Dame Eileen Atkins is a guest on this week’s episode of The Graham Norton Show, which airs Friday (October 22) at 11pm EST on BBC America, and surprisingly, it’s her first ever appearance on the show. To whet your appetite, we’re making her our British Icon of the Week and celebrating some of her career highlights and interesting things about her.
1. She had a humble upbringing in Tottenham, northeast London – the same neighborhood that Adele is from.
The posh accent Atkins speaks in now is the product of elocution lessons she was given as an adolescent. "When I was in panto at 12, somebody told my mother I had a Cockney accent. They said: ‘We won’t be able to give her more lines,’" Atkins told The Times, adding that without the drama teacher who subsequently gave her elocution lessons, "I’d have been working in a fish shop in Tottenham."
2. She co-created the classic British period drama series Upstairs, Downstairs.
Set in a fancy London townhouse in the early 1900s, the show followed the changing relationship between masters (upstairs) and servants (downstairs) as the British aristocracy gradually declined in influence. The series won eight Emmys during its original run in the 1970s, when it aired on PBS in the U.S. and ITV in the U.K., and was revived by the BBC in 2010. Atkins didn't appear in the original series, but portrayed the rather grand Lady Holland in the revival. 3. She's a highly acclaimed theater actress.
Among her stage accolades: four Tony nominations and three Olivier awards. Atkins is due to return to the West End stage next year in a production of 4000 Miles, Amy Herzog's play about a grieving grandson and his tough-as-nails grandmother, that was sadly delayed by Covid-19. Her co-star will be Timothée Chalamet.
4. She played Queen Mary in season one of The Crown.
Atkins brought great dignity to the role of Mary, Queen Elizabeth II's grandmother, though she recently told The Guardian self-deprecatingly that the role was mainly "lying about in bed and smoking.”5. She's great friends with fellow Dames Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Joan Plowright.
You can soak up their unique chemistry in the charming 2018 documentary film Tea with the Dames.6. She was made a Dame for services to drama back in 2001.
You can see Atkins collecting her Damehood from Prince Charles in this clip from Tea with the Dames, in which she admits that she didn't agree to accept her Damehood straight away, but was ultimately "pleased as punched" with the accolade. 7. She won Emmy and BAFTA awards for her performance in the 2008 BBC period drama series Cranford.
In this excellent series set in the fictional small town of Cranford in Victorian England, Atkins played the straight-taking moral guardian Deborah Jenkyns. She took pride of place in a stacked cast that included Dench, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Jim Carter. 8. She's now a main cast member on one of the U.K.'s most popular drama series, Doc Martin.
Atkins joined in season five as Ruth Ellingham, a retired forensic psychiatrist who's also the aunt of Martin Clunes' title character. Season 10 is due to start shooting in early 2022, and you can catch up with previous seasons on Acorn TV.9. She has no intention of retiring.
Atkins told the Daily Telegraph in 2018 that she cannot afford to retire because she and her husband lost money on the 1997 movie Mrs. Dalloway, which they invested heavily in. "I have to work. I was nearly bankrupted over Mrs. Dalloway, and if you are nearly bankrupted, you are in trouble for the rest of your life," she said candidly. "I don't have a pension. In any case, it doesn't hurt me to work. I think it's quite good, actually."
10. And finally, she was propositioned by Colin Farrell when they worked together on the 2006 movie Ask the Dust – but politely turned him down.
Atkins shared the story on The Jonathan Ross Show, graciously describing Farrell as "enchanting."Do you have a favorite Dame Eileen Atkins performance?