Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fenella Fielding

Fenella Fielding in Carry On Screaming

"She wowed Noel Coward, fascinated Fellini and seemed destined to become a huge star. But after a vampish turn in 1966's 'Carry on Screaming', Fenella Fielding's film career never recovered".

Recently I watched an excellent documentary from BBC4's time shift series, 'Hotel Deluxe', all about the history of the deluxe hotel.  What made it extra special was the narration, beautifully delivered in the unmistakable, seductive tones of Fenella Fielding.  It was so good to hear that voice again, and what a voice, a perfect English cut-glass accent with a seductive huskiness that makes men melt and women envy, I am not aware that I have heard it in advertising but I would be very surprised if La Fielding has not had offers, it's the kind of voice that could persuade you to buy or do anything.

I first became aware of Fenella Fielding when as a child I watched her in 'Carry on Screaming', the film had a lasting effect on me, and is my favourite carry on, mainly due to Fenella, I have never forgotten her.  I don't know how well known the carry on series was outside of Britain, they were a series of low budget comedy films, which relied on slapstick, farce and double entendres, usually featuring the same group of actors, who were  poorly paid.  The films were made between 1958 and 1978 and are as British as fish and chips, kiss me quick hats and Blackpool Rock and people either love them or loathe them.  In carry on screaming, Fenella stole the show, even though career wise it was not her finest hour, her screen presence is undeniable.

After watching hotel deluxe, I got curious, I wanted to know what happened to Fenella, after a bit of rooting around I unearthed this interview by Robert Chalmers, from The Independant on Sunday, 24th February 2008, the interview is quite long so I have just included the most interesting bits...

 Fenella Fielding,  by Duffy for Vogue 1961

It's one of the mysteries of British life that Fenella Fielding, whose wit and distinctive stage presence captivated figures such as Kenneth Tynan, Noël Coward and Federico Fellini, should have drifted into obscurity rather than being celebrated – to use a phrase deservingly derided by Alan Bennett, but in this case the only one that will do – as a national treasure. Fielding pioneered the notion that a young British woman could write and perform stand-up comedy, with her solo shows and musical revues at places such as Peter Cook's Establishment club. Her Hedda Gabler was described by The Times as "one of the experiences of a lifetime". Yet she has somehow come to be remembered only as a sort of cartoon vamp. If there's a single image that defines her in the public's memory, it's the one in which Valeria, her character in Carry on Screaming, who is a member of the living dead, reclines on a chaise-longue and asks "Do you mind if I smoke?" Seconds later, clouds of dry ice appear, apparently rising from her generously exposed torso. 

Shivering on the forecourt of the Dorchester are a group of photographers waiting for a Keira Knightley or a Johnny Depp. Seeing Fenella Fielding, who emerges from a taxi dressed modestly but elegantly in a charcoal leather raincoat and her trademark white-collared blouse, the entire group turns to look at her, as if instinctively sensing the presence of a true star. 
Fielding, who is one of the industry's more retiring figures, had explained that she couldn't meet me at her west London flat because she was having building work done. We sit down for tea in the hotel bar. Her appearance has scarcely changed over the past 30 years: somehow – and by what strategies I don't ask her – she has retained her looks without developing the alarming skeletal appearance acquired by actresses whose faces have had "work". 
Her age has been the subject of some debate. She says she was 73 in November. Enemies, some of whom appear to have tampered with her Wikipedia entry, ungallantly ' assert that she has been with us slightly longer than that. There is, she tells me, a significant gap in years between herself and her brother Basil, otherwise known as Baron Feldman of Frognal. The baron, a former plastic-toy magnate whose business interests, according to one report, have included "Sindy dolls, aircraft kits and yo-yos", is an influential figure in the Conservative Party.
"It must be quite a gap," I suggest, "because Basil gives his age in Who's Who as 81."
"It is," she says. "But you'll have to be vague about that. Or I may never work again."


