Frances was born in Bovingdon, Hertfordshire on 30 July 1944, to Moyra (née Fessas) and Charles de la Tour (1909–1982). The name was also spelled De Lautour, and it was in this form that her birth was registered in Hemel Hempstead. An episode of the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are?, first broadcast on 22 October 2015, revealed de la Tour to be a descendant of the aristocratic Delaval family. Frances had no recollection as to why she was born in Bovingdon, except that the war was on and it was better to avoid the bombing and destruction in London at the time.
Her father, Charles, was keen to make the most of the family’s Gallic roots, ensuring she lived the French way of life in everything, enrolling Frances into London’s Lycée Français, a large French co-educational primary and secondary independent day school, wholly owned by the French Government.
Her parents later divorced when she was 12, with her mother going on to happily remarry. After a somewhat enforced and miserable time at London’s Lycée Français where she longed to be with her mum, Frances attended a private school in Cookham, Berkshire, England. There she got into poetry and took part in many poetry competitions.
At 17, Frances went onto train at the Drama Centre (the radical breakaway from the Central School of Speech and Drama) in London. When interviewed by Lyn Gardner in the 90s, de la Tour shared the story of a friend overhearing the principal telling the new intake about the year above students. “In that year,” he said, “we have a girl called Frances de la Tour. She is very beautiful, but she doesn’t know it.”
Shortly after graduating in 1965 at the age of 21, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, her professional debut was playing the role of a beggar in, Timon of Athens, at the RSC. During her six years there, she turned her hand to many stage roles, such as Miss Hoyden in The Relapse and Belinda in Man of Mode at the Aldwych Theatre.
These small roles built up her experience and confidence until she reached the turning point in her early career in Peter Brook’s 1971-acclaimed production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which she played Helena as a comic “tour de force”. Frances would later reflect on this, ‘Peter went for the extremes, which was why it was so painful acting for him’.
Frances was seen in her first movie, playing a district nurse in MGMs Brotherly Love (1970), in 1972 she played Miss Lockhart alongside Danny LA Rue in EMIs Our Miss Fred, followed by roles in ‘To the Devil a Daughter,’ as a salvation army major (1976).
After two other roles in the theatre, notably the role of Violet in Small Craft Warmings, Eric Chappell’s Banana Box, which had already been running for two years, arrived at the Hampstead Theatre. Frances took on the role of Ruth Jones.
Two years later, Frances played one of her most notable roles as Rosalind in As You Like It at the Playhouse, Oxford Playhouse in 1975, followed by Isabella in The White Devil at the Old Vic in 1976.
Frances worked steadily throughout the 70s, both on stage and television, most notably on television from 1974 – 1978 as Miss Ruth Jones in Eric Chappell’s sitcom, Rising Damp. Breaking away from the second series in 1975 due to commitments in the theatre, she returned in 1977. She was now instantly recognizable by millions in ITV’s #1 sitcom, drawing in over 18 million viewers at its peak.
Like Leonard Rossiter, Frances’s background was primarily in theatre, prompting many to presume this was her breakout role in entertainment, yet Frances, like Leonard, had been honing their talents and entertaining audience for years on the stage prior to this new opportunity, and a lucrative one at that.
In theatre, she also enjoyed a collaboration with Stepney’s Half Moon Theatre, appearing in the London première of Dario Fo’s We Can’t Pay? We Won’t Pay (1978), Eleanor Marx’s Landscape of Exile (1979), and in the title role of Hamlet (1980), her brother Andy playing the ghost of her father.
In the 1980s, she played Stephanie, the violinist with MS in Duet for One, a play written for Frances by Kempinski (her former partner), a challenging role of a violinist cut off from her extraordinary talent due to multiple sclerosis. She won the Olivier, the Evening Standard Award and S.W.E.T. Awards for Best Actress. Frances would later note that ‘The play changed my life.’
She played Sonya in Uncle Vanya opposite Donald Sinden at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket (1982). Her performance as Josie in Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten won her another Olivier for Best Actress in 1983. She joined the Royal National Theatre for the title role in Saint Joan in 1984 and appeared there in Brighton Beach Memoirs in 1986. Also in 1986, Frances appeared in her one-woman show about the writer Lillian Hellman. Frances’s great admiration of her fight against the oppression of McCarthyism in America, meant this role would stand alongside her other notable achievement, ‘A Kind of Loving’ in which she starred with Elizabeth Spriggs.
