Andrew Logan, Carry On Screaming, Cathy Lomax, Cecil Beaton, Colette, Do You Mind If I Smoke?, Doctor in Clover, Federico Fellini, Fenella Fielding, Fenella Fielding: Actress, Fionn Wilson, Follow a Star, Gallery 286, Hedda Gabler, Helen of Troy, Jeanette Watkins, Martin Firrell, MetaFenella, Natalie Dowse, Norman Wisdom, Patrick Boyd, Sal Jones, Simon McKay, The Old Dark House, Vidal Sassoon
Fenella Fielding was eighty-three years old when, in 2011, she wandered into a pilates class and set down her mat a little too close to Simon McKay’s. He glared at her territorially and she stared back without hesitation. Eventually he smiled and they began to talk. After meeting a few more times, it dawned on him that she was that “gorgeous vamp” from Carry On Screaming. “Coffee became a regular thing and I quickly recognised the blindingly obvious: Fenella is an incredible raconteur,” Simon wrote. “I loved her stories and knew we had to do something with them.”
Over the next few years they collaborated on a one-woman show, An Evening With Fenella; a series of readings from classical Greek drama; and a memoir, Do You Mind If I Smoke? In 2018, aged ninety, Fenella was awarded an OBE. Sadly she would never have the pleasure of collecting it, as she died that September after suffering a stroke. “I couldn’t believe that this bright shining light in my life had gone out,” Simon remembers. “I felt completely lost, but I knew what to do. The only thing I could do really – just carry on. We had so many plans …”
One of these plans was an exhibition, though Fenella “didn’t believe anybody would be interested.” Under the umbrella of the Fenella Fielding Foundation (a non-profit company established by Simon in 2019 to celebrate her life and career), ideas for a show began to take shape.
Artist and curator Fionn Wilson had previously contacted Simon to talk about painting a portrait of Fenella, but discussions widened to a more ambitious project, with Fionn selecting and commissioning a further four artists to produce new works looking at Fenella’s life and career through five prisms: Fenella the theatre actress; the film and television actress; her carefully crafted image; the infamous Carry On Screaming ‘smoking scene’; and Fenella herself, in more unguarded moments.
Additionally, all of the artists visited Fenella’s home in Turnham Green near Chiswick, South London, and talked to Simon about the person she was, her life and legacy. Fionn explains: “The opportunity to do this has proven invaluable in getting a ‘feel’ of who Fenella was, to create an authentic connection with the subject, and has fed into the works to create lasting tributes to an extraordinary woman.”
The resulting fifteen new paintings can be viewed alongside earlier art projects, memorabilia and items of Fenella’s personal property, as part of Fenella Fielding: Actress, at Gallery 286 in Earl’s Court, London, until December 18.
Do You Mind If I Smoke?
Although her stage career had begun a decade earlier, it was through her screen work in the 1960s that Fenella became an icon of British popular culture. For the general public, her most famous scene was in Carry On Screaming! (1966), a horror spoof, and the twelfth film in the enduringly popular ‘Carry-On’ series. She plays Valeria, mistress of a creepy Edwardian house. Dressed in a floor-length, form-fitting red velvet gown, she is reclining on a couch when a detective (Harry H. Corbett) arrives to question her about the strange goings-on nearby. “Do you mind if I smoke?” she asks, and a cloud of smoke rises from her writhing body – leaving him aghast (and aroused.)
“Fenella always felt defined by this film,” says artist Natalie Dowse. “I wanted to transform it into something deeper for her.” Nonetheless, it gave Fenella a rare leading role on the big screen. Curator Fionn Wilson elaborates: “We decided we couldn’t just sidestep Carry On Screaming as people would expect to see reference to it – give the public what they want! And that specific scene is so visually arresting, saturated with colour and ripe for possibilities with painting. So this is when I decided we would approach it in a novel way … so we literally get a whole new angle on something that’s been represented over and over again … I had Natalie in mind straight away whilst I was thinking about this as I’d seen her work before.”
As previously noted, before starting their paintings the artists visited Fenella’s home in Turnham Green. “There were signs of her presence everywhere,” Natalie writes. “Scarves draped over a mirror to be put on again later; her jewellery and makeup – including her signature eyelashes – were on her dressing table ready to be reapplied in time for another appearance; and perhaps most poignant of all, traces of lipstick on her toothbrush in the bathroom.”
On her train journey home, Natalie began reading Fenella’s memoir (which gives her series of paintings their collective name); and while painting, she played the audiobook narrated by Fenella herself. “I usually listen to music while I paint, but when I made these paintings, Fenella’s famously distinctive voice filled my studio,” she recalls. “I played it over and over again,” she recalls, “making for an intense, contemplative experience, with Fenella as the focus of my thoughts.”
