Penelope Wilton is best known to millions as Isobel Crawley, the doughty do-gooder of Downton Abbey.
But the 73-year-old actor is more than that – Dame Penelope, as she became four years ago – has been showered with awards for her theatre work and has starred in many quintessentially British films, like Calendar Girls and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Yet stardom clearly doesn’t sit easily with Penelope, who admits, ‘I don’t want anyone to know too much about me.’
Twice divorced, from actors Daniel Massey and Sir Ian Holm, she has one daughter, Alice Massey, and two grandchildren.
But when it comes to her daughter, Penelope does let her guard down to offer a rare burst of emotion. ‘The best thing that ever happened to me was my daughter, and now the little family she’s given me, too,’ says Penelope. ‘That was very lucky.’
Family life is no doubt one reason Penelope has remained working in the UK rather than try her luck stateside, despite her contemporaries, such as Helen Mirren, Brenda Blethyn and Maggie Smith, having attained Hollywood success.
‘When I was younger, people didn’t do that, the roles weren’t there, and I never felt any desire to go there,’ she says.
Penelope is playing Anne, the grieving widow in Ricky Gervais’ popular Netflix comedy drama After Life, in the upcoming second series. And it’s just as well she’s remained here because her understated style is best suited to these reserved British characters.
Ricky’s character Tony, also a widower, meets Anne on the cemetery bench next to her husband’s grave, and Penelope is thrilled to find that her portrayal of Anne has moved some viewers.
‘I got an email the other day from a very nice woman I didn’t know who’d had a bereavement of a child,’ explains Penelope. ‘She was very touched by the scenes between myself and Ricky, and obviously it had struck a chord with her.’
While Tony may be a prickly sort, Penelope found Ricky to be the opposite. ‘I like him very much and like the way he works,’ she says. ‘He’s extremely caring to the actors and understands about acting. There’s nothing complicated about his approach – he knows what he wants, is very polite and people enjoy working with him. It’s been a lovely experience.’
It’s no coincidence Penelope’s After Life character has the same name as her character in Ever Decreasing Circles, the sitcom in which she starred opposite Peter Egan from 1984 to 1989. When she met Ricky, he told her he ‘adored’ it, and it’s clear from the fact he’s cast Peter in the second series of his hit show.
‘Peter and I have stayed friends since Ever Decreasing Circles, but I had no idea he’d been cast until I turned up for the read-through,’ says Penelope. ‘That was a marvellous surprise.’ But if Peter’s character, Paul – the owner of the local newspaper Tony works for – becomes a love interest for Anne, Penelope is not saying.
And with Penelope and Peter both having starred in Downton, might there be another movie in the works?
‘I’m not sure,’ says Penelope. ‘After the first one went down so well there was talk of it at the time, but I haven’t heard anything since. If the script is good, I’d certainly do it. It all comes down to what you have to say.’
What is certain is that Penelope has no intention of stepping back from a career she’s found richly rewarding. ‘I’ve worked since I was 20,’ she finishes with a chuckle. ‘I wouldn’t know what else to do!’
After Life series two is available on Netflix now