Quite why her age should be of concern to anyone, I'm not sure, given that she has lost nothing in terms of swiftness of thought or memory: there was no point during our several hours of conversation at which she had to pause to search for a name. She's sharp, engaging, and discusses the work of writers ranging from Stella Gibbons to Patrick Marber. Like her old friend Kenneth Williams, she maintains an exaggeratedly robust façade, which serves as a buffer against a potentially cruel and intrusive world. The tone of ironic seduction and improbable poshness that she brought to her two Carry on... films and movies such as Doctor in Clover, never fades. When Patrick McGoohan asked her to be the voice that hails the villagers in his 1967 television series, The Prisoner, she recalls, "He told me not to be too sexy. I mean," she adds, "such a thought would never have occurred to me." 

Most performers who have spent over 50 years in showbusiness have generated a thick and colourful stack of newspaper cuttings. But this actress's file is slim, and contains almost nothing in terms of substantive information about her. She is not, as it turns out, an aristocrat; Fielding is a stage name and Basil, her only sibling, is a life peer whose sponsors, when he entered the Lords, were Margaret Thatcher and Cecil Parkinson.
"Daddy had a cinema," she says. "At Silvertown. In north London." "Did you go there, as a girl?" "Yes." "What did you see?" "I can't remember. I can remember what I ate. Coconut squares dipped in chocolate, wrapped in gold paper." Fielding laughs. "Lovely."

She admits to being the daughter of Philip Feldman, who arrived in Britain aged about three, from Russia, and his wife Tilly, who was Romanian. She concedes that she grew up in Lower Clapton, Hackney, and went to North London Collegiate School, but won't say which London drama school she attended.

"I think you're on record as saying it was Rada."

"I ... it's not important. I didn't complete the course. There were rows every morning." 

"Because your parents didn't want you to act?" "I had to hide every morning, until Daddy had gone out to work. And then stay out late to try to avoid him in the evening. Because of these terrible rows. Mummy would come and try to get me to go back home in the middle of the day. After about a year the school said look, this cannot carry on. I had to leave."

She was dispatched to secretarial college. Concerning her ambition to act, she once said, "I think my parents had visions of me being found in the Thames with six illicit foetuses in my womb and needle marks up my arm."

Asking her questions, I tell her, I keep being reminded of what the southern Spanish say about the Catalans, namely that they are so secretive that if you meet them in a department-store lift, they won't tell you if they're going up or down. She has never married, something which – combined with the many friendships she has had with gay men, such as Francis Bacon, Kenneth Williams and author Daniel Farson – have led some to assume her to be lesbian.

"I suppose it's only natural, if you don't have prominent liaisons. But my closest lady friends, if they heard that, they would shriek with laughter."

"Have you lived your life alone?" 
"I don't think that would be entirely true. Not really. Years ago, a woman asked me: 'Do you have a boyfriend?' I told her: 'I have two lovers.' She got very upset and said: 'What a terrible thing to say.' Why was that terrible? And later on, I repeated this to a man who was gay. He said: 'Well, that is terrible. It must only ever be one person.' I said: 'Oh. Right. Fine. I see. I'll remember that. Thank you for the tip.'"  

 With Tony Curtis in Drop Dead Darling 1966

Cecil Beaton, 1972

Was there one moment, I ask Fielding, where she might have broken away from the stereotype typified by Carry on Screaming? "I turned down the chance to work with Frederico Fellini in the late-1960s." The director of La Strada and La Dolce Vita, she adds, "had a big thing about me. He saw me on stage in the Sardou comedy, Let's Get a Divorce. He wanted me to do this film in which I'd play the incarnation of six different men's desires. Not a bad role." Fielding laughs. "You see, Fellini had never heard of Carry on... He just saw what he saw and thought: I like that. It was thrilling. I had to meet him at a hotel. It was a fascinating time; full of secret telegrams and so on. He was gorgeous. But I'd already said yes to a play at Chichester. I thought it would be dishonourable to let them down. I would say that's the thing that I really regret."
"What happened to the Fellini film?" "He never made it. He sold the script. What I did was really stupid, I know. But everybody does something really stupid. That was my one." 

It's not as if she hasn't done outstanding work in recent years: Dearest Nancy, Darling Evelyn, her dramatised performance of the letters between Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, has toured to excellent reviews, but always in small venues. And she had a successful tour of Ireland in 2006 with The Vagina Monologues.

