‘I spoke to Helen McCrory nearly every day, but even I didn’t know she had cancer’

John Vincent
·4-min read
Helen McCrory  - Andrew Crowley /Telegraph 
Helen McCrory - Andrew Crowley /Telegraph

In the last year, Helen McCrory became a close colleague as we worked alongside her, her husband, Damian Lewis, and actor Matt Lucas on the #FeedNHS campaign. At the height of the first lockdown we spoke nearly every day and served over a million meals to NHS workers on the frontline.

On Friday afternoon, I was in my office when I heard the news.

My immediate thought was, no, they’ve got that wrong. People must have confused her with someone else. Just the day before, I had been writing about Helen, Damian and Matt, for Letters From Lockdown, a compilation of notes to two children about people’s lives in the past year. How could it be that she had passed away? I was shocked.

I didn’t know Helen was ill. I don’t know how long she was receiving treatment, nor what type of cancer she had. Part of me wondered if I should have known, if other people knew and I didn’t. Was there something I missed?

I have a deep respect for how much Helen contributed in the last year, during the time she had. It adds a poignancy to the work she did to lead #FeedNHS and makes it even more impressive.

Helen was brave, sparky, determined, positive and loving.

Billy Bragg wrote, “A virtue never tested is no virtue at all,” in his song ‘Must I Paint You A Picture’. If ever there was a test of character, it is in going through what Helen did whilst making such a huge contribution and maintaining her ballsy sense of humour.

My first contact with Helen was a year ago. She and Damian had a friend who was a doctor – and the friend said there was no food for staff at their London hospital. NHS workers were starving and it was affecting their performance.

Leon, of which I’m chief executive, was still open and had been offering a 50 per cent discount to NHS workers. Helen and Damian got in touch and said, ‘Can you help us?’ My first thought was, oh gosh, the guy from Homeland and the woman from Peaky Blinders want to speak to me. It was a rollercoaster. But I was eager to help.

We worked together intensely from then. Every day in the first lockdown we had a 10am planning call about fundraising, deployment and logistical issues.

Helen was very proactive – this wasn’t a charity celebrity appearance where they ask, ‘Where do you want me?’ In everything from technical issues, when we struggled to set up the Just Giving page, to deciding who to partner with, she was deeply involved. It helped that she was an acute judge of character, perhaps part of her skill as an actor.

Henry Dimbleby, left, and John Vincent, co-founders of LEON restaurant chain
Henry Dimbleby, left, and John Vincent, co-founders of LEON restaurant chain

Helen was for all to see a brilliant actor. But who knew that she too would have made a great chief executive. She understood exactly what we needed to do. It was Helen who pushed for us to make #FeedNHS national and Helen who took the time to make videos thanking our partners and the people who worked for them.

Helen helped form partnerships, with key figures in hospitality and in hospital trusts, working tirelessly to find the contact details of people in trusts. No detail was too small and no idea too big. One of our most important partners was a caterer Baxter Storey, and together with Mealforce we provided a million meals to frontline NHS workers. So not only did Helen front the campaign with Damian and Matt to directly raise £1 million, she was key to making the whole thing happen.

We did not meet in person, but like so many lockdown relationships it did not feel that way. We were in each other’s living rooms every morning. We had plans to get together, but lockdown went on longer than we thought it would.

I have been reflecting in the days since Helen passed away about how much fun she seemed to be having with her family. Like many families this past year they seemed to make a healthy amount of pizza and to be relishing the time lockdown gave them together. And she and Damian's love and respect for each other shone through constantly in all our times working together.

You don't need me to tell you what a great actor she was. But the sides to her work and character that have not been caught on camera deserve our admiration too.

As told to Cara McGoogan