Beating heart

I was very shocked to learn, after first putting this site on the net, that some of my friends did not know who Celia Johnson was. More shocking yet was the discovery that there is no Celia Johnson site on the web. Type in "Ingrid Bergman" or "Audrey Hepburn" to a search engine, and you'll get loads of hits. Typing "Celia Johnson" will get you next to nothing. Here, I do my bit to put this gross injustice right.

Celia is the lady who made more Englishmen go weak at the knees than any other lady of the 1940s. She worked more on the stage than in films. Though she appeared on the screen many times, she will always be remembered as Laura (interesting how often the unfaithful woman in fiction is called "Laura") in one of the greatest films of all time: Brief Encounter, playing opposite craggy Trevor Howard (see film reviews section). She was possessed of a charming accent, of a type which has now gone so out of fashion as to have disappeared altogether. She would add Y noises before certain vowels, such that "I went absolutely mad and bought a new hat" would come out as "I went eybsolutely myad and bought a new hyat". My knees weaken at the thought. She flashed her bright smile at Noel Coward in In Which We Serve, another classic; and danced pretty damned attractively in The Captain's Paradise with Alec Guinness.

One reviewer said something of her that I agree with heartily: that she had "mastered the art of being adorable on the lines of intelligent sensibility instead of by exploiting glucose charm."

She liked performing in modern dress most. She didn't suit big costumes, being rather thin and gamine, and heroic roles were outside her range. Her voice lacked power, especially in the lower register. She couldn't mimic. On the other hand, she was never sentimental, and her acting seemed utterly true. In real life too she was almost incapable of lying. She saw an actor's job as making an audience aware, listening to every word.

This page has expanded considerably since I read the 1991 biography of Celia by her daughter Kate Fleming. This book was written after Celia's death, and Kate writes that Celia would not have approved. Celia was of course asked to write an autobiography and refused, saying "I won't write my autobiography because I never had an affair with Frank Sinatra, and if I had had, I wouldn't tell anyone." Kate Fleming's book is my main source of information for what follows. While the book is chronological, I have decided to be thematic.

Family background ▼

Family background

Celia was the middle child of three, from a very English middle class family. Both parents were respected, prosperous, and well educated. Celia's mother was Ethel Griffiths, and her family was god-fearing and sporty. Ethel and her siblings seem to have been a nervous lot. Two died very young, which was traditional in those days, and three of her sisters lived together unmarried for the rest of their lives. Ethel was sent to live with her aunt and uncle as a replacement for their dead child, and she became the rebel who left the family and moved from her native Lancashire and in 1904 married Robert Johnson, a doctor from Cambridge/Essex. The Johnsons were an arty, clever and relaxed lot. Robert wrote sketches in verse, and qualified as a doctor while working to pay for his training. He was an early enthusiast of motoring.

From the Johnsons, Celia inherited a round face, big eyes, creativity and a sense of fun. From the Griffiths she got a tall athletic body, a sense of duty, thrift, stoicism, and some northern grit.

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Childhood ▼


She was born Celia Elizabeth Johnson on 18 December 1908, at Ellerker Gate, Richmond, Surrey, England.

Celia's childhood was in the beautiful town of Richmond, close to London, and was happy and comfortable. Her father's practice flourished (he was doctor to the future George VI). She was 6 years old when the First World War broke out. Celia had already shown an interest in acting, organising plays with other children when staying with her favourite uncle who did magic tricks. Celia and her elder sister Pam got a mention in the local paper when they put on a show and raised 22s 6d for the Red Cross camp in Richmond Park. In the last week of the war, one of Celia's cousins was killed in action. Celia caught measles and for the rest of her life attributed her poor eyesight to this.

Celia and her sister were privately tutored and on the second attempt passed the entrance exam to St Paul's Girls' School, April 1919. Celia played oboe in the orchestra there, and the music teacher was Gustav Holst (he of the famous Planets Suite). Celia won the white girdle awarded to girls of spotless character who excel at gym. Celia was very good at French, and appeared in four French plays, which were the only plays the school put on.

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Celia applied to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and was given an audition in 1926. She said of acting "I thought it might be rather wicked." She had been encouraged to go into teaching, but had preferred the idea of marrying, and women teachers often didn't marry in those days. She passed the audition, and, still living with her parents, started study at the cost of fifteen guineas a term plus two for French acting (by the second term she had won a scholarship worth seven guineas). Kenneth Barnes who ran the school did not rate Celia, and told her parents this, but they didn't tell Celia. Celia's talent was spotted by the French acting teacher (who had spotted Charles Laughton), and Celia befriended Joyce Grenfell, a classmate and future star. Joyce formed the opinion that Celia was interested in acting, but not in being an actress.

The old-fashioned histrionic acting had already passed, but still acting was taught to be delivered without accent, and with a great emphasis on diction. There was little prospect of meeting a husband at RADA, where there were four times as many women as men, just after the Great War.

It was vital to get noticed at the end of year show, but Celia was not cast in any of the main plays. Her French lessons saved her, though, as she did appear in a French play, and The Daily Telegraph the next day said that she showed rare promise. She then went to Paris and studied at the Comédie Française.

She was told at the age of nineteen to get out of acting if she was not established by the age of twenty-two. She found an agent, Aubrey Blackburn, and he got her her first role for 3 pounds a week less 1s 4d insurance.

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Early career ▼

Early career

Her debut was as Sarah Undershaft, in Shaw's play Major Barbara, at the Theatre Royal, Huddersfield. This was part of a repertory season, and Celia appeared in a few more plays, including To Have the Honour by A.A. Milne in which she played a flapper and got rave reviews.

