Obituary: Fenella Fielding – ‘fascinating, feline and funny’ star of theatre, TV and Carry On films
With a voice of sirenic silkiness, a permanent pout, eyes that enticed and a mane of mesmerising brunette hair, Fenella Fielding was one of the most striking performers of the 1960s.
She had a personality that seemed irresistibly fully formed and constant, from the beginning of a long and varied performing career stretching from the 1950s to this year and spanning stage, television, film and radio. It was neatly summed up by The Stage in a review of her late-night, one-woman show at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum in 1976, as “fascinating, feline, freaky, feminine, funny… that, and more”.
Her femme-fatale image – one she constantly exploited and played against – was cemented by her appearances in two iconic British film series in the 1960s: a brace of Carry On comedies and three instalments of Richard Gordon’s comic take on the lives of young doctors. Most indelible of all was her attempt to seduce Harry H Corbett’s detective sergeant Sidney Bung as a smouldering, vapour-enveloped rest-home owner in 1966’s Carry On Screaming!
Television viewers had already been introduced to her vampy vitality in various guises as a prostitute, lingerie-shop manager, hostess and, most unlikely of all, Caroline the Cow in the idiosyncratic Anthony Newley vehicle The Strange World of Gurney Slade (1960).
She made her mark with theatre audiences as the sexually rapacious Lady Parvula in Sandy Wilson’s Valmouth, which transferred from the Lyric, Hammersmith to the Saville Theatre in 1958 (a role she later reprised for John Dexter’s 1982 Chichester revival).
Back in the West End the following year, she was seen alongside Kenneth Williams in Peter Cook, Harold Pinter and others’ Pieces of Eight at the Apollo Theatre. She returned to theatreland on several occasions, including Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular (Vaudeville Theatre, 1974) and Noel Coward’s take on Georges Feydeau, Look After Lulu! (Chichester and Haymarket Theatre, 1978).
Born Fenella Marion Feldman in Hackney, East London, to Lithuanian/Romanian Jewish immigrant parents, she survived an unhappy childhood. Her father was violent and with both parents disapproving of her ambition to perform, she left her scholarship place at RADA after the first year. The disappointment prompted a failed suicide attempt, after which she left the family home and found work in Al Parker’s acting agency as an assistant stage manager.
She began performing in earnest in London’s club and cabaret circuit and drew early attention in Cecil Landau’s revue Cockles and Champagne at the Saville Theatre in 1954. Further exposure was provided by the musical Jubilee Girl (Victoria Palace Theatre, 1956) in which she played, neither for the first nor the last time, a luxuriously exotic vamp.
Along the way, she showed promise as a writer, her co-authored revue So Much to Remember seen at the zeitgeist-defining Establishment Club in 1964 and apparent in her volume of memoirs, Do You Mind if I Smoke?, co-written with Simon McKay and published in 2017.
A long association with London’s Mermaid Theatre led to many notable appearances, including her farce-securing credentials as Cyprienne in Victorien Sardou’s Let’s Get a Divorce (1966, which transferred to the Comedy Theatre), a voluptuous Lady Eager in Lock Up Your Daughters, Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s raucous 1969 take on Henry Fielding, and a delightfully, precisely disorientated Lady Fidget in The Country Wife in 1990.
Despite the calculated candy-floss coating that she surrounded herself with, Fielding proved herself an adept straight actor, playing some of theatre’s most striking female characters to general, and surprised, approval.
At Nottingham Playhouse in 1968 she was a striking Madame Arkadina in Jonathan Miller’s staging of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull and delivered two vivid performances in Henrik Ibsen plays, as Hedda Gabler (a role she had previously played on radio in 1966) at the Phoenix Theatre, Leicester in 1969 and Nora in A Doll’s House at Brighton’s Gardner Centre the following year.
In later years, there were a number of solo shows, including a portrait of the Polish poet Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska (1996) and Paul Webb’s A Dangerous Woman (1998), in which she played Wallis Simpson, the controversial American divorcee and paramour of the abdicating Edward VIII.
An extensive radio career included regular stints on the long-running Radio 4 series Just a Minute (in which she once spoke for a full, uninterrupted minute about soirees), Hancock’s Half Hour (1959), Ann in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman (1965), Katherine to Paul Daneman’s Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew (1973), a Woman’s Hour adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son (2011) and Rebecca Front’s Incredible Women (2017).
She had a brief dalliance with Hollywood as the ill-fated love interest to Tony Curtis in Drop Dead Darling (1966), but acquired cult followings from very different television audiences as a guest of Morecambe and Wise, the voice of the loudspeaker and telephone operator in Patrick McGoohan’s inscrutably gnomic The Prisoner (1967), and as diabolical criminal The Vixen in four seasons of Jim Eldridge’s Uncle Jack drama series in the early 1990s. She was also seen in Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall’s 1999 film Guest House Paradiso.
Her last screen appearances, as the mother in 13 episodes of Chas Burns’ comedy-thriller Conditions, will be broadcast in 2019.
The distinctive melting-chocolate voice was also put to use in a wide range of audio books ranging from the Nobel-nominated French novelist Colette and JG Ballard’s auto-erotic Crash to The Savoy Sessions, a characteristic curiosity in which she recited lyrics of pop hits by the likes of Kylie Minogue and Robbie Williams in 2009.
Fenella Fielding was born on November 17, 1927 and died on September 11, aged 90. She was awarded an OBE earlier this year in the birthday honours list for services to drama and charity.