Born in England to a former actress and businessman father, Penelope Wilton moved to London when she was young, attended the Drama Centre, and began acting in the early 1970s. Her first love was the stage, where she garnered many honors for her work. Wilton has twice won the London Critics' Circle Award for Best Actress: in 1981 for Much Ado About Nothing and in 1993 for The Deep Blue Sea.
Wilton has appeared in several Masterpiece productions including Country Matters, The Tale of Beatrix Potter, Wives and Daughters and Lucky Jim. Other notable film and television projects include The Borrowers, Iris, Calendar Girls, Shaun of the Dead, Match Point and Doctor Who.
Wilton is delighted that viewers have embraced the clash of the battleaxes Isobel and Violet, particularly because it was the opportunity to work with her personal heroine Maggie Smith that in part attracted her to Downton Abbey. "I very much hope they will repeat that, as those sorts of scenes are so much fun to play. There's more energy going on, it's more interesting. Also, Julian has plotted it so there's build up of irritations and clashes of wills between Violet and Isobel. These are very strong women, who are used to being in charge of their own properties and their own homes."