That could have been the end, and the next part of her career was very shaky. Her old housemistress from school organised a poetry party and Sir Nigel Playfair, rescuer of The Lyric Theatre, was to attend. He turned up late, and Celia had to recite her poems again. On the strength of this, she was given the star part (ousting Peggy Ashcroft who had originally been cast) in A Hundred Years Old, but fooled around in rehearsals, and showed herself to be a bit young, and instead became the understudy. After playing the part for real just once, she took it over.

Celia's career stalled again, and she appeared in some French plays, and experimental plays at the Arts Theatre Club. This was the start of a curious phase in which she appeared in flop after flop, but each time was given rave personal reviews. Her break came in The Artist and the Shadow in which she played a French artist's model who spoke broken English with unforced gaiety and the reviewers remarked on how true she seemed. The famous Frank Vosper wrote, directed and starred in a play over three hours long at The Lyric, Hammersmith, and at the end of the first night the audience called out for a speech, not from Frank, but from the sensation of the night: a rather startled Celia. The headlines in the press the next day were all about her: "Play saved by young actress" was one. The play flopped.

Celia and Sir Gerald in Cynara at The Playhouse, 1930.

She then appeared opposite Sir Gerald du Maurier, the leading leading man of his day, in Cynara. By this time, there had been so many headlines about her, that one read "Celia Johnson again". Her performances were described as natural, pathetic, interesting, with never a false note, no sentimentality, no technical trickiness, fresh, and sensitive. Only the weakness of her voice was pointed out as a flaw. Celia's voice lacked power in the lower register and this was one reason, along with her slight figure, that made her unsuited to heroic roles.

A cartoon from Punch showing Celia in The Vinegar tree in 1932.

Celia became an established West End star. Peggy Ashcroft got all the classical roles, while Celia appeared in the mainstream plays of the day: toying with cigarette boxes and walking in and out of French windows. She was part of the new generation of actors, more naturalistic and working under directors, rather than the older actor-managers. One reviewer said of Celia that she should beware of staring glassily into the audience lest it should become a mannerism [a technique she used to great effect in films - and one she was naturally gifted at, having large expressive short-sighted eyes].

Celia continued appearing in flops, and attracting uniformly excellent reviews, including playing Ophelia in Hamlet on Broadway.

Celia left home at the age of 25 and shared a flat with her brother in law's brother. She appeared in Ten Minute Alibi, the most popular thriller of the decade which ran for 800 performances. She reached a new high with Sometimes Even Now, which was the woman's side of Journey's End, about the Great War, in which she excelled. She was in another massive hit As It Was In The Beginning about Edinburgh medical students, and this ran for two years (later titled The Wind and the Rain). In those days, contracts were for the run of a play, and so it was a big commitment to appear in a hit show. During the war, contracts changed to include six-month get-out clauses. She became a favourite of Hugh "Binkie" Beaumont, the most powerful producer of the 1940s-60s.

Celia in The Wind and the Rain in characteristic kind pose.

Celia was a huge success as Elizabeth Bennet in the hit Pride and Prejudice, in which she played the romantic heroine for once, and not the downtrodden or wronged woman. Here she is, sitting in the centre of the picture. Her next major work was Old Music about the Crimean War, in which she shone, although it was not a financial success. It co-starred Greer Garson, who was one of the very few people Celia disliked.

Celia replaced Peggy Ashcroft in The Importance of Being Ernest, directed by and starring John Gieldgud. Later she appeared in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier which was one of the first plays of its type with a more fluid style of movement that would become the post-war norm. The play closed when The Queen's Theatre was hit by a Luftwaffe bomb.

Most of the wartime, petrol rationing kept Celia very close to home. With many mouths to feed, she felt that she couldn't commit to long theatre runs, but did nearly fifty radio broadcasts of poetry, stories, novels, and plays. In 1941 she made A Letter From Home directed by Carol Reed for the Ministry of Information for export to the USA - a film to show people there what being British was like.

Her second film was In Which We Serve proposed by Noel Coward, and Celia asked for the part of his wife, which was unusually forward of her. She thought that the film, the making of which was watched by the King and Queen, was nonsense, but that John Mills was very good in it, and she predicted a great future for Richard Attenborough, who had his debut in it. Her great moment in the film is probably the speech she makes in the wardroom, which she only performed once. She hated seeing herself in the rushes, thinking that her dress looked black and "minny", and that she looked haggard.

Carol Reed telephoned and recruited Celia for We Serve, a training film for the ATS, in which she played a senior commander. In the picture from this film you see (left to right) Ann Todd, Joyce Carey, Peggy Ashcroft, Celia.

Celia was having a very busy time, and turned down three films shortly after this, as well as stage roles, including one where she would be replacing Vivien Leigh.

In 1943 she was offered £2000 to play Cynthia in the film Dear Octopus. At that time men were fighting at the front for 2s a day. After this she declared that she would never do film again unless absolutely mad about the part. She read War and Peace on the radio, timed to coincide with Hitler's invasion of Russia (the book is about Napoleon's very similar campaign). Noel Coward then implored her to make This Happy Breed and eventually succeeded in persuading her. It took ten months to make, and cost £200,000. She played a working class woman from Clapham, and felt that she was the weak link in the production. It was her first colour film, and she noted that the differences were a bigger camera, very pale make up, and all arc lights instead of "ordinary" (tungsten) lights. She didn't have a great time on the production, and didn't like the way that no one in the film industry seemed at all interested in the war. A co-star Robert Newton caused trouble when he got drunk and arrested. The crowds in the scenes in Hyde Park were a nuisance, as the public was very noisy and kept trying to get in shot.

A massive pageant of Anglo-American culture was organised at the Albert Hall for Thanksgiving. Celia was given a star part and was terrified. She was the last person to speak, reading a poem by Joyce Maxtone Graham (creator of Mrs Miniver) - a lone woman's voice after so many men (including Churchill). One commentator wrote "…by reason of that indefinable emotional power which is the secret of her success on the stage, she was able both to lift and to lighten the atmosphere, and to create a sense of intimacy - the word is not too strong - even with so vast an audience." "I think I had rather a success" is the way Celia put it.

