Natalie Anglesey talks telly and family with Imelda Staunton, CBE
“Oh it’s you!” Imelda Staunton CBE, one of our best-loved actors, grins with delight, leaping up to greet me warmly in London’s impressive ITV Centre. Small and slim, she exudes such an air of exuberance you can understand why she’s in demand for so many comedy roles. Although this time I’ve come to find out about her latest television drama series and reminisce about her incredible career.
Considered the darling of stage, television and film, she possesses no airs and graces although her mantelpiece must be groaning with the number of awards she has won including an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her remarkable performance in the dramatic film Vera Drake. Her full name is Imelda Mary Philomena Bernadette Staunton so, as you may have guessed, she’s the daughter of Irish immigrants and learnt her work ethic from them. Indeed it was her working class background in London’s Archway which helped her play Vera Drake.
”That role was such a gift although it was harrowing,” Imelda recollects. “The director, Prestwich born Mike Leigh, starts with no script just weeks of improvisation before you have a script of sorts - really hard work - but so rewarding.”
Imelda’s collection of awards include BAFTAs and a host of European and Olivier Awards. Nominated for at least thirteen Oliviers she won individually for Guys and Dolls, The Corn Is Green, A Chorus of Disapproval, Into The Woods, Sweeney Todd, and most recently her acclaimed role as Mama Rose in Gypsy.
How does this modest actress feel about winning so many awards? “In spite of what some actors may say, I think we all like to be recognised and it’s a way for the public and your peers to acknowledge your work. It’s also a good excuse to wear a posh frock,” she grins. “I was particularly proud of the OBE awarded by the Queen and the CBE awarded by Prince William. All he wanted to talk about was The Gruffalo - I had voiced the talking book version - so I presume he was either reading the story or listening to it with his children.”
If you have any young people in your family they’ll no doubt reel off a list of Imelda’s films like Maleficent, Paddington, Nanny McPhee and, of course, two Harry Potter films as the dreaded Dolores Umbridge, who became Head of Hogwarts and nearly stole the show. “That woman may have been dressed in fluffy pink, but she was so dangerous. She hated Muggles, wanted them all erased in favour of what she called pure-bloods and was sadistically cruel. When you think about it it was a form of ethnic cleansing with a smile! Quite terrifying but fun to play! “
Work wasn’t always as plentiful at the beginning of Imelda’s career. After training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, she spent six years in repertory theatre in the 1970s before returning to London and the National Theatre. There she met her future husband Jim Carter who has also enjoyed a prolific career but is perhaps best known as Carter the beloved butler in Downton Abbey. At 6 feet 2 inches he towers over Imelda’s height of 5 feet. They married in 1983 and remain happily so while their daughter Bessie has followed them into the profession - although they rarely get the chance to work together.
“I’ve been so lucky recently,” Imelda beams. “I’ve been doing a great deal of stage work where you have to act big so it was great to work again in television where you get to be up close to the camera lens. I’ve had the chance of appearing in a powerful new drama series for ITV. A Confession, is a thrilling six part series written by award-winning screenwriter, Jeff Pope (Little Boy Blue). I’m such a fan of his work that I said yes immediately as his script was so beautifully crafted. It wasn’t sensationalist - which it easily could have been. It wasn’t over emotional which again it could have been. It just hit the right note for me. That was before I even knew it was based on a true story! “
A Confession, is the true story of the disappearance of 22-year-old Sian O’Callaghan in 2011. On a night out with girlfriends, Sian left a nightclub in Swindon Old Town to walk the 15 minutes home to boyfriend Kevin Reape. Kevin reported Sian missing when she failed to appear or respond to his increasingly frantic texts. Police met Sian’s mother, Elaine O’Callaghan, played by Siobhan Finneran (Cold Feet, The Moorside, Happy Valley), who thought her daughter may have stayed overnight with a girlfriend.
Detective Superintendent Steve Fulcher, played by Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, Sherlock, Fargo), is in charge of the investigation and believing Sian is still alive, he puts her recovery first - breaching police procedure and protocol to catch a potential killer.
“I play Karen Edwards,” Imelda explains. “She’s the mother of Becky Godden, a 20-year-old who disappeared a decade previously in 2003. Reminded of her own daughter’s disappearance, she’s afraid her own daughter may be involved. A known drug addict and prostitute, Becky had disappeared many times before and although Karen had tried to help her daughter, staging interventions and paying for rehabilitation, sadly Becky continued to lapse back into addiction.”
Did you ever meet the real Karen I asked Imelda? “At first I didn’t want to because I didn’t know how I’d react. It’s so difficult when you‘re playing a real person. I didn’t want to upset her if I got it wrong or didn’t live up to her expectations. In the end I was glad I did because she was a revelation. It wasn’t so much what she said it was her pain and anger which just overwhelmed me. I let her feelings wash over me and tried to harness them if I was to play her truthfully. Her daughter is still classed as missing not dead. I do hope she feels I did her justice. It was so hard to do because I have a daughter of my own and I know how I would have felt if anything happened to my child. It makes you realise how fortunate you are.”
The drama series has an impressive list of credits. It will be executive produced by Jeff Pope (Little Boy Blue, writer and executive producer, The Moorside, executive producer, Cilla, writer and executive producer) for ITV Studios.
When Imelda’s daughter, Bessie, first told her she wanted to act I wondered if she’d encouraged or discouraged her? “Encourage her of course - it’s a wonderful life. My husband Jim, Bessie and our dog have all appeared in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford. I played the village gossip Miss Pole but we had no scenes together. Bessie’s already made her first film and she’s joining the National Theatre. I sound just like her agent don’t I?” she hoots with laughter.
Imelda is equally proud of her husband Jim. Earlier this year, he was awarded an OBE. “What he didn’t know was that I’d invited all his family and friends from his home town of Harrogate to come down as I’d organised a marvellous party for him to celebrate his investiture. We were all so thrilled for him.”
What next for Imelda? “Well I did want to do a bit more telly because it’s less physically draining than being on stage every night. No matter how harrowing the scene is, once it’s filmed it’s gone and you can wipe the memory banks clean. You don’t have to take it home.” That wish has already come true as her next ITV drama series is called Flesh and Blood with Francesca Annis, who also appeared in Cranford, Stephen Rea (War and Peace) and Russell Tovey (Years and Years).
“I’ve also been lucky enough to appear in the new Julian Fellowes television series set in America, and I’m in the new film of Downton Abbey!” Imelda laughingly tells me about one particular scene in the long-awaited Downton film. “I only have a small role because as you know my husband Jim is one of the regulars as the butler. But there was one party scene where he was serving drinks and I was willing him to serve me with a drink so we could be in one scene together and do you know he deliberately avoided coming anywhere near me - can you believe it?” She dissolves into mock, outraged laughter.
Before we part company, Imelda reminds me: “I’m really hoping viewers will watch A Confession because it’s a gripping thriller. Sadly there were repercussions for many concerned. Fulcher, who was in charge of the investigation at the time, suffered because he put the recovery of the kidnapped girl first rather than following the legal protocol at the time.”
I for one am looking forward to seeing A Confession but perhaps the question we should all be asking ourselves is - what would we do in similar circumstances?
A Confession is showing on ITV form Monday 2nd September for 6 episodes
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