Remembering Billie Whitelaw

The-Smiths-William---Billie-89824

‘Hot Fuzz’ was Billie Whitelaw’s final film. She told me it would be in the summer of 2006, on her final day of the shoot. When she walked into the Market Place in Wells, Somerset to film her part of the climatic action, she greeted me and we hugged. I was very fond of her and felt like her long lost nephew sometimes. That morning, she breezily said “This is it, this is my last day in the movies”. I replied “Billie, don’t say that, it makes me sad”. It was a bittersweet moment, but she seemed very firm about this notion, much as I protested that it may not be the case. She was right.

Billie was so happy shooting that day. And I mean literally, as some of her final setups involved her letting rip with several rounds from a sub machine gun. Even this was not a novelty to her, (“I had a machine gun in a film called ‘Tangiers’, darling.”). Indeed Billie really had done it all before.

25006 - No Love for Johnnie

Her career was so distinguished that I felt nervous even suggesting her for our movie. She was the great Samuel Beckett’s muse, she was directed by Alfred Hitchcock in ‘Frenzy’, she was iconic as the terrifying Mrs Baylock in ‘The Omen’. Her list of TV, stage and film credits comprises a history of British culture. She was both very proud of her career and sometimes amusingly dismissive. Like the geek I am I would prod her about her filmography. Sometimes I would get a great anecdote about Hitch, sometimes my enquiries about genre films she’d been in would be slapped down (‘Darling, I don’t give a shit about ‘Twisted Nerve’). She made me laugh a lot. She had a wicked sense of humour and could be devastatingly funny.

When Simon Pegg and I wrote the part of Joyce Cooper in ‘Hot Fuzz’ we wrote that the character was a ‘Billie Whitelaw type’. Could we get her? It seemed unlikely as she hadn’t worked for a few of years and we were initially told that she’d retired. As the cast came together and we had a growing ensemble of Jim Broadbent, Edward Woodward and Kenneth Cranham among others, it seemed worth pursuing her again. After badgering her agent about the possibility, we were then told she would like to come in and meet for the role.

I met her for the first time in Working Title’s old offices on Oxford Street. There was an embarrassing case of crossed wires where I had been told she would come in and read, but when she did sit down with me she was a little taken aback at the suggestion of her reading. I wasn’t expecting her to, but I felt like I had insulted the great woman by asking her to read the scenes with me. She said, “Darling, I haven’t read for a part in twenty years’. I was so mortified that I had offended her. Of course she didn’t need to read, she was a two time Bafta winner, a CBE, she was Billie Whitelaw for Christ sakes. She saw my look of deep embarrassment and said ‘Oh fuck it, let’s read.”

And then, the great Billie Whitelaw was acting in front of me. And it was magical.

It turns out there was an extra connection that convinced Billie to do my film. We had shot a scene from ‘Shaun Of The Dead’ in Billie’s son’s flat. The interior scenes in Kate Ashfield’s apartment in the movie were in Brookfield Mansions, in Highgate West Hill, a flat owned by Matthew Muller. He had told Billie that ‘Shaun’ was good and that she should do our film. I am forever thankful for his recommendation.

During the shoot, she was funny and sharp and it was a joy to see her at work. Frequently the camera frame would be full of legends, seeing Billie Whitelaw and Edward Woodward share the screen was such a thrill. Even in a cast full of great British actors, Billie was pretty peerless. Even Kenneth Cranham was totally wowed by her, she had been a teenage crush of his.

On Billie’s final day of the shoot, we filmed her action scenes and her screaming ‘Fascist!’ at top volume. I am pleased to say that her final shots on 35mm was some super slow motion footage of her firing this machine gun. My drama teacher Mr Wild came down to set and watched her shooting. She was one of his favourite actresses and he stood off to the side watching her work with a huge smile on his face.

When Billie wrapped, I asked the crew to give her the customary round of applause. (“Ladies and gentleman, that’s a wrap on Miss Billie Whitelaw”) But this hearty applause was felt very deeply as she now announced to the crew that while she’d had a wonderful time, this was her last day in the movies. I didn’t want to believe it.

I only saw her one more time, when she came in to do some ADR in the mix and watched some scenes of the movie. She thought it was all a hoot and was very happy she’d done it. Sadly she couldn’t make the actual premiere of the movie and I’m sorry to say I didn’t see her again.

If I have another major regret, it’s that in the rush of filming, I forgot to introduce Billie to my old drama teacher. I later apologised to Mr Wild profusely and said I was terribly sorry for not making the intro. He said, “Oh don’t worry, seeing you directing Billie Whitelaw was enough.”

My deepest sympathies go out to Billie’s family and to her son Matthew.

Your Mum was the best.

  • Greg Gallacci

    I love the Omen, love Hot Fuzz, didn’t know the link till just now.
    Goodbye, great lady.

  • SarahAC

    Beautifully written. Brings tears to my eyes.

  • Clay Marston

    AN EXTREMELY FINE ACTRESS IN EVERY ROLE SHE EVER TOOK ON FROM FIRST TO LAST SCREEN APPEARANCE …
    BILLIE WILL BE GREATLY MISSED BY ALL THOSE WHO EVER MET OR KNEW HER …

    YES MATTHEW, YOUR TREMENDOUS MUM WAS THE VERY BEST.

  • http://www.danielmudford.com Dan Mudford

    A very touching bit of writing Edgar.

    She was a joy to be on set with, bless her, and wonderfully odd to chat about Happy Days (the Beckett, not the Fonz one) while she was holding a machine gun.

  • George White

    Fantastic tribute to the late Joyce Cooper.

  • Jake Bucsko

    Hag.

  • AmberGrindstaff

    A touching tribute to one awesome lady

    Thank you for sharing your memories of her

    Rest in Peace Billie Whitelaw

  • Robbie Turner

    Great stuff Edgar , was great hearing you and Tarantino praise her in the commentary for the film as well… great actress who will be missed.

  • cmdrsue

    Thanks for sharing the memories. So special!

  • royisbatty

    “Have no fear little one. I am here to protect thee.”

    Class act. She will be missed.