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World War Two ▼

World War Two

The war was a very major part of Celia's life. It came when she was at her acting prime, and had just had her first child, and so was quite a hiatus in her career and personal life. Her husband was absent for most of it, which was a misery for her, while she at home was very busy. Not only did she act on stage and screen and radio, but she ran a household of many people, and she worked as a driver and switchboard operator for the Henley branch of the Women's Auxiliary Police Corps, and she did a lot of farm work, running an estate, and driving tractors over the fields around her house, and digging potatoes. Her husband and all his brothers were in service.

Three days after the invasion of Norway, Peter was sent in a small 'plane to investigate the feasibility of a secret landing at Namsos. He landed and made contact with the locals and found that the Germans were not there. The landings went ahead, and at first the Germans knew nothing of them, but then some French soldiers arriving later shot at a German aircraft and gave the game away. The town was surrounded by Germans and destroyed. Swedish radio announced that Peter was dead, and Celia heard the news before it was revealed as false.

Michael Fleming, her brother in law, after being mentioned in despatches three times in May, was reported missing, and later died of wounds. He had four children, and these and his widow lived at Merrimoles. Many relatives were sending their children abroad, and Celia and Peter took Nicol to Liverpool to send him away, but changed their minds on the way and came back with him.

Peter then was given the job of organising underground lairs and training men to use these to resist a German occupation on Kent. He equipped his men with bows and arrows. He then went to Cairo to train Italians to rebel against the Germans in Italy, but no Italians volunteered. He then went to Greece and Yugoslavia to train partizans, but the Germans invaded immediately and he had to retreat, all the while laying booby traps and sabotaging. Peter was wounded when the Luftwaffe shot up one of the boats he was using to get to Crete. He then trained street fighters in Battersea, and was then asked for by General Sir Archibald Wavell for his single biggest role: in charge of deception in the Far East. Peter was based in an office in Delhi, where he encouraged Wavell, whom he respected, to publish Other Men's Flowers - an anthology of poetry. Peter got tremendously frustrated by office life, and thought little of most of his idle superiors.

[One contributor to this site wrote to me saying that Peter was with the Chindit 77 Brigade HQ (see Chindits section), and that his glider crashed on the fly-in and his party escaped overland and on a raft. This not mentioned in Kate Fleming's biography of Celia, but Kate does mention one skirmish with the Japanese that Peter enjoyed in Burma, so this might have been on that trip. Duff Hart-Davis wrote a biography of Peter Fleming, commissioned by Celia, and perhaps this detail comes from that. Naturally it contains a lot about Celia too.]

A tank driver named his tank after her, much to her delight.

She drove a large canister, with it bouncing on the back seat, to be investigated by the police. It turned out to be an unexploded German flare.

Her sister Pam arrived with her three children from India to stay at Merrimoles, having lost her husband in the war. There were now two widows and seven children living with Celia, as well as four servants, and other local children who came to play. Celia lost Nora the nanny when she was drafted by the Ministry of Labour.

After the war, the household broke up. The widows moved away and remarried, and the children went away to prep schools. The nannies (named after their employers as was the custom) left once the children started boarding.

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Brief Encounter ▼

Brief Encounter

Noel Coward had put on a play called Still Life, and wanted a film of it made. Celia didn't like film people, and Noel didn't much like making films, but he was happy with the team of people that had made In Which We Serve and This Happy Breed, and so he left David Lean to direct it. The team called itself "Cineguild" and went on to make the flop Blithe Spirit. Cineguild had to get Celia for the lead part in Still Life because she was perfect for it. It was the quality of the part that persuaded Celia, who was feeling rather gloomy that Christmas, having been married for nearly nine years, but having seen little of her husband in that time. Trevor Howard had been invalided out of the army, and was spotted in The Way To The Stars and was cast opposite Celia, despite being eight years younger than she. Early in 1945 filming started. The title was changed to Brief Encounter. It was to become Celia's lasting monument.

The exteriors were shot first, in Carnforth in Lancashire. The war was still on, and the Ministry of Transport would not allow the lighting up of a railway station in the south east (where the film is set) at night, for fear of German action. It was very cold. Celia expected to have a awful time. She had a ball. Location work with the compact core team (the total crew was over eighty strong) was more like theatre, and less like the factory of Denham Studios. She was put up in a good hotel, where the food was better than in London, and was driven to work in a Rolls. Carnforth Station was still in use, and she and David Lean loved standing in the dark on the platform edge as trains rushed through.

There is a scene in which Laura, played by Celia, impulsively jumps off a train, having decided to keep her assignation with her would-be lover. During the take, Celia improvised a sequence of movements, breaking into a run, then composing herself, and then breaking into a run again, which expressed all her character's excitement and fears. David Lean loved it, and congratulated her and asked her why she did it. "Well, she would, wouldn't she?" replied Celia.

Celia ended up enjoying the studio work later as well. She really wanted to be good in the film, but as usual feared that she wouldn't be. She was a no-nonsense actress who gave Lean what he wanted and worked quickly. Howard was slower, especially in the scene where he is talking about diseases in the café, while thinking of something else. Many people have tried to link Howard romantically with Celia, but he didn't even become a friend, although Celia respected his acting abilities. Celia's niece played her daughter. The scene where a bore interrupts an intimate conversation in the café had to be re-shot, because the original actress, Joyce Barbour played it too much for laughs, and was replaced by Everley Gregg.

