‘The Queen Mother was an extremely clever woman’: Downton Abbey’s Penelope Wilton pays tribute to ‘quick and acerbic’ grandmother of King Charles as she prepares to play her on stage
- Penelope will play the Queen Mother in the play Backstairs Billy
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Penelope Wilton has described the late Queen Mother as an ‘extremely clever woman’ as she prepares to take ont he role of King Charles’ grandmother in a new play.
The Downton Abbey actress portrays Queen Elizabeth in the West End comedy Backstairs Billy, which details her relationship with Royal Family steward William Tallon, played by Luke Evans of Beauty and the Beast.
‘There was nothing she didn’t find interesting,’ the actress told The Telegraph. There’s nothing sentimental about this. The Queen Mother was very, very quick. She could be acerbic.’
Ahead of the play’s debut, Ms Wilton, 77, read countless books to educate herself on every aspect of Elizabeth’s life – from the royal’s mannerisms to her heel height.
She pointed out Elizabeth’s inclination towards a lively social life, which might have stemmed from being widowed at 51 and needing to plot a whole new future for herself.
Penelope Wilton portrays Queen Elizabeth in the West End comedy Backstairs Billy, which details her relationship with Royal Family steward William Tallon, played by Luke Evans of Beauty and the Beast
The production at the Duke of York Theatre in London, is set in 1979 against the backdrop of civil unrest in Britain.
It is directed by Michael Grandage and written by Marcelo Dos Santos.
Ms Wilton, who expressed her honor in portraying the role, had nothing but praise for her character.
She cited Queen Elizabeth’s refusal to evacuate during the Nazi bombardment. It proved such a significant boost to British morale that Adolf Hitler dubbed her ‘the most dangerous woman in Europe’.
In preparation for the expected Nazi invasion, the royal took shooting lessons with pistols and rifles in the gardens of Buckingham Palace, sometimes using as her targets the scurrying rats that had been set loose on London’s streets as buildings collapsed in the air raids.
The actress clarified that the play offers a speculative view of what the lives of Elizabeth and William could have been, emphasising its fictional nature.
Nevertheless, Ms Wilton mentioned that she would undergo a comprehensive transformation involving hair, make-up and costume to resemble the royal figure.
The Queen Mother and William Tallon at Prince William’s christening in 1982
The Queen Mother and the real ‘Backstairs Billy’, William Tallon, during her 97th birthday celebrations at Clarence House in 1997
Ms Wilton elaborated on how Elizabeth embodied the spirit of her Edwardian era, often being politically incorrect but determined in pursuing the life she wanted.
William Tallon, a shopkeeper’s son from Coventry, spent half a century as the Queen Mother’s butler.
He began royal duties after leaving school and his first post was as a junior assistant in the Steward’s Room at Buckingham Palace.
Having served for two years in the RAF for his National Service, he joined the Queen Mother’s household at Clarence House.
He was given the use of Gate Lodge, a cottage attached to his supervisor’s home. All the furnishings, decorations and most of the pictures hanging on the walls came from the Queen Mother’s collection.
William is reported to have been a devoted companion, tending to Elizabeth’s every need, organising her luncheons and taking care of the corgis.
The Queen Mother appreciated his lively personality and overlooked his romantic adventures – he was renowned for bringing young men back to Clarence House for late-night trysts.
Ms Wilton explained how thrilled she is to be returning to the stage. She previously starred alongside Michael Gambon in William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in 1981.
The actress was born in Scarborough in 1946 to actress Alice Travers and Clifford Wilton.
She is also fondly remembered for playing Ann Bryce in the 1980s BBC sitcom Ever Decreasing Circle.
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