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In Search of Fenella Fielding

By Neil Cunningham

I’d wanted to dress, or just meet Fenella Fielding for as long as I could remember. Whenever Carry On Screaming was repeated on the telly we would fall in love with her, all over again and wonder what on earth had happened to this insanely charismatic woman. Apart from the odd tantalising cameo of her vamping it up in the Doctor films that cropped up occasionally, I could count on one hand the times I personally saw her again on TV throughout the 70s and 80s: once co-hosting one of Andrew Logan’s Alternative Miss World contests in a pierrot clown outfit, and then rather bizarrely on Blankety Blank rendering Terry Wogan speechless as she offered up some obscure word to fill in the missing part of the sentence in her surreal, inimitable way.

I was both fascinated and baffled by her appearance that seemed all the more eccentric on the gleaming and rather pedestrian family quiz show. First there was the shiny pumpkin shaped bob hairdo that couldn’t possibly not be a wig and under her smart jacket she wore a white blouse with what looked like an upturned Peter Pan collar held in place with a brooch to create a dramatic Victorian pie-crust frill under her chin. Mannish white shirts worn with pussy bows, even men’s neck-ties had become her signature look over the years – dramatic cuffs played a big part too. She’d sometimes wear these shirts with a girlish pinafore dress – clearly a throwback to the days of Mary Quant and Biba when Fenella would also have established her immaculate Vidal Sassoon coiffure, but several decades on this self-styled ensemble looked more than a little out of kilter.

It was the unmistakable Fenella Fielding eye make-up that always gave one real pause for thought and had famously inspired Dusty Springfield: usually two pairs of lashes, applied slightly above and below the eyelids that created a white line – not unlike grouting – around the entire eye. Latterly she would dispense with the lower lashes and just draw a pencil line half an inch under her lower eyelid – a technique from the days in the theatre to enlarge the eyes no doubt. Surely this was stage make-up for the benefit of people sitting in the gods, not for a television studio.

Fenella’s prolonged absence from mainstream media has only intensified the mysteries surrounding her, much in the same way that Kate Bush would disappear for decades making her fanbase even more curious, evermore loyal. In 1990 I was amazed to find – quite by chance – that Fenella was performing in a new play: Trotsky and our Ernie, at the Cockpit Theatre in NW8 (I still have the promotional flyer), but when I arrived on a cold miserable evening in late November, so excited to have the chance finally to see madam live in action we found the doors closed and the lights out – I’d somehow got the wrong date. The last time I saw Fenella was actually the first time I had seen her in person. We were both crossing Piccadilly, in different directions.  She was leaving the Royal Academy and I was headed to my neighbouring shop. I was on the verge of saying hello but she was engrossed in conversation, on the arm of a gentleman companion, and I thought better of it.

A few voiceovers here and there told you that Fenella was still with us. There’s that inexplicable feeling you get when a star fades from public life: you’re suddenly aware that you haven’t seen their face for a long while but at the same time you’re certain you’ve not heard that they’ve died either. Fast-forward to autumn 2017 and while skimming the Crazy Coqs cabaret schedules at Zedel’s in Soho (my old Atlantic bar and grill) for a friend’s upcoming gig, I’m stunned to find Fenella on the bill! Just A Little Murder – a two man show in fact – with actor Stephen Greif, featuring amongst other things some ancient Greek poetry. I’m clearly not the only one with a fascination for this elusive lady, as it’s sold-out too!

An interview with Fenella for The Independent by Robert Chalmers found online summed the situation up perfectly:  “It’s one of the mysteries of British life that Fenella Fielding, whose wit and distinctive stage presence captivated figures such as Kenneth Tynan, Noël Coward and Federico Fellini, should have drifted into obscurity rather than being celebrated.” This was back in 2008. Had I just Googled ‘Fenella Fielding’ more recently I would have realised she has indeed been especially busy for the past five years, ever since a young man named Simon McKay bumped into her at a pilates class and formed a constructive friendship with her.

Simon had been encouraging Fenella to make a bit more of her dormant cult status and after hearing her perform a few readings was so amazed at the audiences’ emotional response to her performance that he began thinking up variations on the theme of ‘An Evening with Fenella’, with a long term goal of helping her write her memoirs. Writing an autobiography hadn’t initially appealed to Fenella. Her sole interest was in finding more acting work but as Simon pointed out, the phone wasn’t exactly ringing off the wall. There is a dearth of roles for mature actresses – even fewer for those nearing ninety.