‘Do You Mind If I Smoke?’ follows on from two other series of paintings by Natalie, both using film stills in close-up to transform the way we respond to actors’ facial expressions. ‘Cuts’ uses images from various films where the stars have cuts on their otherwise perfect faces, while ‘Crocodile Tears’ (its title pointing to the artifice of screen emoting) zooms in even further, so that the fragmented face becomes unrecognisable. “I took the source material from the film footage, taking screen grabs just nano seconds apart,” Natalie explains. “I then cropped right into the face (which gives a very low-quality image to work from which I enjoy). I chose three images that focused on the changing shape of Fenella’s distinctive mouth in the sequence.”
In the first image, Fenella’s eyes are closed – or they appear to be, caked in white eyeshadow, false eyelashes and the thick, winged eyeliner which makes this a quintessentially ‘Sixties’ look, despite the film’s period setting. Next, her red-lipsticked mouth puckers in a teasing, yet menacing coo. And finally, we catch a glimpse of tongue and teeth, although her eyes remain obscure. Her complexion is milky white, smothered in pan-stick foundation. Valeria is modelled on American television figures like Vampira, Morticia Addams and Lily Munster, but her other-worldliness is more carnal (and deadly) than the small screen would allow in 1966.
“I decided it would be funniest if I played it completely straight and, except for the timing, I wouldn’t go out of my way to be funny,” Fenella remarked. “I know I was meant to be alluring, but I didn’t do it in a clichéd way. I played it as if it was quite ordinary and normal to be wearing a long, low-cut red velvet dress from dawn to dusk.” It was her second film in the series, after a smaller part in Carry On Regardless (1961.) She had also been offered the lead in Carry On Cleo (1964), but turned it down to follow a boyfriend to New York. (One can only imagine Fenella’s Queen of the Nile, whose smoky eyes would have given Elizabeth Taylor a run for her money.)
Fenella’s first credited film role was in Follow a Star (1959), a vehicle for comedian Norman Wisdom, one of the most popular British stars at the time. He plays a dry cleaner who dreams of fame as a singer. Fenella appears in just one scene as Lady Finchington, a plummy-voiced guest at a dinner party. (Childhood elocution lessons combined with a husky tone made her ‘radio-perfect voice’ an ideal pick for aristocratic parts.) Wearing a strappy black cocktail dress and smoking from a cigarette holder, she stands rather helplessly between rival crooner Vernon Carew (Jerry Desmonde) and Wisdom, his protégé-cum-lackey; and while attempting to ‘wait’ on her, Wisdom accidentally shoots an ice-cube into her cleavage.
Fenella took the part begrudgingly, as her agent insisted it would lead to better things, and like many women entering the film industry, Fenella was used as eye candy. “I remember the first time I saw Norman Wisdom – it was on television – I thought he was brilliant,” she wrote. “After a while he developed mannerisms … Not a very pleasant man. Always making a pass …”
Despite the limitations of her role, Fenella maintains a dignified hauteur throughout and holds her own against the film’s leading men (rather like a more soignée Margaret Dumont, screen foil to Groucho Marx.) In ‘Call Me Fenella,’ the first of three paintings inspired by her presence in classic British comedy films, Sal Jones chose a film still showing lounge lizard Carew whispering in Lady Finchington’s ear. Adding texture to the black-and-white image, Jones captures a moment in which the harassed woman is supremely confident, acknowledging his attentions as her natural due. We are left in the dark to what he is saying, but it’s her response that matters. Fenella’s knowing eyes are more prominent here than her bust, and her frank gaze will follow us in every painting.
Three years before Carry on Screaming, Fenella appeared in The Old Dark House (1963), another supernatural tale produced at Bray Studios, home of Hammer, the British studio which helmed a string of lucrative horror films from the mid-1950s and throughout the next decade. Distributed worldwide in partnership with Columbia Pictures, The Old Dark House stars Tom Poston as an American whose mysterious flatmate invites him to stay at his ancestral home, where he meets a family of eccentrics, including renowned English character actors like Robert Morley and Joyce Grenfell, and Fenella as the seductive ‘Morgana’ – explicitly described as a ‘femme fatale’ in the film’s trailer, although her performance adds warmth and sweetness to the conniving stereotype.
“It was an extraordinary film – they decided to make a horror film with comedy,” she recalled. This was an unusual hybrid for the time, and there was a delay in post-production when the editing team “took a lot of comedy out of it and that didn’t work. So they put it back in and took out some of the horror and they kept changing it back and forth.” Based on a novel by J.B. Priestley, The Old Dark House lacked the gravitas of James Whale’s 1932 adaptation but is funny and visually appealing, shot in Eastmancolor and with a title sequence by cartoonist Charles Addams.
