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The finest actress of her generation

How Helen McCrory blazed through her life and career like a comet

Artillery Row

Bitter constraint and sad occasion dear

Compels me to disturb your season due;

For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,

Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.

Helen McCrory was a Bond girl. Or, to be more exact, ‘Bond woman’. Yet her appearance in the finest 007 film ever made, Sam Mendes’ Skyfall, did not involve her dressed in lingerie, coyly simpering while saying ‘For England, James’. Instead, she played the Home Secretary Clare Dowar, interrogating Judi Dench’s M and Rory Kinnear’s Bill Tanner as to the purpose and point of the Double O service. The role is little more than a cameo, but McCrory brings her usual flair and charisma to the part, delivering pointed dialogue that brings home the thematic point of the film: ‘it’s as if you insist on pretending that we still live in a golden age of espionage’.

McCrory’s death of cancer on 16 April, at the far-too-young age of 52, brought to an end one of the finest bodies of work from any contemporary actor. It began on screen in the Nineties with a cameo as ‘second whore’ in Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire, and ended last year with a typically nuanced and wry performance as a Theresa May-esque Prime Minister in David Hare’s flawed drama Roadkill. In between, she managed to be both entirely chameleonic and inimitable. The only guarantee from a Helen McCrory performance was that you would get something special.

What she did was to convey searing emotional truth with integrity, wit and grace

There were better films and TV series, and weaker ones. There were many brilliant performances in small roles in insignificant projects. A particularly notable example is her brief cameo in the otherwise unmemorable Charlotte Gray  as Cate Blanchett’s doomed espionage contact in occupied WWII France. In the space of a few minutes, McCrory acts Blanchett, and everyone else, off the screen, suggesting a fascinating inner life and character history with just a handful of lines and tiny movements and gestures. And she took a leaf from her Harry Potter and James Bond co-star Ralph Fiennes’ book and deliberately appeared in big projects in supporting parts, usually to memorable effect. One does not look to the Harry Potter series for memorable acting, but she was a nuanced and appealing Narcissa Malfoy, convincingly suggesting someone bad who shied away from actual evil when confronted by it.

She was probably best known by wide audiences for her performance as Aunt Polly in Stephen Knight’s period gangster series Peaky Blinders. As someone who never entirely ‘got’ the programme – all the characters seemed equally loathsome and so I was never sure why viewers were supposed to care about the fates of some and not others – I nevertheless enjoyed McCrory’s witty and ballsy characterisation of a woman in a man’s world. Polly uses a mixture of wiles and charisma to achieve her ends, and usually runs rings around her thicker brethren in the process. Such a description would seem an equally apt one for McCrory’s own career, and possibly life as well.

McCrory was, above all, a star of the stage. I saw her several times, in Sam Mendes’ iconic productions of Twelfth Night and Uncle Vanya at the Donmar Warehouse in 2002, in Pinter’s Old Times, and then subsequently at the National in Medea and Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea. I wrote of her performance as Medea that “the unparalleled Helen McCrory [is] an actress who can find nuance and depth in the phone book, let alone Euripides’ horrific and gut-wrenching work”, and, later, said of her brilliant Hester Collyer, that she was “incapable of giving a bad or boring performance on stage”, and that she was “especially magnificent”. What she did was to convey searing emotional truth with integrity, wit and grace. She was one of the rare actors who was worth seeing in anything, because no matter how misguided the production or play itself, she would make the evening a worthwhile one.

She was hugely popular in her profession, both for her obvious qualities as a human being, which her husband Damian Lewis wrote about beautifully in the Sunday Times, but also for her absence of pretension and luvviness. You would not have found empty quotes by her adorning the Private Eye ‘Luvvies’ section. She was a candid, hugely entertaining and generous woman who seemed to understand that her profession was one of playfulness, rather than Great Seriousness. That this is a hugely refreshing change from many of her peers says a lot about both her, and the often self-regarding industry that has now lost a titanic figure.

The journalist and author Gustav Temple, who interviewed McCrory about Peaky Blinders for his magazine The Chap , described her as an unique interviewee. As he said. “I have interviewed many members of the acting profession and reeled from the quantities of ‘darlings’ and Shakespeare quotes issued from their absent personalities. But despite her status as an international star, Helen McCrory was an engaging, honest and entirely unaffected interviewee from the start. She immediately apprised my outfit and said, “That isn’t really working, is it?”

‘Thus with the barriers broken, we launched into a lively discussion of her career, during which she made me laugh and cry in equal measure. Helen even shed a tear herself, when relating how affected she was by young, female Peaky Blinders fans approaching her and saying how comforting they had found her portrayal of the fearless Aunt Polly during their own difficult times. Helen was witty, sharp, cynical and direct, and interviewing her was like meeting one of those rare people you encounter who immediately make you think, ‘I have found a new friend’. Sadly, this will now not prove to be the case.”

Befitting her lack of pretension, she was not a po-faced figure

It may be hyperbole to call her the finest actress of her generation, but it is also true. Someone correctly pointed out that losing her so young, and thus being deprived of half her career, is directly comparable to us not having decades of work from the likes of Helen Mirren, Judi Dench or Maggie Smith. But she was entirely her own figure. The outpouring of grief that followed her death – so soon after Paul Ritter’s own untimely passing – was deep and sincere, both for her family’s loss, and for her profession’s.

Yet, befitting her lack of pretension, she was not a po-faced figure. It has transpired that she carried on working for a long time while she was ill, and even appeared on national TV a few weeks before her death. Indeed, one of the funniest and most affecting lines from her husband’s tribute to her was her deathbed exhortation that “I want Daddy to have girlfriends, lots of them, you must all love again, love isn’t possessive, but you know, Damian, try at least to get though the funeral without snogging someone”.

We live in a time when we are encouraged to regard death, especially horribly premature death, as a great evil. To an extent, it is. But Helen McCrory blazed through her life and career like a comet. We were lucky to have had her amongst us, for a few short decades. Now the baton will pass to someone else. The industry, and world, will move on. But her influence, and greatness, will not soon be forgotten.

Tomorrow, to fresh woods, and pastures new.

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