Helen McCrory’s hidden cancer battle: Actress swore friends to secrecy as she ‘heroically’ faced gruelling treatment while continuing to carry out charity work before her death
- Peaky Blinders and Harry Potter died at 52 after a secret battle with cancer, husband said yesterday
- The actress, who was married to actor Damian Lewis, died at home ‘peacefully’ surrounded by family
- Colleague Carrie Cracknell said she wanted to keep her illness private to avoid people focusing on it
Helen McCrory swore friends to secrecy as she dealt ‘heroically’ with her gruelling cancer treatment while continuing to carry out charity work just weeks before her death aged 52, a colleague revealed today.
Carrie Cracknell, who directed Helen McCrory in a stage production of Medea, said the actress wanted to keep her illness secret to avoid it becoming a focus over her professional life and philanthropy.
The Peaky Blinders and Harry Potter star appeared on TV to promote the Prince’s Trust only six weeks before her death, and shared her secret struggle with ‘very, very few people’, according to Cracknell.
She told BBC’s Today programme: ‘Helen wanted to be very private about her illness and I understand why. When you live in the public spotlight you have to find space to protect the things that are just for you.
‘Very, very few people knew, and I only did because we were planning to transfer a show to Broadway and we had to cancel that because she was undergoing treatment. We were sworn to secrecy.
‘Her need to be fully alive and be committed and to take things incredibly seriously, such as her family and charity work, defined her last few years for her as much as ever.’
Cracknell said McCrory wanted to focus on these aspects of her life, as well as her acting, rather than her illness.
She added: ‘Helen faced up to it with a level of bravery and humour that was completely extraordinary and was teaching people around her how to live. It was a very remarkable thing.’
McCrory, who played Polly Gray in Peaky Blinders and Narcissa Malfoy in Harry Potter, died ‘peacefully’ at home surrounded by friends and family, her husband Damian Lewis said yesterday.
The Homeland star tweeted: ‘I’m heartbroken to announce that after a heroic battle with cancer, the beautiful and mighty woman that is Helen McCrory has died peacefully at home, surrounded by a wave of love from friends and family.
‘She died as she lived. Fearlessly. God we love her and know how lucky we are to have had her in our lives. She blazed so brightly. Go now, Little One, into the air, and thank you.’
The ‘beautiful and mighty’ actress, who was awarded the OBE for services to drama in the 2017 New Years Honours, was best known for playing the matriarch Polly in Peaky Blinders and Narcissa Malfoy in the Harry Potter films.
Helen McCrory had been married to fellow actor Damian Lewis since 2007 and shared two children with him – daughter Manon, 14, and 13-year-old son Gulliver (the couple are pictured in February last year)
McCrory as Polly Gray in Peaky Blinders in 2019. A friend said today that she decided to keep her cancer secret to avoid people focusing on it over her career
McCrory pictured as Polly Gray in Peaky Blinders left, and as Narcissa Malfoy in the Potter franchise, right
McCrory and Lewis married in 2007 after falling in love when they were both cast in the play Five Gold Rings at the off-West End Almeida Theatre back in 2003. Together they share a daughter Manon, 14, (left) and son Gulliver, 13 (pictured)
Lewis with Gulliver and Mamon (right) during an outing on Oxford Street in central London earlier this year
Carrie Cracknell, (right) who directed McCrory in a 2014 stage production of Medea, (left) said the actress wanted to keep her illness secret to avoid it becoming a focus over her professional life and philanthropy
Across a 30-year career, Helen McCrory carved out a reputation for playing fiery, complex characters on stage and screen.
The actress, who has died aged 52 from cancer, was best known for starring as matriarch Polly Gray in Birmingham-set BBC crime thriller Peaky Blinders and as politician Clair Dowar in the James Bond film Skyfall.
She also portrayed Cherie Blair in both 2006’s The Queen and 2010’s The Special Relationship, royal and political dramas written by The Crown’s Peter Morgan.
Elsewhere, she appeared as Narcissa Malfoy, mother of Draco, in the final three Harry Potter films.
McCrory was born in Paddington, London, in August 1968 to a Welsh mother and Scottish-born father, the eldest of three children.
