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Last Updated: Friday, 13 June, 2003, 23:34 GMT 00:34 UK
Helen Mirren: In her prime
Andrew Walker
BBC News Profiles Unit

Helen Mirren
Helen Mirren: Versatile, charming and feisty
Helen Mirren's damehood is the latest addition to a whole cabinet-full of honours for an actress equally at home on stage, television and the big screen.

Whether appearing as Lady Macbeth with the Royal Shakespeare Company or as Detective Chief Superintendent Jane Tennison in TV's Prime Suspect, Helen Mirren has maintained a consistently high standard of performance.

Her detailed and profound characterisations have both provoked and delighted audiences around the world, as has her frequent stage nudity and a seeming desire to shock.

As she once put it: "Actors are rogues and vagabonds. Or they ought to be. I can't stand it when they behave like solicitors from Penge."

Helen Mirren (centre) in Denis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills
Helen Mirren (centre) in Denis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills

Helen Mirren's background has a certain exoticism: her mother claimed gypsy heritage, her father, the son of a White Russian emigre who fled the country after the 1917 revolution, fought Mosley's fascists in the London's East End.

She was born Ilyena Lydia Mironoff in 1945: unlike many of her peers, she toned down her stage name, and first came to prominence after playing Cleopatra at the National Youth Theatre in 1965.

Even though she had joined the Royal Shakespeare Company while still in her 20s, Helen Mirren left London in the early 1970s to play with Peter Brook's experimental theatre troupe in performances around the world.

I'm a would-be rebel - the good girl who would like to be a bad one
Helen Mirren

She made her film debut as Hermia in Sir Peter Hall's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1969 and went on to play in Lindsey Anderson's raucous satire, O Lucky Man! in 1973.

Mirren also kept her hand in on television, delighting in Denis Potter's dark fable of childhood, Blue Remembered Hills, in 1978.

There have been turkeys too, most notably the shambolic sub-pornography of Caligula. But Helen Mirren has always redeemed herself with spellbinding performances at just the right time.

Mirren and Brian Stirner as Orlando and Rosalind in As You Like It
Mirren and Brian Stirner as Orlando and Rosalind in As You Like It

She famously played two gangsters' molls - opposite a defiant and confused Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday and with a gluttonish Michael Gambon in Peter Greenaway's opulent The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.

And Mirren chilled the blood as an erotically-charged Morgana Le Fay in Excalibur, John Boorman's Wagnerian re-telling of the legend of King Arthur.

Although well-known, and critically acclaimed, in the world of theatre and film, Helen Mirren only really came to popular notice after starring in a television mini-series, Prime Suspect, which first hit the screen in 1992.

I always look at the last page of the script to see if my character is there. If she is, I'm content.
Helen Mirren on choosing her roles

As the tough-but-fair detective Jane Tennison she battles male prejudice, enjoys romance and catches killers.

The format, still going strong today, and her own sustained performance, has drawn plaudits, and huge ratings, on both sides of the Atlantic.

More recently, she has delighted cinema audiences with her portrayal of Mrs King opposite the late Nigel Hawthorne in The Madness of King George.

Helen Mirren with Alan Rickman in Cleopatra
Helen Mirren with Alan Rickman in Cleopatra

"I don't mind if I don't have any lines as long as I get to wear a crown," she once quipped.

And she was a model of quiet desperation as the buttoned-up housekeeper, Jane Wilson, in Robert Altman's stylish and star-studded, Gosford Park.

Today, with her own professional reputation flying high, Helen Mirren lives in Los Angeles with her husband, the film producer Taylor Hackford.

With three films in the can and two others in the pipeline, she has never been more in demand: a serious actor who has never shied from playing problematic roles, yet has won legions of admirers around the globe.


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