Downton Abbey actress Penelope Wilton returns home to Scarborough

PUBLISHED: 22:18 07 September 2012 | UPDATED: 21:50 20 February 2013

Penelope Wilton returns home to Scarborough

Penelope Wilton returns home to Scarborough

Actress Penelope Wilton swaps Downton Abbey for a day at the Yorkshire seaside

Shes paraded her buns in Calendar Girls, gutted zombies in Shaun of the Dead and endured a battle of the bouffants with Dame Maggie Smith on Downton Abbey, but now celebrated actress Penelope Wilton has yet another role to add to her extensive CV Doctor of Letters.

She recently returned to her home town of Scarborough to be presented with an honorary degree by the University of Hull, which has an expansive campus in the North Yorkshire seaside town. Other honorands included broadcaster Selina Scott, economics professor Judith Rees, Hull-born environmentalist Andrew Steel and archaeologist Terence Manby.

There were also 4,350 students graduating in courses from medicine to music, languages, law and politics.


With a record 11 ceremonies taking place, it was the largest ever graduation staged by the university.


For Penelope, the ceremony at Scarborough Spa was not just a cause for celebration; it was also a homecoming. The actress one of Britains most versatile, respected and sought-after performers was born in the seaside town in 1946 to Alice Travers, a flamboyant tap dancer from a theatrical family, and barrister Clifford Wilton.

The second of three daughters, she was sent to a convent boarding school in Surrey with the aim of equipping her with old-school manners and wifely skills to make a suitable marriage.

She went on to marry actor Daniel Massey, with whom she had a daughter, Alice. He married her younger sister after they divorced in 1984 and she went on to marry actor Ian Holm.

While her private life proved problematic, her professional life took on an almost constant upward trajectory from the start. She made her West End debut opposite Sir Ralph Richardson in 1971, and has since made regular appearances for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, twice winning the Critics Circle Award as well as notching up five best actress nominations at the Olivier Awards.

On television, Penelope first came to the publics attention in the Eighties sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles as Ann Bryce, the quietly put-upon wife of Richard Briers obsessively orderly and mind-boggling pernickety Martin.

She has also won wide acclaim for her roles in Dr Who, in which she sacrificed herself to the Daleks, The Borrowers, Bob & Rose and, of course, Downton Abbey.

In my television and film career I have found myself in a variety of places from a zombie hell to a retirement home in India and, currently, a very large castle, Penelope told the students at her graduation ceremony. Who knows where I will end up next.

For the moment, however, she was very happy to be back in Scarborough: Its a great honour to receive this doctorate in the town of my birth.
I am lucky enough to have worked in the three mediums of television, film and theatre, but of them all, theatre has meant the most.

Ive had the pleasure of working with some of the greatest playwrights, including Scarboroughs own Alan Ayckbourn.


Acting gives you a chance to have a go and discover who it is you want to play. To be in the theatre, you need to have passion. There is no point being a careful actor; you have to take risks.

Broadcaster Selina Scott is no stranger to taking risks either.


The Scarborough-born journalist surprised a lot of people when she bought a 200-acre farm near Ampleforth nearly a decade ago to raise Angora goats and produce her own range of mohair socks, but she believes flexibility and an open-mind are essential if you want to build a sustainable and sustaining career.

Im aware that youre going out into the world of work and everyone says its tough out there, she told the Hull students.
But in my experience, its always, always been tough.

After I graduated I went to work in Dundee earning 2.50 a week as the only woman in the newsroom. The men sat with their backs to me and never said a word. All my friends thought I was mad, but I stuck it out.

Sticking with it enabled her to leave her rat-infested Dundee tenement block and begin a gilded career that saw her rubbing shoulders with the likes of Princess Diana, Bill Clinton and philosopher Isaiah Berlin. But not everyone proved such a treat.

Just like my rat-infested tenement block, youre going to meet a lot of rats in your life, Selina told her fellow graduates. In my case, I have met a lot of the male variety. Donald Trump, for example, who was caught on camera lying about whether he owned the Empire State Building. And Michael Winner, who took exception to my ageism campaign and told me to shut up, go home and have a cup of cocoa.

The point is that you have to keep going. If you have got talents and are willing to adapt, to start afresh in places you never knew existed, to not do the same thing that everyone else is doing because its fashionable, then you will have the chance to create a career that suits you.

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