Interview: Celia Imrie, actress

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If you're anything like me, seeing Celia Imrie's name flash onscreen inspires a sigh of relief. I think, "Class act. Everything's going to be OK."

• Celia Imrie has starred in Acorn Antiques, Nanny McPhee and Calendar Girls

Her memoir, The Happy Hoofer, is every bit as assured and entertaining. It's a lively romp populated by the entertainment world's great, good, and downright naughty (often Imrie).

The tone is so mischievous that you might not notice at first how she sometimes glosses over what's sad and serious. That "buck up" attitude, I discover, is an Imrie trademark.

But bounciness is a handy trait in an actor since, as she explains, "Even the most famous stars spend periods treading water, or sliding backwards. Most of us will find ourselves living in a board game of snakes and ladders."

Her story begins with her happy, privileged childhood in Surrey, as the fourth of five children of a Glasgow-born doctor and his aristocratic wife.

It moves through her earliest foray into theatre - touring the world in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hedda Gabler, as an understudy and stage hand. From there, she would perform in everything from Bergerac, A Dark Adapted Eye, and Highlander, to Cranford, Kingdom, and Nanny McPhee.

Her co-stars have run the gamut from Julie Walters and Anthony Hopkins, to Rene Zellwegger and Paloma Faith.

Imrie has also trodden the boards of theatres up and down the land, and was part of the iconoclastic troupe at Glasgow's Citizens' Theatre under the stewardship of Philip Prowse, Robert David MacDonald, and Giles Havergal.

For many, though, her best-loved roles were scripted by Victoria Wood, who blessed her with the marvellous Miss Babs, from Acorn Antiques, a character so camp that, Imrie says, "I was informed that in certain circles unless you know at least two scenes of Miss Babs off by heart you cannot call yourself a real gay."

Born on 15 July in 1952, Imrie was supposed to be a boy. She jokes that her arrival was a total disappointment. Her parents tried again, but had another girl.

Her father, David, was nearly 60, and her mum 20 years his junior. He was a working-class boy made good, and a Navy dentist in both wars, before becoming a doctor. He was a stalwart of the Scottish Society, renowned for his Burns Night suppers. Imrie's mum, Diana, was an eccentric Mitford-esque figure with the bluest of blood. She was a gambler, a fiddle player, and, after a few gins, a marvellous raconteur.

Imrie was 20 when her father died, so it's not surprising that the bond with her mum, who lived to be 86, was stronger. "It's absolutely true that I was closer to my mother," she says.

"My father was very modest, so I only found out marvellous things about him after he died. Things like he wrote his dissertation in French. Now, that's major. I think that he was given 100 by his father, a shipping clerk, to go off and be a doctor. I wish I'd got to know him more. But I was too busy trying to be a ballet dancer."

Ballet was an early and enduring love, but the Royal Academy of Dance rejected her, predicting that the 11-year-old would be "too big ever to become a ballet dancer."

Though her mum hid the rejection letter, Imrie found it and vowed to shrink, sparking off years of anorexia that resulted in two hospitalisations including one under the brutal regimen of Dr William Sargant, whose "cure" included electro-shock therapy.

Yet it wasn't harsh treatment, but rough words that speeded her recovery. One day a nurse snapped: "You do realise that your selfish act of starving yourself means you are stealing the bed of a truly sick, possibly dying child?" The rebuke proved more powerful than pills or potions and, as another journalist observed, left Imrie with "an absolute horror of going on too much."

When she was 16, her doctors, concerned that she hadn't developed, shot her full of hormones. Over the three-week Christmas holiday she went from flat-chested to 38DD.

"So, resembling a teenage brunette version of Jayne Mansfield in a fright wig, I took my O levels and got the same number as Princess Diana," she writes.

She can't believe the doctors got away with it. "It was horrible. They should never have done that, terribly dangerous. For a long time I thought, 'Oh, these aren't really mine, they don't really belong to me.' People used not to talk to my face. I used to go bright red, or wear a million things on top. Now, I can make jokes, and it's all right."

When she was a child Imrie also resolved never to marry. It's not that her parents were a bad example, just the opposite - they were happy, and her mum had a successful second marriage, as well.

In fact Diana was such an fanatical advocate of the institution that her efforts to marry off her daughters prompted them to nickname her Mrs Bennett.

"My mother was desperate for us to get married. I deliberately didn't, (yet] I adored my mother. Our relationship was mutually protective. I've found letters from her which break my heart, because all the time she's saying 'thank you'. It's interesting that getting married is the one thing she wanted her four daughters to do, and it's the one thing I absolutely didn't. I didn't mean it to be an aggressive thing against her."