The film’s distinctive aesthetic also extends to Fenella’s role. “Fenella had an amazing figure and was rightly proud of it,” Sal Jones writes. “I wanted to celebrate this by using the costume shapes, colours (she loved orange) and styles that she was fond of.” Sal’s montage painting combines two different images of Fenella, so that she seems to contemplate herself “making a dramatic entrance in a curvaceous tight fitting shiny orange dress, whilst wearing her trademark leopard-skin outfit that she also famously wore on a Morecambe and Wise TV appearance,” as Sal explains. “The painting also features probably her best-known hairdo, the ‘helmet bob’.” Fenella became well-known for her creative use of wigs and hairpieces, and this isn’t the last we’ll see of her ‘helmet bob’ – a Gothic take on the much-imitated Jackie Kennedy bob, with a nod to the hedonistic glamour of flapper Louise Brooks.
Set against a hazily rendered backdrop of rickety staircase and stained-glass window, Fenella’s dual presence seems to defy time and space. The painting’s title, ‘(Sexual power is) A Very Big Power’ – quoting Fenella herself - alludes to the coming of a different kind of siren, bewitching yet sardonic. Her lush sensuality, combined with wit and intelligence, meant that she would always be a “slightly scary” sexpot.
Completing this triumvirate of big-screen comedic turns, Fenella was regularly featured in the ‘Doctor’ film series, which at the time, was “a cut above” the Carry-On franchise. Nonetheless, the films traded in the same brand of sexual innuendo, and for Doctor in Clover (1966) – the penultimate film in the series, and the first made in colour – Fenella was cast once again as a temptress. She plays Tatiana Rubikov, a ballerina who has fallen onstage. She is first seen on a stretcher in her tutu, surrounded by theatrical flunkies. While flirting with a young doctor (John Fraser), Tatiana forgets her affected speech and her voice slips into a cockney accent worthy of Barbara Windsor.
In her next scene, Fenella is examined in bed by a surgeon (James Robertson Justice), a medical student (Jeremy Lloyd), and a disgraced doctor (Leslie Phillips.) She wears a flimsy white nightgown and clutches a rose given by a well-wisher – an image used in the film’s poster art, although her name was not. Finally, she meets a fellow patient (played by comedian Arthur Haynes) who asks her to re-enact a ballet sequence in her frilly pink peignoir – much to the disgust of bossy Matron Sweet (Joan Sims.) “It was lovely being bundled off to the ballet to a rehearsal room to learn how to do the Giselle scene,” Fenella remembered.
Sal Jones’ final painting, ‘Devastating Darling,’ is based on another montage, showing Fenella’s three different looks in the film, with her dancing finale as its dramatic centrepiece. The title – inspired by a line from the Bournemouth Echo’s review (‘Fenella Fielding is devastating as the over-sexed ballet dancer’), and looking forward to her next film (Drop Dead Darling) – occupies the painting’s header and footer. The soft colour scheme of pinks and whites over a hospital’s blue background conjures Fenella’s stardom in full bloom. “This painting celebrates Fenella’s flamboyance, humour, comedic timing and her mastery of innuendo,” Sal writes, noting the contrast between Fenella’s “extravagant clothing and the typical sixties ‘hospital colours’ and bed textiles.”
Hair, Shadow and Rouge
“I’m not just a hairdo, this dress, this scent,” Fenella told an interviewer in 1964. “I have another dress, and may change my scent tomorrow. Don’t ask me what I’m really like, find out for yourself. Look at me, listen to me, sense me. There’s an infinite range of human possibilities, and I’m my own amalgam. Come up and see me sometime,” she quipped, paraphrasing another witty woman, Mae West. For Fenella, image signified more than beauty, and became a mode of transformation.
“She never left the house without being fully-fashioned as Fenella – hair, makeup, lashes and a precisely positioned brooch to nip her blouse in just where she wanted it nipping in,” Simon McKay writes. “On one occasion, as I observed this staggering incremental process with quality checks built in to every stage, we chatted and I said, ‘You’re very careful about how people see you.’ She replied, ‘Darling, I think people like to see me this way.’ I said, ‘I think you like people to see you this way.’ She laughed and said, ‘Well, yes that’s true.’”
Cathy Lomax is currently researching a PhD in film studies looking at film stars and the way makeup is used to develop a persona, with a particular focus on the 1950s and 60s. As we have seen in the paintings of Natalie Dowse and Sal Jones, this was the key period of Fenella’s career in which she established herself as a celebrity in British film and television. While her sex appeal was amplified in her comedy roles of this era, she was even bolder off-screen, choosing more androgynous styles and pioneering a kind of female dandyism that would become her hallmark. In preparation for her work, Cathy visited Fenella’s home twice. “It felt very special to be in the place that Fenella lived, surrounded by her very personal possessions,” she writes. “I was struck by her vast collections of wigs …”
For her first painting, Cathy chose a wig worn by Fenella in a 1966 layout for Harper’s Bazaar. Her cropped bird’s nest wig conjures Medusa, while her wide-eyed expression and Byronic collar evokes Pierrot. At this time, Fenella was appearing in a French farce, Let’s Get a Divorce, at the Mermaid Theatre. The great Italian filmmaker, Federico Fellini, was in the audience and invited her to dinner at Claridge’s. “I saw you in that play, but you look quite different now,” he told her. “For people to have different sides to themselves is interesting to me for my movies.”
