Better Things star Celia Imrie: “They said I would be too big to be a ballet dancer”

PUBLISHED: 09:23 23 September 2020

Celia as Phyllis in Better Things, alongside Madonna Magee as Esther. Image: BBC/FX/Suzanne Tenner

Celia as Phyllis in Better Things, alongside Madonna Magee as Esther. Image: BBC/FX/Suzanne Tenner

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The Olivier Award-winning actress talks about her battles with anorexia as a teenager growing up in Guildford

Celia as Phyllis in Better Things, alongside Madonna Magee as Esther. Image: BBC/FX/Suzanne TennerCelia as Phyllis in Better Things, alongside Madonna Magee as Esther. Image: BBC/FX/Suzanne Tenner

One of our best-loved comedy actresses, Celia Imrie is famed for playing Miss Babs in Acorn Antiques and her brilliant cameos in films such as Calendar Girls, Bridget Jones’s Diary and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

More recently as the mother of Sam Fox in Pam Adlon’s, Better Things, Celia has spent a lot of time across the pond. In the critically acclaimed US-based show, which recently returned to BBC 2 for a fourth series, Celia plays Phyllis - a frank character she describes as a “well-preserved bombshell.”

Closer to home Celia also starred in one of this year’s feel-good British films, Love Sarah, about a young woman striving to fulfill her mother’s dream of opening her own bakery in Notting Hill, enlisting the help of her best friend and grandmother, played by Celia.

But, whether she is working at home or away, the Guildford-born Olivier award-winning actress says a part of her will forever belong to Surrey.

“I love being on water, so being born and raised in Surrey was just perfect for me,” she said. “Wherever you go in the county you are never far from lakes and rivers and especially the wonderfully iconic Thames. If you like water there are few better places, if any, than Surrey.”

Born in Guildford in 1952, Celia was the youngest but one of five children. Her mother, Diane, was from quite a well-off family while her father, David, came from an ordinary family in Glasgow but had worked hard to become a radiologist.

While she enjoyed growing up in the town, her teenage years were fraught with her battle with an eating disorder and then her father passed away when she was just 20.

Celia as Mimi in Love Sarah. Image: Parkland EntertainmentCelia as Mimi in Love Sarah. Image: Parkland Entertainment

“Life had not been great since I hit my teens,” says Celia. “I went through strange teenage years which included a spell in hospital because of becoming severely anorexic. Being in hospital was pretty dreadful because the treatments at the hands of the then psychiatric doctor were dreadful and I had nightmares about it for a long time afterwards.”

From an early age Celia had always wanted to be a dancer. “I loved ballet – I still do – and when I was 11, I attended an audition at the Royal Ballet School,” Celia remembers. “My mother was always very encouraging and was as disappointed as I was when I was turned down because they said I would be too big to be a ballet dancer. I didn’t know I had been rejected until I accidentally saw the letter that my mother had hidden so as not to upset me. I was angry about it and determined to show them they were wrong. I think that is what sparked my poor eating habits and what followed. I don’t think you ever fully recover from something like that.

“I think I got my determination from my father who had worked hard to better himself. It was very sad when he died. I admired his work ethic and I think it has rubbed off on me because I don’t expect anything without working for it and I rarely do things by halves.”

READ MORE: Find out where in Surrey Bill Nighy grew up

Celia as Mimi in Love Sarah. Image: Parkland EntertainmentCelia as Mimi in Love Sarah. Image: Parkland Entertainment

At 68, her longstanding career certainly provides proof of her determination and hard work.

“I went to Guildford High School and probably could and should have gone on to university but I just wanted to get on with life and go down the path that I really wanted to pursue which is why I joined the Guildford School of Acting [and Dancing],” Celia explains. “It might seem a little strange now but I didn’t go there for acting, my father didn’t really approve of that as a profession. I went to study dancing and by the time I had finished I was a fully qualified Greek dancing tutor.

“I got some work in panto and similar but then things just took off and here we are today. I have had a variety of work but still plenty of things to do. I really like to be busy and consider most things. I have done major dramas and also been in things like Taggart. My father’s influence was very useful there because he had such a very Scottish accent and I was able to adapt it for my own part!”

While Celia is probably best known for her roles in British comedy, she is not one to be typecast.

“Some people like to stick to a certain type of role but I like to have a wide variety of challenges,” she says. “I’ve been a fighter pilot in Star Wars, a Calendar Girl and many other different characters on stage, television and in cinema.

“You never stop learning and I think it is fair to say that everything I have been in has taught me something. I think if you ever reach the point of thinking you know it all then it is time to give up.

“There’s one ambition I have never fulfilled however and never will – I would love to have danced with Rudolf Nureyev. Still, I have been in the chorus line a few times!”

When it comes to her homelife, Celia says unconventional is a fair assessment.

“I don’t think I am conventional. I wanted to have a baby but I didn’t want to get married. Angus is 26 now but I have never yet found a desire to get married. I like people but marriage has always seemed an over-rated possibility – so far anyway.

“Home is wherever I am at the time. I love London, I love New york, I love France, I love Cowes on the Isle of Wight and, of course, I love Surrey because that is where I come from and I have never forgotten it. I love travelling but not so much by air. I much prefer to be on a train or better still on a boat. It’s that thing about water again and my roots in Surrey with all those lovely lakes and riversides.”

The latest series of Better Things is available to watch on BBC iplayer. Love Sarah is available to stream from Amazon Prime Video.

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