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Wanamaker, Zoë (1949-)


Main image of Wanamaker, Zoë (1949-)

Despite building a formidable screen CV from 1971 on, Zoe Wanamaker had her first taste of real fame in Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran's popular comic drama Love Hurts (ITV, 1992-94), playing single career girl Tessa Piggott, dumped by a lover who is also her boss and finding new opportunities working for a charity before eventually, if reluctantly, falling for Adam Faith's entrepreneur. The actress seems seldom out of work on stage or screen despite, or because of her unconventional looks - part feline, part pixie, often topped by short, spikey hair - and her low, husky, nicotine-drenched purr of a voice.

She was born on 13 May 1949 in New York City to Jewish parents, her father being the celebrated actor, director and tireless Globe Theatre campaigner Sam Wanamaker, who was blacklisted in the 1950s, after which the whole family moved to England. Her mother Charlotte was also an actress and radio star. Zoë was privately educated in Hampstead, before attending a Quaker boarding school in Somerset.

As an American in North London, she always felt slightly exotic but not especially Jewish, since her parents were stolidly secular. Neither encouraged her to pursue an acting career, so she studied painting and then ballet for a time, finally opting to train at the Central School of Speech and Drama. She came up through the repertory theatre system, and her stage work spans Shakespeare, contemporary classics, musicals, even pantomime; she has performed with both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre.

She excels in comedy and has played several grotesques, notably Clarice, one of the dim-witted twin sisters of Lord Groan in Gormenghast (BBC, 2000); eccentric crime writer Ariadne Oliver in Agatha Christie Poirot (ITV, 2003-) and Madame Hooch in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (US/UK, 2001) - and who could forget her startling 'appearance' as Cassandra in two Doctor Who (BBC, 2005-) stories, reduced to a CGI face stretched across a piece of skin?

Her range, however, also embraces many small-screen versions of classic theatre, as well as roles in significant TV drama, such as Edge of Darkness (BBC, 1985), as intelligence agent Clementine; the ambitious but ultimately disappointing Paradise Postponed (ITV, 1986), in which she played disturbed and embittered Charlotte, who marries the loathsome Tory Leslie Titmuss; and the first series of Prime Suspect (ITV, 1991), which won her a BAFTA nomination for her performance as the surly and suspicious prostitute married to the prime suspect himself. In recent years she has become best known for one of TV's longest-running sitcoms, My Family (BBC, 2000-), playing bossy control freak Susan Harper, long-suffering wife to Robert Lindsay's grumpy and sarcastic dentist, Ben. She has won the Rose d'Or for the role.

She holds British and American citizenship, and was awarded a CBE in 2000. She is involved with several charities, and oversaw the final stages of the Globe Theatre project, following her father's death before its completion; she spoke the first lines from the stage at the opening ceremony.

Janet Moat

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

The film that brought J.K. Rowling's boy wizard to the big screen

Thumbnail image of Agatha Christie's Poirot (1989-)Agatha Christie's Poirot (1989-)

The casebook of Belgium's finest detective

Thumbnail image of Christmas Carol, A (1977)Christmas Carol, A (1977)

Michael Hordern stars as Scrooge in this BBC Dickens adaptation

Thumbnail image of Edge of Darkness (1985)Edge of Darkness (1985)

Masterly anti-nuclear drama by Troy Kennedy Martin

Thumbnail image of Memento Mori (1992)Memento Mori (1992)

Outstanding adaptation of Muriel Spark's unsettling novel

Thumbnail image of My Family (2000-)My Family (2000-)

Long-running sitcom about a dentist's fractious relationship with his family

Thumbnail image of Othello (1990)Othello (1990)

Acclaimed RSC production with Ian McKellen and Willard White

Thumbnail image of Prime Suspect (1991-2006)Prime Suspect (1991-2006)

A female detective confronts tough cases and prejudiced colleagues

Thumbnail image of Tragedy of Richard III, The (1983)Tragedy of Richard III, The (1983)

Near-complete BBC version of Shakespeare's tale of villainy

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