Celia Imrie on love, grief, nudity… and still breaking all the rules

Nude shoots at 66? The trick is to do them really fast. Illicit kisses with Lily James? Why not – ‘she’s adorable’! The fabulously unconventional Celia Imrie tells Chris Harvey why she refuses to play by the rules – even when posing for photographs…

‘Being exactly on time is quite an art,’ says Celia Imrie when she arrives, punctually, at the West London café where we’ve arranged to meet. It’s a cold day and she’s in a warm coat, with a little blue eyeshadow, but her eyes sparkle with mischief, which makes her appear much younger than her 66 years. I mention that I’ve just been watching her 24-year-old actor son Angus playing ‘creepy Jake’, Fleabag’s sister’s teenage stepson in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s BBC Three comic masterpiece. She’s ‘immensely proud’ of him. ‘I’m a great admirer of Phoebe’s,’ she says, ‘because she’s broken all the rules – I love her looking to camera the way she does.’

Celia Imrie
Blouse and trousers, WtR London. Earrings, Merola London. Image: Chris Floyd

Celia had her first real taste of fame alongside another comedy original, Victoria Wood, as Miss Babs in Wood’s BBC sketch-show sitcom Acorn Antiques, and she now stars with another, the American actor/writer/director Pamela Adlon, in the hit US sitcom Better Things (recently shown on BBC Two). All three writer-performers, she says, share a special quality. ‘They’ve done things other people don’t dare. I love that. They’re trailblazers, and I think there will be more and more like them.’

Celia’s ‘not conventional’ herself, she assures me, adding that some people disapprove of her because she’s ‘not playing the game’. She had a child in her early 40s with her actor friend Benjamin Whitrow who was amenable to her terms, as laid out in her 2011 memoir: ‘I wouldn’t want to live with him or marry him, would never ask for money for the child…’ She believes that marriage is a ‘world of cover-up and compromise’ that traps you and is currently single, ‘fancy free’ and very happy. ‘We used to nickname my mother Mrs Bennet [after the character in Pride and Prejudice],’ she says, ‘because she had four daughters and she wanted to get us married off. I’m the only one who hasn’t.’

What about love? Has Celia never felt that she wanted to be with someone all the time? ‘Yes, I have, but not for long. I think that sort of love doesn’t last, that wanting to be there, it’s a kind of madness. I think it’s a good idea to hold on to yourself rather than lean on someone else.’

Celia Imrie
Celia with her actor son Angus. Image: Nils Jorgensen/REX/Shuttersto​ck

After Benjamin died in 2017 at the age of 80, Celia admitted for the first time that their relationship had been a romantic one. (Ironically, Benjamin famously played Mr Bennet in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel.)

I wonder if there had ever been a possibility of them bringing up Angus together. ‘Not really. But Ben was agreeable to our not doing that,’ she says, stressing that it is important to her to be respectful to his wife [from whom he was separated] and grown-up children. ‘We had a wonderful time. Angus adored his father. They were very close and I think it was all not following the rules again.’

Angus has been acting since he was five and is a regular on Radio 4 soap The Archers, playing David and Ruth’s son Josh Archer. ‘I’m so thrilled that I have Angus in my life,’ she says. Does she feel that they have one of those intense relationships that single parents of an only child sometimes develop? ‘Not really, because he always had Ben there,’ she says. ‘Angus has my independent spirit, and now he’s a father, too [Jude Benjamin is nearly one], any of that closeness has gone to his own child. I’m a grandmamma! It’s marvellous.’

She breaks off to say ‘Hi’ to the café’s manager as he stops by, and asks him, ‘How’s your little girl?’ There’s a real warmth to Celia, but she’s a bit wary of the press. ‘I’ve got to be so careful. I always jabber too much.’

‘Don’t be too careful,’ I tell her.

Celia Imrie
Blouse, Boss. Trousers, WTR London. Earrings, Merola London. Shoes, Dune. Image: Chris Floyd

Celia’s been busy, as ever, playing a scary ex-headmistress in Netflix’s Malevolent and even sharing a chart hit and an illicit kiss with Lily James in the ‘When I Kissed the Teacher’ sequence in Mamma Mia 2. ‘Lily was adorable,’ she says. Celia’s also been building a career as a bestselling author and has just written her fourth book, A Nice Cup of Tea, about the lives of a group of expats who run a small restaurant in fictional Bellevue-Sur-Mer on the French Riviera. Celia is based in London’s Notting Hill but fell in love with Nice some years ago and bought a flat there, which she visits to write, often having a morning swim in the sea before she begins. ‘I wait till the lifeguards are on duty,’ she says.

