Celia Imrie calls from Nice, where she spent most of the lockout, finishing her fifth novel. “Isn’t it magic, how it works?” she said down the line, in that familiar voice, instantly recognizable to anyone who has seen any of her 170 or so performances onscreen. “It never ceases to amaze me, because you look next door!” Her enthusiasm is so warm and pervasive that she can even make a humble phone call ring like a wonder.
Imrie says the Brits must be thinking she’s been on vacation for three years. In fact, she starred in the gorgeous American comedy Better Things, the fourth season of which is only airing now on the BBC, after an almost criminal delay to air it on UK screens. The series, created by and starring Pamela Adlon, is set in Los Angeles and follows the life of an actor in his forties (Adlon), his three daughters and Phil, his eccentric British mother living next door, who is straight. talk, rude and insensitive to social norms. It’s just been renewed for a fifth season, but at the moment, for obvious reasons, Imrie doesn’t know when they can get back to work.
The role of Phil, loosely based on Adlon’s own mother, came to Imrie largely by accident. She had traveled to the United States to discuss a role in another show, playing Patrick Stewart’s wife, but that did not happen. Someone else had already been chosen as Phil, but that didn’t happen either and the stars aligned. “It was by pure chance that I met Pamela and we hit it off,” she recalls. “I think she’s remarkable.”
Imrie even enjoys being in Los Angeles to film it, but only when she is working. “I hate days off. And when she gives me a scenario I’m not in, I just throw it in the trash in front of her, to make her laugh. She laughs. “She knows I’m a nightmare.” Adlon has a nickname for Imrie. “She calls me, rather wonderfully, ‘a shitty lady.’ And I’m so happy with it. It is really beautiful. We’re now at the stage where we can be really rude to each other, which of course is a huge compliment.
Imrie rarely flies: she travels to New York by boat, then takes three trains across the United States. “Ship, I must say, Rebecca,” she said correcting herself. “I said boat in some interviews, and it’s a very, very bad form – because it’s the Queen Mary 2, and it’s definitely a boat.” The journey usually takes around 10 days. “I would really go to the end of the world for Pamela, so it’s not a test.” Besides, she says, she loves to travel this way, to see a country by train. “It’s quite an adventure.”
Either Imrie follows the adventure, or the adventure follows it. In 2011, she published her fabulously entertaining autobiography, The Happy Hoofer, a riot with a life story so eventful it’s hard to know where to start: the time she was kidnapped on a film set in Scotland. , the meal she accidentally fed. her poisonous berry friends, the horrific and traumatic time she spent as a patient of notorious “brainwashing” psychiatrist William Sargant, or the time she spent on vacation in Italy and narrowly avoided to be killed by a landslide? The list is really long.
When she sat down to write about her life, did she have any idea how dramatic that would be? “No actually. I remember someone said to me, “Are you going to write the story of your life? I said, ‘Oh my God no, I couldn’t think of anything worse.’ And they said, “If you don’t, someone else will.” Hauntingly, she adds, “Obviously, I probably haven’t said everything that happened. “
In The Happy Hoofer, she compares acting to “a board game of snakes and ladders”. Where is she now on the board? “I think I’d like to say I’m about three steps from a ladder. The fact that Better Things lasts 10 weeks in Britain must be a good thing. But you never know. She was speaking to her agent only yesterday. “And I said, ‘I’m not trying to be dramatic, but I have to be realistic about my age.’” She is 68 years old. “I have to be more courageous and not always be the supporting actor. With the time I have left, I have to climb the ranks and reach higher points.
Imrie survived two pulmonary embolisms. I wonder if these experiences have changed her. “Yes definitely. I had another chance and another chance. There was a great friend of mine, a director, who had a bicycle accident and unfortunately suffered a head injury, and his prospects thereafter were such. awesome optimism. And so yes, you absolutely have to grab whatever is happening.
Considering how good Imrie has been since the early 1970s, you get the feeling she’s always enjoyed catching what’s going on. I ask her if the British know her even better for her work with Victoria Wood. “Often, but it’s a different generation now, funny enough. In France, people know her from Mamma Mia! “Also, the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a big hit here, and Doctor Who. Also, if I ever tell someone that I was a fighter pilot in Star Wars, they go wild. She laughs. “It is really worth it. I guess Finding Your Feet, and things like that. Oh, and Nanny McPhee. The children are a little afraid of me if I approach them.
She worked with Wood for years, ultimately winning an Olivier for her return to Miss Babs in Acorn Antiques: The Musical. I’m desperate to ask her to be one of the guests in the famous Two Soups sketch, in which waitress Julie Walters takes an age on her and Duncan Preston’s order. Never the pro, she is happy to oblige. “I can tell you in all honesty that Duncan and I have never been through it in rehearsal. It was a disaster, because we knew what was going to happen, and we knew how long Julie was going to take to get through the doors. Even though we knew it was going to happen, we were out of control. It was really quite difficult.
What got them through the one and only live take, in front of an audience, was the responsibility they felt towards the sketch. “If you look closely,” said Imrie, “I squeezed my inner cheeks so tight – I had blood in my mouth.” Does she miss working with Wood? “Oh sure, absolutely. We were a great team.
She loves being part of a team. While the lockdown gave Imrie time to cook more, try painting and mosaic for her bathroom, as well as finish her new novel (the writing career followed The Happy Hoofer), she lacks the camaraderie of acting. “I love back and forth and mutual responses. Exactly. In the course of her job, she has taken great pleasure in learning new skills for roles, from canoeing to piano to typing. “Anything new I can learn, of course I love it.” Recently, she took the trapeze, for a new movie called Love, Sarah. ” I did. I didn’t really learn, but my character was in the circus, so I was lucky to have a lesson. It was great. All kinds of things I learned!
Talking about travel, in particular, seems to enlighten him. “Go to Mazan, a beautiful part of France, to do… the thing with Benedict Cumberbatch?” Rather a dark story of his drug use all the time? Patrick Melrose? ” Yes! Good game. Perfect. I went to Mazan near Avignon, which I had never heard of before, and it was beautiful. And then I would hop on the first bus I could find on my day off, go around in a circle, and come back.
“Oh, and go to Bulgaria when we shot After Ever After, the Cinderella movie with David Walliams. When would I have thought of going to Bulgaria? And then in the middle of the night change trains and take a bus from Zagreb? Because I don’t fly and I was determined not to miss my train. She stops for a moment, as if she had just come back. “Wonderful adventures.”
• The Better Things 4 series airs on BBC Two Sundays at 10pm and on iPlayer; in the US, see FX on Hulu.