I only met the magnificent Helen McCrory once, for an hour and a half, in a tiny room above a shop in Tottenham Court Road. But that meeting left an indelible impression on me and I will never forget the magic of her presence. I had been hired as the historical consultant on the film Woman in Black 2 and after working on the script I was asked to meet Ms McCrory and Phoebe Fox. I arrived early for our meeting and was not quite sure what to expect. They arrived together and before Helen had taken off her coat and sat down opposite me the questions began. Who was I? What had I written? What were my credentials for advising them on life in London in the Second World War? She was not impressed with Jambusters but when I mentioned that I’d written Fearless on Everest she looked at me sharply and said: ‘Sandy Irvine? The one who climbed with George Mallory? Oh that is exciting. My husband is mad about the Mallory and Irvine story. I must get him a copy of your book.’ I don’t know if she ever did but I was fascinated to learn that Damian Lewis is interested in the Everest 1924 saga.
After that we settled down. Phoebe Fox was relaxed and chatty, Helen McCrory the consummate professional. She was not there to waste her or my time and her questions were searching and intelligent. We talked about her character, Jean Hogg, and how she would get inside her head and understand what she was thinking. The conversation moved from her personality to her physical presence. What would she be wearing? A suit or a dress with a cardigan, I suggested. ‘No, I mean what would she have been wearing underneath all that?’ A corset, I said. ‘A corset? Surely that is Victorian?’ I replied that in 1940 over a third of the female population wore corsets and someone the age of Jean Hogg probably would have been one of that third since it was mainly younger women who were happy to cast corsets aside for the new-fangled bra and pants. That really captured her interest. ‘So when were bras invented?’ Well, it’s a complicated story but suffice it to say that it was only in the mid-1930s that they were mass-produced for the European market. ‘Oh I like that,’ she said. ‘So what sort of corset would Jean Hogg have worn?’ The question almost caught me off guard but then I remembered talking to my friend Marion Platt whose grandmother was a corset wearer. Marion had described watching the old lady (probably in her fifties) taking off her stays at night, rolling them up and putting them carefully on her bedroom chair. So I told Helen the story and described the simple stays that Marion’s grannie had worn.
‘How would that have made her look? I mean, how would it have affected her posture?’ She sat up on her chair, straightened her back and asked ‘Like this?’ ‘Not quite so stiff,’ I replied. She moved her body around, feeling for the right sort of pose. It was stunning to watch. She had perfect control over her poise and as she moved her body around, making minute changes to her posture she morphed from beautiful, natural Helen McCrory into middle-aged, spinsterish Jean Hogg. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, nor could Phoebe Fox. It was mesmerising. And then it was all over. She relaxed, smiled oh so warmly and thanked me for helping her to get inside the head and body of her character.
When she stood up to go I realised how petite she was, yet her presence was enormous. I have met other actors since, but none has made my heart beat as fast as Helen McCrory. I have watched her on television many times and I always feel a tiny sense of pride that I once met this great, wonderful, clever, beautiful professional woman whose brilliance has touched so many and whose life has been extinguished way too early.