sat 22/09/2018

'You won't be able to handle this lady': remembering Fenella Fielding | reviews, news & interviews

'You won't be able to handle this lady': remembering Fenella Fielding

'You won't be able to handle this lady': remembering Fenella Fielding

The vampish comic actress has died at 90 not long after receiving an OBE

Smoking: Fenella Fielding

Fenella Fielding - “one of the finest female impersonators in the business,” joked Eric Morecambe – has died at the age of 90. Most actors of such a great vintage tend to be forgotten, but not Fielding. Last year she celebrated her big birthday with a memoir. Its alluring title Do You Mind If I Smoke? was lifted from that succulent scene in Carry On Screaming! Playing a femme fatale draped on a divan, Fielding seemed to exude sultry clouds of steam from her very pores.

The memoir brought her a great deal of publicity. She did book events, she read the readers’ news on Radio 4’s PM, she was even awarded an OBE in the New Year Honours List. And she did interviews, including one with me. A tiny birdlike presence, she arrived crisply dressed in a striped Vivienne Westwood shirt with eyelashes – always a Fielding signature – by Ardell. She wore hair styled exactly like the MGM publicity still of her in the 1966 film Drop Dead Darling. (A body double had to be used for the horse-riding scene with Tony Curtis - “One with a 24-inch waist, I might add,” she said in the book).

She was on smoking form in conversation, and also in her autobiography, put together from 80 hours of interviews with her co-author Simon Mackay. The book was an atmospheric snapshot of postwar London, and a flavoursome collage of impressionistic memories. But it was also an opportunity for Fielding to settle a few scores as the entertainment industry is convulsed by revelations of sexual assaults. Take Norman Wisdom, with whom she appeared in Follow a Star in 1959.

“Not a very pleasant man,” she wrote. “Always making a pass – hand up your skirt first thing in the morning. Not exactly a lovely way to start a day’s filming. Taking it for granted anyone is game.”

“One knew that Norman Wisdom would lay his hands on anybody,” she told me. “You had to make sure you nipped about a bit. There’s a way of doing it without reprimanding. He obviously had a terrific inferiority complex.”

The book was also brutally frank about Kenneth Williams, her scene-stealing co-star in the hit sketch show Pieces of Eight. “He was quite happy to steal my good lines that I made up, use them before I could say them. He would do anything as long as he came out best. I mean it was outrageous really.” Nor do Tony Hancock (“drunk”) and Warren Mitchell (“horrible”) come up smelling of roses.

Her darkest relationship was with her own father. Philip Feldman, who arrived in from Lithuania as an infant, ran a cinema in east London and had a violent controlling streak. “He bashed me up,” Fielding said simply. While she kept quiet about it on Desert Island Discs in 1967, she had no compunction in saying so 50 years on. “None whatsoever, I thought he deserved to have people know that he knocked me about a bit. It was horrible. When I was still at school I said I’d like to go to university. And he said, ‘I would rather see you dead at my feet.’ It made me not take too much notice of what he said afterwards.”

Once she’d won a scholarship, her father couldn’t prevent her going to RADA but her mother Tilly, from a large family of Romanian immigrants, embarked on a campaign to thwart her. “I can’t tell you how awful it was. She would just turn up. We were all standing out in the street because it was lunchtime and she would say, ‘I want you to come home.’ She made a scene. It was very embarrassing and sometimes I would go along with her just to keep her quiet.” It led to her ejection after a year and it still niggles. “That was taken away from me and I thought it was rotten.”

She forgave her parents – “What can you do? It was terrible at the time. Now it’s long ago.” And she’s let go of other regrets too. Fellini wanted her for a film. “The moment people heard Fellini was potty about me, everybody said, ‘Be jolly careful because these things always fall apart.’ In the end I began to think I’d better forget it.” She also rejected the title role in Carry On Cleo in order to join a boyfriend in New York.

With her training only half complete, she took a different route, starting as an assistant stage manager and understudy at a tiny theatre. She vividly recalled the tut-tuts of her sister-in-law, newly married to her older brother Basil Feldman (who as Baron Feldman sat on the Conservative benches of the Lords). “She said, ‘What you’re doing is so second-rate.’ I said, ‘Darling, I don’t honestly think that one ever in this profession begins at the top.’” There wasn’t initially much work and one day in her twenties she swallowed 70 aspirin. “It was ludicrous really. After a while I stopped being able to hear. I was a bit worried. I went in to Mummy and Daddy’s bedroom and Daddy was furious because I’d woken him up. I did want to kill myself but I didn’t want to be uncomfortable while I was doing it.”

After she moved out, for a while she shared a flat in Mayfair with a prostitute called Sheila. “I knew perfectly well how she made her money. I can’t begin to think what my parents would have thought but I didn’t think anything.” Eventually, via cabaret, stand-up and eventually the hit musical Valmouth, she became a huge star. Her status being so hard-won, she defended it ferociously. Once she missed her alarm call and, in order to get to a matinee in Chichester and not let her understudy on, she chartered a helicopter.

In 1969 she became the first actress to star in a Morecambe and Wise sketch. “You won’t be able to handle this lady, I can tell you that,” Eric told Ern. “After that all the agents were getting onto them to have their clients be in it.”  Known as the first lady of the double entendre, with a larynx that oozed sex, it’s an irony that she didn’t understand half the smutty jokes in her Carry On scenes.  “I didn’t think about being a glamour puss. You always wanted to look your best and having people think you’re very attractive. I always knew I wanted to be a proper actress and not larking about.” The sadness is that little of the serious work is in the public domain. Her richly timbred readings of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets are on Spotify, but all her Shakespeares on the radio, her Hedda opposite Ian McKellen in 1966 are interred in a BBC archive.

When her memories were sharp she was beady. It was when the subject got onto relationships that confusion swims across her face. She never married or had children while a discreet paragraph mentions two relationships with two men which lasted for 20 years. She wouldn’t reveal their names.

“One of them was rather old and the other one was not rather old,” she allowed. “I had the great pleasure of being close to their wonderful brains. One of them wrote verse. I just took it for granted that they were separate and neither of them knew about each other. [If they did] they might have said ‘f*** off’. They were both very necessary to me and I was very necessary to them.”

Was either of them married?

“Yes.”

Both? She paused.

“Do you know? I really can’t remember!”

And she let out a guttural gale of life-affirming laughter.

Fenella Fielding, 17 November 1927 – 11 September 2018

I didn’t think about being a glamour puss. I always knew I wanted to be a proper actress and not larking about

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