Two things happening at the same time as filming were the slow death of Celia's bedridden father, and the ending of the war. There was much speculation about VE Day, and Celia got a clue of its coming when suddenly all the colour cameras in the studio were transported to Buckingham Palace. Celia celebrated VE in London and in Nettlebed. Celia's father died before Brief Encounter was finished.

Celia had catarrh when doing the voice-overs, which took four days. In an interview, Celia said that her short-sightedness was an asset because it meant that she couldn't see the camera crew when doing a take. Her husband Peter predicted a major triumph.

Noel Coward was very pleased with the film, but no one was sure how well it would do. The Americans were not expected to like it, but the French were, because it was similar to a 1937 film L'Orage. The French distributors turned it down, having no interest in a film about an affair that never happens, declaring that it was typical British hypocrisy. Lean and Celia were nominated for Oscars (though neither won), and it went on to win the Cannes Film Critics' Prize (after which the French distributors changed their minds). It was of course a hit, and David Lean attributed this to Celia's performance.

Apparently, Lean didn't like the chat-up scenes with Stanley Holloway, but they were kept in. Kate Fleming in her biography of Celia says that the only thing that jars today are Laura's dated hats, which were intended to pinpoint the character's class. The moment Kate picks out to illustrate Celia's ability is when Laura tells a lie, and then silently looks at herself for a moment in a mirror, and Celia is able by this to tell the audience that her character has never lied before.

Noel was delighted with Cineguild, and said that it could do any of his plays, but Lean's ambitions were in the classics, and he went on instead to do Great Expectations and Oliver Twist.

Hollywood beckoned to Celia, but this was not the time for her to go, even if she had wanted. The war had just ended, and at long last she had her husband back, and in the next two years, she had two babies, Lucy and Kate, the latter born when Celia was forty. She saw her work sometimes as a selfish hobby.

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Post war career ▼

Post war career

She played the lead in Shaw's Saint Joan with the Old Vic Company. She played the part movingly, but perhaps lacked the earthy strength associated with the part. She played Ophelia again, in a good production of Hamlet with John Gielgud.

She made some radio programmes for the How To series 1944 to 1947, including How to Woo, How to be Good at Music, How to Make Friends, How to face Christmas, and How to Appreciate Shakespeare.

She appeared opposite Noel again in The Astonished Heart, which was the first British film to premier in New York. Noel cast himself as a passionate lover, and looked rather silly, and the film flopped.

She enjoyed a tour of Italy with the Old Vic - for some reason Italy had new cars on the roads and decent food while the British were still struggling with dour rations.

She was Olga in Chekhov's Three Sisters with Ralph Richardson.

Her next film was I Believe in You for Ealing Studios, in which she played a schoolmarmish probation officer (this film was the debut for Joan Collins). Then came The Holly and The Ivy, a filmed play with Ralph Richardson as a vicar with three daughters.

In 1953 she made The Captain's Paradise playing Alec Guinness's wife, directed by Anthony Kimmins. This was a significant break for her, because it was the first time she could show her comic talent to a wide audience, having until this point been a mainly a tragic actress. In the film, Alec has two wives, one in a Mediterranean port, where he takes her out and parties every night, and Celia in Gibraltar, to whom he returns for rest in front of the fire in his slippers. Celia was spoofing her own image, and the twist in the film comes when his foreign wife wants to settle down, while Celia longs to be taken out dancing. She had to improvise a sort of comedy jitterbug for one scene, and apparently (but not surprisingly) dancing did not come naturally to Alec.

Around this period, articles were appearing in the press asking why Celia wasn't appearing in more productions. One reason was that like many of her contemporaries in the theatre, Celia was suspicious of television work, and another was that she was still juggling a career with a home life.

The next two films were A Kid for Two Farthings which was a success although Celia was rather miscast as a working class Londoner. Next in 1957 she made The Good Companions, a musical about a stranded concert party [did she sing in this? I don't know - please let me know if you have seen this film], based on a J.B. Priestly novel.

Her career and life seem to have moved in tandem with Peggy Ashcroft. Celia replaced Peggy in The Deep Blue Sea as a middle aged woman who falls in love with a pilot, played by Kenneth More, and who contemplates suicide. Whereas Peggy had played the part with powerful tragedy, Celia was very different, but also good, playing it as moving and pathetic.

By 1955, her children were a bit older, and Celia could do more theatre. She did the comedy It's Never Too Late and the critics said that she carried it. Then she did The Reluctant Debutante in which she was the mother trying to marry off her daughter. This was conventional drawing room upper class wit, and Celia excelled at it, getting loud laughs out of full houses for 750 performances over nine months. She enjoyed it so much, she even extended her contract over the school holidays.

The theatre was changing. 1956 was the year of Look Back In Anger. More plays were written about modern people who weren't upper class. The curtains disappeared, the language slackened, the structure of scenes and acts broke up. In 1968 censorship by the Lord Chamberlain ceased. Some actors like Laurence Olivier and Peggy Ashcroft embraced the change, while others were more old-school. Celia was somewhere in between. She looked upon acting as she did the game of bridge: better with people of the same standard.

Robert Bolt wrote The Flowering Cherry and Celia and Ralph Richardson starred in it. He would arrive on his motorbike that he rode in old age, and tended to overact and resent authoritative direction. Celia was very good at controlling him. Celia tended to under-act, and between them they struck a good balance.

In 1958, Celia appeared in The Grass is Greener, a 1930s style play about the upper classes, complete with French windows. Though it was not exactly cutting-edge theatre, audiences loved it, and it enjoyed a long run.

Celia then made her directorial debut: Special Providence by Hugh and Margaret Williams. Celia was very nervous, but it seems that she did a good job. It ran for just ten days, and she swore she'd never direct again.

Next was a French play Chin Chin which was to co-star Orson Welles, but he never turned up, so Anthony Quayle did it instead. It was an odd play, and a success, and like many, or even most, of her works, she forbade her young children to see it.