She then invited him to her apartment, and showed him some contacts and prints from the Harper’s session: “and suddenly you could see the exact moment when Peter Deal, the photographer, had suddenly got my point,” she recalled. “Fellini could see that, too, and he was terribly excited.” He offered Fenella the lead in a film, where she would play “the evocation of six or seven men’s desires.” But she was determined to honour a prior commitment, and the film was never made.
For ‘Hair,’ Cathy overlays a recreation of the Peter Deal photograph with an image of Fenella’s wig as she found it over fifty years later, so that the wig becomes a halo for a nymph ascending to the heavens, glimpsed here as a Blakean backdrop in shades of pink and purple.
Cathy’s second painting, ‘Shadow,’ brings our focus back to what may be Fenella’s most distinctive feature: her eyes. “Fenella was particularly fond of the long, luscious eyelashes that were so fashionable in the 1960s,” Cathy observed, “and there are innumerable boxes of false lashes among her makeup archive which have quite evidently been worn and returned to their containers (including many sets of Mary Quant’s ‘Wash ‘N Wear’ and an unbranded set of ‘Black Wispies’).”
“I think I’m known for my eyelashes,” Fenella admitted. “In the 1960s Dusty Springfield was asked about her eye make-up and she said, ‘Fenella Fielding’s been a very big influence.’ The story was syndicated worldwide and the cost for my press cutting service that month was enormous … And then, of course, there is the expense of the actual eyelashes.” She also recalled going to her dressing-room table in her bathroom one day and finding a favourite pair of eyelashes missing. “I asked my cleaning lady if she knew anything about it. She told me, ‘Oh, I threw them away because they looked like spiders. Oh God, if she knew how much those spiders cost: they were made by a very famous film make-up man and you could only get them directly from him.”
The spidery effect of her eyelashes is evident in ‘Shadow,’ but Cathy’s central focus is another aspect of Fenella’s eye make-up. This rectangular painting recreates a vintage eyeshadow palette, with shades of purple, pink and blue. The black palette fades to grey, with the colours underlaying Fenella’s face like orbs of light. Her pensive expression once again suggests a sad clown, while a beauty mark directly underneath her eye denotes a perfectly rounded, inky-black teardrop.
‘Shadow’ also links back to ‘Hair’ in showing Fenella’s short crop, reminiscent of the asymmetric stylings of celebrity hairdresser Vidal Sassoon, frequently seen on models wearing Mary Quant’s ‘Op-Art’ designs. “In the 1960s, you had to go to Vidal – otherwise it was social death,” Fenella recalled. “It was suddenly not ‘off with their heads’ but ‘off with their hair!’”
“It was thrilling to find tubes of unused Max Factor Satin Smooth foundation, sticks of Leichner greasepaint, and pots of deep-pink Ben Nye rouge,” Cathy writes. These products influenced her final painting, ‘Rouge,’ which shows a Warholesque multitude of Fenellas, gazing towards the future amid blue-grey skies, overlaid by orbs of rouge. The Space Age optimism of the 1960s is in full flight here, but Fenella’s wistful expression complicates any simplistic readings of ‘future nostalgia’.
“Everything changed in the Sixties,” she observed. “Before that, people quietly nursed an ambition about what they wanted to do; but now, it was just extraordinary. Suddenly, skills didn’t matter – or so they thought … Things were changing, but they didn’t change as rapidly as all that.”
As a trilogy, ‘Hair, Shadow and Rouge’ recalls a 1950s song title – ‘Lipstick, Powder and Paint’ – and its diverse strands are unified differently each time. “In terms of the construction of the paintings I wanted them to be painterly with layers of paint and imagery – and with a hint of surrealism,” Cathy says. “I wanted to avoid replicating a photographic image too direct and instead bring a kind of filmic cross-fade to the work – with one image merging with another.”
A Tender Listen
Jeanette Watkins is an American-born artist who moved to London in her mid-thirties, and has lived in the U.K. ever since. “I paint from observation,” she writes. “My primary focus is to attempt to translate what I see and experience in my day-to-day life. As a painter, it is always my ambition to establish relationships between colour, tone, texture, edges and proportion with the hope that the viewer can step into my moment.”
