The question at the heart of BBC1’s favourite genealogy programme is one that actors probably find themselves contemplating more often than most other professions. They are, after all, shifting their identity for a living; few with such consistent variety as 60-year-old Celia Imrie, famous as scatty HR manager Philippa in dinnerladies, Miss Babs of Acorn Antiques, husband-hunter Madge from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and countless other roles on stage and screen.
Imrie had initial doubts about being the subject of Who Do You Think You Are?, as it struck her as “possibly a little nosey”. But then, after sharing her misgivings with her After You’ve Gone co-star Nicholas Lyndhurst, she realised she would not be the subject at all. More of a walk-on, in fact. And having had a grandly eccentric mother who viewed all human behaviour as being “in the genes”, she soon found herself seeing it as an irresistible quest.
And what forebears she turned out to have. And what social promiscuity. While her father came from a working-class Scots background, her mother’s origins were from the other end of the spectrum. Follow the names back up her maternal family tree and you come to baronet upon baronet, a couple of dukes of Rutland and, in the latter half of the 17th century, the great moral presence of Lord (William) Russell, the Whig martyr executed for his opposition to the succession of King James II.
Since one of Imrie’s aims was to see where her 18-year-old son Angus’s political radicalism comes from, this was nothing less than a gold strike. “It certainly didn’t come from me,” she says, “so where?”
Now she knows. Another of her aims was to see whether there were any family precedents for her fascination with the criminal mind. “One of my first night classes was the psychology of criminality,” she explains, “and I was curious to know whether we had any criminals in the family.” Here, too, she was in luck. In Russell’s grandmother, Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset and daughter of the Earl of Suffolk, she appears to have stumbled on a full-blooded murderess. In one of the great scandals of the early 17th century, Frances and her husband Robert Carr were found guilty of the murder of his former friend and court rival, Thomas Overbury. The couple were imprisoned in the Tower, though subsequently pardoned.
However, it’s in another, earlier episode of the Countess’s life that Imrie finds a powerful connection. It concerns the question of marriage, which the actress has always been opposed to, even as a child. “I was always rather afraid of the idea. I think I worried what would happen when you hadn’t got anything to say to each other.” She did, however, want a child and after befriending fellow actor Benjamin Whitrow - and laying down strict terms about her primary role in the child’s upbringing - had her son Angus in 1994 when she was in her early 40s.
Four centuries earlier, Frances Howard had no such power in the face of an arranged marriage designed to further the position of her family. And so she found herself wed, though in name only, to Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex who, at 14, was a year older than her.
Years later, she took the audacious step of prosecuting her husband on grounds of impotence, intent on getting the marriage annulled. This entailed convincing a body of ten midwives and matrons that she was a virgin, though capable of intercourse. With a fearlessness applauded by her descendent, she railed against the institution of marriage, and was mercilessly lampooned at court and in verse.
“Can you imagine being trapped in a loveless marriage and not having any say in the matter?” says Imrie. “I’m totally on her side. I mean, the poor kid. And I do think it [marriage] can be a trap.” She can, she says, feel a line going back from her to Frances, and a warmth towards her for her determination not to be overruled. “I am so proud to be related to those brave, noble people and not to be related to ones who just spent their time drinking tea all over the place.”
A story from her own childhood says a lot. It involves a letter of rejection from the Royal Ballet School, anorexia, and a telling-off that changed her life. She was mad about the dance and longed to do it for a living. When the school wrote to say they regretted they couldn’t take Celia as she was going to be too big to dance professionally, her mother couldn’t face telling her. This was almost half a century ago; it was a different country. Decode the message and you’re looking at the f-word: fat.
Celia found the letter in her mother‘s papers and immediately set about solving the problem by not eating. Her condition became so acute - aged 14 she weighed just four stone - that she was admitted to the psychiatric ward of a London hospital to be “cured”. The treatment still gives her nightmares. She was drugged, subjected to controversial electric shock therapy and had brainwashing messages played to her from beneath her pillow. She recalled the experience in her autobiography The Happy Hoofer, published last year: “I was the youngest in the ward. Most of the other patients were middle-aged women suffering from depression. From my bed, I watched them howling, moaning and screaming, fighting with the nurses. I thought: I don’t want to be mad. I must get out of here.”
Her discharge came not as the result of the treatment, but from the sharp tongue of a busy matron, who accused her of blocking a bed that could be used by someone who was genuinely ill. “It was the best thing she could have said to me. She was telling me to pull myself together, and I did. If something is wrong, I am the sort of person who will say something about it, rather than shut up and sit on it.”
It’s the antithesis of whingeing, which is a habit many of her contemporaries are accused of. Not from her the complaint that getting old is so hard for actresses as no one is writing parts for them. She does admit to some anxiety when, as now, she’s got nothing definite lined up, but agrees this comes with the territory.
“I do sometimes wonder if what we [actors] do is worthwhile, really, but then I think, well, if someone somewhere is, let’s say, unwell, old, alone, and then on comes an episode of dinnerladies and they laugh, that’s something, isn’t it?”
Who Do You Think You Are? is on tonight at 9:00pm on BBC1