Her next major play was The Tulip Tree by N.C. Hunter, in which she played a dowdy wife in mourning for her son. He routine was to leave home at tea-time, drive to London in two hours, perform, drive back for midnight, have a bowl of soup and glass of wine before bed. When her eyesight got even worse, she was driven by a Pole who had settled after the war in Britain. She adored him.

Celia then appeared in Out of the Crocodile by Giles Cooper. This was a way of performing with French windows, telephones, and middle class drinks parties, without seeming so out of date, as it was a spoof of that sort of play.

Laurence Olivier took over the National Theatre, and telephoned Celia to cast her in Ibsen's The Master Builder, directed by Peter Wood, and co-starring Sir Michael Redgrave and Maggie Smith. Celia's reviews for this were good, but everyone else got bad notices. The run continued, however, and Olivier replaced Redgrave and the production improved.

Noel Coward, now very out of fashion, revived Hay Fever in 1965, having written it in three days in 1924. Celia replaced Dame Edith Evans as Judith Bliss, and starred alongside Maggie Smith, Robert Stephens, Lynn Redgrave and Derek Jacobi. Celia now accepted that she was an actress whose abilities transcended her looks.

Celia did her first television in 1937, playing Desdemona in Othello, and in 1956 she did some more: The Letter by Somerset Maugham. It may seem odd now, but in those days, television presented many plays. At first, she was terrified of television work, but in time she got very good at it. She liked television largely because most of the work was the part that she liked: the creative part of rehearsals in which she would work out how to play the part. She would then perform the part and the work would be finished, whereas with a theatre run, there was a great deal of repetitive performing. Another television appearance was as Lady Nelson in Terrence Rattigan's Bequest to the Nation.

Celia did have a brush with experimental theatre. She was cast in The Cresta Run by N.F. Simpson at the Royal Court in 1965. After two weeks of playing games and improvising in rehearsals, she walked out. Later she appeared in a version of The Cherry Orchard directed by Lindsay Anderson and this went very well despite the modern direction. On the last night, there was a huge off-stage cheer as England won the World Cup.

In 1967, she was sent the script for Relatively Speaking by an obscure playwright called Alan Ayckbourne. She spotted something in this, and agreed to do it. The cast had Richard Briers, and Michael Hordern as her husband. As ever, she dreaded the first night, but it was a hit, toured for six months, and made Ayckbourne's name.

Also in 1967, Celia did two stories for the much-loved children's story television programme Jackanory: "Babar" and "Babushka".

Celia got a flat in Chelsea to use as a base for the London theatres, and shared it with her daughter Lucy who pleased her mother by becoming an actress. In 1968 they both appeared in Hay Fever which toured to Canada. There Celia received reviews praising her "total lack of artifice", and "excellent detail".

In this picture, you see Charles Gray, Celia, a young Ian McKellen, Vickery Turner, and Celia's daughter Lucy in the BBC television version of Hay Fever.

Another no-nonsense actress, Maggie Smith, was cast as the lead in the film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and she suggested Celia for the role of the headmistress. This was Celia's first film for ten years, and was directed by Ronnie Neame, who was David Lean's cameraman during the war. It required her to put on a Morningside accent. Celia went to New York in 1969 to make a television play, and was there for the premiere of this major film. She dined with an acquaintance, Alistair Cooke, and was chuffed when Lauren Bacall said to her "Bogie and I were at your feet" [Later, Bette Davis sought Celia out on a trip to Britain].

Wanting to do more bard, she accepted the role of Gertrude in Hamlet starring Alan Bates at the Nottingham Playhouse. The production was weird and had bizarre modern sets, but Celia came out of it well. Reviews said that Celia played her part "not [as] the usual wilting voluptuary but a distraught, untidy, maternal figure caught up in events beyond her comprehension." Celia loved Shakespearean language, getting an almost physical pleasure from it.

In October 1972 Celia replaced Peggy Ashcroft opposite Sir Ralph Richardson in Lloyd George Knew My Father. Whereas Peggy had been tragic, Celia was funny.

In 1973 both Coward and Binkie Beaumont died. Celia was upset, saying that these were two of just five people who understood what she was trying to do. She was 65, and now being cast in elderly roles. She was nominated for a BAFTA for her role in the television play Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, and wasn't planning to go to the ceremony, but was tipped off by telephone that it would be a good idea to go. She did, and won. Here we see her in that role.

In 1974 she starred in The Dame of Sark, set on that small island in World War Two. Though it was seen by critics as old-hat, it was a smash hit, and the television version Celia made topped the ratings. The theatre takings suffered as all London theatres did from IRA bombings.

In 1977 she played a romance with Ralph Richardson again, directed by Lindsay Anderson in The Kingfisher. Celia and Ralph were seen as great actors, and they largely ignored their director and played the parts as they wished, neither amenable to direction. Celia had a new confidence.

In 1978, an association of theatre fans called the Gallery Firstnighters celebrated fifty years of Celia on stage with a dinner at The Europa Hotel. Celia was dismissive but flattered. When Celia first came to the stage, orchestras played before the start of a play, and in the interval, 'first nights' were actually first nights, actors dressed formally for short rehearsals, cinema was just experimenting with sound. Celia was never cutting edge, but neither was she behind the times, instead she was always of her time.

She was offered the role of the nurse in a BBC television version of Romeo and Juliet, but was so fearful that it was outside her range that she demanded a get-out clause in her contract. She made the role her own. She then won an award for her Countess of Roussillon opposite Michael Hordern in the same series in All's Well That Ends Well. For a promotional tour for the series, she flew in Concorde to the USA, was entertained in the White House, and attended some gruelling formal dinners.

