Words Robert Chilcott
Portraits Etienne Gilfillan
“Of course, being dressed as a prostitute meant that everybody was terribly interested to have a word with you and so forth…”
The husky, seductive voice is unmistakeable after all these years: no one else sounds like Fenella Fielding, who remains a unique and much-loved figure of British stage and screen. You can hear for yourself: she’s currently reading her memoirs at a Saturday matinee residency at the Phoenix Artist Club on Charing Cross Road.
Fenella’s first credited television role was as a lady of the night in a BBC Sunday Night Theatre in 1957, ‘The Magnificent Egotist’, now missing and the tape presumably wiped. “I didn’t have very much to do, but I had a lot of hanging round. Of course, being dressed as a prostitute meant that everybody was terribly interested to have a word with you and so forth… It was a very distinguished director… I can’t remember his name. Everybody in it was terribly important, except for people like me who were totally unknown. Rupert Davies – he was the leading man – swept me up in his arms and carried me across the room. As he got to the door he banged my head on the frame. But I thought it doesn’t matter. I was still in one piece, and I had a lovely time!” That same year Fenella had a part in three episodes of a TV police show called Destination Downing Street. “I can’t remember anything about it at all,” she confesses.
Her first memories of Soho date back to her time at drama school in the 1950s. “It was like going abroad. It was wonderful! All these different shops – all foreign, with huge cheeses and racks of clothes – every different thing you could think of to buy, all pushed together. Of course, it’s a bit like that now – but not really.” She remembers The 2i’s coffee bar on Old Compton Street – where Tommy Steele was launching his career as Britain’s first teen idol in the basement – but she didn’t dare go in. “There were all kinds of naughty ladies walking around in Soho, which I thought was very thrilling”.
“There was a lovely eating place that’s still there called Mildred’s. Oh, and I liked Ronnie Scott’s, very much! I remember doing the first night of a revue. I was with my agent who said, ‘Oh, don’t let’s go to a restaurant to go over your performance. Let’s go to Ronnie Scott’s and have a lovely time.’ And so we did!” On another occasion Fenella met Jeffrey Bernard at a party, “and we started trotting about”, although she insists that their relationship was not really much of an affair, “because he was always so pissed”. Bernard, of course, took her to Soho drinking club the Colony Room. “Muriel Belcher was terrifying. I kept my mouth shut,” Fenella recalls, although she still has a memento of the Colony – she got the upright piano when it closed down.
I ask Fenella if it was Ron Moody who gave her her first break? “No, no, it wasn’t. Did he say so? Balls!” In 1954, Moody was putting on an amateur revue at the London School of Economics, where he was a student, and Fenella got a part in it, replacing a girl who had fallen ill. Soon after that, though, she decided that going on the stage was ridiculous and that she needed a job that would bring in regular money every week – so she answered an ad for an apprenticeship at Robert Fielding on Regent Street. “I came down from Edgware. It was deepest winter, bitterly cold on the tube. I came out into the snow, which was all over Leicester Square, and there was Ron. And he said, ‘You’re just the person I want to see. Remember those guys who came to the London School of Economics? Well, you can come with me now to the new Lindsay Theatre club in Notting Hill and I’ll do some sketches with you for them – the ones we did then. So I said ‘I’m ever so sorry darling, but I’ve got an appointment for an interview to work at a hairdressers shop, so I’m afraid I can’t come.’ But in the end I thought, ‘Oh what the hell, manicurist be bothered!’ So I went with him.“
In 1958, Fenella became an instant star in the Sandy Wilson musical Valmouth, and by the following year was appearing with Kenneth Williams in Pieces of Eight, a comedy revue written by Peter Cook and Harold Pinter. She was an habitué of Cook’s Establishment Club on Greek Street, where she recalls rehearsing for a show and seeing rather thickset men in belted overcoats and squashed hats walking around. “There was a gang that was quite famous at the time, the Nash Brothers, and these chaps were walking round the foyer. I don’t know if they were the Nash Brothers or if they were some other brothers, but that’s why we were a bit worried about going to do our show there. Anyway, we went on rehearsing, and the thing was that Nicholas Luard, Cook’s business partner, spoke terribly ‘like that’, very high society; and the Nash Brothers, or the something-or-other brothers, spoke very ‘like that’, very cockney. It turned out that the only place in Greek Street that didn’t have to pay protection money was The Establishment, and that was because Nicholas couldn’t understand a word these brothers were saying. And in the end the man who was trying to get the money went away in despair!”
Her film career also took off in tandem with her stage work, with notable appearances opposite Dirk Bogarde in the Doctor films. If there’s one screen role with which Fenella will forever be associated it’s that of the vampish Valeria in the 1966 Carry on Screaming, where she appears reclining on a chaise-longue and asking “Do you mind if I smoke?” as clouds of dry ice billow around her velvet-clad bust. The Carry On films – she’d earlier appeared in Carry on Regardless – were made quickly, and budgets were tight. For Screaming, she even had to pay £9 for her own ring.
Other appearances in the sixties and seventies, none of them exactly conventional ones for such a talented stage actress, cemented her cult status. She was the voice of Caroline the Cow in Anthony Newley’s television masterpiece The Strange World of Gurney Slade, and the voice of the Blue Queen in Dougal and the Blue Cat. Perhaps her most memorable, if uncredited, voice role, though, was as the Village announcer in The Prisoner. “Patrick McGoohan was simply lovely. On the day, he just came into the sound room and said ‘Don’t make it too sexy’. So I didn’t, and that was it. The mere fact of being in it was like getting a medal.” There were numerous other television appearances, including several on The Morecambe and Wise Show. “When you worked with somebody who did comedy, what they usually wanted was for you to support them but not to be funny yourself. But I found with them that they definitely wanted you to be funny – they didn’t want you to be dreary, just hanging about being a famous presence. They wanted you to be part of it.”
Fenella has also done plenty of serious theatre, from Shakespeare to Sheridan, and most notably a performance in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler that was described by the Times as “the experience of a lifetime”. “The writing in the play is so incredible, and the fact of it is that she is such a cow, such a beast, but she’s riveting. And the audience, when everything goes wrong for her at the end, they are very upset. It’s so unusual, and marvellous.”
While film roles may have been rare in recent years, Fenella has kept busy with stage, radio and recording work – including readings of JG Ballard’s Crash and T. S. Eliot’s poems. Among her more recent roles, in 2012, was a return to television in Channel 4’s Skins. “If only I hadn’t died in that episode – I would have loved to have gone on and on doing it. But they can’t bring back the dead, and that’s that!” she observes philosophically.
Fenella’s memoirs ‘Do You Mind If I Smoke?’ will be released as an audio book in May and will be available from www.fenellafielding.com. Fenella will be reading chapters live at The Phoenix Artist Club every Saturday afternoon in June, and there’s an evening show at Crazy Coqs on 11 July.