In 1996, at the tiny New End Theatre in Hampstead, the theatre director Andrew Visnevski gave Fielding a starring role in Maria, the life story of Polish poet Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska. (She was a truly great writer, often referred to as the Polish Oscar Wilde – just why has Ms Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska never become a household name?) Talking to Visnevski, I mentioned how many contemporary films I'd seen – mostly, but not exclusively, comedies – in which Fielding might have shone. The scarcity of her recent appearances on screen has, I suggested, been little short of tragic. 

"There are so many parts she could have played," Visnevski said. "Her mind is crystal-clear, she does yoga every day, and she is still interested in everything. She judges films for Bafta. I cast her in that straight biographical play about a woman writer who dies of cancer partly because I wanted to see her shed that caricaturish Carry on... image that has haunted her for years. She was just phenomenal. She is an incredible, multi-faceted actor." 

"So why isn't she working more?" 

"Everybody sees Fenella through the image she's created. She is, let's face it, one of the last great stars in England. And every great star has an image. But hidden under there is a vigorous, highly intelligent, uniquely talented and sensitive artist who still has a great deal to offer."

Uniquely talented she may be, but the urgent question that faces Fenella Fielding is how long it may be before any contemporary casting directors notice. When we leave The Dorchester, the photographers turn to stare at her again. Fielding seems oblivious to them. She has to prepare for an audition the following day, she says, but she doesn't like to talk about prospective roles in case she doesn't get them. She picks her way across the forecourt, which is crowded with limousines and taxis, and boards a bus for Marble Arch, still dreaming of a less trivial kind of fame. 

I for one would love to see Fenella back on our screens, casting directors take note, Dame Maggie, Dame Eileen and Dame Judy are all fabulous but I am sure there is room for Fenella too, she is utterly wonderful.

To read the interview in full go here

Fenella is currently appearing in Dearest Nancy, Darling Evelyn at various venues in Britain to find out more details and see what else she is up to visit her website here

The role that damaged Fenellas career, carry on screaming 1966

Appearing with Britian's best loved comedy double act, Morecambe and Wise on their Christmas special show, 1969


  1. Dash-- What a story! I can honestly say I had never heard of Fenella. You are so good at tracking down details about some of these women and their careers, especially the long forgotten ones. Fenella has had quite a life. I had a great time reading about her and watching that video clip at the end. Merci, Dash. Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

  2. I know the name and love Carry On Screaming but knew nothing else about Fenella Fielding. Great post and gorgeous pictures. x

  3. That was lovely to read - I've learnt something new today, thank you so much for this lovely post about Fenella (who I'd never heard of before). She sounds like an amazing, timeless woman and what a voice! xo

  4. I enjoyed this post very much. I have a vague recollection that Fenella Fielding was in a 1960s ? TV series based on Saki's character Clovis.

  5. I have never heard of her but I watched the clip and she's charming.
    There are so many fine actresses out there who never fell into the celebrity trap. I admire them.

  6. I had no idea who this person was, but I was intrigued none the less. Great post as always!

  7. Fenella Fielding was a childhood favourite, largely because of CoScreaming and the other one she did - was it Regardless? - loved her to bits. I still love the Carry Ons and their silliness, but agree it is a shame she failed to live up to her potential. What a fantastic post :)

  8. Oh, I loved her.... that voice is so unique. As soon as you hear her, you know who it is. Even though she didn't have a great career, most people of my age know her. It's good to know that she is still working.
    Thanks so much for your lovely comment today. I get so cross when you can't take photographs in these places. I think that they are rather 'up themselves ' !! She was really horrible and followed us all around the house ! Still, it was worth going's such a beautiful house isn't it and , the paintings are a bonus. XXXX

  9. I had the wonderful experience of meeting Fenella Fielding last night, what a lovely serene woman she is !
    Still has the twinkle in her eye, and I regard her as one of the most brilliant British actors of her time ....
    By the way what a fantastic blog, its full of the most wonderfully inspirational content fabulous images fashion, photography and art.....

  10. Good stuff. Would you consider doing a similar piece on the equally beautiful, husky-voiced temptress Joan Greenwood?


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