Fenella Fielding dies aged 90: A classical actress of rare intelligence with wit that deserves celebration
The name Fenella Fielding will prompt a wry smile from anyone over the age of 45. They will be thinking, of course, of that defining role in Carry on Screaming!, one of the best of the film comedy series, which pastiched Hammer horrors and saw Fielding, who has died at the age of 90 following a stroke, win many male admirers for her vampish Valeria, purring seductively at Harry H Corbett’s dim-witted plod. It’s a great performance from Fielding but it’s a shame that it’s this for which she will be best remembered.
She was, first and foremost, a stage actress who came to prominence in the Fifties when she appeared in Sandy Wilson’s musical version of Valmouth and forged a varied theatrical career which included revue and many of the classics, including a stunning Hedda Gabler opposite Ian McKellen. These were important to her - she kept a copy of Plato’s Republic by her bedside and once turned down an offer from Fellini in order to appear at Chichester.
Writing in the Independent in 2008, Robert Chalmers said: “one of the mysteries of British life [is] 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.”
Certainly after the Sixties, Fielding’s career went into the doldrums early. Some of this can be attributed to her supreme choosiness, but there is also a hint that perhaps she was difficult to cast - too bound up with the public perception of Fenella Fielding: eccentric and highly theatrical.
When she did appear on film and TV, it was often in roles that adhered to this image, such as the fatuous, celebrity-obsessed Mrs Leo Hunter in the BBC’s 1985 adaptation of Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers. A particularly fallow period occurred from 1979 when she was swindled by her manager and she was forced to sell her home.
Her voice, however, velvety and commanding, did at least ensure some lucrative income. Back in 1967, she was the voice that hailed the villagers in cult TV show The Prisoner and its star Patrick McGoohan told her to tone it down, to not be too sexy. At the start of the 21st century, she began working with recording company Savoy on a number of readings including TS Eliot’s Four Quartets and JG Ballard’s Crash.
The producer David Britton had been impressed by Fielding’s voice and its “subtext of menace”. There is a sense with this literary work that Fielding was fulfilling her intellectual ambitions - after all she had a reputation of holding her own with such clubbable thinkers of the day as the impresario Henry Donaldson and the journalist Jeffrey Bernard, with whom she had an affair.
Fielding was known to be reclusive, but she did grant an interview to the Telegraph last year to promote her memoir, Do You Mind if I Smoke?, talking to Jasper Rees about the cruelty she suffered at the hands of her Lithuanian-born father who managed a cinema in Silvertown, east London, and of how Kenneth Williams (her co-star in both revues and Carry on Screaming!) had a tendency to steal all the best lines.
Rees noted how Fielding wore her hair “styled exactly like the MGM publicity still of her in the 1966 film Drop Dead Darling”.
And this perhaps is how we remember Fenella Fielding, a Sixties vamp preserved in aspic. In reality, this crisp-voiced woman was a clever classical actress of rare intelligence.