Helen McCrory remembered: ‘She had a brightness about her. She was a star’

By Richard Eyre

Part of the tragedy of Helen McCrory dying at such a young age, leaving a husband and two young children, is that professionally she had everything to look forward to. She had established herself as a very considerable actor in the theatre and on film and television.

She had a brightness about her, a luminosity: she was, in short, a star. She lit up a stage or a screen – you knew you were in the presence of a force of character and talent.

When I was running the National Theatre in the 1990s we cast her in a play about the theatre called Trelawny of the Wells – part comedy, part melodrama.

She played the part of a young actress who married a dull man, whose family found her behaviour too extravagant: she left him to return to the theatre.

In some ways this was essential Helen. She was shortly out of drama school, strong-willed, hugely gifted, and she took possession of the Olivier auditorium – a giant cauldron that requires great heat to bring to the boil. I can still remember her call in the play to her fellow actors: “Boys!” she said, with a voice that cracked like Judi Dench’s and touched the heart of everyone in the audience and mine especially. I adored her.

Helen triumphed in the theatre – among many remarkable appearances, a performance as Hester Collyer in Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea that suggested that the part might have been written for her – and she excelled on film, endowing the character of Cherie Blair [in The Queen] with her own wit and generosity.

Apart from her elegance and grace and skill, she had an entirely endearing brassiness, by which I mean the glitter of a fine brass player rather more than the flash of a mouthy barmaid. She was open and honest and a great leveller: direct and true. I’m sure that, as John Bunyan said, she will have passed over and all the trumpets will have sounded for her on the other side.

I think Helen was philosophical about her death. It’s possible she could have shown us how not to be angry and upset that such a malign fate has deprived us of her company and her talent at such an early age. She was a comet who blazed very brightly and brightened everyone and everything that she encountered.