Celia Imrie on Victoria Wood, writing novels – and being caught in the Nice terror attack

The star talks about her novels for neglected women, missing her ‘dear pal’ Victoria Wood – and how it was a miracle she survived the lorry attack in Nice

‘The dignity of the people of Nice was quite humbling’ … Celia Imrie.
‘The dignity of the people of Nice was quite humbling’ … Celia Imrie. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Up by Mira using Mary Kay UK. Hair by Nicole Iroh at Headmasters
‘The dignity of the people of Nice was quite humbling’ … Celia Imrie. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Up by Mira using Mary Kay UK. Hair by Nicole Iroh at Headmasters
Stuart Jeffries

Last modified on Wed 26 Aug 2020 09.56 EDT

Celia Imrie breezes into the cafe, apologising for being late and making people at the next table nudge each other excitedly. She’s wearing a purple shawl, collared moleskin jacket, silk off-white collarless blouse, black trousers and sparkly trainers. “I got those from Monte Carlo,” she says of the trainers. Of course she did.

It’s quite possible that this ensemble was assembled by Le Huit Couture in Nice, the French Riviera city where Imrie has an apartment overlooking the Med, and where she set her two novels, Not Quite Nice and its sequel, Nice Work (If You Can Get It), which is out in paperback next week. “They choose all my outfits for me,” she explains.

She is also wearing a pearl and ruby necklace given to her by Glenda Jackson. Last year, Imrie and Jane Horrocks played Goneril and Regan respectively, opposite Jackson’s Lear at the Old Vic. “Glenda had two necklaces and she gave one to Jane and one to me.” Why? “Because, she said, she has no female dependents.”

It’s a relief to see Imrie, 64, looking so at ease in this Notting Hill cafe, given that the last time I saw her, she was a haggard wreck. Perhaps your abiding image of Imrie is seeing her naked behind two cherry bakewells in 2003’s Calendar Girls, the cherries concealing her nipples. Mine, though, is more grotesque. I’m haunted by the chilling sight of Imrie in her new film, A Cure for Wellness, desiccated and nearly naked on a gurney in an Alpine sanatorium. As the camera moves in, we see little eels visibly snaking under her skin and ingesting her vitals, as she succumbs to a diabolical scheme by the sanitarium’s director (a superbly hammy Jason Isaacs) to drain his patients of their blood and thereby create an inbred master race.

A Cure for Wellness is, as far as I could make out, an update of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, by Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski, in which a Wall Street finance tyro called Lockhart is sent to Switzerland to retrieve a co-worker from this supposed wellness centre. Once there, Lockhart finds the institution is populated overwhelmingly by elderly former businesspeople who don’t want to leave. Imrie’s character worked for 40 years at Xerox, but now seems content playing badminton on the lawn, doing crosswords on the veranda and, oh yes, being killed off slowly during ostensibly restorative spa treatments.

Was it difficult to watch herself infested with creepy crawlies in the resulting film? “I didn’t find it difficult at all. It’s a sumptuous film to look at.” I always thought Imrie was queasy about watching herself on screen. I recall reading that when she, Judi Dench and Penelope Wilton saw themselves in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, their jaws dropped because the film was made without special lighting or makeup. Didn’t she say that, if the three of them had been filming in America, being in their 60s, they would have had Botox?

“Well, certainly after I did Calendar Girls, I had a meeting with an American management company in which they suggested I have work done. I even found myself thinking they had a point.” So why didn’t she have work done? “I’m just a coward,” she jokes. “There’s no point in me trying to be 26, which is my favourite age, by the way. In any case, I’m being asked to play older than I am – women of 70 or 80.”

Imrie and the cast of the 2003 film Calendar Girls.
Imrie and the cast of the 2003 film Calendar Girls. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Buena Vista

A Cure for Wellness may seem a departure, given that Imrie’s most highly regarded acting has been in cheerful roles, but the film’s meditation on death chimes with her own existential crisis. When she turned 60, she said that at best she had another two decades of life left. Hence her appreciation of a part in another new film, Finding Your Feet, starring Timothy Spall and Imelda Staunton. “It’s about the joy of dancing. One great pleasure was watching these men of a certain age disco dancing.” Because they’re defying the sagathon that’s going to get us all? “In a sense. I’m not being dramatic – but we don’t know how long we have left, so we must live our lives to the full.”

In 2011, Imrie published her memoir, The Happy Hoofer. “It came from someone saying: ‘Write your life story – or someone else will.’ I thought: ‘Oh gawd!’ My publisher wanted it to be a misery memoir. I wasn’t having that.” The book is not devoid of misery, though. Imrie related how, aged 14, she was treated for anorexia by controversial psychiatrist William Sargant, who gave her electro-convulsive therapy and the anti-psychotic drug Largactil. “Today,” she wrote, “his books are said to be studied by al-Qaida.”

Imrie recalled that nurses thought she was exhibiting a dangerous resistance to the drugs. “Dangerous for whom, I wonder?” she wrote. “Who could tell in that terrible place where, as far as I can see, the truly insane were the workers rather than the patients.” Half a century before A Cure for Wellness, she inhabited its topsy-turvy world.

