A Bohemian's Rhapsody



Fenella Fielding  (17th November 1927 - 11th September 2018)

Few actresses can have sabotaged their seriousness via one role, but such was the fate of Fenella Fielding. Her accomplished portrayal of the outrageously slinky Valeria Watt in Carry On Screaming became both her meal ticket and her millstone. She realized the dangers implicit in a job well executed in a red velvet dress so tightly fitted she couldn't bend, when she sadly refused the title role in the next film Carry On Cleo for fear of being typecast as a comedic turn. It remains a staggeringly lost opportunity, although Amanda Barrie played it wonderfully, Miss Fielding would have brought an extra frisson to the part with that fabulous voice, implicitly suggestive of sin and other things. An instrument that served her well for seventy years of performing, instantly recognizable as a cross between a purr and a beckoning growl. Although she played Wilde, Ibsen, Chekhov and Coward to tremendous acclaim, her natural sense of mischief saw her equally at home on the Morecambe & Wise Show, she was also the voice of the announcer in Patrick McGoohan's cult series The Prisoner and appeared in episodes of the The Avengers.

Fenella Marion Fielding was born to a Lithuanian father and a Romanian mother, both Jewish, in London in 1927. Her relationship with them was fraught. He proved abusive and violent to her, sometimes at the mother's instigation, and although she won a scholarship to RADA, her parents disapproval saw her leave after only a year, taking a secretarial course, but also studying at St Martin's School Of Art. She had an abortive suicide attempt around this time, such was the toxicity of their parental control. Fielding still hankered after a career in the theatre, much to her father's chagrin and gradually she became a regular on the night club circuit. By 1959, having proved a tremendous success the previous year as Lady Parvula de Panzoust, a brazen devourer of men's affections in Sandy Wilson's adaptation of Ronald Firbank's louche novel Valmouth, which had earned her the tag "England's first lady of the double entendre," she was appearing at the Apollo with Kenneth Williams in the revue Pieces Of Eight written by Harold Pinter and Peter Cook.

It was, a far from easy professional relationship, Williams being vindictive of her favorable reviews. She later recalled:

"Kenneth came out of the wings and had the paper in his hand and he had the most terrible temper about it. I thought 'God! I can't help it if they've said something nice about me!'"

When she revived the role of Lady Parvula fourteen years later the critic Sheridan Morley wrote that Fielding was "so far over the top as to be almost out of sight."

Fielding had large screen success most notably in Drop Dead Darling with Tony Curtis and Zsa Gabor in 1966 and also in comedies like Doctor In Clover with Leslie Phillips, but her off screen relationship with the diminutive comedy actor Norman Wisdom was difficult to negotiate. "Hand up your skirt first thing in the morning, not a lovely way to start a day's filming" and she loathed the actor Warren Mitchell who she described as "horrible" whilst Tony Hancock was mostly "drunk."

Although she was always associated with the Carry On series of bawdy films, she only appeared in two, Carry On Regardless, a minor but tarty part played perfectly, but it was the Hammer Horror spoof Screaming that she made her own. When she huskily asks Harry H. Corbett "Do you mind if I smoke?" as she writhes suggestively on the sofa, sensually consumed by clouds of dry ice, a moment of comedy gold had just been minted. In 1969 her performance in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler at Leicester's Phoenix Theatre was described by The Times as "among the theatrical experiences of a lifetime." And on it went, a talent to amuse and another to be serious, played equally well and effortlessly so.

The legendary director Federico Fellini was transfixed by her, reputedly offering her a film directed by him in which she would play all six parts of various elements of women that men desire. This over a dinner at Claridges in the late 1960s, but as she'd signed to do a play at Chichester she refused him, and a great opportunity was lost.

There were other more difficult twists and turns. An agent swindled her and she lost her home. Reduced to signing on for benefits, a humiliating experience for her when her name was called, she invariably soldiered back doing radio, voice-overs and guest appearances on TV. She even made an album where she tackled, and makes her own contemporary songs like New Order's "Blue Monday," Kylie's "Can't Get You Out Of My Head," and amazingly 'Rise' by 'Public Image Limited' which she conquers by virtually dismissing it. The liner notes were effusive and from the pen of Kim Fowley.

Age did not wither her. The voice remained as alluringly beguiling as ever. The wigs became bigger, more Warhol-like in scale, the aphorisms more honed like a female Quentin Crisp, the lips continued to be red and the eye lashes resembled expired tarantulas showing their legs to the sun, and there was still a deliciously naughty aspect to the twinkle in her beady eyes. At 90 she was tirelessly promoting her autobiography Do You Mind If I Smoke. Capable of accepting that it had become her legacy, she promoted it, though frail, with exquisite grace and charm. She could have been her generations Joanna Lumley, had her times been more kind to maverick, breathy and eccentric ladies. In her own way she became a petite, immaculately attired, cultural icon. As Robert Chalmers rightly observed in The Independent in 2008 "that Fenella Fielding, whose wit and distinctive stage presence captivated figures such as Kenneth Tynan, Noel Coward and Federico Fellini should have drifted into obscurity rather than being celebrated... as a national treasure was a travesty."

Still working up until the stroke that stilled her a few weeks ago, she was an intellectual, a lover of philosophy and ancient poetry. Her frivolity was a foil, a coy defense mechanism that masked a steely and determined wit. She once remarked that car manufacturers could allow the likes of her to dispense with contacts and glasses if they cut the windscreens to become like giant lenses! At an evening a few years ago when she introduced an event for her friend, the artist and designer Andrew Logan in Stoke Newington Town Hall, she was a tiny bag of nerves, a small kabuki doll being comforted and consoled before she effortlessly strode onto the stage and introduced him with tremendous aplomb, without any evidence of her prior hesitancy. She never married but managed to maintain simultaneous affairs with two men for twenty years without either ever discovering the truth. She late explained "I think it's just an art!" Of her affair with the journalist Jeffrey Barnard she admitted: "It wasn't a serious thing; he was always so pissed."

Fenella Fielding died peacefully in London with her lashes on!

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