In March 1980 she went to Simla to film "Staying On" with Trevor Howard, a drama set after the Raj in India. This was the first time such a production had been shot entirely in India. The crew from Granada television complained about many things, and demanded various trade union entitlements, while filming amongst desperately poor locals. Celia disapproved of this behaviour. Celia was nominated for a BAFTA for this role, and was disappointed not to win.

She acted alongside Paul Scofield in the television play The Potting Shed.

She recorded the soundtrack, with Robert Hardy, for a festival celebrating the history of the Thames.

She wrote a children's book The Lamppost Marauders, and read it on the radio. She put together a collection of her favourite poems for an edition of With Great Pleasure for BBC Radio 4, including one of her own.

Her last play was The Understanding by Angela Huth. Her co-star Ralph Richardson persuaded her to do it. The 79-year-old Ralph turned up on his motorbike as usual. The play opened during the Falklands Conflict. Celia was once heard to say "I know this play is a mistake." She was confident, the play was receiving standing ovations, but perhaps she felt that she hadn't the strength for it. She performed as usual on the 22nd of April 1982. The next day, she died.

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Marriage ▼


In 1929 Celia was going out with an actor called Rupert Hart-Davis, who first introduced her to his friend from Eton: Peter Fleming, in Oxford. Rupert upset Celia by leaving her for Peggy Ashcroft, whom he later married. Celia met Peter again two years later and the pair exchanged secret love letters. He was the literary editor of The Spectator, son of an MP for Henley and excellent army officer killed in 1917, whose obituary his colleague Winston Churchill wrote. Peter was one of four brothers, including Ian, who later wrote Chitti-Chitti-Bang-Bang and a series of popular spy novels. Their family was very rich (Dundee jute), owned a lot of land, and founded a London bank, as well as inventing the investment trust. All the boys went to Eton. Peter got a first in English at Oxford, then went to Wall Street, where he got so bored that the Crash passed him by.

Peter went on a long trip to China, returning via Rangoon, Delhi, Baghdad, and Istambul. He then did some theatre reviews and met Celia again. Since an earlier romance of his had been broken up by his mother, who was saving him for royalty, he kept the romance secret. Kate, his daughter, describes him in her book as tough, very handsome, individual, kind and funny with friends, while ham-fisted and arrogant in company. Having got a taste for adventure, he answered an advert in The Times for an expedition to Brazil in 1932 and he wrote this up in his best-selling first published book, which, to Celia's everlasting delight, he dedicated to "C". An odd quirk of Peter's was that he never wore a hat, which in the 1930s, and in the blazing sun of a foreign land, was rather unusual.

Peter went on another adventure, this time to China via Russia. He joined the Japanese army on an expedition against bandits, and later communists. He called Celia "Numble" in his letters. Another trip, (pictured left) involved an epic 3,770 mile off-road walk from China to India, through several civil wars, taking seven months. On his return, Celia discovered that he had for most of the time been in the company of a Swiss woman who also wrote a book about the trip (his was full of virile wit, hers was very serious). Once Celia had recovered from this news, she decided in secret to marry Peter.

Celia married on the 10th December 1935 in Chelsea Old Church. At the last moment, Peter's mother grudgingly attended. It was very low-key, with just a handful of friends. The couple then lived in Chelsea.

In 1937 Celia went with Peter on a lecture tour of Europe, and noted the horrible atmosphere in the German law courts. They later went to report on Japan's attack on China, and Celia walked or was carried slung from bamboo poles on the long journeys through Burma. Celia never complained, and always looked back at the trip as a fun time.

Celia fell pregnant, and did radio work while her bump prevented stage appearances, and on 3rd January 1939 after being heroic in labour, gave birth to a boy, Nicol.

Peter's writing was very lucrative, and although he and his brothers kept missing out on inheritances, he was wealthy enough to have designed for him and built a large house near Nettlebed, that was named "Merrimoles" after an old barn in the next field that belonged to Miss Mary Moles. It stood in a commanding position, and had little garden to speak of, and at first Celia didn't like it, preferring the idea of a Georgian rectory with a garden, but she came to love it, and in old age could not be persuaded to leave it. It had ten bedrooms, all facing south, servants quarters, a kitchen far from the dining room, and in years to come it would gain a billiard table and swimming pool. One room, in which Celia played cards a lot, became "The Casino". Peter and Celia moved in with two maids, a cook and a nanny.

Merrimoles, circa. 1979, with Celia and Kate paddling.

Peter said that Celia was the best actress: "There may be a better one somewhere, but I haven't caught her at it."

After the war, Peter played the country gent, and was bored by a static life. He broke his pelvis riding, and often went up to Scotland, usually without Celia, to go shooting. Celia ran the household, acting on the possibly erroneous assumption that Peter assumed she would. The marriage got a bit distant. Peter and Celia were not given to unburdening themselves. After a visit to Merrimoles, Evelyn Waugh said that the place was hideous, and that Peter ran 2,000 acres and yet still lived on Co-op stores, and that his wife left the stage because he had no cook.

Peter liked to bring home wild animals to look after. Merrimoles gained owls, fox cubs, a kestrel, a raven, and a grey squirrel. The children were fairly wild too.

Celia was on a Greek cruise, and her daughter Lucy on Honeymoon when Peter, on a shoot in Scotland, suddenly collapsed and died, aged 64. As he would have wanted, the hunt carried on without him. He never lived to see his grandchildren. He had written history books, a column in The Times (that he described as "like a stuffed stoat in the bar of an airliner" - out of place), and had just been given clearance to write about World War Two deception plans.

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Family notes ▼

Family notes

Peter Fleming wrote scripts for films made by his son Nichol on an 8mm camera. These starred Celia and Ronnie Shaw-Kennedy and various members of the family including the pets. The family found them hilarious.

