If you saw the brilliant 2017 UK Salvation Army Christmas concert at London’s Albert Hall on YouTube, you would have discovered a feast of superb singing and inspiring instrumentalists.
You may also have enjoyed the treat of hearing one of England’s finest veteran actors, Dame Eileen Atkins, reading the Christmas story from the Bible.
Agreeing to be part of this major Salvation Army event was more than just another gig for this famous octogenarian, as it took her back to her first association with The Salvation Army.
Baby Eileen was born in the Clapton Salvation Army Mothers’ Nursing Home, and Eileen has always wanted to thank The Salvation Army for being there when her mother needed them.
In her dressing room before the concert, Dame Eileen also confessed to loving singing hymns around the house, and when she was thanked for giving up her time to be with The Salvation Army at the Albert Hall, her response was simple and heartfelt.
“I’d like to thank you for all the very good work The Salvation Army does, it’s really excellent,” Dame Eileen told her television audience.
Currently Dame Eileen is lighting up the big screen with fellow legendary 80-plus English actors Dames Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright in a candid and at times rib-tickling fly-on-the-wall documentary about their lives, Tea with the Dames, also called Nothing Like a Dame in Europe.
While she became a Dame of the British Empire in 2001, her beginnings were humble indeed.
Her mother Annie worked a day shift in a factory and a night shift at a pub, while her father Arthur was a gas meter reader who had previously been under-chauffeur to the Portuguese ambassador, despite not knowing how to drive a car.
After Eileen was born, the family moved to council housing in Tottenham, and the future dame grew up with a marked cockney accent—not that you would ever hear traces of that today in the cultured tones of Dame Eileen.
When Eileen was three, a visitor predicted that she would be a famous dancer, whereupon her mother immediately put her in dance classes. From the age of seven she danced in a working men’s club for 15 shillings a show as ‘Baby Eileen’, and from the age of 12 worked in pantomime, where her broad cockney accent was noticed.
While a student at the Latymer School her religious instruction teacher, the Reverend Michael Burton, helped her overcome her cockney accent and introduced her to the works of Shakespeare. Thus began her love affair with acting.
Eileen studied teaching at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama but also attended drama classes, leading her to acting rather than teaching. While she has focused on stage work, she is also a talented writer, being co-author of the television series Upstairs Downstairs and The House of Elliot. As well as this, she has been a popular character with television audiences as the straight-talking Ruth Ellingham, aunt of grumpy Martin in Doc Martin.
Dame Eileen has a refreshingly down-to-earth attitude to the cult of undergoing a surgeon’s knife to look youthful, telling telegraph.co.uk that she hasn’t felt that pressure because she says she was never a great beauty.
“My looks were good enough for what I needed in every possible way but not so much to be a burden,” she said candidly.
And that down-to-earth realism may be why Dame Eileen Atkins is now in her 65th continuous year of her brilliant career.