Imelda Staunton: 'The best things in life take time'

Imelda Staunton: 'The best things in life take time'

Words by Alison James                           Pic © REX, Steve Meddle, ITV

There’s an energy and dynamism about actress Imelda Staunton that practically pulsates. Imelda is the kind of woman you can imagine getting things done in half the time it would take the rest of us. But with certain things, she feels it’s far better to take time...

“We live in a world where we want instant things – ‘let’s do it now, have it now, see it now!’,” she says. “We want quick and we want good. But the best things take time, they need to cook and develop – whether you’re talking about a good stew or putting together a show or TV production.”

Fortunately time was on Imelda’s side when she signed up to play the part of Enid in That Day We Sang, penned by comedienne extraordinaire Victoria Wood. The heart-warming musical film is based on the story of the Manchester Children’s Choir who, in 1929, sang on a recording with the world-famous Hallé Orchestra. The action switches between this time and 1969, when the Choir had a reunion.

“We had lots of time to rehearse and we needed it,” she says. “The show features a lot of singing and dancing as well as serious acting. There’s no way we’d have been able to make it without proper rehearsals. It meant that when we went on set, we’d already worked out what we were doing and ultimately that saves money.”

So what attracted Imelda (58), to the role of Enid? She smiles.

“When Victoria Wood sends you a script, you don’t say no. Plus once I’d read it, I realised I hadn’t seen anything like it on TV before. For Enid, and the lead male character, Tubby, that day they sang in 1929 was the highlight of their lives. They had both loved to sing as children but somehow life’s trials and tribulations got in the way and 40 years on, at the 1969 reunion, hearing themselves as those children again has a profound effect on them. Michael Ball played the character of Tubby – another attraction!”

Imelda and Michael previously starred together in a smash hit West End production of Sweeney Todd in 2012.

“Michael and I have great shorthand and understanding, and an enormous amount of mutual respect,” Imelda explains. “That’s invaluable when trying to work out whether something’s working or not. We can say, “That’s rubbish, let’s start again” to each other and not take offence. We know how good we want something to be, so that’s how we’ll do it.

“Playing Enid is one of the best roles I’ve ever had. Apart from the poignant, funny and clever script, the music’s wonderful and Michael and I get to do some fabulous fantasy Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dance numbers. Enid and Tubby lose themselves dreaming about the lives they might have had if life had lived up to that day in 1929 when they sang Nymphs and Shepherds at the Manchester Free Trade Hall with the Hallé orchestra.”

Imelda feels we need our dreams. “It’s important to dream. In That Day We Sang we see ordinary people being extraordinary and that speaks to us all. Like Enid, I wish I really could be Ginger Rogers whirling around the floor with Fred Astaire, and I’d love to dance on the roof like they do in West Side Story – I also get to do that in the musical. Of course we can’t do those things in reality but we can in our minds. It speaks to and feeds our own desires and dreams. Having your dreams feel like they’re coming true is rather beautiful and uplifting – just like That Day We Sang."

Did Imelda sing in a choir when she was at school?

“Yes and I loved it,” she replies. “Not least because it meant we had access to the boys from the school across the road! I recall singing the Alleluia Chorus at 14 years old and thinking it was the best feeling ever. I’d performed in musical plays at school but this was different. A choir is fulfilling and connects you to others.”

In addition to the wonderful story, music and dancing, the period detail in That Day We Sang is a visual delight and nostalgia-fest. The 1969 scenes feature boil-in-the-bag cod in butter sauce, Blue-Band margarine, Berni Inns and a bizarre-looking Lady Sunbeam hairdryer complete with hose and plastic hat.

“I remember those hairdryers.My mum was a hairdresser so I'm familiar with hair-drying contraptions. I remember hair lacquer, too – it was never called hairspray.”

In March, Imelda opens at London's Savoy Theatre in an award-winning production of Gypsy. Her performance as Mama Rose won rave reviews when she played the role in the recent Chichester Festival Theatre production of the classic musical.

But did she watch herself in That Day We Sang on Boxing Day, at the home she shares with her husband Jim Carter – who plays butler Carson in Downton Abbey – and their 21-year-old daughter, Bessie? It very much sounds like it.

“If you’re lucky enough to do a piece of TV or radio at Christmas, it’s extra special; like you have invited everyone round to your house to tell a story – it’s a lovely feeling.”

Imelda shares a secret

She feels the only use of  fame is to do good… “The little I can do with my 'fame’ is to use it to help good causes. That’s what fame is for. I think money can destroy you and make you think you’re better than you are. The only way to have money is to share it.”

  • Catch That Day We Sang on BBC iplayer, until Jan 18.

There's more celebrity chat in every issue of Yours magazine, out every fortnight on a Tuesday.