JOHNSON, Dame Celia (1908-1982)
Plaque erected in 2008 by English Heritage at 46 Richmond Hill, Richmond, London, TW10 4QX, London Borough of Richmond Upon Thames
Theatre and Film
Dame CELIA JOHNSON 1908-1982 Actress was born here
Dame Celia Johnson’s name is synonymous with the classic film Brief Encounter (1945). A remarkably versatile and subtle actress, her career also encompassed both West End theatre of the interwar years and television drama of the 1970s.
Johnson was born and spent the first 15 years of her life at number 46 Richmond Hill in Richmond upon Thames – now commemorated with a blue plaque. Her father was a popular local doctor and Celia enjoyed a happy, settled childhood. While living here she gave her first public performance – at the age of six – as the beggar maid in King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, to raise funds for soldiers wounded in the First World War.
TAKING TO THE STAGE
Late in 1926 Johnson entered RADA, where her obvious talent was nurtured by her tutor, Alice Gachet, who sent her to Paris to spend a term studying at the Comédie Française. On leaving RADA in summer 1928, she was engaged for the summer repertory season at the Theatre Royal, Huddersfield. Back in London, Johnson appeared at the Lyric, Hammersmith, which brought her to the attention of the actor-manager Sir Nigel Playfair. Her name was made with a two-year run in Merton Hodge’s The Wind and the Rain, followed by a portrayal of Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice and of Mrs de Winter in Rebecca.
The War Years
In December 1935 Johnson married the journalist and travel writer Peter Fleming, brother of James Bond author Ian Fleming. During the war she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps and later appeared in a publicity film about the ATS, We Serve (1942), directed by Carol Reed. Given the demands made on her time by family life and her war duties, Johnson turned to radio and film work as it was less time-consuming than the theatre. In 1941 she made In Which We Serve with Noël Coward and David Lean, followed in 1943 by This Happy Breed with the same team.
The success of these two films prompted Lean and Coward to adapt Coward’s short play Still Life for the screen as Brief Encounter. Johnson was in her element playing the heroine, Laura Jesson, a conventional middle-class housewife who falls in love with a doctor, played by Trevor Howard, after a chance meeting in a station buffet. The film remains a defining moment in British cinematic history and Johnson’s most celebrated role. Brief Encounter received three Oscar nominations, including Best Actress for Johnson. It also won the Palm D’Or at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival, and in 1999 was named the second greatest British film of all time by the British Film Institute.
In the decade after the war, Johnson’s acting career took second place to her family life. An inspired pairing with Ralph Richardson in Robert Bolt’s The Flowering Cherry proved a welcome return to the stage in 1957. The following year she was awarded the CBE ‘for services to the theatre’. The 1960s saw Johnson join the National Theatre Company and she also appeared in the film adaptation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1968). She later discovered a talent for television drama that sustained her through the 1970s.
In 1981 Celia Johnson was honoured with a DBE, the ninth theatrical Dame since the Second World War.