Celia Imrie: My 70s are teaching me to live in the moment

The actor and author tells Lauren Taylor about her parents’ wartime experience, being inspired by the sea and how Hollywood misrepresents women.

Celia Imrie
Investitures at Windsor Castle Celia Imrie (Ben Birchall/PA)

Actor and author Celia Imrie says that people in the film industry “have got it all wrong” about women and age.

The star of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Bridget Jones series, now 71, commented on films casting women in roles much older than they are.

“Actually we’re all dancing about until we’re 90 generally, if you look carefully at the women that are out there.

“Siân Phillips is 91 and is absolutely dancing around the place! And long may that continue – not being decrepit at age 40 – because that’s not a reality.”

Imrie is a free spirit, she agrees, with a love of adventure, travel and exploration in her 70s.

This decade is teaching even more than previous ones to “live for the moment”, says the Olivier Award-winner, who starred in Calendar Girls and Nanny McPhee.

“In this life, you never know what’s going to happen. Life is short.”

The fragility of life was something she very much had in mind when writing her latest novel, her sixth, Meet Me At Rainbow Corner, set during World War Two. It’s the story of two female friends, Dot and Lilly, who meet working as dance hostesses at a social club for US troops in Piccadilly, London – an oasis without rationing or other wartime restraints, and based on a true historical place.

Imrie’s friend, collaborator and researcher Fidelis Morgan provided the initial inspiration. Her sister discovered letters written by their mother, a teenager at the time, during the war.

“A lot of her letters were the inspiration of this book,” explains Imrie. “The poor young girl, aged 17, got engaged and then her fiancé died. It sounds terrible. By the age of 21, she’d had three boyfriends who had been killed in action. We can’t imagine such a thing.

“I think it’s [about] trying to put yourself in their lifetime, which is almost impossible for us as a generation who’ve never known war.

“What they went through is very, very hard to imagine. It’s breathtaking actually, what they had to live through, day-by-day. It was really a question of living for the moment, which perhaps we don’t do enough of.”

But the story’s backdrop of WW2 was also inspired by Imrie’s own parents. Despite having active roles during wartime, her mother and father, David and Diana, didn’t discuss it much – which “absolutely” made Imrie more curious to delve into it in her writing.

(John Walton/PA)

“I know that [my mother] drove ambulances in the war, like Queen [Elizabeth II]. I’m very proud to possess a certificate she was given for entertaining the troops in the war. My mother was in both wars. My father was in the navy as a dentist and a doctor, and he hardly ever mentioned the war.

“It’s interesting that actually that generation didn’t talk about it very much,” says Imrie, who was named a CBE last year.

“That’s what makes it even more admirable in a way, that they didn’t go on and on about it. You know, that they just coped with huge hardships, and losing people. I think everybody remembers when they lose a friend that is of their age, it’s very shocking. But of course, that’s what happened to them all the time. I think they were so brave.”

Imrie’s latest tale is one of love, finding joy in painful times and enduring friendship. When the war is over, her main characters Dot and Lilly reunite, having travelled by boat to the US with other war brides to meet their repatriated fiancés again (uncovering a case of inside espionage along the way).

Imrie herself has done that same journey from the UK to New York by boat – the famous Queen Mary 2 (Dot and Lilly would have travelled on the Queen Mary 1) – many times.

“You’d be amazed how many people choose it as a way of getting to America. Not only is it luxurious – all the film stars used to do it – it’s the best way.”

She’s hugely inspired by the sea, as seen in many of her previous novels, including Sail Away, a series set in Nice, and Orphans Of The Storm, based onboard The Titanic.

“Maybe it’s to do as being a Cancerian, my astrological sign, a water sign,” she muses. She also spends her time predominantly in Nice, south of France, now too.

“As I’m talking to you now, I’m looking out over the Mediterranean, which has been through a thunderstorm this morning. It was so ravishing, the wisping clouds and then the rather dark sea. And now, of course, the sun’s shining, so it’s ever-changing.

“I sleep with no curtain so that I can see the moon on the water. I’m terribly lucky, and I do count my blessings every day.”

She does hope to one day see one of her novels adapted for the big or small screen.

“I can’t understand why they haven’t been actually, because I write, I think, like a film script. My favourite bits are the dialogues, because obviously that’s what I’m used to [as an actor].

“I don’t quite have the power to get them on the screen myself [but] I hope that somebody might pick them up, because then I can be in them!”

Next, expect to see Imrie involved in the theatre. “I have bought the rights of a wonderful play that I’m going to do next year. So, unlike acting, where I have to wait to be asked more and more, if you can sit down and write something of your own, or get a play on and be a producer, you don’t have to wait to be asked. You can get on and do it yourself.

“Because you don’t want to sit around waiting to be asked, you want to get on and do it. And I think that’s what has changed now, and is terribly important when time is running out.”

Meet Me At Rainbow Corner by Celia Imrie is published in hardback by Bloomsbury, priced £16.99. Available now.