Ian Fleming outlived his mother only by a few days, having had poor health for a long time, and died aged 56, having seen only the first of the Bond films (Doctor No) made. Peter and Ian had always been close, and could make each other laugh like drains. Ian died on the glorious 12th of August, and so Peter was away shooting.

Celia's two daughters went to Cranborne Chase, and her son Nichol to Eton. Nichol went into publishing, then later television. Kate went to Oxford to read Russian and became a writer, and Lucy became an actress, appearing in the popular 1970s television series Survivors.

Celia went on many foreign trips, some quite exotic, sometimes with large family parties.

Celia of course had many fans, and would always put off the task of replying to their many letters. The family referred to one particular fan as The Fan, who sent generous presents to Celia and her children on every birthday and at Christmas ever since seeing her in Pride and Prejudice in 1936. After thirty years of this, Celia finally met The Fan, but it seems that The Fan preferred the more distant relationship. Kate Fleming in her biography does not record whether The Fan was male or female. Male seems more likely.

On the 13th of December 1980, Celia suffered a family tragedy when her son in law and two of her grandchildren were drowned in a boating accident on the Thames.

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Habits and quirks ▼

Habits and quirks

She never gave up smoking, despite having a weak voice. On holiday when young, she jumped off a pier, landed badly, and smashed her front teeth out with her knee, and wore false front teeth for the rest of her life. She was always rather thin, and didn't look after herself very well, had little stamina, and sometimes got tired and depressed. She was quite uninterested in food, had great trouble keeping cooks, and only learned to cook late in life, her early attempts at cooking for her family were consistently awful. She was, however, seldom ill.

Her large hazel-green eyes were so expressive that she found it convenient to hide them behind unflattering thick glasses.

Especially in her youth, Celia was known for sparking off hysterical laughter.

Celia was never a snob, and likened talk between smart ladies to a competition. She was quite self-deprecating. When Peter Fleming was away on an expedition, she wrote to him "Don't remember me as too nice or beautiful or funny because then you'll be disappointed." She took a long time to become confident in her abilities and suffered from first-night nerves right into old age. She seldom gave interviews.

Offstage, Celia never played the role of the big star. She went about in public and was seldom recognised. She didn't dress up, wore thick glasses, short nails, no make up, and did nothing to draw attention. She was even able to celebrate in Trafalgar Square on VE Day without being noticed.

She was very fond of her Rolls Royce. In the 1980s she drove a MinI Metro.

She was untidy at home, which is surely a good thing.

After the war, during which she ate a lot of rabbits hunted from around her home, she couldn't abide rabbit.

She was a keen card player, notably bridge and bezique. Over the course of 1942 she amassed a winnings of 3s 3d from games of bezique with a housemate.

She was a very keen crossword solver, and could almost always finish The Times crossword, and liked much harder ones. This interest got on the nerves of some friends and colleagues who would see her absorbed by a crossword instead of paying attention to her exotic surroundings on holiday, or to the activity on a film set.

She was able to turn on and off her acting mood like a tap. One anecdote tells of a time when she was on stage and reduced not just the audience but even the stagehands to tears, then came off and said "I think twelve across must be 'rabbit'".

She always dreaded parties, both throwing them and attending them, but almost always ended up having a good time.

She was known for never currying favour, and seldom gossiping.

She considered herself to be a very bad film 'star' because she never did anything star-like off set. She was rotten at building herself up. As a result, she would often not be invited to celebrations at film festivals, but she was happy about this. One director was annoyed at the way she got ignored, and at the Berlin Film Festival built her up by sending many telegrams, and organising a big splash at the opening night. He went out on stage and talked her up with many tributes, while she waited nervously in the wings to enter. His speech went on and on, and she began to wonder what was going on. He eventually introduced her and on she walked. Her account of the event says 'I found a face of anguish greeting me. "That was a near thing," he gasped in my ear, while heaving great wodges of flowers towards me, "I had to spin out my speech for ages because I simply couldn't think of your name." '

Having no star-like airs, she never demanded a nicer hotel room or the like. This sometimes meant that was treated without much respect. Her reaction would be to bridle quietly.

She was a keen but not blinkered royalist. She met the future Queen at the 1952 Royal Film Performance. She bought a television for the coronation. She loved the Charles and DI wedding.

She did charity work for Multiple Sclerosis research, and for the King George Pension Fund for Actors.

She called her dog Oscar, because she's always wanted to have an Oscar.

She was an excellent grandmother, and wrote nursery rhymes for her descendants.

She would sit on the floor, very close to the television, and watch Dad's Army, Z-Cars, and she worshipped Morcambe and Wise.

As is typical of older people, she would sometimes dislike new things, such as satsumas, which she considered inferior to the old tangerines. Her family would say "satsuma" whenever she displayed this behaviour.

It is a great honour to be invited onto the radio show Desert Island Discs. Celia was invited three times (1945, '56 and '75). Her choices were mainly classical, but included Hoagy Carmichael's My Resistance is Low, Christmas carols, and some Noel Coward. Her luxuries included a Rolls Royce and a rose cutting, and the books she chose were Trollope and a book on astronomy. Typically, she gave little of herself away in the interviews.

To strangers, she could seem intimidating, because she had a reputation as a great actress, and was not effusive.

Towards the end of her career, she said that she wished that she had done more Shakespeare. She also said, "Well, I'd have liked to have leant against walls in thrillers."

Her most cherished notice was "Old Juliet Spoils Play" which was for a radio play she did when very young.

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Sport ▼


At school Celia played cricket, netball, and was in the top lacrosse team, and was the top high-jumper. Here we see Celia from the team photograph for the lacrosse team in 1925. She followed cricket later in life, and loved to go to the races. After her first child, she went canoeing on the Rhône in France, a few months before the war broke out. During the war she learned to surf on holiday in Cornwall. At the age of 53, she went on a surfing holiday in Hawaii, much to the surprise of many of the locals there. She went surfing again in Cornwall, aged 66.

