It must come as a blessing to her many thousands of adoring fans that when Celia Imrie was just 11 years of age she was told she was the wrong shape.
Had she been the right shape, she would almost certainly have pursued a career as a ballet dancer. Instead audiences worldwide have subsequently been treated to the delights and sheer brilliance of one of our greatest acting talents.
Whether it’s on stage, silver screen or television Celia is synonymous with some of the best comedy series and films ever made – everything from ‘Acorn Antiques’ to ‘Darling Buds of May’ and of course Calendar Girls.
But she is equally at home with drama, appearing in countless films and stage productions, the names of which could easily fill twice the space she allowed for her autobiography ‘The Happy Hoofer’ which is due out shortly in paperback following a highly successful hardback launch last year.
Celia has a long association with the Isle of Wight, buying her first house here more than 20 years ago to help escape the pressures of working in London and beyond constantly in the public gaze. She returns to Cowes as often as she can, and has become an integral part of the town’s community.
She is a passionate supporter of the Cowes RNLI, and is patron of the new Lifeboat Station appeal. She is also a regular visitor to the Island Sailing Club, an enthusiastic cyclist to Watersedge café at Gurnard and always likes to marvel her favourite ‘That Shop’ owned by Nigel Bruce, a close friend for many years.
Celia said: “Coming to the Island is a wonderful escape. I don’t call it a holiday home, because I don’t go in for holidays too much. My house here was the first time I had ever bought, a little workman’s cottage, I was terribly proud of it. I am not a great DIY person, but I slept on the bare floor boards while I took the old fireplace out, did all the wallpapering, painted the garden, and bought items at the wonderfully tempting Island Auction Rooms at Shanklin to furnish it.”
Since then Celia has moved to another house in Cowes, and revealed: “I fell in love with the Island a long while ago when I visited my best friend’s mother in Bonchurch. Everyone has a childhood memory of the Island, and I vividly remember when I was about five making a very hurried ferry trip with my mother, that turned out quite shambolic but extremely exciting.
“I always wanted to live by the sea, but if I had gone to Brighton, which was nearer, it would have been like living in an Equity meeting because so many actors live there, and that wasn’t quite the escape I was looking for. There is something marvellous about that stretch of water between the Island and the mainland, the wonderful moment when the ‘bing-bong’ goes on the ferry and you immediately relax. I never get back here enough, you only have to look around to realise it is breathtaking.”
Celia was born and brought up in Guildford, but is fiercely proud of her Scottish connections. Her father David came from Glasgow. She is renowned for her silky-smooth voice, flirtatious smile – off camera as well as on it – and her ability to slot into any role as if it was tailor-made for her. But in fact becoming an actor never really entered her head as a youngster because she wanted to be a ballet dancer. Her other passion is classical Greek dancing, and Celia is thrilled to have been asked by the Island’s Dance Festival to give a special cup for that category.
However, after being told she wasn’t the right shape for ballet she decided to pursue a career of ‘anything to show off’, even though to this day there is a certain lack of self-confidence about her incredible acting talents.
“I had a wonderful childhood and was brought up by a nanny. In those days I thought it was too posh to say we had a nanny, but of course a lot of working mums do have one now,” she said. “My mother Diana didn’t work; she was too busy throwing parties. She was hardly ever there, but was a glorious person. She is in every part that I ever play.
“I was in school plays, and perhaps that was when I realised I wanted to be centre stage. If you do something and people like it and are laughing, then it is the most intoxicating feeling. When you have a whole audience laughing it is thrilling. Any actor will tell you that laughter is much better than applause in the end.
“Of course I like to be known for comedy roles, but I like to surprise people as well and not be pigeon-holed. I do have a lot to thank Victoria Wood for because people associate me with Miss Babs and I am very proud of that.”
But as if to plant her feet firmly back on the ground, she says: “This business is so up and down, a constant roller coaster. So you must never think ‘this is the moment’ because as soon as you do it’s gone. If someone tells me they look on me as an accomplished actress, I think they are talking about someone else. I find it hard to accept; anyway it is dangerous to sit still. It is always on to the next thing. Most actors are constantly unsure, and rightly so. It would be hopeless if we were sure.”
When I asked Celia if it was difficult being recognised everywhere she went, she smiled: “It depends whether I have lipstick on or not. That really is true.” And with that flirtatious smile she added: “I put some on especially for you.”
She continued: “The truth is that part of me is thrilled when I am paid a compliment, but I can feel my toes curling in my boots, and if I didn’t have make-up on my face would go bright red. It is thrilling, but there is something that makes me want to hide from it, and I don’t know what it is.”
Celia had already become an established actor when she was spotted by Victoria Wood while appearing on a New Year’s Eve TV programme in Scotland, where she played Lady Di. It was the year Charles and Diana were married and was called ‘81 –Take Two’. Victoria saw it, and the rest is history.
Celia has been in so many fine productions it is difficult for her to pick out a favourite – but if really pushed she agrees that the film Nanny McPhee is high on the list because the children in it hardly dared speak to her in case she threw a worm sandwich at them!
“I generally like what I am doing at the time, which is desperately important, but it quickly changes, and on to the next. I have no preference for film, TV or stage. Stage is the most frightening because once the curtain goes up that is it. You are in control; it is like getting on a horse and not stopping until you reach the winning post.
“I have two films coming out shortly, and will watch the screening of both. One is called ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’, which we filmed in India and is out in March. The other is ‘Acts of Godfrey’ which is all in verse. For that one I had to be up at the usual 5.0 am in the morning, but instead of being driven had to get myself to the set, and it was a very low budget film. Now a year later the director proudly tells me it has been chosen for several film festivals and has been nominated for a number of awards.
“Though until I see it I don’t know what will be left. My favourite scene might be cut, or maybe just the back of my head will be shown. I am vain enough to go and see it, if only to learn not to make ‘that face’ again.”
Celia also appeared in ‘Star Wars’, but said: “I didn’t have a clue what the plot was and neither was I allowed to. I was only given my two pages of script so I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t quite get it, but I do love the cachet of being Bravo 5.”
Having worked with some of the industry’s finest actors, she admits: “I am totally star struck, and I think I always will be. I love working with Dame Judi Dench, who is such a darling, but I also thought the same about Dame Maggie Smith, having not worked with her before. She was very kind and a total delight.”
Reminiscing on her Island escapism, she said: “I love it here all year round, and wouldn’t think of leaving. I first moved here in that dismal time between Christmas and New Year, and thought to myself that if I loved it then I would always love it. I often sit on a bench just around the corner from the Royal Yacht Squadron, reading my scripts with the sun going down – marvellous!
“Scripts have never been easy for me, and become more difficult as time goes on. I always get scared about what I have to learn in a short time, but I think we actors are addicted to frightening ourselves. Sometimes on opening night I think I am going to die of fright. I can’t breathe and it is ghastly. You wonder why you put yourself through it, but the joy of doing it must outweigh those moments of horror.”
She added: “There are masses I still want to do; if I could I would like to play Juliet. I still think I am 26, and one of the glories of our profession is that we don’t stop wanting to do things.”
Then the flirtatious smile, exit right, and off on her bike into the Cowes sunset. Marvellous!