Tuesday 9 October 2018

Guest Blog: Mark Ramsden on the Memoirs of Liz Fraser and Fenella Fielding

I was contacted recently by fellow blogger Mark Ramsden. Mark shared a post he had written for his own blog on the recent passing of two legends of British film comedy - Liz Fraser and Fenella Fielding. There have been many tributes to these two great ladies however Mark has taken a different approach, remembering the careers of both Liz and Fenella through their autobiographies. It's a fascinating take on their lives and their work and really captures their individual and much missed personalities. 

Two much loved film stars recently died within five days of each other, the sad news slightly ameliorated by their both living to a decent age and leaving a considerable body of work – including these memoirs.

Liz Fraser grew up near the New Kent Road ‘over the shop’, was evacuated during the war, having to wait in line to be chosen by prospective foster parents.   

After stage school she was soon on live television in the fifties, the start of a long career she summed up in a charming two page poem, included here,  which she performed at her Comedy Plaque tribute lunch.

Although always happy to be a character actor, which gave her a longer career than some stars, she kept on developing, expanding her range with avant garde productions in the 60s including Meals on Wheels  by Charles Wood. Director John Osborne was distant during rehearsals, his only advice was taking them to see Ken Dodd and saying, ‘I want you to do it like that.’

Unfortunately nobody understood the text, on or off stage, there were many walkouts and several nights of slow handclapping. Eventually they were reduced to giving out free tickets. Some servicemen came and started laughing at a line which had been hitherto baffling: ‘clap hands if it comes out green’, whereupon the actors clapped. The soldiers understood that a venereal disease would turn sperm green. A theatre person came backstage to compliment her. ‘But people were walking out’. ‘Yes. But their backs were electric!’

Liz was justifiably proud of her serious roles in Live Now Pay Later, Up The Junction, Crown Court and a Miss Marple episode, Nemesis. Her five minute cameo comes twenty minutes into the second half, a slightly tipsy waitress mourning her daughter – real tears, first take. Very good indeed. Her neighbour said: ‘I didn’t know you could act.’

Her favourite film was Double Bunk with Sid James though she has fond memories of her breakthough in I’m All Right Jack, which had a stellar cast, apparently even the extras in the card game were skilled actors.

For someone who was universally loved and admired, also a shrewd investor, collector of high performance cars and expert bridge player – nobody’s fool or victim – she didn’t have much luck with husbands. The first was a less successful actor, conman and thief who stole from her among other people. The second, a busy light entertainment director, was an alcoholic philanderer who died aged 41. There’s no self pity anywhere in this wryly amusing book. She can see the funny side of one promising love affair starting in a rare respite from the man’s usual routine: drink, drugs, despondency.

She was thrilled to have a night out with Judy Garland and witness her exasperated foul-mouthed reaction to the band playing ‘Over The Rainbow’ as she arrived at a club. She’d heard it a few too many times by then. 

She was not fazed by Peter Sellers’ seduction attempt which involved exposing himself. ‘Well you can put that away.” He’d invited her round for a gourmet meal cooked by his personal chef. When he realised he wasn’t going to get his way he asked her to leave. As she loved good food she insisted on staying and finishing all of the courses.

She was told before working for the Samaritans that she would receive heavy breathing calls from sex pests, which  thinned out some refined ladies. Liz used to tell them she was wearing red knickers.
She worked there for thirteen years, also for the Lord’s Taverners and various animal charities, helping out Joan Sims when she was in difficulties due to the exceptionally parsimonious producer Peter Rogers, (also, according to Liz, because she was advised to sell her house, which would have later been worth millions, then there was her love of champagne and taxis. Feel a bit mean now. Though not as mean as Peter Rogers. They never had a rise from the initial fee of £5000 and they all should have had residuals, which would have enabled the high life and a comfortable old age.)

Both books help hunting out performances you may have missed. I never liked The Professionals or the revamped Minder but Liz stands out in both productions, her usual earthy sensuality and infectious humour enhanced by age.

I’m even going to attempt a whole episode of Midsomer Murders soon, (rather than the usual ten seconds while scrabbling for the remote.) Series 20 episode 5 contains her final appearance. (Fenella Fielding is listed on IMDB in Mother, thirteen episodes a series of a children’s show coming in 2019.)

In another ‘difficult’ play Kenneth Griffith tried to destroy the performances of his female co stars, even goose-stepping around them as they tried to deliver their lines. The director knew it was wrong but refused to intervene. On the last night they soaked Griffiths with water and tripped him up.

This is a lovely, well produced book, plenty of good photos a comprehensive index and a list of her work at the back. The only possible criticism, perhaps not terribly crucial, is that she thinks she is playing a cello in the music student comedy Raising the Wind. She actually plays violin and also jazz double bass, in a scene which swings in more than one sense. That’s a little sleazy but you can hardly ignore that both of these legendary women intentionally captivated generations of men. For many of us they are lifelong crushes.