She attended school in Hertfordshire, then spent a year living in Italy, before returning to London to study acting at the Drama Centre.
In 1990 she made her stage debut as Gwendolen Fairfax in The Importance of Being Earnest at Harrogate Theatre.
She appeared in some 25 productions during the 1990s through to the mid-2010s, with credits including Macbeth, As You Like It and Pride And Prejudice.
McCrory and Homeland star Damian Lewis married in 2007 and had their daughter Manon in 2006 and son Gulliver in 2007.
Her first pregnancy forced her to pull out of Harry Potter And The Order of the Phoenix, in which she had been cast as Bellatrix Lestrange.
The part went to Helena Bonham Carter but McCrory was later cast as Bellatrix’s sister Narcissa.
She also took the role of villainous Rosanna Calvierri in the Doctor Who episode The Vampires Of Venice.
In 2014, she played the title role in the National Theatre’s production of the Greek tragedy Medea, directed by Carrie Cracknell.
The same year she guest starred in TV series Penny Dreadful before returning in the following series as the main antagonist.
In Peaky Blinders she played Polly Gray, aunt of Cillian Murphy’s Tommy Shelby and the treasurer of the Peaky Blinders crime family.
She also lent her voice as a daemon to His Dark Materials on the BBC.
McCrory was made an OBE in the 2017 New Year Honours for services to drama but almost missed the commendation after mistaking the notification letter for an unpaid bill for her husband.
Collecting the honour at Buckingham Palace, she told the PA news agency she was particularly thrilled to receive her gong from the Queen, saying: ‘I am so excited, I am so elated.’
On April 16, Lewis announced in a statement his wife had died from cancer, describing her as ‘beautiful and mighty’.
Some two months before her death, McCrory appeared alongside her husband on Good Morning Britain via a video call to promote the Prince’s Trust and the work it was doing during the pandemic.
McCrory appeared on Desert Island Disks in June, where she revealed that her happiest moments were dancing with her husband.
She chose Pull Up to the Bumper by Grace Jones as her favourite record and said: ‘If ever I want him at a party and I can’t see where he is – and it won’t surprise you to hear that’s quite often – I will go to the DJ and say put this song on. And I know that [even] if I’m in another building he will find me and we will dance to this.’
Her other movie roles included playing MP Clair Dowar in Skyfall and Cherie Blair in The Queen and The Special Relationship. On television, she appeared in Doctor Who, Inside No 9 and His Dark Materials, and last year appeared in the Hugh Laurie drama Roadkill on the BBC and ITV’s Quiz.
She also had an accomplished stage career, winning plaudits for National Theatre roles in productions of Medea and Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea.
McCrory was also was nominated for an Olivier for her role as Rosalind in As You Like It in at London’s Wyndham’s theatre in 2006. Her husband led tributes to the star last night along with JK Rowling, Michael Sheen, Taron Egerton, Cillian Murphy and Kate Beckinsale.
It came as footage emerged of McCrory laughing as Lewis serenades their recently married friends at a wedding held months before she died.
Heartwarming pictures capture the couple celebrating the occasion in London on September 24 last year by singing along to a series of classic Irish tracks, with Lewis strumming the strings of his guitar.
McCrory cut a sophisticated figure at the Chelsea Registry offices in a polka dot blouse, high-waisted trousers and a wool coat while her husband dressed in a dapper dark blue suit, teamed with a white shirt and a patterned tie.
She had her arm in a sling, nearly a year after she used a scarf to support the same limb during a night out, as she held the song sheet so that Lewis did not fluff his lines.
McCrory and Lewis married in 2007 after falling in love when they were both cast in the play Five Gold Rings at the off-West End Almeida Theatre back in 2003. Together they share a daughter Manon, 14, and son Gulliver, 13.
The couple were last seen during an appearance on Good Morning Britain last month, where they appeared to speak about their charity work for the Prince’s Trust and the Prince’s Trust Awards.
They led fundraising efforts to provide hot meals for NHS staff during the pandemic. Their work led to almost £1million in donations to the Feed NHS scheme, and partnerships with chains including Leon and Wasabi.
