Helen McCrory was such a vivid person that, when the announcement came last Friday, it was hard to take in the news that she had died. Only 52, the mother of two young children, she seemed to have many vibrant years ahead at the top of her profession. Richard Eyre, one of Helen’s first directors (in Trelawny of the “Wells” at the National Theatre in 1994), said in a tribute that he saw her as the next Judi Dench. She had a similar ability to command an audience, to illuminate the biggest theatre, including from the Olivier stage, even in her early twenties.
Her obituaries refer first to Peaky Blinders and then to her film roles, in Harry Potter, in Skyfall and as Cherie Blair in The Queen and The Special Relationship. She could indeed light up the screen, but for those of us lucky enough to have seen her on stage she was unsurpassed. She shone in roles at the Donmar – especially a languid, erotic Yelena in Uncle Vanya – at the Almeida, where she met her husband Damian Lewis in Five Gold Rings, and at the National Theatre. There her fervent, wronged but powerful Medea and passionate, sexy, suffering Hester Collyer in Rattigan’s Deep Blue Sea were unforgettable.
As a journalist, a met Helen a few times and was impressed by her no-nonsense generosity. Some 20 years ago, while in Poland filming Anna Karenina for Channel 4, those of us covering the shoot became temporary honorary company members. Getting back to a silent hotel in Wroclaw in the early hours, starving after late night filming in the January cold, we found the kitchens closed. It was Helen, the star, who immediately fell to organising things, sent out for pizzas for everyone, and an impromptu party ensued.
Helen’s charity work, notably with Feed NHS during the past year, is well known and we have been robbed of much brilliance on stage and screen. But what fun she must have been too as a wife and mother.