This latest instalment is her third novel about the inhabitants of Bellevue-sur-Mer. She didn’t write about them in her previous novel Sail Away out of respect for the tragic events of Bastille Day 2016. Celia was celebrating with the crowds on the promenade in Nice when a Tunisian terrorist drove a truck along the pavement, killing 86 people. ‘I saw this couple run towards me… she was wearing very high heels. They were hand in hand and it didn’t seem a happy run; it was frantic, and my first thought was, “How does she run in those heels?”’ It was followed by a wave of people coming towards her. ‘I thought it must be somebody with a knife. It was one of those things where your legs go. Had I not run down a side street, I don’t think I would have been here.’ The next day, she says, ‘There was silence everywhere. There were white sheets over bodies right outside my flat. It was devastating.’

Celia worries about still being able to take acting jobs in Europe after Brexit, which she thinks will be a ‘disaster’. She took part in the huge protest march in Central London earlier this year. ‘What on earth is the point of closing down into this horrible island mentality?’ she asks. ‘Not being together with Europe, not sharing the beauty and wonders of all those marvellous countries… I’m still childishly hopeful that we won’t leave.’

Celia Imrie
Dress, Jenny Packham. Earrings, Merola London. Image: Chris Floyd

Despite including tempting recipes for classic French dishes in her novels, she claims to dislike cooking and would even turn down a chance to appear on Celebrity Bake Off. ‘I’d get into such a panic. A friend of mine tasted the biscuits I made yesterday and her face was a picture. There was no way she could hide that she didn’t like them.’ She’s never wanted to own a restaurant (unlike the characters in her novel), she says, although she worked as a singing waitress to make ends meet in her 20s. ‘When I got bored, I’d pull my blouse down for a few extra tips… and got them, by the way.’

Celia, of course, will for ever be associated with the line ‘We are going to need considerably bigger buns’ from the nude photo shoot in the 2003 film Calendar Girls. Ever since she appeared as the coquettish Corinne Perigo in ITV’s The Darling Buds of May in 1991, she’s had what she has described as ‘quite a saucy reputation’. Does she see herself as a sex symbol? ‘Oh, don’t be ridiculous,’ she says. ‘Are you mad? At the moment, I seem to be getting scripts through the door for characters who’ve all got Alzheimer’s and are falling to bits. I think one of the scripts was for a 142-year-old woman – I’m thinking, blimey, how old do people think I am? I think I’m still 26.’

Celia Imrie
The famous buns scene from the 2003 comedy film Calendar Girls. Image: Buena Vista/Touchstone/Kobal/R​EX/Shutterstock

The fourth child of five, Celia grew up in Guildford, where her father, who was from humble Glasgow origins, was a radiologist. Her mother’s family were well-to-do and considered him ‘trade’. He died when Celia was 20 and she says she still has his work ethic. As a child, she dreamt of being a ballet dancer at the Royal Ballet School, White Lodge, in Southwest London. ‘Dance was always my first love,’ she wrote in her memoir, imagining a future in which she would dance with Rudolf Nureyev. It wasn’t until months after her audition, aged 11, that she discovered the cruel rejection letter hidden in her mother’s bureau; it said she was ‘going to be too big to ever be a dancer’. She decided if she ‘worked hard enough at not eating’, the audition panel would have to eat their words. Over the next 18 months, she ate so little that at 5ft 2in she weighed only four stone. A spell in a local hospital didn’t help, and at 14 she was admitted to St Thomas’ in London suffering from severe anorexia. Close to death, she was treated by the now infamous psychiatrist William Sargant, whose methods included electroconvulsive therapy.

She doesn’t remember what happened to her there, although an image of the girl in the next bed being given shock treatment has stayed with her. ‘It was absolutely vile.’ Celia herself was so drugged, she says, that she didn’t even know her mother when she came to visit – ‘It wouldn’t be allowed now.’ For years afterwards, Dr Sargant appeared in her nightmares. ‘I remember him with the face of a devil,’ she tells me. ‘There is a part of me that is still inside, fighting.’ She finally made the decision herself to begin eating again. ‘The thing I regret is the worry that it caused my mother,’ she says. Has she had issues with food since? ‘Yes,’ she says, explaining she doesn’t really like to eat in front of other people, and is strict with herself if she’s on her own. If we were having lunch now, she says, she probably wouldn’t taste a morsel. ‘It goes on and on. I mean, I pretend it doesn’t but it sort of does. You just live with it. The sadness to me is if I see a girl in the street and it’s a very particular thinness – I would love to help them in some way.’