Actor Michael Sheen, who worked with McCrory in ITV drama Quiz, paid tribute: ‘So funny, so passionate, so smart and one of the greatest actors of our time. From the first moment I met her when we were just kids it was obvious she was very special.
‘It was an honour to work with her and know her. Much love to Damian and her family. Heartbreaking.’
Harry Potter author JK Rowling said on Twitter: ‘I’m devastated to learn of the death of Helen McCrory, an extraordinary actress and a wonderful woman who’s left us far too soon.
‘My deepest condolences to her family, especially her husband and children. Simply heartbreaking news.’
Actor Cillian Murphy, who starred alongside McCrory in Peaky Blinders, said in a statement: ‘I am broken-hearted to lose such a dear friend.
‘Helen was a beautiful, caring, funny, compassionate human being.
‘She was also a gifted actor – fearless and magnificent. She elevated and made humane every scene, every character she played.
‘It was a privilege to have worked with this brilliant woman, to have shared so many laughs over the years.
‘I will dearly miss my pal. My love and thoughts are with Damian and her family.’
Heartwarming pictures capture McCrory and Lewis celebrating the occasion in London on September 24 last year by singing along to a series of classic Irish tracks
Helen cut a sophisticated figure at the Chelsea Registry offices in a polka dot blouse, high-waisted trousers and a wool coat while her husband dressed in a dapper dark blue suit, teamed with a white shirt and a patterned tie
Damian was spotted on the steps of the Chelsea Registry offices playing the guitar at his friend’s wedding. He was in attendance with his actress wife Helen for the event
McCrory had her arm in a sling as she held the song sheet so that Damian did not fluff his lines at the September 24 ceremony
Lewis wears a face covering as he holds a guitar and passes notes over to his beloved wife as onlookers at the ceremony laugh
McCrory wipes her face as she holds the documents saying Irish and Celtic song lyrics for her husband Lewis as he plays the guitar
Peaky Blinders and Harry Potter star Helen McCrory has passed away at 52 after ‘heroic battle’ with cancer, her husband Damian Lewis confirmed on Friday afternoon (the couple are pictured last month on Good Morning Britain)
In his statement, Lewis said: ‘I’m heartbroken to announce that after a heroic battle with cancer, the beautiful and mighty woman that is Helen McCrory has died peacefully at home, surrounded by a wave of love from friends and family’
Rocketman star Taron Egerton said: ‘I did my first job with Helen. It was at the National Theatre in Stephen Beresford’s the Last of the Haussmanns.
‘I played a teenage boy who was besotted with her. It wasn’t difficult; she was kind, funny, awe-inspiringly talented and was full of so much life.
‘I bumped into her and Damian many times over the past ten or so years and she was always the same; full of warmth, cheekiness and fun.
‘I will always remember the scenes we shared in that play. She helped make me a better actor. She was amazing. Condolences to her family.’
Asa Butterfield, who starred as a young teenager opposite McCrory in the 2011 big-budget film Hugo, tweeted: ‘This really really hurts.
‘Thank you Helen, for your wisdom, your talent, your generosity. You lit up every room, and the world will miss you.’
Rufus Sewell tweeted: ‘Blindsided by this. Helen was a force of nature and just so f***ing great in ALL ways.’
Actor Jim Howick, who worked with McCrory and her husband on the 2015 comedy film Bill, tweeted: ‘This is so shocking and sad. Helen along with Damien were both terrific fun on Bill.
‘She was so generous with her time and her performance. I urge everyone to listen to her Desert Island Disks. What a talent we have lost.’
Piers Wenger, BBC director of drama, paid tribute to McCrory, who starred in the broadcaster’s Peaky Blinders.
‘Helen was one of the finest actresses this country will ever see,’ he said. ‘From Potter to Peaky, from Blair to Bond, Helen’s fearlessness made every part she played unique and unmissable.
‘Her body of work speaks of her extraordinary talent, what it doesn’t speak of is her kindness, intelligence and sense of fun. This is too soon, too cruel. Our thoughts are with her family and friends at this incredibly sad time.’
The official Twitter account for gang drama Peaky Blinders, which starred McCrory, shared a tribute to the actress.
Alongside a picture of McCrory as Aunt Polly, a message said: ‘All our love and thoughts are with Helen’s family. Rest in peace’.
