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Atkins, Eileen (1934-)

Actor, Writer

Main image of Atkins, Eileen (1934-)

Eileen June Atkins was born on 16 June 1934 at a Salvation Army Women's Hostel in Clapton, East London, and grew up on a council estate in Tottenham. As a child she was already performing dance routines in working men's clubs before taking elocution lessons and going on to study at the Guildhall School of Drama, eventually making a name for herself at the RSC in the 1950s. She made her television debut working in two productions opposite Judi Dench: Hilda Lessways (BBC, 1959), from Arnold Bennett's Clayhanger sequence, and the groundbreaking Shakespearian series An Age of Kings (BBC, 1960), which also co-starred her then husband Julian Glover.

Her first starring role on television came in Fable (The Wednesday Play, BBC, tx. 27/1/1965), John Hopkins' controversial role-reversal commentary on apartheid in South Africa, which imagined a totalitarian Britain in which white people are the oppressed majority. The following year she was the eponymous heroine of Major Barbara (tx. ITV, 10/10/1966), Shaw's polemic against the arms industry, the first in a succession of imposing roles she would play on screen through the decades. With her penetrating eyes and elongated face she has frequently been cast as unconventional or 'difficult' women pushed to the margins of society. This can be seen in her starring roles as the anti-establishment murderess in The Letter (W. Somerset Maugham, BBC, tx. 24/6/1969), Henry James' wronged spinster in The Heiress (Play of the Month, BBC, tx. 12/10/1969), Ibsen's elemental heroine in The Lady from the Sea (BBC, 1974) and Sophocles' matricidal avenger in Electra (Play of the Month, BBC, tx. 24/10/1974).

Even when cast in older roles, Atkins has maintained her fiery persona, as seen in Sons and Lovers (BBC, 1981), where she was particularly well cast as the hero's ultra-possessive mother. For Smiley's People (BBC, 1982), virtually unrecognisable in a wig and thick accent, she was a wily ex-spy standing out amongst a rogue's gallery of character actors. Nelly's Version (tx. Channel 4, 9/6/1983) is an oblique exploration of the roles of women in society, with Atkins as an amnesiac who wakes up in a hotel room with a suitcase full of money and no idea who she is or how she got there. For the last of the BBC Television Shakespeare productions she was a scarily rational Queen Tamora in Titus Andronicus (BBC, tx. 27/4/1985). The same year a more down-to-earth approach to history could be found in The Burston Rebellion (Screen Two, BBC, tx. 24/2/1985,) playing Annie Higdon, the teacher who in 1914 set up an independent school in Norfolk after the children went on strike.

Until recently, Atkins made few excursions into the cinema, the most notable of which include such stage adaptations as John Osborne's splenetic Inadmissible Evidence (d. Anthony Page, 1968); Equus (d. Sidney Lumet, 1977), a largely unsuccessful attempt to impose a naturalistic style on Peter Shaffer's stylised play; The Dresser (d. Peter Yates, 1983, as the stage manager), from Ronald Harwood's bittersweet theatrical comedy. In Let Him Have It (d. Peter Medak, 1991) she gave a haunting performance as the mother of Derek Bentley, whose 1953 hanging for murder remains a source of controversy. Atkins has occasionally taken supporting roles in Hollywood blockbusters shot in the UK such as the much derided The Avengers (US/UK, 1998) and Ridley Scott's Robin Hood (US/UK, 2010), where she appeared as Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Atkins' fascination with the life and work of Virginia Woolf has led to several projects for stage and screen. A Room of One's Own (ITV, tx. 23/8/1990) was adapted from her one-woman stage show and was produced by her second husband, Bill Shepherd. She played Woolf for the Channel 4 series The Modern World: Ten Great Writers (1988) and appeared in The Hours (US/UK, d. Stephen Daldry, 2002), in which Nicole Kidman played Woolf. Atkins also wrote the screenplay for Mrs Dalloway (d. Marleen Gorris, 1997), a moving film version of Woolf's novel. She has also devised, but not acted in, two costume dramas in collaboration with her close friend, actress Jean Marsh: the enormously popular and highly influential Upstairs, Downstairs (ITV, 1971-75) and The House of Eliott (BBC, 1991-94). It seemed only fitting that Robert Altman's Gosford Park (UK/US, 2001), which clearly owed a debt to Upstairs, Downstairs, should not only feature Atkins but give her a crucial part in the unravelling of the plot in its power-charged finale.

More recently she found great popular success in her BAFTA-winning role as the prudish Deborah Jenkyns in Cranford (BBC, 2007; 2009), reuniting with Judi Dench. She has also collaborated again with Jean Marsh for a new series of Upstairs, Downstairs (BBC, 2010), and this time took an acting role opposite her friend.

Eileen Atkins was awarded a CBE in 1990 and made a Dame in 2001.

Sergio Angelini

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Age of Kings, An (1960)Age of Kings, An (1960)

Ambitious history of medieval British royalty, adapted from Shakespeare

Thumbnail image of Fable (1965)Fable (1965)

Controversial TV drama imagining Britain under black rule

Thumbnail image of Smiley's People (1982)Smiley's People (1982)

The sequel to 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy', again starring Alec Guinness

Thumbnail image of Titus Andronicus (1985)Titus Andronicus (1985)

The final BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation

Thumbnail image of Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75)Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75)

Hugely popular drama about life in an early 20th Century London household

Thumbnail image of Vision, The (1988)Vision, The (1988)

Dirk Bogarde uncovers sinister motives behind a new satellite TV channel

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Thumbnail image of Marsh, Jean (1934-)Marsh, Jean (1934-)

Actor, Writer