Curator Fionn Wilson asked Jeanette to explore the more private side of Fenella. When visiting her former home, Jeanette realised that “the woman behind the public persona” was “a guarded person who keenly curated how she presented herself in public and protected the more vulnerable sides of her personality. It was difficult to find candid imagery of her.”
“On entering the flat I felt like a detective looking for clues,” Jeanette writes. Fenella had bookshelves on every wall and in every room. She had collections of things that were clearly meaningful to her, including hats, perfumes, oversized jewellery and watches. I began to think that a way in to understanding the private Fenella was through the intimacy of her belongings.”
“As I began to handle some of the books, an old photograph of her (taken by the noted society photographer Sir Cecil Beaton) that she had tucked into the pages, dropped out and landed in front of me,” Jeanette recalls. “Continuing my exploration, I discovered a photo of her that she had cut out of The Evening Standard and framed. In the image, she is wrapped in a cosy jumper and scarf – both in her favourite autumnal colours. These images, an old lamp, perfume bottles, books; along with her make-up tin, on which she used nail varnish to paint an image of herself and used it throughout her early career, would become my first composition.”
‘Still Life With Portraits’ focuses on an arrangement of objects, possibly on a chest or mantelpiece. Five hardback books stand in a slightly wobbly row, their covers ranging from red, brown and green, with two off-white volumes in the middle and the left sloped off-side for balance. Fenella was well-read, and rumour had it she kept the works of Plato by her bed. The titles are obscured, but the small number suggests they were either old favourites, or part of a to-be-read pile; and a square, black-and-white photo of Fenella in harlequin mode rests on their spines.
The hourglass-shaped lamp could have come from a genie’s lair, while its silver tone suggests a trophy. One of two unlabelled, brass-capped perfume bottles is red; the other, seen from behind, is clear. Both are half-full. And the informal, colour photo of a smiling Fenella stands in its wooden frame atop a brass-toned make-up box, with her name and a childlike likeness daubed in red. While much can be inferred about its subject, this ‘still-life’ is both domestic and pleasingly untidy.
“I chose further images to inspire my portraits,” Jeanette writes. “In one, she is listening to music which seems to transport her to a different place. I felt that her posture suggested she was nurturing herself with music, particularly the way her hands cradle her head in a sensitive, tender way.” In ‘A Tender Listen,’ Fenella wears an elegant, pale blue smock with buttoned cuffs. A red wood-panel on the bench where she sits, cuts off to a white wall (suggesting she may be listening to music performed live in a pub or café. The time on her watch, like the book titles in ‘Still Life,’ is unclear, and her hair is brown rather than the pitch-black of her many wigs.
Regardless of when the source photo was taken, ‘A Tender Listen’ frees its subject from the styles of any period, revealing an eternal dreamer with closed eyelids and blissful smile. Fenella’s captivating voice led to countless advertising jobs, She was the (uncredited) village announcer in the cult Sixties TV series, The Prisoner; and also provided the ‘Blue Voice’ in Dougal and the Blue Cat (1970), an animated film based on the popular children’s series, The Magic Roundabout. She also made spoken-word records, and even an album of indie rock covers later in life. Her voice was a great instrument, which she fine-tuned with a careful ear (also hidden from view). ‘A Tender Listen’ offers a more nuanced look at the source of her artistry.
“The final image was selected as a reference to her earlier life when she was at the height of her fame,” Jeanette writes. “Originally in black and white, I chose to paint Fenella in her preferred colours. The image is derived from a photography session with Sir Cecil Beaton …” (Another Beaton photograph, dated 1972 and showing Fenella with a white turban covering her hair, is among three images of her in the National Portrait Gallery collection.) When he worked with Fenella, Beaton was almost seventy and had captured nearly every aspect of public life. With nothing left to prove, he “wanted to capture a more intimate side of her character than she liked to expose.”
The painting’s title – ‘A Day With Cecil Beaton, Ready or Not’ – reflects the tension between photographer and sitter. Fenella’s steady gaze is both candid and wary. “The image conveys something of a mischievous personality, as she peeps at the viewer through the frame of her hands,” Jeanette writes. “It is perhaps worth noting that she herself expressed a dislike of the images that came from this session, precisely because she felt uncomfortable about such emotionally intimate imagery being made public.” As if resisting identification, bereft of the armour of her makeup and eyelashes, Fenella’s clasped fingers press down on her signature black ‘helmet’; and her lips are unevenly sealed in a crooked half-smile, like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat in the act of vanishing.
