She started in soft porn and showed us her bakewells on stage. But as she nears 60, Celia Imrie tells Maureen Paton that the role of retiree is not one she’ll take on anytime soon
She’s the character actress who became a star. Instantly recognisable with that expressively long upper lip and inimitable upper-crust drawl, the Olivier Award-winning Celia Imrie seems to be everywhere on film and TV, as well as the West End stage.
And as she approaches the landmark of her 60th birthday in July, she’s taking on even more work in the profession she loves because, she explains: “I’ve got to hurry up now because I think I’m running out of time a bit.
“I want to grab everything: I’m quite greedy and I want to do as many more different things as I can. You’ve got to live for the moment, and acting allows you to do that. And I love the freelance life of not knowing what’s happening next.”
As with Julie Walters, Celia’s ace card is her comic ability. Both actresses got their big breaks in their 30s in Victoria Wood’s 1980s TV shows, with Celia’s overemoting, blonde-wigged Miss Babs the perfect foil to Julie’s slatternly, hairnetted Mrs Overall as they camped it up in the cult soap spoof Acorn Antiques.
They co-starred again in the film Calendar Girls with Celia famously posing behind a large pair of cherry bakewells in the topless scene.
Her figure is partly due to a puberty-boosting dose of oestrogen given to help her recovery from an adolescent bout of anorexia which triggered a swift growth spurt. The resulting enhancements also helped to land her a part in the 1974 soft-porn film House of Whipcord, for which she has been teased evermore by her friend Dame Judi Dench.
Over the past 40 years, she has shown tremendous versatility with 120 performances on screen alone: from The Phantom Menace to the two Bridget Jones films.
Currently she can be seen in the hit film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, playing a fun-seeking granny who rebels against the babysitting role and goes to India instead. “It makes me very angry when I hear grown-up children saying to their parents, ‘But you’re spending our inheritance by going off on a cruise’. How outrageous and vulgar!” she shudders.
She’s also appearing in the acclaimed London revival of Michael Frayn’s classic farce Noises Off and now Titanic, ITV1’s Sunday night drama from Downton Abbey/Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellowes. She plays the nouveau-riche passenger Grace Rushton, who has a firstclass ticket but a second-class background, and it is just the kind of acting challenge that she loves.
There’s a queue of people waiting to join in, so you must make sure you are fun to be around”
“People are so rude to Grace – but I think she’s rather wonderful, particularly for the way she refuses to leave the ship without her pet Pekinese, who is probably her child substitute,” she says.
The fourth child of a radiologist father and an aristocratic mother listed in Burke’s Peerage, Celia is a Bohemian free spirit at heart.
Based in London’s Kensington with a holiday home on the Isle of Wight, she defines herself as “a bit of an escape artist”.
“The only thing my mother wanted me to do was to get married to a God-fearing earl with plenty of money, but I’ve long since been accepted as the lunatic of the family,” she says jokily.
She modestly describes herself as “a complete fraud because I trained as a dance teacher and didn’t have a formal drama training, so I’ve learned acting as I’ve gone along”.
Although Celia has never married, she has a son, 17-year old Angus, by a short relationship with the actor Benjamin Whitrow. Angus has already acted on screen with his mother, and she thinks that he will probably make it his career, too, “because he has the passion you need to do it”.
Despite her success over four decades, she has no illusions about the capriciousness of her business and is now prudently adding a second string to her bow by moving into producing as well.
“You have to keep reinventing yourself with different roles. And as an actor, you have to wait to be asked to dance, as it were, so sometimes you need to get into a position where you buy rights and put the damn thing on yourself,” she explains.
“I found myself telling a young actress recently to take every role she is offered – that’s the main advice I would pass on to the new generation.”
And be good-mannered, too, she adds. “Any actor worth their salt knows that we are two-a-penny; we are completely dispensable, I’m afraid. There’s a queue of people waiting to join in, so you must make sure you are fun to be around.”
Her 2011 autobiography is called The Happy Hoofer and this hoofer, it seems, is determined to be a happy hedonist to the end. “Our parents and grandparents would have thought hitting 60 was the end of the world, but my generation is different – 60 now is different from the way it used to be.
Titanic is on ITV1, Sundays, 9pm