How Imelda Staunton made a success of acting by ‘leaving self-esteem at the door’

Imelda Staunton as Mary in Flesh and Blood. Picture: ITV
Imelda Staunton as Mary in Flesh and Blood. Picture: ITV
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Imelda Staunton is one of our favourite actresses – gifted but with no airs or graces. As she returns to the small screen, Phil Penfold talks to her about her career and her latest role.

How many actresses can you name who would revel in playing a character described as “a short, squat woman, resembling a large pale toad, with short, curly, mouse-brown hair?” Imelda Staunton roars with laughter and admits cheerfully: “You leave all your self-esteem at the door when you become an actor… whatever anyone could say about me, nobody could claim that I am vain!”

Imelda Staunton as Mary in Flesh and Blood. Picture: ITV

Imelda Staunton as Mary in Flesh and Blood. Picture: ITV

The role was Dolores Jane Umbridge, the condescending, cruel and abusive defence against the dark arts teacher at Hogwarts, and the main antagonist in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Apart from Voldemort, she was the only other person to leave a lasting scar on Harry’s body.

“I loved it. Frightening the children? Bring it on – you’ve done your job,” she says. And she’s been doing her job very well for many years.

Staunton was an only child. The family lived in Archway, London, over her mother’s hairdressing salon. She now lives only a few miles north from there, in an altogether more upmarket area with her Yorkshire-born husband Jim Carter (best known as Carson the butler in Downton Abbey) and their daughter Bessie, also an actor.

The only time that the three have appeared together, she recalls, was in the much-loved BBC series Cranford, where Jim was an army officer, and Bessie played a young maid.

Imelda Staunton and Jim Carter attending the world premiere of Downton Abbey. Picture: Ian West/PA Wire

Imelda Staunton and Jim Carter attending the world premiere of Downton Abbey. Picture: Ian West/PA Wire

More recently, she and Jim were both in the film version of Downton Abbey. “We were in a scene together, but he was at one end of the dining room and I was at the other and we never even got a glance at each other, let alone a few lines of dialogue. Nevertheless, it’s fun that we could both drive in together and have a really good laugh in the car.”

Jim was born and raised in Harrogate and, according to Staunton, “he’s fiercely loyal to his county”. She has many Yorkshire links as well – including being patron of The Milton Rooms, the arts centre and hub for community and culture activities in Malton. Each has a thriving career that takes them all over the world, but when they are together you can find then in their garden, happily tending to their flowers.

“We both enjoy it and we’re reasonably successful at it – although, like any gardener, there are set-backs every year. What thrived in the summer last year will probably look dismal this June. That’s part of the fun of gardening – that, and the fact that it is so relaxing, and about as far from acting as you can possibly get.”

Despite all the accolades and awards she has garnered down the years, Staunton is about as un-starry a person as you could ever encounter.

She’s a performer of the old school – trained in repertory theatre and a jobbing actor until she started getting the major roles.

The advice she’d give to anyone starting out these days would be simple: “If you’re offered a part, grab it. Do it. Don’t be all toffee-nosed about it, just get on with it and be grateful that you are working. Sitting around ‘waiting for the right one’ never ever paid the bills. Accept it – and learn from the experience.

“Jim and I have always grabbed whatever we can, and we’ve done it to the very best of our ability. That’s all you can offer – giving it 100 per cent, whatever ‘it’ is. I never ever thought about a ‘career’ when I was 20. I was just grateful to get the work.”

She ponders for a second or two and offers: “Does anyone really start out – in any job – and think ‘I will be so good in this?’ You are wonderfully lucky if you are, of course, but most of us just keep plodding on, trying to do as best we can. Especially in acting. And then, occasionally, you get that big break. Dame Judi (Dench), one of the finest actresses in the world, was doing all right, well-respected, never out of work, until she was in her sixties, and then she got eight lines in Shakespeare in Love. That did it. Overnight, she was an international megastar. So you never can tell what may be around the corner, can you?”

Staunton will be back on our TV screens later this month with Flesh and Blood, a four-part story set on the south coast.

“It’s a beautiful piece of writing by Sarah Williams”, she explains. “It’s about Vivien who lost her husband about a year and a half back.

She’s beautifully played by Francesca Annis. Viv is the mother to a son and two daughters and she’s starting to fall in love with a new man – which makes each of the siblings think hard and long about their father’s ‘replacement’. It’s beautifully complex and there are quite a few twists in the tale.”

Staunton plays Mary, the widow from next door, who has seen the family grow up over decades. “She knows everything about them – or she thinks she does – and she can see things slowly unravelling. She too wants to know what is going on – and why,” she says.

“In real life Jim and I have very good neighbours. We and they are friendly, yes, but we’re not close friends. That’s rather different. And while we know lots of other people in the street, we’re not in and out of each other’s houses.”

In other words, they’re not nosey like her screen character. “Mary is a keen observer of events and there’s a contrast between her and Viv. Viv is very elegant, tall and stylish, Mary is very basic, cardigans and sensible skirts.” Imelda chuckles: “Typecasting again, you see!”

Staunton hopes viewers will be drawn in to Flesh and Blood because it’s a little bit like a good whodunnit. “When I was first sent the script, I read it from cover to cover and I hadn’t got a clue about who or what the ending was until I got to the last two pages. It’s brilliantly inventive television.”

Has she ever been tempted to revisit a part? “Once. Very early in my career I was invited to take over as Adelaide in their production of Guys and Dolls. I was completely wrong for the role. Fast forward a couple of decades and there was another revival, but this time I was Adelaide from the very beginning. And I nailed it. I got it right.”

She doesn’t have an acting ‘wish list’. “There’s no part that I feel has eluded me or one that I am bursting to attempt. Things, suggestions, land in front of me, and I go for them. At the moment I’m just beginning vocal sessions for a new production of Hello Dolly, which I’ll be doing in the West End from June. And even now I’m thinking ‘Was I stupid to accept the offer? Can I do it? Have I made a big mistake?’ It’s going to be such a challenge – going out there every night and shouting and singing at people.

“I always love being in a theatre company, you get a bit of shorthand together, doing the same thing night after night. Filming is far more disjointed. So yes, Dolly will definitely be a challenge… But then, I always love a challenge.”

Flesh and Blood starts on ITV on February 24 at 9pm.