Remembering Fenella Fielding

I am just in from St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, where Peter Benedict and Simon McKay had assembled an all-star cast to remember and celebrate the extraordinary life and wonderful talent of the phenomenon that was Fenella Fielding. There were Dames (Cleo Laine and Sian Phillips) and national treasures (Barry Cryer) alongside students from LAMDA and a bright young star called Anya Hewett from the Sylvia Young Theatre School who performed ‘Nobody Loves a Fairy When She’s Forty.’ It was a special occasion, happy and sad, and full of poignancy every time we heard a moment or two of Fenella’s recorded voice as part of the proceedings. The rector, the Reverend Simon Grigg, presided and unveiled a plaque to Fenella which, if ever you are in Covent Garden, you must make a detour to see.

I was asked to contribute the opening eulogy and this is what I said:

Fenella Marion Feldman was born in Hackney on 17 November 1927 to a Romanian mother, Tilly Katz, and a Lithuanian father, Philip Feldman.

Her mother was a housewife; her father managed a cinema; but Fenella’s wasn’t an easy childhood. She told me that her home life was Ibsen and Strindberg with a touch of Ben Travers – when what she wanted it to be was J M Barrie and Noel Coward with a touch of Virginia Woolf.

As a little girl, Fenella talked gibberish. Her parents feared she wasn’t developing normal language skills until one day they heard her in animated conversation with one of her dolls. "I just didn't want to speak to my parents," she said. Her father was what Fenella called "street angel - house devil". In public, he was charming. At home, she said he "used to knock me about with his fists". And mother would "egg him on".

She grew up in London; she attended North London Collegiate School. She was a bright girl. She wanted to be an artist and a performer. At 16, she left school and spent a year at St Martin's School of Art – but her parents were alarmed at the prospect of the life classes where she might see naked men - or worse, naked women. They forced her to leave. Then she won a two-year scholarship to RADA - which initially pleased her parents until they realised she might actually become an actress. So she left RADA – and was dispatched to learn shorthand and typing. In despair, she made an attempt at suicide, downing 70 aspirin before changing her mind and swallowing pints of mustard water so she could throw the aspirin up again.

Fenella realised that suicide wasn’t her destiny; her destiny was to be a star.

In 1952, aged 25 but claiming to be seven years younger, she went to an audition with Ron Moody – they had met doing an amateur production together at LSE – and she got the part. Through the 1950s, she kept on getting parts – small ones, larger ones, straight ones, comic ones – until eventually in 1958 she appeared in Sandy Wilson’s Valmouth and the show made her a star – and led, the following year, to her first professional encounter with Kenneth Williams. A tricky relationship. To put it mildly.

They starred together in the revue Pieces of Eight – and sparks flew, largely, I think because they were so similar, with their strong personalities, high intelligence and self-taught brilliance. Over time they came to share a frustration that – despite their great gifts and abilities as straight actors – they were painted into a camp corner where their distinctive voices and manner made them almost parodies of themselves.

Kenneth, of course, appeared in all the Carry On films. Fenella in just two – but her glorious portrayal of Valeria in Carry on Screaming in 1966 came to define her. Which is a shame because as well as two Carry Ons, three Doctor films, four appearances with Morecambe & Wise, she did Shakespeare, Sheridan, Chekhov, Ibsen. The Times said her Hedda Gabler was "one of the experiences of a lifetime".

She could do it all – which is why the greats, like Noel Coward and Fellini wanted to work with her. The documentary-maker Jonathan Meades wanted to be here today. He sent this message:

“I hugely admired Fenella and used her voice in my film about Brighton because it was so distinctive. Some years previously I had seen a curious lithograph of the Virgin Mary in a Brighton antique shop. I remarked to the owner that the Virgin looked like Marty Feldman. He agreed and added that Fenella was Marty's sister. Subsequently I gathered that this was a common rumour with, unhappily, no foundation in truth.”

Fenella did have a brother, of course: Basil who became Lord Feldman, a leading Conservative – whom Fenella admired, not because of his politics – she was a radical – but because she loved to see her brother do well.

I met her first in 1973 at a fund-raising gala I produced at the Oxford Playhouse. She stole the show – and it was quite a show to steal, given that the line-up included Dame Flora Robson and Sir John Gielgud. Each star in the show appeared alongside a giant photograph of themselves – except for Fenella who made her entrance through the giant portrait of herself: she literally tore through the picture with her bare hands and proceeded to tear the place apart.

Gielgud adored her. Famously, in one of his books, he listed those qualities that define a ‘star’ performer:

‘Energy, an athletic voice, a well-graced manner, certainty of execution, some unusually fascinating originality of temperament. Vitality, certainly, and an ability to convey an impression of beauty or ugliness as the part demands, as well as authority and a sense of style.’

That describes what Fenella brought to her craft precisely. She was such a fine actress and such a fascinating, fabulous human being.

Fenella Fielding – the very name sends shivers of excitement up your spine. She was a star all right – on stage, on screen, in life. Weren’t we lucky to have known her?

Gyles Brandreth