Obituary: Fenella Fielding
She was a serious actress remember one, stand-out comic performance.
Fenella Fielding has survived a violent education to play Ibsen, Shakespeare and Euripides on the stage. As an artist, his true versatility captivated both Federico Fellini and Noel Coward. It was a woman of spirit and wisdom, who has kept a copy of Plato in the side of the bed.
But, for millions, that serious side is long since forgotten. Instead, it will always be Valeria: the camp vamp star to Proceed To Shout draped on a couch in a skin-tight dress; her voice oozing with sex appeal and sports cilia-like claws.
She turned down all future Carry On the work, but the dice were thrown. In the public mind, she was the epitome of the Sixties, femme fatale, offering double direction, with lashings of faux innocence. And unfortunately, as an artist, his career has slowly drifted into the darkness almost as soon as she uttered his most immortal line.
Street angel, house devil
Fenella Marion Feldman was born in Hackney in 1927, the youngest child of a Romanian mother and a father of Lithuanian. The relationship with his parents has never been easy, often strained and sometimes violent.
As a toddler, she seemed to speak in gibberish. His mother and father worried that she was not developing normal language skills, until they came upon him in a lively conversation with a doll. “I guess,” she later wrote: “I didn’t want to talk to my parents.”
The young Fenella harbored a burning desire to achieve. She took ballet lessons and has given its young talent to the show free during the annual end of year show – a time to remember, cavorting around the stage at the height of Nobody Loves A Fairy When She is Forty.
Other moms and dads, she bitterly noted, showered their children with fresh flowers after each performance, his parents simply offered the same basket of artificial flowers, year after year. It was difficult not to take to heart.
As she entered her teenage years, life at home became more somber. His father – who could be charming in public – has been a “street angel, house devil”, she recalled, who “used to hit me with his fists”.
To make things worse, his mother would be, in fact, “egg him on”. She thought that the violence was going to happen, but it did not – at least until she threatened to go to the police.
She left school at 16 and spent a year at St Martin’s School of Art. His parents have been dismayed to see that she could see naked men – or worse, naked women in the class, which was bound to result in pregnancy and drug addiction. There were rows every morning. Finally, they were forced to leave.
Always willing to take action, the implementation of the service would hang around stage doors in the West in the hope of brushing against Alec Guinness or Laurence Olivier. She has won a two-year scholarship to the Royal Academy of dramatic Art – which pleased his father and mother considerably, until it appeared, that it could in fact become an actress.
Her mother began to turn to the RADA, at lunch time, make a scene, and emphasizing in-service leave. “Really, my sweetheart”, she said, “these common people!” After some time, the school quietly removed its funding.
She considered going to the university, but his father told him that he had “rather see his dead at his feet.” Instead, she was sent to learn shorthand and typing. She has found the soul destroy.
In misery, the in-service shot 70 aspirin in a suicide attempt, but changed his mind at the last minute. She swallowed litres of mustard to water to induce vomiting after the call of the night Boots ask how to reverse the effects. Beautiful butterfly comedy
Fleeing the house, she found digs in Mayfair run by prostitutes. In 1952, she appeared in an amateur production at the London School of Economics, alongside Ron Moody, a mature student – who later found fame as Fagin in the film version of Oliver!
Moody’s has maintained its ambition to become an actress, persuading her not to pack and train as a manicurist. She changed her name from Feldman to commissioning, pretended to be seven years younger, in order to compensate for the delay in the show business and began appearing in comedy reviews.
At the end of the 1950s, she had made a name for itself in the musical Valmouth. It is weird and, for the moment, rather ominous, but the commissioning of rave reviews led to a problem of reconciliation with his parents. His mother went to the Lyric Theatre bearing a peace offering of sorts: a whole fried chicken.
Next was Pieces of Eight, a live comedy revue written by the unlikely pairing of Peter Cook and Harold Pinter. Starring alongside her was Kenneth Williams – already firmly established as a household name – which quickly proved to harbour a fragile ego under the thinnest of skins.
When a review of the implementation of a “beautiful butterfly of comedy”, he exploded. Encourage them to ad lib, he ruthlessly stolen his best lines. He became threatening and frankly warns him not to steal his honor.
