Celia Imrie: ‘I once served my dinner guests deadly nightshade’

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Memorable food moments, from curry by moonlight with Maggie Smith and Judi Dench to cornbread with an astronaut

Celia Imrie at Maison Bertaux, London W1.
Celia Imrie at Maison Bertaux, London W1. Photograph: Pål Hansen for Observer Food Monthly
Celia Imrie at Maison Bertaux, London W1. Photograph: Pål Hansen for Observer Food Monthly

Last modified on Wed 26 Aug 2020 09.56 EDT

My mother was a Debrett’s-listed aristocrat and father a commoner from Glasgow who became a doctor. They’d met when she stepped out of a posh social event one night. He was sitting in his car outside and took a fancy to her and offered the gift of fruit. I’m the result of an apple.

Mother had us five children but otherwise was far too busy giving parties. Thelma, our nanny, looked after, cooked for, and fed us. We ate with our parents only at Christmas and on the odd Sunday, when I remember being made to sit for hours until I finished my roast meat – one of the reasons I believe I turned vegetarian. Father, who was 60 when I was born and had been through two world wars, didn’t approve of butter and jam on toast; he thought it should be either one or the other. He’d get very cross whenever he saw waste, especially food, whereas mother was in the opposite direction - always going extravagant with her big parties, squealing with laughter. But they found a way through, somewhere in the middle. She got away with a lot.

The smells most evocative of my childhood are rose hip syrup and concentrated orange juice in square flat bottles. There were chickens in the garden and my abiding love of fresh eggs began very young. My favourite photograph of myself is, aged three, collecting eggs in a tin bucket, wearing a little jumper and marvellous dungarees. The only two things mother cooked for us, when Nanny went on holiday, were mince and a very rich treacle pudding. My favourite thing that Nanny made was Queen of Puddings with pink & white meringues. (Years later, when I was nanny to Frances La Tour’s children, I made Chocolate Cornflake Crispies which were very successful.)

I remember being allowed only two sweets a day as a child and never being allowed to chew them – or anything else – in public, because “it’s not right”. Oddly it still bothers me to see people eating on the street. It’s what amused Victoria Wood about me, because she’d always carry loads of sweets on her.

At Guildford High School the dinner ladies were quite adorable actually but didn’t allow me to get up until I’d finished dinner. It made me cross that some girls would bring in notes from their parents saying “She is not allowed to eat so and so”. But I worked out ways to dispose of food – in my pockets, or by chucking it out of the window. You had to be a really good shot at that distance.

When I was told that I couldn’t be a ballet dancer because I was too big, I thought: “Well, I’ll just get smaller.” It’s more complex than that, but it’s partly the reason I became anorexic and went down to four stone. At 14 I ended up in St Thomas’ Hospital in Waterloo, having electro-convulsive therapy, anti-psychotic drugs and insulin-induced sleep.

What finally made me eat was being told I was going to die. I rebelled against dying. I wish I could have the time back and regret terribly that I caused my parents all that worry and embarrassment.

I held a dinner party while my housemate was away. For dessert I served “blackcurrants”, picked from the garden, which she later explained on the phone were deadly nightshade. It was an awful mistake which we can laugh about now, but thank goodness a lot of cream was served that night. I had quite a few dinner parties but the message got back to me that someone thought: “She’s terribly good fun, but her food is dreadful.”

I hate being sat next to the same person all evening, not knowing what to say. I was put next to the astronaut John Glenn once and it was very weird. He told me the complete history of cornbread in what felt like slow motion. It must do something to people, travelling up there.

Gary Oldman once arrived in drag for a tea party at Claridge’s. He’d been told he’d have to come in a tie and I’d said: “If you don’t they’ll give you some horrible tie to wear on the door.” He’d replied: “No, I’m coming, but not in a tie.” And they didn’t click at all that he wasn’t a woman.

Here in Notting Hill I’m very untidy, with an old kitchen. But at my place in Nice it’s all new and beautiful and I’m terribly fastidious. I always have fresh garlic and I look out onto the sea. Everything bursts with flavours there, especially when bought at the fruit market in The Old Town. What better way to live your life? It’s absolutely magical. It’s such a good excuse to spend time in Nice and in its restaurants that I decided to write novels about it.

I suppose I like exotic restaurants because they’re like film sets. But it must always remain a treat to go to them; it mustn’t be every day.

We had a lot of Twiglets and champagne in the dressing room when filming Calendar Girls. I spent my days off in Betty’s Tea Rooms in Harrogate, doing surveillance. I was trying to work out that time who amongst the clientele might be lady golfers. I don’t necessary like watching people eating but I love trying to work out their story as they eat. I went to a very beautiful restaurant called La Sarre in Paris on the way back from Nice recently and it was true theatre there, with the staff in beautiful tailcoats, all with their own thing to do, all so gracious, careful and unhurried, like they were slow dancing. I suppose I like exotic restaurants because they’re like film-sets. But it must always remain a treat to go to them; it mustn’t be every day.

I once took a 17-hour train journey in India. Before I left Delhi, I’d asked the Taj Hotel to prepare vegetarian food for my journey and they’d presented me with a beautiful big box, done up with a ribbon and little seal, which I carried excitedly onto the train. When I got hungry and unwrapped it, it turned out to contain only a lettuce sandwich and a few stale crisps. What made it worse is that the man sharing my carriage was eating a beautiful, gorgeous smelling curry.

One of the happiest evenings Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and I had during the filming of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was sitting altogether, eating a delicious curry beside the lake in Udaipur with the moonlight on the water. The director, John Madden, gave me a great lesson when he said that when the camera’s left on your face at the end of a scene, that ‘You don’t need to go through every expression on an old Fry’s Five Boys Chocolate wrapper’, which went from smiling to crying. You don’t need all that business.

It’s pilot season, so I’m leaving for LA, travelling on the Queen Mary 2 – all the food onboard is perfection – and then by train. So I’m definitely packing one of those squeezy Marmites, because Americans don’t go in for Marmite yet I simply adore it.

Nice Work (If You Can Get It) is published by Bloomsbury, £12.99, on 1 March. Click here to order a copy for £10.39

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