A real wartime love story from Downton Abbey star

Penelope Wilton
Penelope Wilton

Downton Abbey star Penelope Wilton is appearing in Sheffield to relive a real-life drama from World War One.

The Grave of Winter looks at the heartbreaking love story of Edward and Helen Thomas, which ended when Edward was killed on the frontline.

Penelope and Tom Durham will be reading some of Edward’s poetry and Helen’s memoirs at the event, a prelude to an evening concert for the Music in the Round Love and War chamber music festival.

Penelope said: “It wasn’t an easy relationship. He suffered terribly from depression. He was actually much better when he went to war but he got killed practically straightaway.

“Edward started as a fiction writer and became a poet, encouraged by the well-known US writer, Robert Frost. I’m reading Helen’s remembrances, interspersed with the poems he wrote to her.”

Penelope said the couple married and had children young. “Helen was not a conventional woman. She didn’t believe particularly in marriage, she was a free spirit. If anyone was going to marry Edward, it would be her. He would disappear for days or weeks on end and she didn’t panic.”

Penelope already knew their story as her interest in poetry had led to her to read about Edward, who wrote a lot about the countryside.

“He was fascinating to me. He thought about things while he walked, like a lot of poets. He wrote about the Wiltshire countryside, which I know well.”

Penelope got involved with the festival through Sheffield-based broadcaster and writer Paul Allen. They met when he interviewed her as a young actress for the Night Waves radio arts programme.

She is also a long-time fan of the city’s theatre scene. “I’m a big admirer of the work that is done at the Crucible, which is the envy of many towns.”

Penelope, who is originally from Scarborough, is busy filming the latest series of Downton Abbey.

The cast and crew have been working since February and it will be on TV in September. The series is set in 1924 but Penelope says she is sworn to secrecy about the plotlines.

She did hint: “I am pleased to say that my character Isobel gets on to all sorts!”

She said: “It’s a bit like being in a repertory company with all the different age groups working together. We know each other very well now. It’s a very nice group of people to work with.”

She said: “Everyone has been surprised at the phenomenon of it but I’m delighted it is so popular. It is sold to so many countries all over the world. Everyone seems to enjoy it because it has a lot of good stories at the same time.”

She thinks her other big TV role as the Prime Minister in Doctor Who must have come to an end following her demise at the hands of the Daleks, but adds that anything could happen in a time travelling show!

Love and War starts tomorrow evening with a performance by Ensemble 360. The audience will hear a programme of music and the story of the composer Brahms and a woman he was infatuated with.

The ensemble will play his String Sextet No 2, plus Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No 7, written during World War Two, and Charlie Piper’s new work for septet and narrator.

Following The Grave of Winter at 6.15pm on Saturday will be Fond Farewells with Ensemble 360. They will play works by Ravel, Strauss and Brahms. All the music reflects the ravages of war or the joy and pain of love.

Other highlights include performances by baritone Matthew Brook, pianist Anna Markland, internationally-renowned viol consort Fretwork, the exuberant klezmer group Moishe’s Bagel and resident musicians Ensemble 360.

A total of 21 events take place from May 9 to 17 at the Crucible Studio and Sheffield Cathedral.

round.co.uk. Bookings: www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk or call 249 6000.