While Helen Mirren has the official title of Dame, in the theatrical world the sobriquet “Dame Helen” might equally well be a reference to Helen McCrory.
It was a nickname she acquired not because of any airs and graces but because of the way in which she commanded the stage.
The daughter of an impoverished Glasgow boy who went on to an international career in the diplomatic service, McCrory was probably best-known as the criminal matriarch Polly Gray in five series of Peaky Blinders and as Narcissa Malfoy in the final three films in the Harry Potter series.
But she attracted the greatest plaudits for her performances in the theatre in some of the great classical roles by Shakespeare, Chekov and Euripides.
And yet by all accounts, and despite the affectionate nickname of Dame Helen, McCrory remained refreshingly down-to-earth.
Her husband, actor Damian Lewis, recalled in an article in the Sunday Times that Lauren Bacall came to her dressing room one night in New York, where she was appearing in Chekov’s Uncle Vanya.
“I just came to tell you, you were magnificent… Your Sonya moved me to tears,” said Bacall, before McCrory explained that she had been playing Yelena and Bacall was really looking for Emily Watson, who was in the dressing room next door.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” said Bacall.
McCrory replied: “That’s alright Ms Hepburn. I’m glad you enjoyed the show.”
Bacall thought McCrory’s response was hilarious, they hit it off and enjoyed a night on the town together.
The eldest of three children, Helen Elizabeth McCrory was born in London in 1968. She was Scottish on her father’s side and Welsh on her mother’s side. She became a keen supporter of the Welsh rugby team.
McCrory had a happy, but physically unsettled, childhood. Her father’s postings took the family to France and Norway and a period in Africa left her with a scar on her chin from the time she was chased by a rhinoceros and fell. Her interest in acting was whetted by drama teacher Thane Bettany, father of actor Paul Bettany, while she was a pupil at Queenswood, a boarding school for girls in Hertfordshire.
After leaving school she spent some time working on organising exhibitions in Paris and travelling in Italy. She trained as an actress at the Drama Centre in London and spent a season at the Harrogate Theatre.
Her theatrical career quickly took off after she was cast as Lydia Bennet in a dramatisation of Pride and Prejudice at the Royal Exchange in London in 1991. She had the lead role in the English National Theatre production of 19th-century comic play Trelawny of the Wells in 1993, followed by Nina in The Seagull in 1994 and Lady Macbeth at the Globe in London in 1995.
Although only 5ft 3in, McCrory was a big presence on stage and was praised for the way in which she could gradually develop a performance over two hours or more. Lady Macbeth was just one in a wide range of strong women she brought to life on stage and also on screen.
Those women included Birmingham crime boss Aunt Polly in the highly popular Peaky Blinders series, with Cillian Murphy. She was Cherie Blair in the film The Queen, for which Helen Mirren won an Oscar, and again in the TV drama The Special Relationship.
And she played the title roles in a Channel 4 adaptation of Anna Karenina and in a National Theatre production of Euripides’s Greek tragedy Medea.
Originally she was cast in the key role of Lord Voldemort’s lieutenant Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter films, but she had to drop out because of pregnancy and the role went to Helena Bonham Carter.
McCrory did have the consolation of playing Narcissa Malfoy, Bellatrix’s sister and the mother of Harry’s enemy Draco Malfoy, in the later films. She also had a small role in the James Bond series, playing a Conservative MP in Skyfall. And she was a Tory Prime Minister in the television drama Roadkill last year, with Hugh Laurie.
She met Damian Lewis, star of Homeland and Wolf Hall, when they appeared in a play together in 2003. They married four years later.
She and Lewis did a lot of work for charity and raised more than £1 million for meals for NHS workers during the pandemic.
She told only close friends and family about her cancer and continued working for charities until a few weeks before her death.
McCrory was made an OBE in 2017. “Her OBE, recognition of her exquisite talent, made her so happy,” Lewis wrote in the Sunday Times. “Her craft was something she approached with a rigour, an honesty, an intelligence that made others rise to meet her.”
Outspoken on social and political issues, McCrory once said: “In no other country do people get OBEs for criticising the Establishment.”
She is survived by her husband and their two children.
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