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October 2016 / People / by Karen Heaney

Seriously Celia

Words: Karen Heaney Pictures: Rachell Smith

One of our greatest comic talents, cast in Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy? Celia Imrie explains why, after 40 years in the business, she still relishes a challenge

She cheats on her husband, plots his murder and poisons her sister… Lear’s daughter Goneril is black of heart and dark of deed. The role is quite a departure for Celia Imrie, who by her own confession, loves to make people laugh. Thrilled to be in what promises to be the theatrical event of the year – Glenda Jackson is Lear, back on the stage after a 25-year hiatus – she’s tackling the role with characteristic aplomb. “We’re about to go into rehearsal. Yikes,” she says, “but I’m just going to take a huge breath and dive in.”

For someone who said recently that she wanted to “go darker… kick the image that people might have of me,” playing Goneril is something of a coup. The role may be a first for Celia, but she’s worked with Glenda Jackson before. Forty years ago, the RSC staged a world tour of Hedda Gabler with Glenda in the title role.  “I was 22 years old and had never been abroad,” she explains, “and Glenda was at the height of her fame. I was an understudy and also the assistant stage manager, making the tea and looking after props.”

Celia has fond memories of the tour; Glenda was very kind to the younger cast members, generously sharing the spoils of stardom. “She always looked out for those of us at the bottom of the pile,” she recalls. “She gave me cake and Champagne on my birthday, and if we couldn’t afford the posh restaurants we were invited to, she paid. At one point she was offered a private jet and made sure we travelled with her.” A highlight of the tour, Celia remembers, was going to see Ella Fitzgerald rehearse in Toronto – Ella and Glenda were mutual fans. “Glenda and I have kept in touch on and off ever since,” she says.

Aside from landmark Shakespearean productions, 2016 has been an extraordinary year for Celia. For starters there were roles in two long-awaited films – Absolutely Fabulous and Bridget Jones’s Baby. Celia is very happy to be reprising her role as Una ‘turkey buffet’ Alconbury.  “It’s only a small part, but it’s brilliant that most of the cast are back together again, 15 years after the first film.”

Earlier this year she decamped to Hollywood to work on a couple of projects: A Year By The Sea, a film set in Cape Cod, and Better Things, a comedy series written and directed by Louis C.K.. Celia is of course no stranger to Hollywood. Her first foray was in 1999, when she was cast as a fighter pilot in Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace. A casting director for George Lucas saw her in a Harold Pinter play and to this day she has no idea what made him think that she’d be a good fighter pilot. She admits to never having seen Star Wars and being clueless as to whom she was shooting at as the cast was never allowed to see the whole script. More recently she’s starred in the two Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films, the second time with Richard Gere. What was it like working with Hollywood royalty? “He was very charming,” she says, “he very sweetly said that my character had put 15 years on his career.”

This year has also had its sadnesses. The death of Victoria Wood was a bitter blow. “I was in America when I heard, I had no idea that she was ill,” she says. Working with her across three decades, from Wood & Walters, through Dinnerladies to Acorn Antiques: The Musical!, was an extraordinary privilege. “Victoria was very generous in the way that she dealt us all one-liners. She had a musical ear when it came to writing jokes. I remember her telling me that ‘Wednesday’ was a much funnier-sounding word than ‘Monday’. The fastidiousness with which she used language was extraordinary.”

As well as the film and stage work, Celia has also had a second novel published this year, Nice Work (If You Can Get It), skewering expat life in the South of France. She has a holiday home in Nice “it’s a wonderful city, it’s got great energy,” but she’s also a fan of life in the Capital. A long time London resident, her first flatshare was in Fulham. Notting Hill is home now, an area that she absolutely loves. “Whenever I go for a walk I’m struck by the number of blue plaques to artists, writers and painters who lived in the area – it’s a reminder that it didn’t used to be as affluent, it used to be somewhere that creative people used to congregate. And I love that it’s so green.” The river and the parks make London a very special place to live, she thinks, and she loves to jump on a boat and take a trip down the Thames. But she doesn’t approve of the way unsympathetic development is encroaching on some of the city’s most beautiful historic buildings. St Paul’s is a classic example, “other great cities wouldn’t dream of letting that happen,” she says, “I think it’s a terrible shame.”

Celia’s son, Angus, is following in her footsteps – he’s currently playing Josh in The Archers and appeared with his mum in Kingdom. Looking back on her own rich career, which is enjoying a marvellous Indian summer, what advice would she offer to someone starting out? “You have to make things happen. I wish I’d pushed a bit more when I was young.  I’m never going to play Juliet or Hedda Gabbler now, and that makes me sad. But I’m going to grab every chance that comes along.” And let’s face it, when it comes to chances, they don’t come better than playing Goneril to Glenda Jackson’s Lear.

Celia Imrie is appearing alongside Glenda Jackson in King Lear at The Old Vic, 25 October – 3 December. (0844 871 7628; oldvictheatre.com)