Penelope started her career through stage in 1969, with 'Nottingham Playhouse' productions. She performed as ‘Cordelia’ in Shakespeare's 'King Lear,' staged both at the 'Nottingham Playhouse' and 'The Old Vic.' (February 1970).
Penelope then played ‘Araminta’ in the original ‘Broadway’ production 'The Philanthropist,' staged at the 'Royal Court Theatre,' (later at the 'Ethel Barrymore Theatre,' New York City) in 1971. This marked her first ‘Broadway’ performance.
Her first ‘Broadway’ performance for ‘West End’ was in August 1971, when she appeared opposite Sir Ralph Richardson in 'West of Suez,' at the 'Cambridge Theatre.' In 1974, she played ‘Ruth’ in the original London stage production of the 'Norman Conquests' trilogy.
In 1973, Penelope played ‘Masha’ in Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov's play 'The Seagull.' She was seen as the lead ‘Emma’ in Harold Pinter's play 'Betrayal,' in 1978.
In 1972, Penelope made her TV debut, as ‘Vivie Warren,’ in the 'BBC2' adaptation of 'Mrs. Warren's Profession.' The performance earned her several major TV roles. She performed in two 'BBC Television' Shakespeare productions: as ‘Desdemona’ in 'Othello' and as ‘Regan’ in 'King Lear.’ She leaped to the big screen with the 1977 British period comedy 'Joseph Andrews,' in which she played ‘Mrs. Wilson.’
Penelope starred as ‘Pat’ in the 1986 British comedy film 'Clockwise.' She played the real-life character Wendy Woods, wife of Donald James Woods, the popular South African journalist and anti-apartheid activist (played by Kevin Kline), in the British–South African epic drama 'Cry Freedom' (1987).
In 1981, Penelope appeared as a young and graceful ‘Ann Whitefield’ in George Bernard Shaw's 1903 four-act drama 'Man and Superman,' staged at the 'National Theatre Company' and later at the 'Olivier Theatre,' London. The performance earned her an ‘Olivier Award’ nomination for the ‘Actress of the Year in a Revival.’
From 1984 to 1989 (27 episodes), Penelope played ‘Ann Bryce’ in the 'BBC1' sitcom 'Ever Decreasing Circles.' Meanwhile, she performed the iconic character ‘Beatrice’ in Shakespeare's 'Much Ado about Nothing,' staged at the 'National Theatre Company.' The role earned her a 'Critics' Circle Award.' Penelope was nominated for an 'Olivier Award’ for her portrayal of the lead character ‘Marion’ in David Hare's 1988 play 'The Secret Rapture,' which premiered at the 'Royal National Theatre.'
Penelope starred as ‘Homily Clock’ in the 'BBC TV' miniseries 'The Borrowers' (1992) and reprised the role in 'The Return of the Borrowers' (1993).
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In 1993, she won a 'Critics' Circle Award' and an 'Olivier' nomination for her performance as the lead ‘Hester Collyer’ in Terence Rattigan's 1952 play 'The Deep Blue Sea,' staged at the 'Almeida Theatre,' London.
In 1994, Penelope started to play her 'Mrs. Warren's Profession' co-star, the legendary Australian–American actor Coral Browne, in the radio adaptation of the 1983 'BBC' film 'An Englishman Abroad' for the 'BBC World Service.' Following this, she continued working on various 'BBC' radio formats.
Penelope portrayed real-life English aristocrat and society hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell in the 1995 biopic 'Carrington,' based on the life of Morrell's friend and fellow artist Dora Carrington.
In the 2001 TV movie 'Victoria & Albert,' Penelope portrayed Princess Victoria, a German princess and the mother of Queen Victoria of the UK.
In 2005, Penelope guest-starred as ‘Prime Minister Harriet Jones’ in four episodes of the 'BBC' revival of the science-fiction drama 'Doctor Who.' Writer and executive producer Russell T. Davies had sketched the character especially for her.
In 2007, Penelope was nominated for an 'RTS Award' for her performance as ‘Barbara Poole’ in four episodes of the 'BBC' drama 'Five Days.' She starred as ‘Jean’ in ‘Half Broken Things,’ the TV film adaptation of the 2003 psychological thriller novel of the same name by Morag Joss.
Penelope played ‘Mother Mary’ in the 2008 'BBC' drama 'The Passion.' That year, she won an 'Evening Standard Award' and an 'Olivier' nomination for her performance as ‘Miss Madrigal’ in Enid Bagnold's play 'The Chalk Garden,' staged at 'Donmar Warehouse,' London.
In 2010, Penelope started her long and successful stint as ‘Isobel Crawley’ (‘Baroness Merton’) in the 'ITV' historical period-drama 'Downton Abbey' (2010–2015). She appeared in all six seasons of the series. She shared three 'Screen Actors Guild' awards with the cast of the series. She reprised the role in its 2019 film adaptation.
Penelope played Bill Nighy's (as ‘Douglas’) on-screen pessimistic wife, ‘Jean Ainslie,’ in the 2011 comedy 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' and shared one 'Critics' Choice Movie Award' nomination and one 'Screen Actors Guild Award' nomination with the cast.
Penelope narrated Lin Coghlan's dramatization of 'The Cazalets,' a play by Elizabeth Jane Howard (2012 and 2013), for 'BBC Radio.' In 2015, she won an 'Olivier Award’ for her portrayal of German writer Irmgard Litten in Mark Hayhurst's play 'Taken at Midnight' (2014), based on Irmgard's lawyer son Hans Litten's life story. The play was staged at the 'Minerva Theatre' in Chichester, from October 2, 2014 to November 1, 2014.
Her remarkable contribution to the entertainment industry earned her the coveted title of the 'Officer of the Order of the British Empire' (OBE) during the 2004 'New Year Honours.' She was later promoted and thus became a 'Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire' (DBE) in the 2016 ‘Birthday Honours.’
In 2013, Penelope returned to her hometown, Scarborough, where the 'University of Hull' presented her an honorary degree.
Penelope will be seen in the two upcoming films, the romantic comedy 'Eternal Beauty' and the drama 'Summerland.'