Celia Johnson (1908–1982)

Pictured: *Marshgate House, 36 Sheen Road (built 1702). Two storey house with attic and basement, 5 windows wide. Tiled roof, with 5 segmental headed dormers to timber dentilled eaves cornice. Red brick with light red dressings. Square headed flush framed sash windows. Central pedimented Doric porch to entrance door. Stucco band between storeys. Several rooms panelled. Ornamental wrought-iron gate and railings to front garden. To right-hand, 2-storey set back side extensions of late C18 and C19 dates. Segmental head to upper window.

Combined information from Encyclopedia.com and Simon Williams in The Oldie of December 23, 2019:

Born Celia Elizabeth Johnson on December 18, 1908, at 46 Richmond Hill, Richmond, Surrey, England; died in Nettlebed, England, on April 23, 1982; daughter of Robert Johnson (a doctor) and Ethel (Griffiths) Johnson. Celia, nicknamed Betty, spent a happy childhood with her younger brother John (b. 1912) and older sister Pamela (b. 1906). After World War I, her father became physician to the duke and duchess of York (the future George VI and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon ). Her mother Ethel, generally nervous, ran a chaotic house. Her father could be teased, her mother could not.

When Celia was nine, during the waning days of World War I, both she and her 11-year-old sister Pam had a serious attack of measles for which Celia always blamed her poor eyesight. Short-sighted, she had to wear glasses throughout her life.

Celia thought she owed everything to her shortsightedness: “I take off my glasses to do a scene, and I don’t see all those terrifying men in sweaters standing about with their hands in their pockets.… It’s a great advantage.”

It was her daughter Kate Fleming (Kate Grimond, the Honourable Mrs John Grimond) who published a biography of her mother in 1991. Tall, slim, and easygoing, Celia Johnson was “never very smartly dressed,” writes her daughter. “Usually devoid of make-up, and with thick glasses,” she was rarely recognized in public. In a hotel in Switzerland, she overheard someone standing nearby say: “I hear Celia Johnson is staying in the hotel—I’m determined not to miss her.” Throughout Johnson’s 50-year career, says Fleming, “the creative and the conventional” were at “war within her.”

In April 1919, Celia entered Miss Fraser’s class (Form III) of the elite St. Paul’s Girls’ School which sent many of its students on to Oxford. Johnson excelled in French and played the oboe in the school orchestra led by Gustav Holst. Competitive, she was also athletic, had a flair for verse, and loved performing in plays. When the family moved to *Marshgate House in Richmond, 15-year-old Celia began boarding near school until she left St. Paul’s in July 1926 with her general school certificate.

Accepted into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in 1927, she caught the attention of Alice Gachet , one of the leading teachers there. Following her final term in 1928, she signed with agent Aubrey Blackburn and spent her first season with Madge McIntosh ‘s Rep. Co. at Theatre Royal, Huddersfield, Yorkshire.

Back in Richmond, in January 1929, she replaced Angela Baddeley as Currita in A Hundred Years Old at the Lyric, Hammersmith. The company also consisted of actors Rupert Hart-Davis and Peggy Ashcroft. Hart-Davis had taken a shine to Johnson, but his attentions soon turned to his future wife, Ashcroft; he broke the news to Celia following a matinee. When Celia showed some signs of stress, Rupert introduced her to his friend, the brother of Ian Fleming. Peter Fleming, the future author of Brazilian Adventure (1933), was at that time assistant literary editor of The Spectator.

Johnson and Fleming married on December 10, 1935. Though Celia was domestically inept – ‘Changing things from raw to cooked is a problem I do not understand’ – both were happy, successful, and enjoyed their friends in their little flat in More’s Gardens, overlooking the Thames, Chelsea.

The couple built a spacious brick house, Merrimoles, on Peter’s inherited estate in Nettlebed, South Oxfordshire, five miles from Henley-on-Thames.

The woman who became a film star as the typical English housewife finally learned to cook, dealt with gas rations, made camouflage nets, plowed the acreage on a tractor, and entertained visiting military.

In 1940, when Peggy Ashcroft took sick with measles, Johnson replaced her as Cecily Cardew in the celebrated production of The Importance of Being Earnest, with Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell, Margaret Rutherford as Miss Prism, and direction by Sir John Gielgud.

She didn’t win an Oscar for Brief Encounter (1945) but, years later, by way of compensation, she bought herself a wayward brown Labrador and called it Oscar (so she had one after all). He probably gave her more pleasure than the statuette would have done.

She next appeared in It’s Never Too Late by Felicity Douglas at the Westminster in 1954 and took on the part of Sheila Broadbent in William Douglas-Home’s comedy The Reluctant Debutante in 1955, playing actress Anna Massey ‘s mother. It was Celia who recommended Jack Merivale for the young man. “Is he a good actor,” asked the producer. “I wouldn’t know about that,” she replied, “but he can drop me every night on Henley Bridge on his way home.”

(Simon Williams) On one occasion, she offered me a lift to London but, after a couple miles, she pulled in and asked me to drive, saying, ‘I’m really not very good at it.’

Self-mockery was her default position. When the question of an autobiography cropped up, she said she wouldn’t write it because ‘I never had an affair with Frank Sinatra and if I had had, I wouldn’t tell anyone.’

She was quietly thrilled to be ‘damed’ in 1981. Asked if she had any unfulfilled ambitions, she said, ‘I’d like to have leant against walls in thrillers.’

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