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Johnson, Dame Celia (1908-1982)


Main image of Johnson, Dame Celia (1908-1982)

A late recruit to the screen, Celia Johnson quickly acquired iconic status in British cinema and has maintained it, despite how few films she made. It is probably the eyes, as she acknowledged: she stares at the audience and breaks its heart as she sees her would-be lover, Trevor Howard, head off to catch his train out of her life in Brief Encounter (d. David Lean, 1945, Oscar-nominated for best actress).

This is the definitive Johnson role: she makes utterly real all the constraints (and comforts) of a decent middle-class woman's life: but there are other cherishable performances, too. In another Coward-Lean film, This Happy Breed (1944), though her accent wobbles a bit at times, she is the stoical lower-middle class housewife and mother to the life, unbearably moving as she comes to terms with the defection - and return - of her rebellious younger daughter. As the self-sacrificing daughter of a benignly selfish parson in The Holly and the Ivy (d. George More O'Ferrall, 1952) and as a conscientious probation officer in I Believe in You (d. Michael Relph, 1952), she makes goodness interesting and touching.

That she could also do comedy is seen in The Captain's Paradise (d. Anthony Kimmins, 1953), parodying her usual image. She can do nothing with the awful Coward piece, The Astonished Heart (d. Terence Fisher, 1950 - 'I'll just have a tray in my room') and is miscast in A Kid for Two Farthings (d. Carol Reed, 1955).

No doubt stage (from 1928 to 1982, in Shakespeare, Rattigan, Ibsen, Coward, etc) and perhaps TV (from 1937 to 1982, especially Staying On, 1980) gave her more varied opportunities, but for the best of what she did on screen filmgoers should be grateful. She married explorer Peter Fleming and is the mother of TV actress Lucy Fleming (b.Nettlebed, 1947), seen in Pride and Prejudice (BBC, 1995). She was awarded a CBE in 1958 and DBE in 1981.

Lucy Fleming, Celia Johnson, 1991.

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Film

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Thumbnail image of Brief Encounter (1945)Brief Encounter (1945)

Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson start a great British romance

Thumbnail image of In Which We Serve (1942)In Which We Serve (1942)

David Lean/Noël Coward classic about a bombed WWII destroyer

Thumbnail image of Kid for Two Farthings, A (1955)Kid for Two Farthings, A (1955)

Whimsical fable set in London's Jewish East End

Thumbnail image of This Happy Breed (1944)This Happy Breed (1944)

David Lean/Noël Coward film about a London family between the wars

Thumbnail image of All's Well That Ends Well (1981)All's Well That Ends Well (1981)

Visually striking BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation

Thumbnail image of Romeo and Juliet (1978)Romeo and Juliet (1978)

BBC Television Shakespeare version of the classic doomed romance

Thumbnail image of Staying On (1980)Staying On (1980)

Moving drama about an ageing Colonel and his wife in post-Raj India

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