Fenella Fielding also kept developing her range throughout her long career. Her acclaimed theatre work is vast and various and in her late eighties she dazzled critics with Hecuba’s lament from Euripidies’ The Trojan Woman.

She grew up in Hackney and Edgware. Her breakthrough coming in Valmouth in 1958. Eclectic? She did everything from Shakespeare to the Morecambe and Wise Show to The Good Old Days, later performing an intriguing slow, sensual version of New Order’s Blue Monday, one of sixteen recent songs, also for the innovative and daring Savoy Books. Who deserve some support.

Her cd of TS Elliot’s Four Quartets enabled even me to get through it for the first time. The Dry Salvages https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rABqTI5TzOY&frags=pl%2Cwn

There’s not a lot of detail about her private life although she mentions having simultaneous love affairs with two people for twenty years (though this worldy sophisticate claims to have not noticed some of the double entendres in Carry On Screaming!).

A genuine bohemian, her milieu encompassed sex workers, gangsters and the abyss: Soho with Jeffrey Bernard. How did this smart, stylish beauty fit in with the strawberry-nosed alcoholics at the Colony Rooms? Some of whom were camp misogynists fond of screeching the word ‘C*nt’.
The Colony’s Muriel Belcher is here described as a ‘tough, beaky manageress’.  Francis Bacon liked her a lot. Well, who wouldn’t? Kenneth Williams didn’t, continually trying to upstage her, stealing her lines if she improvised something good, doing anything he could to ruin her performance throughout the run of Pieces of Eight, a two hander written by Peter Cook.
There were problems even before he misunderstood her improvised line: ‘Last one off the stage is a sissy’, taking it as her outing him. He then waged a lengthy poisonous campaign against her. Fenella points out it’s just possible the audience would have known he was a homosexual, particularly as he often referred to it himself. Then again my grandmother’s generation sometimes said of people like Liberace: ‘They say he’ll never marry’ – one prophecy which came true.

Kenneth Williams had forgotten his initial animus by Carry On Screaming!. Fenella doesn’t bear a grudge about anyone incidentally. Liz Fraser occasionally has a mildly waspish remark for people who have behaved badly but is essentially good natured. Fenella’s disposition seems to have been as sunny as her voice was velvety. Perhaps both of them being successful at something they had always wanted to do obviated the need to tear other people apart. Maybe some people prefer cooperation to pointless bickering. Fenella quotes Ned Sherrin’s ‘the end of deference’ in her chapter on the sixties but also asks why did some shop assistants need to be so rude?

According to her, Mary Quant had no idea why her clothes weren’t selling. It was because her staff despised the customers. Things rapidly improved when she sacked them and got some helpful middle aged people.

She wasn’t much of a drinker, liked cannabis but didn’t over indulge and her one brush with cocaine was when someone painted it on her throat to help her voice. It made her extremely ‘vivacious’, apparently great fun for those nearby.
Fenella turned down Carry on Cleopatra for a short love affair with an American boy. Now she wished she’d done the film.

How many people remain a style icon for most of a long life? Dusty Springfield said her eyelashes were a tribute to Fenella, whose own pop single, Big Bad Mouse has a touch of Kurt Weill’s Alabama Song  (sounds like George Chisholm on trombone. Are people are dying to know who took a six bar solo in a 1966 novelty record? Well, he was a world class performer as was she – also Liz Fraser of course.)  She later sang at Jarvis Cocker’s Meltdown, ‘somewhere between Grace Jones and Pete Doherty.’ 

She did Celebrity Squares with Groucho Marx and saw people trying to impress him by imitating his work. ‘thinking he would be amused. However, a) they didn’t know the material b) they couldn’t do it. c) He didn’t give a f**k.’

Her brother being a Conservative luminary meant she met Margaret Thatcher who responded to Fenella complimenting her dress sense by telling her four year old niece some tips on where to stand so her broach caught the light. Fenella didn’t like her politics but recognised a formidable presence.
Best known now for the perennially popular Carry On Screaming she was slightly miffed that a third of her fan mail came from being the voice in The Prisoner, although she’s grateful for these performances that remain popular for decades, including her voice work in Dougal and the Blue Cat, revered by Mark Kermode. His fine tribute.

Both stars excelled in The Avengers, Liz in The Girl From Auntie, Fenella in The Charmers, both easy to find on DailyMotion.com.

Do You Mind If I Smoke? has good photos, diary entries at the back and an introduction by her collaborator Simon McKay, a psychotherapist she met at her pilates class. So many great stories throughout both books, which will  please anyone who has ever admired these legendary women. They’re both essential purchases.

Liz Fraser’s Guardian obituary concludes with this cute anecdote which would also apply to Fenella Fielding. Put up in a local hotel by the Tony Hancock Appreciation Society the night before the event, Liz was asked by the receptionist what her profession was. With a twinkle in the eye, she answered: “Film star, dear!”’

A big thank you to Mark for getting in touch and for allowing me to share his wonderful blog. You can find out more about Mark and read more of his posts over at https://markramsden13.wordpress.com

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