Actress Lucy Fleming compiled this wartime correspondence of her mother, then “up and coming” actress Celia Johnson (Noel Coward’s muse) and father, explorer and “up and coming writer” Peter Fleming (brother to Ian Fleming of James Bond fame). Curated with love, the letters span much of Britain’s involvement in WWII, 1939-1945, when Johnson was working locally, breaking into film from theater, and Fleming assigned to Intelligence, stationed predominantly in India.
When war broke out, Johnson was 32 and new mother to Nicholas aka “Sausage.” She’d been married to Fleming for four years. The actress was living in a partially completed house near Henley in Oxfordshire, at first alone, and then, over the course of the war, joined by up to eight evacuated children of her sister-in-law and then sister, both made war widows.
“Darling Mr Flem, To-day I have got the willies… I don’t believe I can get rid of them until the war is over. It’s this endless separation from you and the impossibility of talking to you….” Johnson
“You really do write the most lovely & absorbing letters & when I get them my war-scarred, shark-infested face lights up as I tear them open with unaccustomed fingers stained with the dishonorable & generally hirsute ink of GHQ…” Fleming
Johnson wrote about her utter lack of domesticity (she couldn’t cook ), rationing: “We can’t decide whether it would be better to sit in the dark and be warmish or see and freeze come the winter…” learning to drive a tractor, and Nicholas “has several new expressions among them ‘I’m wide asleep…” By the way, Rosalie told me that a woman came to the hospital the other day and said that she wanted the doctor to see her son’s ‘twig and berries’… I call that a delightful expression.”
The artist describes working with and getting to know Noel Coward, David Lean, Johnny Mills, and Trevor Howard on both commercial films (especially Brief Encounter) and those made for the war effort. Eventually, frustrated by lack of contribution and guilty about the money she earned in light of deprivation around her, Johnson also signed on as a local policewoman.
Letters were often delayed and out of sync. Affection poured out of them without a hint of self-pity. Lightness was preferred with anecdotes peppering, but truthfulness is apparent. Both Johnson and Fleming were articulate and descriptive. Battles and speeches- by Churchill and the Queen – are mentioned with little specificity. Whether editing or reserve, this serves dramatization.
Fleming quipped about life in the service (unable to share details), restlessness: “Here I am installed in pomp and luxe in this gigantic residence. I still don’t know what I’m up to…” and, in what we Americans perceive as true British fashion, underplayed danger: “Burma was great fun in a way but depressing. It is the third withdrawal I have been in on and they all smell the same: a bad smell, charged with suspense, apprehension, waste and a sort of galloping decay.”
“…I have got three holes in me … but there is nothing to any of them – I only limp when entering restaurants to impress the ladies… An awful lot of the people I really like are getting killed…”
As Johnson chatted about family and daily activities (what normalcy they could garner), Fleming tried to do the same. “Today I must go and have a drink with an Admiral and dine with a General. I see Noel is due here in May. That ought to shake the Japanese.. Dear little Nicholas, I hope you are being good & looking after Mummy…
“I am particularly keen on arranging that none of the children have to follow the drum. You are my sweet darling & we will have a lovely time a bit later on…” Fleming
“I must warn you that I look horrid. Wan and tired and not a bit glamorous. I hope you will continue to like me just the same…” Johnson
Both Lucy Fleming and her husband, Simon Williams are splendid actors. One gets a real sense of the two protagonists and what was experienced. Sometimes Williams looks across at his wife over the specs on his nose with the kind of palpable love expressed by her parents. Personal photos make the evening feel intimate.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Posting Letters to The MoonCompiled by Lucy Fleming from letters written by Celia Johnson and Peter Fleming
Created by Simon Williams and Lucy Fleming
Through June 2, 2019