Her cure came after a visit from her former dance teacher, who told her: “I came to visit you because they told me you would die in two weeks, and I thought I ought to say goodbye.” It was a turning point: “Whenever I am issued with an absolute order, my instinct has always been the same – do the opposite. And thanks to Miss Hawkesworth, I decided there and then I would not oblige these horrible, self-appointed gods of psychiatry and die just to satisfy their theories. Slowly, I started to eat.”

Later, at the age of 16, she won a place at the Guildford School of Acting, in her home town: “I was on my way.” Defying her family’s hopes and social norms, she chose not to marry. (“I’ve never even cohabited.”) The decision was born of a desire for independence, though it may have also had something to do with what her friend Eleanor Bron said to her: “Have you never thought that in fact the actual horror is that you would find them [husbands] boring?”

At 42, Imrie gave birth to a son, Angus. The father is actor Ben Whitrow, best known for his Mr Bennet in the BBC’s 1996 Pride and Prejudice. She bristles slightly when I ask about how she raised Angus (now a Warwick University drama student). “Ben gets cross reading about how I raised Angus. So just say he is a wonderful father to Angus, which he is.”

The Happy Hoofer led to requests for her to write novels. “I heard myself saying: ‘Why not?” The result was a two-book deal with Bloomsbury for novels about expats in the fictional Côte d’Azur town of Belleville-sur-Mer. “Such a charming romp,” wrote Fern Britton of the first, which appeared in 2015.

Peppered with local dishes, the novels are as light and frothy as the îles flottantes with crème anglaise she gives a recipe for near the end of the first book. Imrie decided on the setting after visiting Nice. “I went there and totally fell in love with the place. On a whim, I went out for a croissant and came back having bought an apartment.” Which is exactly what one of her heroines, 59-year-old clerical worker Theresa Simmonds, does – happily swapping drizzly old Britain for the sunny Med.

Imrie’s fictional world revolves around love affairs, cookery clubs, boozy lunches, trips to the Cannes film festival and plans to set up a Brit-run bistro. It’s a charmed milieu, where women who’ve been exploited or neglected at home get a second go at life abroad. Is that how you live on the Riviera? “Not at all,” she says. “I don’t really know anybody – and that’s how I like it.”

On 14 July last year, Imrie was strolling through Nice with thousands of other people celebrating Bastille Day. “I imagined they put on the fireworks for me, because my birthday is 15 July.” That evening a terrorist killed 84 people by driving a lorry through the crowds on the Promenade des Anglais. Imrie was part of the crowd. “It was a miracle for me that I survived – unlike for other poor people.”

Tributes on the promenade in Nice after the attack
Tributes on the promenade in Nice after the attack Photograph: David Ramos/Getty

But what struck her most was how the city behaved after the terrorist attack. “The dignity of the people of Nice was quite humbling. All the florists laid out flowers along the Promenade, sometimes just one lily. And then later they gathered them up, hugged them and passed them to the next person.”

She was moved, too, by the words of President Hollande: “He said, ‘Why Nice? It’s the most beautiful city.’” It’s a sentiment she shares, even though she knows she is – and wants to remain – something of an outsider. “I look out on to the Med from my apartment. I have the most idyllic views, especially at night. I can quite see why so many painters lived and worked here.”

Does she think of it as a racially integrated city? “I don’t know but I do know that I have I have an adorable Muslim man who comes and does handiwork for me – fixing the shower or whatever.”

After that tragedy, Imrie decided against writing another book set in Belleville-sur-Mer. “It would have been extremely difficult to write about the tragedy – and difficult to leave it out.” Instead, she has just finished writing her third novel, called Sailing Away and set on the Queen Mary 2, as it travels from Southampton to New York.

I suggest Imrie’s books replicate something of Victoria Wood’s best work, especially Dinnerladies, in which Imrie played appealingly ditzy, emotionally vulnerable HR manager Philippa. Men are subsidiary and the energy comes from women freed from the yawnsome yoke of maledom. Imrie demurs: “She was a genius, I’m not.”

‘I think about Victoria every day’ … from left, Julia Walters, Duncan Preston, Victoria Wood and Imrie.
‘I think about Victoria every day’ … from left, Julia Walters, Duncan Preston, Victoria Wood and Imrie. Photograph: BBC

Wood’s death last year, aged 62, still haunts her. “I was in America when it happened and it was a terrible shock. I was just happy to be on her team, to be in her gang or whatever you want to call it.” Imrie, along with Julie Walters, was a leading member of that gang, which also included Susie Blake, Duncan Preston, Anne Reid, Maxine Peake and Thelma Barlow. “She got us all together and, the more we worked, the easier and more creative it got. We were like Monty Python. I think about her every day. Always will. I wish I was still working with her. She was my dear pal.”

Wood’s early death and the tragedy in Nice have proved a creative spur. Professionally, Imrie’s certainly living life to the full, about to head stateside to shoot TV comedy Better Things, in which she plays a politically incorrect, gobby English mother. In September, she’s on Broadway to perform in Lear again with Jackson. Somewhere in between, she has to write a fourth novel. “We’re great fans,” say the quartet at the next table as Imrie prepares to leave. “Love your work!” She thanks them and then wafts off for photos. Like the rest of us, they’re witnessing the prime of Ms Celia Imrie.

A Cure for Wellness is released in the UK on 24 February. Nice Work (If You Can Get It) is published by Bloomsbury on the same day.

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