By Moonah Ellison
Photographer: Nathan Johnson
Celia Imrie: Actress, Novelist, and “Not Quite Nice”
With doe eyes, pursed lips, and a grin that would cower The Cheshire Cat, Celia Imrie is a force of classic femininity. She famously proved that womanhood should be a source of pride, not prudishness in the iconic film, Calendar Girls. Celia played a member of a UK Women’s Institute whose pursuit of hospital funds leads ten of their members to pose nude for a calendar. A controversial film at the time, Celia reflects fondly on how fateful it was that the opportunity had come to her. “I was very lucky to be the right age. I only say that because if I’d been 20 years younger it wouldn’t have been relevant. It wouldn’t have made the statement that it did.” More than a decade later, it’s apparent that Calendar Girls put female empowerment on the trajectory for its present position.
If you didn’t know, it is quite a momentous time for women across the globe. The feminist movement has resurged and taken a stand against inequalities ranging from unequal wages in America to international sexual assault. Specifically in Hollywood, feminism aims to break the glass ceiling and the stigma of ageism. There have never been more roles for seasoned women in the entertainment industry. On television and in film, women are no longer being put out to pasture for being past their prime or on the downslope of their careers. Instead, they are being sought after for roles that can only be played by mature women who, by their very nature, are mysterious, beautiful, and above all else, authentic.
“I love to be daring,” Celia says quite definitely, yet with playfulness that insinuates her smirk, even over the telephone.
As an actress, she has performed across all mediums—television, film, radio, and theater. Her comedic timing couldn’t resonate more deeply than in the sketch comedy series, Victoria Woods. On set, Celia radiated humor as Ms. Babs, the owner of the Acorn Antiques shop, where most of the hilarity took place. The vignettes became such a British Institution that the show was turned into West End Musical in 2005, starring most of the original cast.
Celia, at the pinnacle of a long and prosperous career, has even written books. Several of them. She admits her most recent novel, Not Quite Nice, is moderately autobiographical. But don’t all writers write what they know?
Her main character, Theresa, is a woman on the brink—she is on the edge of losing herself to the complacency that often accompanies a stagnant life, drowning in the daily routine. Needless to say, she’s desperate for a change. Forced into early retirement and fed up with babysitting her bossy daughter’s obnoxious children, she sells her Highgate house and moves to the picture-perfect town of Bellevue-sur-Mer, just outside Nice.
It’s here that Celia breaks, digressing into her own intimate and borderline obsession with the ocean. “I absolutely love the sea, which is why I’m so delighted about Cape Cod, anyway. And, uh… I went out one day for a baguette and came back with an apartment.” It’s true. And Theresa’s flat in the novel could be a literary copy of Celia’s own Atlantic apartment, down to the beautiful chair with the heart-shaped back.
Celia found it essential to be amongst it all; to smell the perfume of the place while she wrote. Although not exactly in Nice, the ocean breeze brought back memories of her favorite Nicoise café. Even more inspiring, her apartment overlooks the sea. “I have moonlit nights and, you know, watching the waves…they’re always different.”
While Moves found Celia’s storyline delightful, some book reviewers have criticized her for making the children in the novel “slightly obnoxious.” But she’s just taking a page from her own life. “I’m afraid the younger generation sometimes can be rather disrespectful.”
It’s imperative, she insists, that we recognize that grandparents do not exist as surrogate ATM machines, whose sole purpose is to send birthday cards filled with $10. Nor are they lifelines for children looking for a way out of trouble when mum is cross. Quite wrong, indeed! They are oracles, pillars of wisdom from whom grandchildren should seek out for advice and counsel. In fact, the relationship between a grandparent and a grandchild is so unique, so momentous, that Hinduism marks this growth as the fourth stage of life.
The facets of Hinduism are called to mind because Celia recently traveled to the picturesque subcontinent to reprise her role in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the sequel to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Once again, the British retirees take up residence only to discover that there are still wonders to behold. This time around, the passionate owner is thinking of expanding his enterprise to accommodate the growing number of tourists. It wasn’t hard for Celia to portray the awe of her character in the film for the rich cultural surroundings. She was utterly overwhelmed with the stark beauty of the country. “You really don’t have to use your imagination very much because you’re surrounded by the smell and the heat and the dust and the colors and the smiles of everyone.”
Though beautiful, there was no denying the juxtaposition between the country and its citizens. Staying in a luxurious hotel with the rest of the cast, Celia was disheartened to see a little girl chasing a cabbage leaf, a poor excuse for nutrition for a growing child. The cast shared Celia’s grief, discovering the difficulty to step outside their privileged residence and onto set without embracing the reality that India’s countryside is wracked with poverty. “You couldn’t possibly fake [India].”
So rather than dwell in the misery, Celia took action. While on location, the cast got involved with a huge charity that encourages education for the children of Udaipur, the town where the movie was filmed. The crew also employed an enormous amount of people on the film set. Some of them were just young boys giving away bottles of water; a small task to be sure, but it gave them something that they otherwise wouldn’t have: employment.
Now looking toward the future, there has been talk about possibly making the next Bond villain a woman. Naturally, Celia Imrie’s name was dropped onto the short list, which made her giddy, “I adore making people laugh…but actually it would be quite wonderful to play a villainous part.”
Unlike Theresa, the woman in her novel, longing to escape her own life, Celia is lucky to escape those traditional conventions of aging simply because of the nature of her work. “I just have no idea what’s coming next but certainly not nothing—hopefully, because I’m gonna go on till I drop!”