A minute’s silence? Try an hour: Billie Whitelaw and Beckett


Ta very much, Billie.

One among the many attractions of living in London is getting a chance to see some of the world’s leading actors onstage – and so I was introduced to the legendary Billie Whitelaw as Andromache in a brilliant 3-night Sir Peter Hall/John Barton Royal Shakespeare Company production, The Greeks. Her powerful performance seemed rooted to the center of the earth. Whitelaw, best known for her work with Samuel Beckett, who wrote several roles for her, remained my favorite actress. She  was too little-known and appreciated in the U.S., so my chances to see her again were few (she appeared in The Omen and Hitchcock‘s Frenzy, but I don’t do horror films – the daily news is bad enough).

In the lead-up to Christmas, I hadn’t noticed that she quietly passed away in London on December 21. From The Guardian obituary:

Speaking in 1997, she said that death held no fear for her. “Death’s not one of those things that frighten the life out of me. Getting up on stage with the curtain going up frightens me more. I very often wake up at two in the morning with my stomach going over. Sometimes it’s difficult to work out why – it’s all the things you’ve put to one side during the day,” she told the Independent.


Ashamed of the good life.

During the war, her family moved from her native Coventry to Bradford to escape German bombing of the latter. Her father died of lung cancer when she was aged 10 and the family struggled for money at times.

Speaking about the stark difference between her relatively comfortable later life and her childhood, she said: “It’s something I haven’t come to terms with – I’m rather ashamed of having the good life I have.”

“Sad to see Billie Whitelaw has died,” tweeted comedian Robin Ince. “I’d suggest a minute’s silence, but I imagine Beckett would suggest it should be much longer than that.”

Below, her landmark performance in Beckett’s Happy Days (read about the Stanford performance here). This grainy video is taken from a production directed by Beckett himself, with Leonard Fenton as Willie.  Act II is here.  And thanks to George Szirtes for alerting me to this video.


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