Celia Johnson was one of the most respected actresses of her generation. Her career in the British theatre spanned more than fifty years, and her film career stretched from the classic weepy Brief Encounter in 1945 to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie twenty-three years later.
But for someone who enjoyed such success Celia Johnson was not the most ambitious of actresses. She only went to RADA after graduating from St Paul’s School for Girls because, as she later said, “I thought it might be rather wicked”.
Happily married for thirty-six years to the travel writer Peter Fleming, with whom she had three children, she frequently put her family before her career. This was true to the extent that she considered turning down the part in Brief Encounter when she realised it would mean spending long periods of time away from home.
Celia’s stage career covered a period of enormous upheaval in the world of British theatre. At the beginning of her career the great Actors of the Edwardian Theatre were still treading the boards (her first West End hit was in Cynara with Sir Gerald du Maurier) and actors still dressed formally for the short rehearsal period. By the end of her career she had worked at the new National Theatre, appeared in Ayckbourn’s first West End hit when he was virtually an unknown writer (Relatively Speaking in 1967) and walked out of rehearsals at the Royal Court after a fortnight of ‘improvisation and theatre games’, of which she took a rather dim view. Despite these enormous changes Celia continued to relish the challenge and was working in theatre until the day she died in 1982.
In 1941 Celia made a film for the Ministry of Information called A Letter Home. This was followed in 1942 by In Which We Serve, in which she plays Noel Coward’s wife. She was cast in this role after approaching Noel (who was an acquaintance) and boldly saying she wanted the part. Such forwardness was very out of character, but was a fortuitous move as it brought her together with the young up and coming film director David Lean, who was later to direct Brief Encounter.
Over the next few years Celia continued to work in film and broadcasting. During the war she recorded almost fifty plays, novels, short stories and poems for radio. Broadcasting was perfect for Celia as it came in short, pre-arranged bursts and caused little disruption to her home life. This was a major consideration as by 1944 Celia had her sister Pam and sister-in-law Tish – who had both been widowed – living with her. Between the three of them they had seven children all under the age of eight. Despite some assistance from two nannies, a housemaid and a cook life was hectic and in the absence of Peter (who was working abroad) responsibility for organising this large household fell on Celia’s shoulders. Never a natural homemaker Celia often found the task overwhelming.
Consequently when Noel Coward contacted Celia to offer her the part of Laura Jesson in Brief Encounter and explained it would involve several months filming including five weeks in Lancashire, she was equally delighted and appalled. Eventually she was persuaded by Noel, Peter and her own instincts to take the part, and filming began in 1945.
Celia enjoyed the filming of Brief Encounter immensely, particularly the time they spent in Carnforth Station, Lancashire filming the station scenes. During this time she wrote in a letter to Peter: “You’d think there could be nothing more dreary than spending 10 hours on a station platform every night but we do the whole thing in the acme of luxury and sit drinking occasional brandies and rushing out now and again to see the express racing through”. The film was, of course, a huge success, and is now considered one of the classics of the British film industry. After Brief Encounter Celia, quite deservedly, had murmurings of interest from Hollywood. However by this time Peter was back home again, they were to have two more children in the following two years, and Celia at this time was more interested in enjoying her family life.
Celia went on to make a further eight feature films during the remainder of her career. After her two daughters were born she also returned to her first love, the theatre, and appeared in twenty-two productions between 1947 and 1982.
In 1982 Celia was appearing with Sir Ralph Richardson in the play The Understanding. On Saturday 22nd April she performed in the matinee and evening show as usual. The next day was a day off so she arranged a game of bridge with a few friends. During the game she suffered a stroke and died a few hours later.
Until the very end Celia Johnson managed to achieve the enviable balance between her happy home life and her successful acting career that made her such a human star.
- Born 18th December 1908 in Richmond, Surrey, the second child of Robert Johnson & Ethel Griffiths.
- Educated at St Paul’s School for Girls, London. Graduated in 1927 and accepted by RADA to study acting.
- In 1935 married Peter Fleming the travel writer (the brother of Ian Fleming, who created the character James Bond)
- First child Nicholas (Nichol) born in 1939. The war took Peter abroad for most of the next 6 years and their two other children, Kate & Lucy, were not born until 1946 & 1947.
- In 1945 filmed Brief Encounter and in 1946 was nominated for an Academy Award for her part in the film.
- In 1958 was awarded the CBE for services to the theatre” and in 1981 was made a Dame.
- Dame Celia Johnson died at home in 1982
Did You Know?
- Celia was very short sighted and off screen could often be seen wearing thick glasses, no make-up and not particularly glamorous clothes. Consequently she found it very easy to walk around without being recognised even at the height of her fame.
- She loved The Times cross-word and did it practically every day from when it started in 1930. She could almost always finish it.
- Despite the fact that she made her name on stage & screen as the classic English housewife Celia was an absolutely hopeless cook.
- In the summer of 1966 Celia was appearing at Chichester Festival Theatre in The Cherry Orchard. In the middle of the final show a huge cheer from off-stage disrupted the performance, as England scored the winning goal of the World Cup!
- Celia was on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs three times during her life in 1945, 1954 and 1975.