Earthy star of stage and screen and one of Beckett’s favourite performers
Billie Whitelaw: June 6th, 1932 - December 21st, 2014
“I could as easily have become a nun, or a prostitute, or both,” said Billie Whitelaw, who has died aged 82. Instead, she claimed that acting had allowed her to use both these sides of herself in a career that included theatre, films, television – and a special place in the affection and inspiration of Samuel Beckett.
By the time the playwright died in 1989, Whitelaw had established herself not only as one of his favourite interpreters, if not the favourite, but also as one of his trusted confidantes.
Her voice had as big an effect on Beckett as that of Patrick Magee. When he saw her in his work Play in a National Theatre production at the Old Vic in 1964 he determined to write especially for her. The result was Not I, a 16-minute monologue for a jabbering mouth picked out in a dark void. Whitelaw’s pell-mell, pent-up words of a lifetime were a sensation at the Royal Court.
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One of the attractions of Whitelaw for Beckett was her intellectual innocence. There was no attempt to justify the work. She performed what he wrote and became, much to her own surprise, a lecturer on the American college circuit, though she only ever talked about the plays she knew and had appeared in. “Like many men,” she said of Beckett, “the older he got the more attractive he became – at least as seen through a woman’s eyes.”
Billie Whitelaw was born in Coventry to Perceval, an electrician, and Frances (née Williams). A shadowy “Uncle Len” lived in the same house with Billie’s mother and her elder sister Constance. Her parents came from Liverpool, where Billie lived at the start of the second World War before the family moved to Bradford in 1941.
She joined a repertory company in Leeds in 1948 and worked with Peter Hall and Maggie Smith. She became one of the most familiar faces on television drama in the next two decades, usually cast as a battling working-class figure in either kitchen-sink dramas or what she called “trouble up at t’mill” plays.
She came to the attention of Laurence Olivier, and worked with him at the National in 1963. For the Royal Shakespeare Company she appeared in John Barton’s 1980 epic cycle The Greeks. Her last stage appearance – apart from her unceasing cycle of Beckett solo shows and readings – came as Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Young Vic (1986).
Marriage and divorce
Whitelaw’s film career was patchy; she made a more consistent mark on television. She appeared in Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972); The Omen (1976), as the chilling nanny Mrs Baylock; The Krays (1990), as Violet, the mother of the East End gangster brothers; and the police comedy Hot Fuzz (2007). She was at her vibrant, blowsy best in two early films with Albert Finney, Charlie Bubbles (1967) and Gumshoe (1971). In 1991 she was appointed CBE.
Whitelaw divided her time between Hampstead and Suffolk, and never quite believed her luck: “When I wake up at dawn, and that grey cloud of work anxiety is there, I only have to get up and open the window to feel so free and happy that I think I’m going to go off pop.”
She is survived by Matthew.