How theatre stalwart Celia Johnson nearly turned down Brief Encounter
Wartime love letters reveal the 20-year veteran of the stage had a deep-seated suspicion of cinema and almost did not take the role that would make her one of the most famous women in the world at the end of the Second World War. Her daughter Lucy Fleming, who is staging a reading of the letters, talks to Nick Smurthwaite
For a brief period in the aftermath of the Second World War, Celia Johnson was one of the most famous women in the world. This came after she starred in the 1945 film Brief Encounter, based on a one-act Noel Coward play about an unconsummated love affair between two married people who meet by chance in a railway station waiting room.
The intimacy and intensity of the film, played out to the stirring sounds of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, caught the zeitgeist of the time and left audiences sobbing around the globe.
Even though it has been parodied mercilessly over the years for its clipped delivery and stiff upper-lipped sentiment of keeping calm and carrying on, few would deny that Brief Encounter is one of the most iconic films of the mid-20th century. In 1999, the British Film Institute put it second in its poll of 100 best British films, and Emma Rice’s 2008 lavish stage adaptation proved hugely popular on tour in the UK and America.
There was never any doubt that Noel Coward, the writer, and David Lean, the young director, wanted Johnson to play Laura, the female lead. What was less certain was whether or not Johnson herself actually wanted the role.
It is Johnson’s initial resistance to the idea of leaving her wartime and domestic obligations to do the film, as well as her subsequent enjoyment of being in it, that informs Posting Letters to the Moon, a dramatised reading of correspondence at the time between Johnson and her husband, Peter Fleming, by their daughter, Lucy Fleming, and her husband, Simon Williams.
Having been a successful stage actor for two decades, Johnson had a deep-rooted suspicion of film acting, as expressed in a letter she wrote to Fleming in October 1944, just after she’d been offered the role of Laura by Noel Coward. “It has been whizzing round in my mind ever since last Friday,” she writes. “That is the trouble with being an actress, you do want to act even in such an unsatisfactory medium as the films.” She writes of “the appallingness of Denham [Studios], the cold corridors, the getting up at the crack of dawn, the revoltingness of all the people who have anything to do with films, the abandoning of all (or nearly all) that I hold dear, the fact that a film always takes weeks longer than they say it will etc etc.”
By then she had already made a training film for the Auxiliary Territorial Service, with Peggy Ashcroft, appeared as Coward’s wife in the wartime propaganda film In Which We Serve (1942), made a strong impression in the film version of the stage play Dear Octopus (1943), and played a cockney housewife in This Happy Breed (1944).
“She put a lot of energy into cheering people up,” says Fleming, best known these days as Miranda Elliott in The Archers. “Her letters are often very funny as well as being poignant. When Simon and I first read them through, with my sister Kate, at the house where we grew up, we were all in floods of tears.”
The correspondence arose out of long periods of separation between Johnson and Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Fleming, the dashing older brother of Bond writer Ian Fleming, who spent much of the war years in India and South East Asia, working on undercover military operations. Although the letters are “full of love”, Fleming says she was surprised at how long her mother had to spend fending for herself and juggling a busy acting career with helping the war effort. Not only that, she was caring for eight children (not all hers) at the family home near Nettlebed in Berkshire.
“In addition to being an auxiliary policewoman, driving tractors and looking after all these children, she continued to do the thing she loved most: act,” says Fleming. “In fact she actually asked Noel Coward if she could play the role of his wife in In Which We Serve. He was more than happy to cast her but the other producers didn’t want her. They thought she was too tall, her eyes were too big and she wasn’t photogenic. But Noel had the last word.”
Earlier this year Fleming and Williams performed Posting Letters to the Moon at the Carnforth Station Heritage Centre, on the edge of the Lake District, where much of Brief Encounter was filmed as it was considered an unlikely target for bombing.
“We have to go up north for four weeks’ location on some horrible railway station,” Johnson wrote to her husband in January 1944. In the event she had a ball with co-star Trevor Howard, sipping brandies between takes and “rushing out now and again to see the express trains roaring through”.
Johnson had always been short-sighted but she saw this as an advantage for an actor: “I take off my glasses to do a scene and I don’t see all those terrifying tough men in sweaters standing about with their hands in their pockets. It’s like in the theatre when nothing is very distinct beyond the footlights.”
Though they knew of each other’s existence long before they met, Lucy Fleming and Simon Williams first became acquainted in 1965 when they played brother and sister in a revival of Coward’s comedy Hay Fever, with Johnson as their mother, Judith Bliss. They didn’t marry until 1986.
Fleming says: “Simon says he was always hearing about Celia’s daughters, the beautiful one and the tomboy. The beautiful one was Kate and the tomboy was me.”
What did her parents think of her wanting to go on the stage? “They both loved the theatre so they were pleased and supportive. Following in Celia’s footsteps was quite difficult because she was such a wonderful actress.”
Posting Letters to the Moon is playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre on November 19 and 26. Visit postingletterstothemoon.com for further dates; Celia Johnson, a biography by Kate Fleming, is published by Orion