Beauty is a Riddle
Fenella’s love of performance began in childhood, when she put on plays in her back garden. Later on, she would queue for cheap theatre tickets, and wait by the stage door after the show. However, her parents didn’t approve of Fenella’s chosen career, and after a year’s study, she had to withdraw from RADA. Her father would even beat her while her mother egged him on, until Fenella finally made her escape and moved out. “Fenella fought for her freedom both as a person and as an actress,” Fionn Wilson writes. “She escaped her controlling father and struggled against being typecast as a sexy comedienne. She was distinctly talented and, in what represents a frustrating cliché for many female actresses of the time, she was always striving to be taken seriously.”
After several years of struggle and disappointment, Fenella’s theatrical breakthrough came in 1958, when she was cast in Sandy Wilson’s Valmouth, a musical comedy set in a spa town where the waters are famed for their rejuvenating powers. Fenella was cast as the youngest (and naughtiest) of three aristocratic old ladies. “Her performance as the centenarian Lady Parvula de Panzoust, a study in wit and style, full of innuendo, was High Camp personified,” recalls the critic and playwright Robert Tanitch.
She then co-starred with Kenneth Williams in a West End revue, Pieces of Eight, and between film and television roles during the 1960s and 70s, she also appeared in numerous plays, including The Rivals, The Importance of Being Earnest, The High Bid, Fallen Angels, and An Ideal Husband. Praising her as “a witty, sexy and intelligent actor,” Tanitch argues that “Fenella’s big success in Carry On Screaming sadly typecast her forever. Her talent, especially for high comedy, deserved far more opportunities than the theatrical profession gave her in her later years.”
“What intrigues me about painting this aspect of Fenella, the theatre actress, is that I’m actually painting her playing the part of someone else,” Fionn Wilson writes. “And these characters, being some of the great theatrical roles, also come with their own history of interpretation. Who are these women, exactly? When acting, there has to be something of the actor’s own sense of being that can relate to and merge with the character as the actor understands them to be. It’s like a chemical reaction which creates something else. It’s a powerful thing, a sort of human alchemy. The actor doesn’t just put on the character, like an extra layer of skin, the actor becomes the character plus themselves.”
In 1966, Fenella had appeared with Ian McKellen in a radio production of Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen’s play about a woman trapped in a loveless marriage who reconnects with a former lover and drives him – and then herself – to suicide. Then in 1970, she reprised the role onstage at the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester, and a critic for The Times hailed her performance as “one of the theatrical experiences of a lifetime.”
“I realised that although Hedda is a cow, she can be a sympathetic character if you play her right,” Fenella said. “The effect on the audience was quite marked. If after the performance we were all in the bar, the people who had come to see the play were jolly careful with me in case I bit them.” But after the three-week run, her hopes of a further tour were dashed.
“Hedda Gabler was packed out,” she explained. “We were asked to go and do it at one of those amazing theatres in Scotland, but I was the only one of the cast who was free to do it. Such a pity. I think it could have ended up in the West End because it was so good and it hadn’t been done in a long time.” Nonetheless, she cherished the experience. “Doing Hedda meant I got to end the 1960s doing something as wonderful as Valmouth at the end of the 1950s … I got to show that I wasn’t just all larks; people got to see me in a different light.” She went on to play another Ibsen heroine, Nora, in A Doll’s House.
‘Fenella as Hedda (1969)’ is the first of three portraits by Fionn Wilson, and shows the actress with dark, curly hair and wearing a high, ruffed collar. Her mouth is closed, almost smiling, but more determined than playful. Fionn’s paintings for the show are based on black-and-white theatre stills or photos taken by cast members. This dramatic monochrome starkness gives the paintings a timeless quality as well as a theatrical intensity. They stand in marked contrast to the colour portraits of Fenella in this exhibition, which emphasise her kittenish side and the vibrant pop culture of the Sixties. Fionn says: “The black and white lends the portraits a kind of weight, a seriousness and austerity. There is no frivolity in the paintings. This reflects how seriously Fenella took her stage roles.”
The second painting, ‘Fenella as Colette (1971),’ was inspired by her part in a play about the glamorous French writer, and is based on an image taken by a cast member at the Oxford Playhouse. Fenella clutches a telephone, her eyes wide with anxiety. The grey flecks in her wild dark hair signify maturity, while a certain eccentricity is manifested in a whimsical, polka-dot collar.
As with Hedda, this real-life heroine’s life touched upon feminist themes, and echoed Fenella’s own battles for independence. Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette’s domineering husband had claimed authorship of her early novels. Following their divorce, she worked as a journalist and music hall performer before achieving literary acclaim with novels like The Vagabond, Chéri, and Gigi.
Fenella had first played Colette in New York a year earlier. “Cheryl Crawford, a pillar of the Theatre Guild, suggested Fenella replace Zoe Caldwell,” recalls assistant director Michael Menzies. “She accepted and was admitted to the States as an artist of ‘distinction and merit’ and became the first foreign actor allowed to play off-Broadway. Fenella earned high praise from the New York press but after the run, she returned home.” She would revisit the role again on her 2013 album, Fenella Fielding Reads Colette.
