The Heavenly Celia

One of my favourite films is This Happy Breed, which follows the story of a London family from 1919, as they settle into a new home at the end of the First World War and raise their family. Frank, the dad, is played by Robert Newton and mum, Ethel, is played by Celia Johnson, in a role which was quite a change from her usual parts of a refined English lady, complete with clipped RP accent. Written by Noel Coward, it is a fairly romanticised version of ‘cockney’ life I suppose, but with a supporting cast of Stanley Holloway, John Mills and Kay Walsh,  ‘The Master’ delivered a beauty.

This film led me to discover more of the work of Celia Johnson, with perhaps her best known role being that of Laura in the romantic classic film Brief Encounter  in which she starred opposite Trevor Howard. More of that later.

Celia Elizabeth Johnson was born in December 1908, in Richmond, Surrey to Father John, a Doctor and mum Ethel, from whom she soon picked up the nickname of Betty. John was doctor to the future King, George VI, so her upbringing was one of comfortable surroundings. Celia had shown an interest in acting from an early age and with her sister Pam, she put on a show in 1916 for the local Red Cross camp situated on Richmond Park, to help raise funds for soldiers who had returned from the First World War. It’s success locally, got them a mention in the local newspaper . The sisters were privately schooled, and Celia moved on to St Paul’s girls’ school in 1919. She applied to RADA in 1926 and was accepted, despite limited acting experience.

 ‘I thought I’d rather like it. It was the only thing I was good at. And I thought it might be rather wicked.’

She made her stage debut in 1928 as Sarah in Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara at the Theatre Royal Huddersfield, and she appeared on the London stage a year later, as her career on the boards went from strength to strength. It all led to a trip to New York in 1931, to play Ophelia in Hamlet.

In 1935, she married adventurer, journalist, soldier and travel writer Peter Fleming, the older brother of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, and they had a son Nicholas  in 1939. Her theatre career continued during the very early days of the Second World War, but family commitments meant that as the war got well under way, she worked for the Henley Branch of the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps, as a driver and switchboard operator. She managed to keep her acting going, by appearing on radio and in films such as In Which We Serve in 1942 and the aforementioned This Happy Breed in 1944, both directed by David Lean and written by Noel Coward .

Their next production, Brief Encounter, from 1945, was the one that brought her national stardom. Despite her busy home life and police war work, it was simply a part she could not turn down, as she wrote and told her husband.

‘There is no getting away from the fact that it is a very good part and one which I should love to play. I have found myself already planning how I should play bits and how I should say lines…’

The story centres on  a middle-class housewife, Laura,  meeting a married doctor on a railway station, and the two slowly  falling in love. It is now considered a classic of British cinema and has been voted as the best romantic film of all time. The exterior scenes were filmed in Carnforth, Lancashire and she was said to have a  great time making the film. It saw her nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress and also win various other prizes. Hollywood was most certainly calling, but instead, she returned to family life after the war, and had two daughters, Kate and Lucy  in 1946 and 1947 respectively. 

Since the late 1990’s, the sisters have co-owned the Ian Fleming estate.

Celia did slowly return to the stage from 1952, and in the mid 60s she was a member of Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company.

Later film success saw her win the best supporting actress Bafta award for her part of Miss Mackay in the film The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie in 1970. Personal awards saw her become a CBE for Services to the Theatre in 1958 and then a Dame Commander in 1981.

In 1982, whilst on a break from a theatre tour in The Understanding with Sir Ralph Richardson, which was heading for a West End run, she collapsed at home with a stroke, and died a few hours later.

Always fondly remembered by her many fans, she was awarded  an English Heritage  blue plaque in 2008, at her childhood home in Richmond.


The Mumper of SE5

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