One of England's most renowned stage actresses, Eileen Atkins has been a staple of both the Royal Shakespeare Company and London's West End since the 1960s. She has also popped up occasionally on film and television, and she has made numerous contributions to both mediums as a scriptwriter, most notably for the acclaimed series Upstairs Downstairs and House of Eliott and the well-received screen adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.
A product of London's East End, where she was born in the Clapton Salvation Army Home on June 16, 1934, Atkins grew up in a council home as the third child of a homemaker and a gas meter reader. She began performing as a tap dancer in working men's clubs at the age of seven, and she had done professional pantomime by the time she was 13. Under the encouragement of a school instructor -- who gave Atkins voice lessons to remove her Cockney accent and introduced her to Shakespeare -- she went on to attend the Guildhall School of Drama, where she did a teaching course and took drama classes.
Atkins struggled to begin her professional career, finding it difficult to get stage roles of any substance, to say nothing of stage roles, period. She got her first break when she moved to Stratford with her then-husband, Julian Glover, who had found work with the RSC. Atkins got her start in Stratford as an usherette, and she gradually moved her way up until she was allowed into the company. She first performed on the Stratford stage as Audrey in As You Like It, chosen to fill in for the understudy of Dame Peggy Ashcroft after both had taken ill. Atkins spent several years with the RSC, performing in both classical and contemporary plays alongside the likes of Lawrence Olivier and Alec Guinness. On the London stage, she portrayed numerous characters, earning a Best Supporting Actress Olivier Award for her performance in Peter Hall's production of The Winter's Tale. Her one-woman show, A Room of One's Own, was an international success, earning Atkins a Drama Desk Award for Best Solo Performance and a special Citation from the New York Drama Critics Circle for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf.
Although the international stage has been the centerpoint of Atkins' career, she has made many contributions to film and television. Aside from her work on the aforementioned Upstairs, Downstairs, The House of Elliot, and Mrs. Dalloway (the last of which earned her the Evening Standard British Film Best Screenplay award), she has appeared in such films as Let Him Have It (1991), Jack and Sarah (1995), and John Schlesinger's Cold Comfort Farm (1995). Among the endless honors Atkins holds is a Commander of the British Empire. Atkin would appear in several notable projects over the coming years, including Gosford Park, The Hours, Cold Mountain, and TV series like Doc Martin and Psychoville.