Tuesday 11 September 2018

Fenella Fielding has left us

Fenella Fielding OBE has died. The past week has seen us lose wonderful, talented actresses with Carry On links - first of all Carole Shelley, then Jacqueline Pearce and most recently the incredible Liz Fraser just last Thursday. The death of Fenella is, quite simply the end of an era.

Goodness but I cherish the memories of meeting this legendary actress on four different occasions in recent years. Her career, in resurgence as she approached a very glamorous 90 years young, reached fans old and new with the publication of her superb, truly original memoirs last year. Not only that, Fenella wowed us all with a series of performances, reading chapters from her memoirs as only she could. She held the audience spellbound, her voice her greatest gift. A quietly unassuming lady, delicate rather than frail, she was transformed when her voice reached that microphone and the years fell away. 

I first glimpsed Miss Fielding several years earlier as I stood perched at the back of a packed tube train arriving in Covent Garden station. As I glanced to one side there she was, sitting on a bench on the platform as the world swirled around her. I locked eyes with her for a brief moment and she smiled the twinkliest smile I've ever seen. Then the doors closed and we were off. In 2012 I attended a screening of Carry On Screaming during which Fenella was interviewed and did a reading. We even had a photo with her at the end. We loved her on sight and that never wavered. 

I met Fenella again at the London Film Convention one year for another photo and some warm wishes, but it was the two memoir shows at the Phoenix Artist Club in London's West End which will stay long in my memory. Unexpected, striking, powerful yet gentle and emotional but never an instance of self pity, Fenella told her life story to us in the most intimate of settings and it was a joy. Of course it was funny, outrageously camp and frothy but there was real heart and more than a hint of the difficult times she, like so many of us, endure. 

Fenella's was a long, rich and varied life. A huge star of the stage, she was never far from a theatre or a live performance and continued to delight audiences right up until very recently. Many people wrote that the late Liz Fraser was one of those actresses that perhaps were underestimated or taken for granted and I think the same applies to Fenella. She had an iconic sense of style and unique delivery but I don't think enough members of the establishment realised quite what a star she was. Carry On Screaming came to dominate her screen career and while many actors could become bitter about this turn of events, Fenella was always so proud and down to earth about that particular film. She revelled in being recognised, of having young children rush up to her in the street and quote her most oft-repeated line, which fittingly became the title of her memoirs. "Do You Mind if I Smoke?"

Fenella's role as Valeria Watt in Screaming is iconic. Nobody else could have played that part. It remains one of the highlights of the entire run of films and although I'm sad she only made two Carry On films in total, Fenella's talents were so unique I can't imagine her being a full time regular. There were other film roles including three Doctor films, a superb comedy horror, The Old Dark House, the Norman Wisdom film Follow A Star and Drop Dead Darling, in which she co-starred with Hollywood legend Tony Curtis.

My first memory of seeing Fenella on the small screen was in the BBC children's series, Uncle Jack, in which she played the gloriously evil Vixen across four series. See, I loved her even before I discovered the Carry Ons. There were many other appearances, such as the anthology series on the tales of Saki and guest spots in The Avengers, Danger Man and of course, the voice of the Announcer in The Prisoner. 

For me though, Fenella excelled in live performance. Sadly, I never saw her in a play, but those irresistible memoir shows more than proved what she was capable of. Fenella's big break was in Sandy Wilson's musical of Valmouth in the late 1950s. She went on to star opposite Kenneth Williams in the revue Pieces of Eight, a notorious production which is recorded vividly in Kenneth's diaries. Fenella and Kenneth butted heads and he didn't enjoy her able competition for top spot. During her career, Fenella appeared in countless plays all over the country - Ibsen, Shakespeare, Sheridan and Chekhov, Fenella excelled in all of them.

Fenella's life and career had incredible highs and some darker times too but she came out on top. At the grand old age of 90, everyone wanted her all over again. Her memoirs went down a storm, she was loved wherever she went and enjoyed a delightful 90th birthday party last November. The cherry on the cake was the wonderful news of Fenella's OBE earlier in the summer. Sadly, Fenella Fielding will now not make that trip to the Palace to collect her honour. We can take comfort in the knowledge she knew this long overdue honour had been confirmed. I hope it brought her as much pleasure as she has brought us over so many years, so many performances and so many laughs.

It really is the end of an era and I'm just so sad this force of nature has gone. 

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1 comment:

  1. I can't believe she'll never go to Buckingham palace now... why did you have to take her away from us? :'(