During the commissioning extemporised the end of a sketch with the line “the last death of a sissy”, there was the crisis of the nerves. Williams went white, and screamed that she had “called me a homosexual in front of the public at large.” “It was horrible,” she recalled later. “I had never been so scared in all my life.”
The worst was to come as she has branched out into film and television. In 1959, she appeared in Follow A Star alongside Norman Wisdom – she had come to hate. “Not very pleasant to the man,” she said later. “Hand up your skirt first thing in the morning. Not exactly a nice way to start a day of shooting.”
Socially, the 1960s could not have been more glamorous. Vidal Sassoon, personally, do her hair and the bohemian journalist Jeffrey Bernard took his riotous club nights. It would be to sit down and talk in the night with the flaming of the artist, Francis Bacon, and the rest of the decade libertin, beautiful world.
Professionally, there were small parts on tv in “The Avengers” with Patrick Macnee, and regular appearances on the leading edge of the satire That Was The Week That Was. His film appearances include working alongside Dirk Bogarde in Doctor in Love and Tony Curtis in Arrivederci, Baby!
On stage, she has pursued her love for her first love, the theatre. The Times newspaper described his performance as Hedda Gabler as “one of the experiences of a lifetime”.
The great Italian director Federico Fellini took to the Claridge’s and has offered to do a film where she played as a six or seven different incarnations of male desire. Unfortunately, she was already booked to do a season on the stage of Chichester, she turned down – much to the chagrin of his agent.Camp vamp
Then came the role that made her a legend. Bring To a Cry met set up with with his old enemy, Kenneth Williams. The filming took three weeks, has made her very famous and in many ways, his career never recovered.
She played Valeria – a barely disguised Morticia Addams – with every ounce of camp vamp she could muster. Her wig was huge, her lashes amazing and her red dress was so tight that she was completely unable to bend in the middle. Each scene was done in one and, of course, she remembers him for.
Lying on a chaise longue, Fielding draws Harry H Corbett to it. The eyes flutter and the voice purrs. “Do you mind if I smoke?” she asks seductively – before large quantities of dry ice surrounds all of the two.
Half a century later, children would still be screaming at her in the street. She politely declined all invitations to appear in other Carry On films – including the lead in carry On Cleopatra, in part, in an attempt to avoid being typecast by the success of the first. But, for the rest of her life, she has struggled to escape to Valeria.
The offers dried up and his screen career quietly slipped away. It was Morecombe & Wise Christmas specials and some voice work for both the cult of the hit series, The Prisoner, and the Magic Roundabout project – Dougal and The Blue Cat. But she did not make another film for nearly 15 years.
Fielding has rarely been completely out of work. She continued on stage – with a string of well-reviewed provincial shows – in which she has not had to play “either a woman or a Pie”. But, finally, she has struggled for money and has been forced to go to the social security office to claim benefits – an experience she found so humiliating.
She never married, despite the interest of male admirers. A possible future husband is dead, another has not been able to get over his alcoholism and had to be abandoned. For the past 20 years, she maintained two lovers, and managed to prevent their meeting. “I liked both,” she wrote, but he decided “not to commit it; or never to have a marriage that would have been terrible.”
Politically, she was left on the defiance of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and refusing to help his older brother Down when he stood for elections under the banner Conservative. But they remained close and she was proud of him when, without his help, he became an important figure in the party and eventually entered the House of Lords.
Recently, there was work with Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson in Guest House Paradiso and a role as an eccentric granny in the gritty teen drama, Skins. But, Fenella Fielding, his best work always took place on the stage. At the age of nearly 90, the Financial Times has described his performance in Euripides, The Trojan Women as “unbearable movement… to the extreme limits of pathos”.
For most of us, however, it is retained in memory as the camp vamp of Carry On the legend. It will always be “the England of the First Lady of the double entendre” with a voice of velvet and silver sparkle in his eyes.
She was resigned to his fate as a professional. The autobiography, she has published in 2017 -inevitably entitled “do You mind If I smoke?” – a little shred of bitterness or regret.
The only thing that rankled was when she encounters other actors – and there were many – who had been asked to make announcements with a “Fenella Fielding-like” voice.
“Bloody cheek,” she said with perfect timing as a comedian. “Why don’t they ask me?”