The Wizarding World Twitter account, home to the Harry Potter franchise, tweeted: ‘We are deeply saddened to hear of the passing of our beloved Helen McCrory, who played Narcissa Malfoy with such depth and brilliance in the Harry Potter film series.
‘She was a wonderful actor and a very dear friend; Harry Potter fans will miss her very much.’
Rev Richard Coles was among those paying tribute. He wrote on Twitter: ‘Very sorry to hear of the death of Helen McCrory, such a brilliant actor; heartfelt condolences to Damian Lewis, their children, and all who loved her.’
Actor and director Noel Clarke said: ‘RIP #HelenMcCrory you were the best and always lovely to me. It was a pleasure to work with you. Love ya. Blessings to Damian and the family.’
McCrory also played MP Clair Dowar in the 2012 James Bond film Skyfall alongside Daniel Craig (right), and last year appeared in the Hugh Laurie drama Roadkill on the BBC (left)
McCrory was best known for playing the matriarch Polly Gray in hit BBC crime drama Peaky Blinders
Helen McCrory attends the Virgin Media British Academy Television Awards 2019 at The Royal Festival Hall on May 12, 2019
Damian Lewis and Helen McCrory at the 64th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles in September 2012
Helen McCrory is made an OBE at Buckingham Palace in London, in November 2017
Helen McCrory and Jennifer Saunders at the British Vogue Centenary Gala Dinner in London in May 2016
Actress Michelle Collins tweeted: ‘I’m really shocked so so sad I had the pleasure of meeting her and briefly worked with her, she certainly was a Tour de force, clever, charming and fierce and a brilliant actor my heart goes out to Damian and her family, bloody cancer I hate you!!’
The actor Kevin McKidd, who starred opposite McCrory in the 2000 TV miniseries Anna Karenina, tweeted: ‘I am utterly heartbroken to hear this.. Damian I’m sending you and the family all my love and warmth at this time.
‘Helen , we love you. Your talent, humanity and passion for life will be remembered by me and everyone your life touched with deep gratitude. Rest In Peace dear one.’
Television presenter Dermot O’Leary paid tribute to McCrory, tweeting: ‘Had the good fortune to meet and interview Helen McCrory a few times. A mighty talent, with always a hint of mischief. Really lovely company. Very sad news.’
Comedian Matt Lucas, who worked with McCrory on the FeedNHS campaign to supply food for NHS staff amid the pandemic, tweeted: ‘Helen McCrory will be remembered not just for her remarkable stage and screen performances, but also for her selflessness and generosity.
‘She and Damian were the motor driving FeedNHS, working tirelessly during the pandemic to raise millions for others. What a tremendous loss.’
Rufus Norris, the artistic director of the National Theatre, said McCrory was ‘unquestionably one of the great actors of her generation’.
‘We are devastated to hear of the passing of Helen McCrory, unquestionably one of the great actors of her generation,’ Mr Norris said in a statement.
‘Helen had a long and rich association with the National Theatre, including most recently a towering performance as Medea and a definitive Hester Collyer in The Deep Blue Sea.
‘With her incisive wit and ferocious intelligence, she was one of the most charismatic and distinctive performers. She was also a deeply beloved member of this theatre’s broader community.
‘All my colleagues join me in wishing her family and friends our deepest condolences. We are shattered, and will all miss her terribly.’ Pinewood Studios, the home of the James Bond films, also paid tribute in a statement.
It said: ‘We’re sad to hear of the untimely passing of British actor Helen McCrory. As well as Narcissa Malfoy in Harry Potter she graced Pinewood and Shepperton with her presence for roles in Skyfall, Hugo, Their Finest and many more. Our thoughts are with her family.’
A spokesman for the Old Vic said: ‘We are devastated to hear of the loss of Helen McCrory. She was brilliant, vivacious, and she made us laugh. A luminous presence on stage and on screen.’
Bafta said it was ‘sad’ to hear of McCrory’s death. ‘As well as fearless Polly Gray in BAFTA-winning Peaky Blinders, she was in 2007 Best Film BAFTA winner The Queen, amongst many other films and TV shows,’ a post on the film academy’s official Twitter page said.
