has made it clear there will be no more episodes of his ratings hit (it has become Netflix’s most-watched British comedy series, with more than 120 million views). “I’m delighted for Ricky,” Penelope says of the viewing figures. “He’s the most gracious man to work with and I enjoyed it enormously.”

She welcomes the fact that much of her recent work depicts the subtleties of relationships in later life: in Downton, Isobel Crawley enjoys a romance with family friend Lord Merton. “They’re interesting territory: often the relationships are more nuanced because they’re more than just romance,” she says of this pivot to depicting older relationships on screen. “They’re more to do with how you feel about life in general; your children, the world, death, all sorts. Those feelings come into more mature relationships.”

May she depict many more – a hope that, as we know, she resolutely shares. “I have a lot of friends who are still acting,” she smiles. “Judi [Dench] and Maggie have just made a film, as has my friend Siân Phillips, and Eileen Atkins is doing a play. They’re all more senior than I am, so I hope that I will be like them.

“A lot of people have to do things they’re not wild about, but I’ve been lucky to be able to enjoy what I do.”

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry comes to cinemas on 28 April.

Written by Kathryn Knight