Helen McCrory obituary: Accomplished and versatile stage and screen actor

McCrory also led the Feed NHS scheme to provide meals for staff during the pandemic

Helen  McCrory was born on August 17th, 1968, in the Paddington area  of London, the eldest of three children. File photograph: Jeff Spicer/Getty

Helen McCrory was born on August 17th, 1968, in the Paddington area of London, the eldest of three children. File photograph: Jeff Spicer/Getty

 

Helen Elizabeth McCrory
Born: August 17th, 1968
Died: April 16th, 2021

Helen McCrory, the accomplished and versatile British stage and screen actor who played Narcissa Malfoy in three Harry Potter films and the matriarch Polly Gray in the BBC series Peaky Blinders, in addition to earning critical plaudits for her stage work, died at her home in north London. She was 52.

Her death from cancer was announced on social media on Friday by her husband, actor Damian Lewis.

McCrory was a familiar face to London theatre audiences and to British television and film viewers well before she won wider recognition in the Harry Potter movies. She began her career in the theatre in 1990, straight out of drama school, playing Gwendolen in a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in Harrogate, Yorkshire. In 1993, the director Richard Eyre, who was the head of the National Theatre, cast her in the leading role in his production of Arthur Wing Pinero’s comic play Trelawny of the ‘Wells’ for which she earned glowing reviews.

Helen McCrory as Polly Gray in the BBC series Peaky Blinders.
Helen McCrory as Polly Gray in the BBC series Peaky Blinders.

“Helen McCrory in the title role perfectly captures Rose’s crossover from a lovelorn ingénue to wounded woman,” Sheridan Morley wrote in the International Herald Tribune.

The next year she played Nina in Chekhov’s The Seagull at the National Theatre, alongside Judi Dench and Bill Nighy, and in 1995 she was named “most promising newcomer” in the Shakespeare Globe Awards for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth in the West End.

McCrory worked steadily in the theatre over the next two decades, with notable appearances as Yelena in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in 2002; as Rosalind in As You Like It in 2005 (which earned her a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for best actress); as Rebecca West in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm in 2008; and as Medea in 2016.

“Portrayed with unsettling accessibility and nerves of piano wire by Helen McCrory,” Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times, “the Medea of ancient myth has become the sad but scary crazy lady next door, the kind who inspires you to lock up your children.”

But as early as 1994, McCrory was also venturing into film and television work. In 2003 she appeared as Barbara Villiers, the mistress of Charles II, in Joe Wright’s four-part series Charles II: The Power and the Passion, and in 2006 she made a cameo appearance as Cherie Blair, the wife of former British prime minister Tony Blair, in Stephen Frears’ The Queen – a role she reprised in the 2010 film The Special Relationship, written, as was The Queen, by Peter Morgan.

McCrory became known to worldwide audiences through her 2009 role as Narcissa Malfoy, the mother of Harry’s nemesis, Draco Malfoy, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. She played the role again in parts one and two of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final films in the series. (She had in fact been slated for a larger role as Bellatrix Lestrange in the earlier Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but had been forced to withdraw after discovering she was pregnant; Helena Bonham Carter took over.)

She was good at playing villains – the evil alien Rosanna Calvierri in an episode of Doctor Who, the spiritualist Evelyn Poole in the series Penny Dreadful and, perhaps most notably, Polly Gray, the aunt of the gang boss Thomas Shelby on the period crime drama Peaky Blinders, a role she played for its five-season run from 2013 to 2019.

Helen McCrory played Narcissa Malfoy in three Harry Potter films. File photograph: Ian West/PA Wire
Helen McCrory played Narcissa Malfoy in three Harry Potter films. File photograph: Ian West/PA Wire

Helen Elizabeth McCrory was born on August 17th, 1968, in the Paddington neighbourhood of London, the eldest of three children. Her father, Iain McCrory, was a diplomat; her mother, Ann (Morgans) McCrory, worked for the National Health Service.

During her childhood, her father’s work for the Foreign Service took the family to Tanzania, Norway, Madagascar and Paris.

“Dad tells me my first appearance onstage was dancing during an official visit by the French president,” McCrory said in a 2014 interview with the Times. “I’m pretty sure the idea of being an actress came to me around that time. Every evening at the house was like a little concert.”

In her teens, she was sent back to England to the Queenswood school for girls in Hertfordshire. She began to act while there and after graduating spent a year travelling around Italy before being accepted at the Drama Centre London.

Being an actress “was the only thing I wanted to be”, she told the Times in 2017, adding that she had been “incredibly lucky” to be quickly given major roles.

McCrory met Lewis in 2003 when they were both appearing in Joanna Laurens’ Five Gold Rings at the Almeida Theatre in London. “Damian is naughty, and I’ve always loved my naughty boys,” she said last year on the BBC Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs. They had two children, Manon, in 2006, and Gulliver, in 2007, and married in 2007. Although Lewis also found fame on the television series Homeland and Billions, they maintained a low-key life in London.

“I’m much happier as I’ve got older,” McCrory told the Times in 2016. “Age has given me nothing but confidence, security and joy.” She added, “To me, ‘Helen McCrory, 47’ means nothing. ‘Helen McCrory, bad housewife and argumentative after a bottle of gin’ would be much more relevant.”

In recent years, she appeared on television in leading roles in David Hare’s political drama Roadkill and James Graham’s Quiz and as the voice of a daemon in His Dark Materials.

Last year, McCrory and Lewis spearheaded a fundraising effort to provide meals for members of the NHS staff amid the coronavirus pandemic. Their work led to donations of close to one million pounds (€1.1 million) to the Feed NHS scheme. Just a month ago, on March 12th, she appeared with Lewis on ITV’s Good Morning Britain to discuss the project.