Imrie instinctively felt that marriage equalled entrapment. And what on earth would they talk about? She envisaged nights of stony silence, yoked to an increasingly disaffected husband. She still worries about holding people's interest.

"Even today, it's lovely because you're asking me nice questions, but I'm still, you know when your palms get a bit hot? The idea of one to one still gets to me. So if I was just with him alone in the house, it really worried me. Would I be entertaining enough? It was my friend Eleanor Bron, who said, "Have you never thought that in fact the actual horror is that you would find them boring?"

She laughs. "That never occurred to me. In a way, I'm a coward though, because I've never done it. This whole thing I have about marriage being a trap, how do I know? I've never even tried it. I haven't even cohabited for any length of time."

But having grown up in a large, lively family, didn't it occur to her that she, too, might have the distraction of children to help pass the time? "Obviously not," she says, flashing a self-deprecating smile.

Much of her life was defined in those negatives she listed earlier, and she has admitted that being on stage was her way of telling the world, "I'm here, too."

I sense that she does desperately yearn to be known, but selectively, on her own terms. "That's absolutely correct. I don't even really understand it myself. My need to escape, all the time, is something spurring me on, something I have to prove, still, that keeps me going in this work."

Acting lets her hide in plain sight, then? "It sounds like you understand that. It's not as if I'm playing a game or anything, it's almost more reflex than that. But I think I am much more controlling than I think I am."

Her son, Angus, whose father is Ben Whitrow, does know her inside out. She writes, "He has made me aware of the patterns I have neglected to see myself." Does this unsettle her? "He understands me very, very well.

"And that's that knowledge I was afraid of. He's very independent, I'm pleased to say, but it's so lovely that I can go back and I know he's there. Because to be totally on my own is something that frightened me for years.

"I'm not frightened of it now, but then I've got him. He's 16, and will leave home soon. But it is lovely that we muddle along together. That closeness with him never felt stifling, although when I was ill it bothered me, because I was in a bad place, where I'd lost all my confidence, and I very much worried that he saw me in this not very positive light."

That "illness" was actually two near fatal pulmonary embolisms. "It was absolutely terrifying. All I wanted to do was lie down like an animal, on the ground. You don't think you're ever going to get back (to normal]. It takes a while, but from then on in you're very positive, I suppose."

It took nearly three years to regain her energy. These days, she's learned to pace herself. "If I'm absolutely whacked out, I'll listen to that. I get up very early, about half past four, most days. But it means that come around half past eight, nine, I've had it and I'm good for nothing. You adjust it when you're working in the theatre, of course, but I have been known to be asleep on stage."

On the subject of colleagues, does she ever feel she's not given enough credit for her work with Victoria Wood? Sure, the writing is superb, but it takes great acting chops to bring the words to life. "Victoria does give us fabulously funny lines.

"If I was her I'd keep them all for myself. She wrote me this marvellously funny character of Miss Babs. The only thing is, often people will say, 'Oh, you're um, you're um, Victoria Wood.' And they don't mean that, but they associate me with her, which I'm very proud of, but it's somebody else's name, as opposed to, for example, the name of a programme. But in some ways, that has meant that I'm not forever typecast. And doing her show was a huge thing."

As was Dinner Ladies which, she reveals, was filmed on successive nights, because Wood has such exacting standards. "That was quite hairy, actually.

She's very musical, Vic, so if you get one word wrong, that puts the whole thing out. You'd do it on a Friday and some things would be cut and other things put in the next day. But it was wonderful to do, and whenever I see it, it's even funnier than I remember."

Their decades-long friendship was tested, however, when Wood wrote Acorn Antiques: The Musical without giving Miss Babs a solo. Hurt, Imrie approached Wood, and when that didn't reap results, she appealed to director Trevor Nunn. It wasn't until the technical rehearsals that Wood came through with a belter of a torch song that restored Imrie's equilibrium.

"It was a sticky patch," she admits. "She did come right in the end, and it was a fabulous song. I loved it - but I'm very glad that I asked for it."

Though Imrie's not over the moon about turning 60 in 2012, if past years are anything to go by, she'll have a super celebration. But I wonder if she'll ever top the year when she summoned her mates to tea at Claridges?

She warned Gary Oldman about the hotel's strict policy that men must wear ties. He swore he'd never be caught dead in one, but that he would be there on the day. And so he was - in the most convincing drag.

The Happy Hoofer is published by Hodder & Stoughton, 20.

This article was first published in The Scotsman, 16 April, 2011