Probably best known for her role as a white mother who discovers she has a black daughter who was put up for adoption at birth in Secrets and Lies, Brenda Blethyn is a British actress who only began to make an impression on the big screen in her middle age. Very active as a stage performer, the auburn haired actress has proven her versatility in character roles ranging from the fiesty to highly dramatic.
Born in Ramsgate, England on the 20th February 1946, Brenda Blethyn, or Brenda Bottle as she was known then, was the youngest of nine children. Her mother and her father, a mechanical engineer, took Brenda and her siblings to the cinema every week which inspired her to eventually become an actress.
At school Blethyn excelled in mathematics, and she graduated from technical college to find jobs as a secretary and a book keeper in a bank. Whilst she was in employment, she married Alan James Blethyn, a graphic designer she met whilst they were both working for British Rail. This marriage lasted until she was 27.
When this marriage broke down, Brenda decided that it was a turning point in her life and resigned from her job. She had saved her wages from work and applied to join the Guilford School of Drama. She knew the risk she was taking and even when she was accepted for the course didn't tell her parents about her life changing decision as she thought that if all else failed she could go back to shorthand and typing for a living.
After early experiences on the stage at the Bubble Theatre and in Coventry at the Belgrade Theatre, Blethyn worked with many well respected directors at the Royal National Theatre which she joined in 1975.
Whilst with the Royal National Theatre, she took part in stage productions of
After this, Blethyn went on to join the Royal Shakespeake Company and the Manchester Royal Exchange.
In 1980, Blethyn started starring in BBC dramas which were shown on television in the UK. Many of these programmes were later released on video or as stage productions. The first of these being Grown-Ups which was directed by Mike Leigh and shown on BBC2. Other appearances followed shortly after with Blethyn having a guest appearance in Yes Minister with Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne in 1981 as well as starring in two of Shakespeare plays for the BBC which were adapted for a televised series of the Complete Works of Shakespeare.
By 1984, she had moved from straight drama in to comedic roles when she played Alison Little in Chance in a Million alongside Simon Callow and Bill Pertwee. The same year she appeared in Alas Smith and Jones.
After a few more roles, such as Sylvia in Claws, and Erica Rogers in The Labours of Erica, Blethyn was given a chance to appear on the big screen as Mrs Jenkins, the mother of one of the little boys in The Witches. The part in this dark fantasy, originally written by Roald Dahl as a childrens book, gave her a chance to star alongside Angelica Huston and Jane Horrocks, and gave her A River Runs Through It, the mother of the character played by Brad Pitt.
The next year Blethyn starred as Margaret Amir in BBC mini series The Buddha of Suburbia, based on the novel by Kureishi. This frank, yet funny adaptation was based in the 1970's in London. From then on she was offered a diverse range of roles which provided a steady flow of work.
Outside Edge in 1994 won Blethyn a British Comedy Award from Best TV Comedy Actress. Blethyn played Miriam Dervish, the wife of Roger Dervish who was the captain of a local cricket team. In this series, Kevin Costello, played by Timothy Spall, joined the cricket team and the influence of him and his wife, Maggie Costello, played by Josie Lawrence, led to Miriam re-thinking her outlook on life.
Secrets and Lies
Two years later, in 1996, Blethyn starred as Cynthia Rose Purley in Secrets and Lies, a white woman who discovers to her amazement that she once gave up black daughter for adoption at birth.
This role proved to be her greatest accolade to date earning her many notable awards including
Blethyn was shocked by the attention she recieved due to Secret and Lies.
"I was a novice as far as film was concerned. I'd been working over 20 years at the time, and then all that happened".
This award winning role helped Blethyn gain more opportunities in film work and in 1998 Blethyn starred in five different films.
Her role in Little Voice in 1998 as Mari Hoff, a foul mouthed unkempt mother, whose daughter is a shy and timid young woman who has the ability to mimic the singing voice of divas such as Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Bassey and Judy Garland. Despite her vocal talents, her daughter, Little Voice, is still mourning her father's death from their home in a depressing seaside town in England obsessing over his record collection. When discovered by her mother's boyfriend, played by Michael Caine, a showbiz agent, Little Voice is propelled into the public eye due to the greed and selfishness of her mother, Mari. The role of Mari was a very meaty one for Blethyn which resulted in her receiving another Oscar nomination, this time for Best Supporting Actress.
In 2000, Blethyn starred as Grace Trevethyn in film comedy Saving Grace. Grace is the widow of a businessman who commits suicide £3000,000 in debt leaving his wife, Grace, a sucessful gardener, with limited options. With the help of her handyman, they plan to start a marijuana factory in her greenhouse at her home in the small village of Port Lilac, Cornwall, England. This film, in the style of the old Ealing comedies, follows Grace on her travels to London to sell her dope to a dealer in order to solve her financial worries.
The next year, 2001, Blethyn changed direction in her choice of role again, as she can easily do, to star as Auguste Van Pels
in the film Anne Frank
with Ben Kingsley
. The film which is based on the book Anne Frank: A Biography
by Melissa Muller
deals with Frank's childhood in Amsterdam
before the war up until her final days in a concentration camp
run by the Nazis
in World War II.
Presently, Blethyn lives with her long time partner, Michael Mahew, in the home that they share in an unfashionable neighbourhood in south east London. Mahew is the art director of England's National Theatre which is where the two met. Despite film success, Blethyn still regards theatre work as her first love and takes on roles in stage productions as regularly as she can, with Mahew joining her at work on movie sets and in theatres as often as he can. As well as her paid work, Blethyn is an ambassador for the Prince's Trust.
Film and Television Credits