At the age of 71, she did her own stunts on the Eiffel Tower in the American television film The Hostage Tower. She loved playing tennis, and even late in life played to win. Days before her death, she was playing badminton.

She didn't share her husband's love of country sports such as riding, and shooting. Peter was especially fond of shooting, and this was part of the motive for many of his adventures.

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Filmography ▼


The text about her career contains mention of most of Celia's main stage roles. Her radio and television appearances are too numerous to mention all of them. Here are listed her major screen roles, which is the only way most of us can get to witness her in action today. They are in reverse chronological order.

The Hostage Tower (1980) Mrs. Wheeler
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969/1968) Miss Mackay
The Good Companions (1957) Miss Trant
A Kid for Two Farthings (1955/1956) Joanna
The Captain's Paradise (1953) (aka The Captain's Progress, aka Paradise) Maud St. James
The Holly and the Ivy (1952) Jenny Gregory
I Believe in You (1952/1951) Matty
The Astonished Heart (1949) Barbara Faber
Brief Encounter (1946/1945) Laura Jesson
This Happy Breed (1944/1943) Ethel Gibbons
Dear Octopus (1943)(aka The Randolph Family)Cynthia
In Which We Serve (1942) Alix Kinross
We Serve (1942) ATS officer
A Letter from Home (1941) English Mother
Number Ten (BBC 1982)  
All's Well That Ends Well (BBC 1980) Countess of Rousillon
Staying On (Granada 1979) Lucy Smalley
Matilda's England (BBC 1978)  
Les Miserables (1978) (?) Sister Simplice
Romeo and Juliet (BBC 1978) Nurse
The Dame of Sark (Anglia 1976) The Dame of Sark
The Emperor's New Hat (BBC 1976)  
The Nicest man in the World (1976) widow
Jane Austen (BBC 1975)  
A House and it's Head (BBC 1975) Ivy Compton Burnett?
Lloyd George Knew My Father (ITV 1975) Lady Boothroyd
The Love Affair (Anglia 1974)  
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (BBC 1973) Mrs Palfrey
The Cherry Orchard (BBC 1971) Madame Ranevskaya
The Marquise (BBC 1969)  
The Cellar and the Almond Tree (BBC 1969) A batty aristocrat
Relatively Speaking (BBC 1969) Judith Bliss
Hay Fever (BBC 1968)  
Ghosts (BBC 1967)  
Bequest to the Nation (ATV 1966) Lady Nelson
Helen and Edward and Henry (ATV 1965)  
The Letter (BBC 1956)  
Othello (BBC 1937) Desdemona
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Awards ▼


After the war, Celia was given the auxiliary policewoman medal. In the 1958 Birthday Honours she was awarded the CBE. In June 1981 she was awarded the DBE (Dame Commander of the British Empire) in the Birthday Honours, making her the ninth theatrical dame since the war, which was overdue according to some. The Queen Mother attended the celebratory dinner at Merrimoles.

National Board of Review, USA: 1947 she won NBR Award for best actress for This Happy Breed (1944).

New York Film Critics Circle Awards: 1946 Won NYFCC Award for best actress for Brief Encounter (1946).

Academy Awards ("Oscars"), USA: 1947 Nominated Best Actress for Brief Encounter (1946).

Nominated 1954 for BAFTA Film Award for best British actress for The Captain's Paradise(1953).

1953 nominated for BAFTA Film Award for best British actress for I Believe in You (1952).

British Academy Awards: 1970 Won BAFTA Film Award for best supporting actress, for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969).

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Death ▼


At a party, she was standing with a drink in her hand when she felt "something go snap". She felt very ill immediately and was in hospital for ten days, but then recovered at tremendous speed in time for Christmas 1979. No diagnosis was made.

Celia continued to get frail, but refused to leave Merrimoles, and so a family friend was installed at the house to help look after her.

During the run of The Understanding, on her day off, she was playing bridge at Merrimoles, and while selecting a card to play, she said "Now just wait a minute." And slumped forwards. She had had a stroke. She died two hours later in her bed. The date according to some sources was the 25th April, while others say 26th. Her daughter's biography says the 23rd, which I take to be the most reliable.

Peter Fleming and Celia are buried next to each other in Nettlebed (he was squire of the village). His tombstone is black marble and has on it the following:

He travelled widely in far places:
  Wrote, and was widely read.
Soldiered, saw some of danger's faces.
  Came home to Nettlebed.

The squire lies here, his journeys ended.
  Dust, and a name on a stone.
Content, amid the lands he tended,
  To keep this rendezvous alone.

Celia's headstone is white granite and says simply:

Celia Elizabeth Johnson DBE.
A fine actress and beloved mother.
Wife of Peter Fleming.
Born 18 December 1908.
Died 25 [? possibly 23rd or 26th] April 1982

There was a little bit more on the inscription below this but it was not clear because it is obscured by a pink English rose bush. How very fitting.

I have received a remarkable number of e-mails about this one page on my web-site. Bob Meade told me that he too had visited Celia's grave, and kindly sent me this photograph he took of it. Fleming's headstone is to the right of Celia's. The grave had just been tended, and the last words on the headstone can be seen. The are "at Merrimoles House, Nettlebed."

A fellow adorer of Our Celia, Peter Hunt, e-mailed me from Hong Kong with some of the information on this page. Peter adds "Her toast [in the film In Which We Serve] to Michael Wilding's fiancee about the undefeated and constant competition of her husband's ship always gets my wife."

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Laura Jesson:

"It's awfully easy to lie when you know that you're trusted implicitly. So very easy, and so very degrading."

By Crikey, what a lady.