Macmillan Cancer Support, a charity supported by McCrory and Lewis, said it was ‘deeply saddened’ by the death of the actress. ‘We would like to send our condolences to her family and loved ones this evening,’ it said.
Aisling Bea, who starred with McCrory in Quiz, tweeted: ‘Utterly heartbreaking, what a loss. Every actor looks & looked up to Helen McCrory – so brilliant and gripping and transformative and those who knew her as a friend really loved her.
‘On Quiz last year & she was just so bloody cool, with funny anecdotes & stories and worrying about remembering all her lines.
‘I could not believe that THE Helen McCrory was pacing up & down, worried about lines, she was so down to earth & openly vulnerable, all for the craft & being as good as possible.
‘Then we watched her in the courtroom pretty much do a one-woman monologue and be incredibly excellent and not forget a thing. #RIPHelenMcCrory Thoughts go out to her family and friends.’
Mark Gatiss added: ‘Unbearable and unbelievable that Helen McCrory has gone.. A genuine firecracker with an aching vulnerability. A wonderful actor and a wonderful woman. Thoughts with Damian and family. RIP.’
Comedian John Bishop tweeted: ‘I am shattered to hear this news . Helen was a beautiful supportive person to those of us who had the honour to know or work with her. The world has just lost some of its sparkle.
‘My heart goes out to Damian and the family, no words of condolences will ever be enough.’
Paying tribute to McCrory, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan recalled her help in unveiling a statue of Millicent Fawcett, where McCrory performed an adaptation of one of the suffragist leader’s speeches.
‘So sad to hear this news,’ he tweeted. ‘Helen McCrory was an unparalleled talent and made a difference to many young Londoners through her charity work.
‘I have fond memories of her helping us unveil the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square. Sending love to her family.’
William Russell, Lord Mayor of the City of London and the half-brother of Lewis, said: ‘We will all miss my sister-in-law Helen McCrory. I have many fond memories of her.
‘A huge loss to my family as well as to British acting. Thank you for the messages of condolence and sympathy which people have sent.’
McCrory appeared in ITV series Quiz, based on a controversy surrounding the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? show
McCrory pictured second from the right alongside Jason Isaacs, Tom Felton and Helena Bonham Carter for Harry Potter
Damian Lewis receives an OBE pictured with Helen McCrory at Buckingham Palace in November 2014
Helen McCrory and Jerry Hall at the Prince’s Trust ‘Invest In Futures’ Gala, London, in February 2016
McCrory was born in Paddington, London, to a Welsh mother and Scottish-born father and was the eldest of three children. She attended school in Hertfordshire, then spent a year living in Italy, before returning to London to study acting at the Drama Centre.
Her passing comes after she joined Lewis on the BBC Coronavirus Newscast podcast to discuss the difficulties she’s been feeling in the pandemic.
She said: ‘We’re all doing our bit and not going out. But you feel responsible, you know you’re watching the news, we’re all reading it, we’re all finding out what’s happening over the world, and it’s so overwhelming…
‘It sort of seems, as Damian says, it’s fantastical. You think you’re absolutely fine, you’re pottering along, you’re coping with it. Cleaning, cooking, cleaning, cooking, cleaning, cooking. And you suddenly burst into tears.
‘And it’s this fear, and it’s the vulnerability coming out, and then you pick yourself up and you go along again as if nothing happened. And it’s very surreal.’
The couple are known for their philanthropic efforts and have dedicated much of their time to charity work.
In September 2019, they were on hand to help honour finance workers killed in September 11 attacks, as they took calls on behalf of their chosen charity Cure EB.
Last year, they held a fundraiser in which they hoped to raise £1million to give hot meals to busy NHS staff who are working tirelessly during the coronavirus crisis.
On the fundraiser, she said at the time: ‘So we decided that we wanted to try and get food to these people who were working such long hours and weren’t able to.
‘So we phoned a man called John Vincent, who’s at Leon, and he was already interested, and already trying to help the NHS.
‘And together we started a campaign to try and raise £1 million to feed NHS, which the front line was London initially, and as we’re getting closer to that million, we’re taking that out nationwide.’
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