Her many television appearances during the 1980s and 1990s include Flickers opposite Bob Hoskins, the TV version of Duet for One, for which she received a BAFTA nomination, the series A Kind of Living (1988–89), Dennis Potter’s Cold Lazarus (1996), and Tom Jones (1997).
Frances also appeared in a number of films in the 1980s, including the big-screen version of Rising Damp in 1980, for which she won the Evening Standard’s Best Actress Award. She also appeared in Time Bandits and Strike it Rich.
In the mid-1980s, Frances was considered as a replacement to play Dr Who in the popular BBC sci-fi series. Also in the frame were Joanna Lumley and Dawn French. The idea was eventually scrapped and the Timelord remained male, going to Sylvester McCoy.
In 1994, de la Tour co-starred with Maggie Smith in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women at the Wyndham’s and with Alan Howard in Albee’s The Play About the Baby at the Almeida in 1998. In 1999, saw Frances return to the RSC to play Cleopatra opposite Alan Bates in Antony and Cleopatra.
In 2004, she played Mrs. Lintott in Alan Bennett’s brilliant, The History Boys at the National and later with even greater success on Broadway, winning both a Drama Desk Award and a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play. The US audience embraced Frances, and she loved the attention, the audiences adopting her as their own without any prior knowledge or judgement of her previous career. Alan Bennett had Frances in mind to play the role from the first script, he had written in the margin, ‘Frances de la Tour to play Mrs Lintott?’ She would also later appear in the film version.
December 2005, she appeared in the London production of the highly acclaimed anti-Iraq War one-woman play Peace Mom by Dario Fo, based on the writings of Cindy Sheehan. In 2009, she appeared in Alan Bennett’s new play The Habit of Art at the National.
In the 00s, her TV credits included Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Death on the Nile (2004), Waking the Dead (2004), the black comedy Sensitive Skin (2005), with Joanna Lumley and Denis Lawson, Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Moving Finger (2006) and New Tricks as a rather morbid Egyptologist, also in 2006. From 2013 to 2016, de la Tour played the role of Violet Crosby in Gary Janetti’s ITV sitcom Vicious with Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, Ms Baron in the BBC sitcom Big School (2016), Outlander as Mother Hildegarde (2016), Professor T (2021).
Her notable work in film includes her role as Olympe Maxime, headmistress of Beauxbatons Academy, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) / Deathly Hallows Pt1 (2010), she was nominated for the 2006 BAFTA Award for Actress in a Supporting Role in The History Boys, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland as Aunt Imogene (2010), and in 2012, appearing in Martin Scorcese’s Hugo.
With over 50 years of stage acting at the highest level (Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, Broadway, and in London’s West End), Frances de la Tour has played classic roles from Chekhov, Webster, Shaw, Bennett, Albee and Eugene O’Neill as well as the Bard. Frances expresses the perfect balance between disappointment and optimism, comedy or tragedy. A feat rarely pulled off by many of today’s actors. As Frances once noted, ‘if you can do comedy, you can do tragedy. If you can do tragedy, you can’t necessarily do comedy”.
With a huge body of work behind her, Frances’ journey from the RSC to Miss Jones, from Broadway to the Globe, from Harry Potter to Violet, her role in Rising Damp was just another role in an illustrious career but, as noted, it was also watched by over 18 million people…
Best Actress for Duet for One (written by her ex-husband Tom Kempinski, by whom she has two grown-up children) in 1980.
Best Actress in O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten in 1983.
Evening Standard’s Best Actress Award in 1980 for Rising Damp.
Best Supporting Actress for Martin Sherman’s play about Isadora Duncan, When She Danced, with Vanessa Redgrave at the Globe Theatre When She Danced in 1991.
An Olivier nomination for her role as Leo in Les Parents terribles at the Royal National Theatre in 1994.
The New York Drama Desk Award and a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for The History Boys
In addition, the Outer Critics Circle Theatre Award and a Variety Club Award.