One of her next stage roles, as Helen – daughter of the God Zeus, and thought to be the world’s most beautiful woman – in Euripides’ Helen, drew upon one of the most misunderstood heroines of classical Greek drama. It was something of a revisionist play, as Euripides portrayed Helen as being stranded in Egypt throughout the Trojan War, while being used as a scapegoat for the conflict on both sides due to her supposed infidelity.
“I love painting portraits and I particularly like painting portraits of women,” Fionn writes. “Beauty is a riddle, it’s mysterious and often difficult to describe with precision … Fenella Fielding has a beautiful face but for a good portrait, beauty is not enough. And often, a very typically attractive face can get in the way of the painting. Fenella also has a kind of grace which is locked into her face and did not diminish with age.”
At forty-five, she donned a long, blonde wig and a pleated gown with floral corsage to play Helen, the mythological epitome of beauty. As in all three portraits, her eyes hold the key to how she approached the character; and in ‘Fenella as Helen (1972)’, Fionn cuts away from the regal body to read Helen’s mood more closely. Fenella’s alert, watchful expression and pursed lips suggest that her Helen is a woman under siege, but ready to face the future, no matter what obstacles are in her path. She looks upwards in transcendence, echoing her own history of struggle to escape the limitations imposed on her and to be free to be an actress.
So Much to Remember
“I’ve always thought in biographies it’s the early struggles and early successes that make the best read,” Fenella wrote in her memoir. “Well, of course I’ve continued working and done lots since. I’ve never stopped.” Back in 1963, she had devised a show partly inspired by her own path to fame, and also poking fun at the self-serving autobiographies of thespian idols like Ellen Terry, Constance Collier and Henry Irving. So Much to Remember: The Life Story of a Great Lady opened at The Establishment, the Soho nightclub founded by comedian Peter Cook, before transferring to the West End and being filmed for BBC television. “It was lovely to have an idea you thought of yourself,” she added, “and it becoming something that other people found enjoyable.”
The late 1970s was a difficult period in Fenella’s career. “In 1975 I’d just finished being in Absurd Person Singular, which I’d been doing at the Criterion with Paul Eddington,” she explained. “That transferred to the Vaudeville, but suddenly I began to want not to be in it any more. Partly because I was getting very depressed and Michael Codron, who was the producer, said, ‘It’s the play. It’s what happens in the play. That’s why.’ The play took place in three different Christmases, and my character went from being on top of everything to being this rather ghastly drunk. It was getting to me.”
Her agent offered to lay out the money for a one-woman cabaret show, but midway through the two-week run, he withdrew an exorbitant sum from her bank account, leaving her with a huge overdraft. She was then offered a short engagement at the Edinburgh Festival. A friend suggested she confront her agent before leaving, but then out of spite he didn’t send any London critics or producers to see it. “And it was such a success: we were absolutely sold out in The Lyceum, a great big theatre,” she said. “We came back to London with this marvellous success and these incredible notices and nowhere to do it … That was the last time I worked with that agent, but to make things worse I think he put out bad word about me.” By 1981, her finances were in dire straits and she had to sell her home of many years.
Fortunately, her career soon picked up and she continued to work steadily on stage and screen, as well as radio and concert appearances. In 1990, she began a three-year run as ‘The Vixen’ in Uncle Jack, a BBC children’s television series starring Paul Jones (formerly the lead singer of Manfred Mann) as an environmentalist and secret agent on a mission to save the planet. “What you need is a truly evil villainess,” Pieter Rogers told producer Jeremy Swan. “A ruthless beautiful woman, an arch demon, capable of great wickedness. Can I recommend Fenella Fielding?”
In 1999, she entered a new era of British comedy with her supporting role in Guest House Paradiso, starring Rik Mayall and Ade Edmonson; and in 2007, musician Jarvis Cocker invited her to perform in the Meltdown Festival at London’s Southbank Centre. “There were lots of people there to do songs,” she explained. “Somewhere between Grace Jones and Pete Doherty, I did ‘Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag.)’”
“Fenella was eighty-three when I met her and I wasn’t really sure why she still wanted to be working,” Simon McKay wrote, “but then in May 2012 I saw her perform a reading of some excellent Greek translations at the Reform Club … as I passed a packet of tissues along the row to the woman sobbing with emotion, shattered by Fenella’s delivery in her role as Hekabe, I understood why she still wanted to work.”
Her last screen acting credit was in a 2012 episode of the hit drama series, Skins, on Channel 4. “I was very pleased about doing this part because it wasn’t comedy,” she said. “I’m not saying there’s no comedy in it, but it was a straight part and people could see I was being real … I suppose it made me realise how long I’ve been doing this, but not in a bad way; happy for what I’ve done, but knowing that I’m here now. Somewhere else.”