Celia didn’t go to university and remembers feeling intimidated among the group of former Birmingham University students she met in the mid-1970s, which included Victoria Wood, then 22, who already had a regular slot on the BBC One show That’s Life!. Celia played parts in nearly all of her friend’s self-written TV shows, including Acorn Antiques and Dinnerladies.

Celia Imrie
Image: Chris Floyd

It’s three years since Victoria died of cancer. ‘I was childishly very hurt that I knew nothing
[of her illness],’ she says, ‘but I’m beginning to understand now that she didn’t want to be seen. She was always this very pretty [woman], full of energy, vibrancy, but with that terrible disease it must have been…’ She doesn’t finish the thought. ‘I feel lucky that I had that marvellous time with her.’

Her TV collaborations with Victoria launched Celia on a career of memorable roles, including the interfering Una Alconbury in the film Bridget Jones, and PR maven Claudia Bing in Absolutely Fabulous. She’s not afraid to admit that she’s still ambitious, though. ‘The first time someone called me that, I felt quite ashamed, but yes I am. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. The Americans love ambition.’

On Desert Island Discs in 2011, she said she would still like to crack America. And now she has, playing the maddeningly eccentric mother of Pamela Adlon’s single parent of three girls in the brilliant sitcom Better Things. It was originally created and co-written by Pamela and boundary-pushing stand-up Louis CK, but he was fired from the show following his 2017 confession of sexual misconduct. Celia says she only met CK once on set. Does she have any sympathy for him? ‘He did at least put his hand up and say, “Yep, I did it.” It’s difficult to judge – we weren’t there, we don’t know what went on. But my loyalty is very much with Pamela.’

There was luck involved in her winning the part, Celia insists. Angus was at drama school and she had sailed for the US on the Queen Mary 2. (She tries to avoid flying because of the two pulmonary embolisms that almost killed her in 2005.) She was supposed to play Patrick Stewart’s wife in a different sitcom, but as she was changing trains at Chicago, he phoned to tell her that her work visa hadn’t come through in time. ‘Well, I wasn’t about to turn around and go back,’ she says, so she carried on to LA and ‘did the rounds’ with casting directors.

Celia Imrie
Trouser suit, Pallas at Fenwick. Blouse, Winser London. Earrings, Merola London. Shoes, Jimmy Choo. Image: Chris Floyd

She got the part in Better Things after a Skype interview with Pamela in which Celia says, ‘We realised that we had both bought the house next door to our own for our mothers, so we both understood what it was like.’ In the show, this same decision becomes a part of the plot. Shooting series three, Celia recalls Pamela phoning her to ask if she remembered her telling her about the day Pamela looked out of her window and saw her mother pruning roses naked, then added, ‘Well, I want to film that sequence today.’ Celia, of course, was the one doing the pruning on this occasion. She adds that the one thing she has learnt when asked to do a nude shoot is ‘do it really fast’.

She loves all the characters she has played, but the one who is most like her, she thinks, is Madge from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films, who shares her wicked sense of humour (‘How many husbands have you had?’ Madge is asked in the first film, to which she replies, ‘Including my own?’). I wonder if she were in charge of social care for the elderly, would she suggest Marigold’s community of retirees as a model? ‘I think that’s a lovely idea and I suppose I have a fantasy of being with my best friends, all looking after each other, but then if we’re all much of the same age [and equally in need of care], I don’t know. I was talking about it to a friend of mine yesterday… the awful thing is when you get to a really desperate state, I imagine you don’t realise it. I would hate for Angus to have to look after me if I didn’t know what I was doing but I don’t know what the answer is. I find old people’s homes deathly.

‘Without being dramatic,’ she says, ‘I feel that I’m slightly running out of time, grabbing hold of anything that comes my way. I don’t quite want to be the queen of Alzheimer’s [dramas] just yet.’ Is there any advice she would give to younger women? ‘Your friends are very, very important,’ she says, then adds, ‘I would say the future can be a bit frightening; the past, there’s nothing you can do about, so try to live in the moment. There was a horse in the Grand National with a marvellous name – Livelovelaugh: I think that’s a very good idea.’

Shot at The Infinity Suite, Langham Hotel. Rooms at The Langham, London start at £450 per night. For further information or to book, visit www.langhamlondon.com or call 020 7636 1000. A Nice Cup of Tea by Celia Imrie is published by Bloomsbury, price £12.99 . Better Things will return to BBC Two this summer.