Friday 17 November 2017

Fabulous Fenella

I couldn't let Fenella Fielding's 90th birthday go by without writing a special Carry On Blogging post about the great lady. I just don't know where to start. For me, Fenella is one of the last survivors of the golden age of British cinema and entertainment. She has an effortless sense of style, bucket loads of charisma and is quite simply a true one off. 

While many actors would come to resent being known for one particular role, Fenella is always open and very affectionate when she remembers the filming of Carry On Screaming. Over fifty years on, it's still her best remembered work and I should think what she is most often asked about. Given that Fenella's career has taken in film, television, all kinds of theatre and radio, you may be surprised she is still so happy to talk about those six weeks filming at Pinewood with Kenneth, Joan and Bernard. Yet she is and this is to her eternal credit. Valeria in Carry On Screaming was and is an iconic role and her performance is one of the very best in the entire series of films.


Fenella's career has been and continues to be extraordinary. She has dabbled in most areas of the business, worked with the very best and mixed in some legendary circles. The fact she remains grounded, sweet and a pleasure to meet is to her own credit. She has a unique stage presence, sense of style and a humour which is at once laugh out loud funny, surprising and occasionally waspish. Like the very best in the business, she can exhort a wide range of emotions from her audience - one minute you are laughing along and the next she has you in the palm of her hand with something so moving you wouldn't believe. Who else could boast several Doctor films, a revue written by Peter Cook and starring Kenneth Williams, Greek tragedy, the Edinburgh Festival, film fun with Tony Curtis, radio high jinks with Joan Sims and television roles that range from Uncle Jack when I was a boy right through to Skins and who knows what else to come?

One of the greatest shames is that despite her breadth and depth of work, and the fact she is still going strong and delivering the goods in a schedule many younger performers would simply balk at, Fenella is never seen or spoken of in the same breath as contemporaries such as Maggie Smith or Judi Dench. Having had the good fortune of seeing her perform her memoir shows over the past year, she has every right to be right up there with these other formidable actresses.


I am lucky to have been in the presence of Fenella Fielding on several occasions. Well four and a half to be precise. The half came first, as it were. Several years ago, before I'd even dreamt of Carrying On Blogging, I was sitting on a packed, grubby Piccadilly Line tube train on my way towards Leicester Square. We stopped at Covent Garden station and there, sitting on the platform, looking as radiant and unmistakable as ever, was Fenella. She was quiet, composed and yet exuded her very own brand of star quality. I couldn't quite believe my eyes and long after that moment I wished I'd stepped off the train and gone over to say hello.

Fortunately I would get that chance in 2012 when I attended a special screening of Carry On Screaming, hosted by the Misty Moon Film Society in Ladywell, South London. After a screening of the film, Fenella took questions from the audience and read an excerpt from Frankenstein. Afterwards we had the chance to meet her and get her autograph and the whole experience was a sheer joy. A couple of years later we met again when I attended on of the London Film Convention dates at Central Hall Westminster. That day I was fortunate enough to meet and have a chat with both Jacki Piper and Fenella - two nicer ladies you could not wish to meet. 

And then most recently I have attended two of Fenella's wonderful memoir readings at The Phoenix Artist Club in the West End of London. Organised by Misty Moon and hosted by Simon McKay, they have lived long in my memory. Fenella's readings, in the intimate surroundings of the Phoenix, are surprising, hilarious, occasionally shocking and full of pathos. The memoirs have been released as an audio book and yesterday, in the run up to Fenella's significant birthday, as a hardback book (available from all good bookshops!) I thoroughly recommend the book to you and of course, do attend one of the shows at the Phoenix if you get the chance. I understand there will be more dates next year.


And since I started this blog in 2015, I have been lucky enough to interview Fenella. I will be reposting that interview today as part of this celebration of Fenella's life and work. 

I can't quite believe Fenella is now 90 years young. Much the same as June Whitfield, she belies her years and long may that continue. She can still keep an audience rapt thanks to her brilliant stage performances and entertains us all regularly up and down the country. Happy Birthday Fenella, and here's to many more.


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