Aside from the commissioned paintings, already existing works featuring Fenella are also included in this exhibition alongside Patrick Boyd’s lenticular animation, created especially for the show. Inspired by the ‘smoking scene’ from Carry on Screaming, it provides a hologramic counterpoint to Natalie Dowse’s freeze-frame portraits. “Humour is essential in all my work, so I felt an instant connection to Fenella and her movies,” Patrick writes. “Watching them was great fun, but also it took some time because it’s essential to find the right amount of motion. Working with the images in these movies was interesting because it took me out of my comfort zone …”
The visceral impact of Patrick’s work is difficult to capture in a snapshot. “I looked at it and rocked from one heel to the other,” Simon McKay has observed. “As I moved, I watched Fenella’s hand gesturing come-hither to me.”
Martin Firrell is a public artist whose works challenge unjust systems including patriarchal power and the oppression of women, using language to provoke ‘art debate’. “He was intrigued by the female characters Fenella created in British films,” McKay writes. “These vampish characters often disarm authority figures by using their charm and sensuality … The result, in 2014, was ‘MetaFenella’ which became a practical tool for navigating life (tackling the big stuff like sex, ageing, prejudice, and loneliness.)”
In addition to her 1960s comedies, ‘MetaFenella’ “distills profound philosophical truths” from her voiceovers for The Prisoner, and guest appearances on the Morecambe and Wise Show. “It’s surprising that Fielding has only now been taken up by the art world,” Jonathan Jones wrote in The Guardian. “In her own way, she is like an Andy Warhol superstar.”
Andrew Logan is a sculptor, jeweller, painter and performance artist who first met Fenella in at an ICA exhibition in 1970. Five years later, she was judge in the Alternative Miss World contest founded by Andrew, who continues to host it each year. He created a wall portrait of Fenella in the 1980s, and then began a 3D bust which was completed in 2002, after eight years of intensive work. It was made from clay, cast in white resin and then covered in glass. Andrew depicted Fenella in a white shirt with a black Peter Pan collar, and the head was topped with her famous ‘helmet bob.’
Their collaboration is described in the exhibition catalogue: “Andrew recalls the sessions, probably only six, as providing her with a moment of repose and adds, ‘She was very still. As a sitter she was fantastic. She knew her head and face like no one else. I suppose it was putting her makeup on every day. She knew the exact proportions of her eyebrows, her cheeks – everything.’ Andrew said to Fenella, ‘I do take a bit of your soul,’ to which she responded, ‘I’ve been looking everywhere.’”
The head sculpture would take pride of place in May 2019, at the memorial service for Fenella, held at St. Paul’s, the ‘Actor’s Church’ in Covent Garden, where a plaque was unveiled, and eulogies were delivered by Gyles Brandreth and Mark Kermode, with Sian Phillips and Anita Harris sharing anecdotes; a poetic tribute from Barry Cryer; and music from Cleo Laine and Erasure’s Andy Bell. Also in attendance were Prunella Scales, Timothy West, Vicki Michelle, Miriam Margolyes, Valerie Leon, Liza Goddard, Bonnie Langford and Rebecca Front, among others.
Gallery 286 is situated in the home of manager Jonathan Ross, echoing the sense of intimacy that the artists felt in Fenella’s flat. The new portraits featured in Fenella Fielding: Actress are displayed together in the main gallery room, with red walls throwing each image into dramatic relief (and mirroring Fenella’s red velvet dress from Carry On Screaming!) The other works, along with items of her personal property, are showcased in a white-walled room downstairs.
“The other way that I’ve tried to give Fenella a voice in the exhibition is to present some of her very witty comments on the wall as photo posters,” co-curator Simon McKay says. “You can see the full range in the shop on the Fenella website. Mostly, I found the quotes in old magazine interviews from the 60s and 70s. Some, including the notes on what Fenella wants from her life, were written in a notebook in her handwriting.”
“Fenella’s archive contains two large boxes of wigs,” Simon tells me. “Darren Evans selected and styled the two wigs on display and added eyelashes of the type he used to put on her. (Darren did Fenella’s hair and make up a number of times in the last year or so of her life.) We’ve displayed three items of Fenella’s evening wear, which includes a blue/grey Germinal Rangel dress that she was banned from wearing on Juke Box Jury in 1964 because it was too low cut for her to wear on teatime TV; there’s a Gina Fratini flowing dress that Fenella wore a number of times in the mid-70s to events she attended and a 20 Years of ITV television special. The final outfit was made by Neil Cunningham for her 90th birthday. Neil padded and pinned all of the outfits on display. The other exhibit – that I can’t capture in a photograph – is her scent. Each day, I spray the wigs with Fenella’s perfume.”