After some gentle coaxing, lots of coffee meetings and the use of a tape recorder McKay has managed to transcribe some wonderful stories and anecdotes of Fenella’s, so that it feels almost exactly as if she were telling us the tales herself. And what a wonderful story-teller she turns out to be. Her witty and dry comments are never unkind and yet leave you in no doubt as to how she really feels about the characters who have shaped her life. The finished book is a collection of thematic episodes stretching from childhood to almost the present day. For those who would still rather hear Fenella telling the stories herself in that wonderful voice, there is a full audio CD recording of the entire book available too.

With Fenella’s 90th birthday celebration imminent, I thought it might at last be the perfect opportunity, to create a special outfit for her. Thanks to email, Google, and Facebook friends in common, within a few weeks I was sitting in the beautiful drawing room of a special mutual friend – Elizabeth McGorian of the Royal Ballet – drinking tea, and finally talking shapes, fabrics and colours with Fenella herself.

I didn’t have any preconceived ideas as to what Fenella would be like in person, or what kind of outfit she would want to wear for her party. I just knew that it would be pointless making a spectacular one-off that couldn’t be worn again and was thinking along the lines of a smart tuxedo suit that she could dress up or down, whereby the blouse would be the main focus. I really didn’t see the point of trying to change the basic Fielding uniform of suit collar and cuffs but rather just enhancing it a bit with rich flattering colours and some overblown neck detail. I like the way Fenella always wears her clothes with an extra pull or pinch to one side and likewise felt the jacket should have a basic asymmetric drape feature, like a wrap dress that could be pulled tightly around her waist and fastened easily with ‘apron strings’. It did cross my mind that Fenella’s old friend Andrew Logan might have some camp extravaganza planned for her and expect her to make a dramatic entrance. In that case a light but full length silk taffeta opera coat to throw over the suit might be a welcome addition to the ensemble.

Fenella in the flesh was more petite and fragile than I expected her to be. The truth is she has looked after herself so assiduously over the years that it’s easy to forget her age. She’s never taken to alcohol, has always guarded her tiny waistline and still applies make-up and nail varnish with the zeal and commitment of a teenage girl. Her recurrent back pain and ongoing manipulation made her appear more frail than usual, and I did panic momentarily as to how I was going to take adequate measurements let alone start working a toile around her delicate frame in the coming weeks. The cold really affects Fenella; any tiny draft she feels acutely, in fact she feels drafts in a room when nobody else can – just as if she had ESP. I sensed she wasn’t going to have the patience to stand for long fittings so we formed a Fenella shape on the tiniest dress stand we could find and worked on that mostly, hoping for the best until the final fittings.

We’d settled on a French bouclé for the suit: a mix of vivid violet and black wool that created a brilliant mauve shade of navy blue. Fenella loved that the trousers would be lined in pure silk satin to keep her warm. When it came to the blouse she was immediately drawn to the subtler shades: khaki green, and almost any shade of brown from walnut to taupe. We both agreed that Chartreuse was a lovely colour too. In fact we both liked the word even more – you should hear Fenella say it – but this shade of lime green was too acidic for her complexion. I suddenly remembered I had a length of gingerbread coloured silk that had been in storage for twenty years, that would compliment the dark mauve wool perfectly. The officially named gabardine-doupion is a thick and sculptable cloth, with a gentle slub (similar to silk Shantung) originally made by the now closed French couture silk house Guillard-Buche.  You often see this expensive silk with its extra lustrous gloss made into very regal ballgowns, the kind you see in Hello! magazine worn by european princesses you’ve never heard of.  Since Fenella often rolls the sleeves of her jacket up to show off her shirt cuffs I decided to make the sleeves shorter to start with, and slightly trumpet-shaped to accommodate the full blouse bishop-sleeves too. Having dispensed with the traditional three button cuff, we made a cufflink feature of the jacket sleeve itself.  An extravagantly large pussy bow worn to one side of the face almost designed itself. Watching Fenella tie a bow is an exercise in origami, you get the impression she’s done this so many times before that she could concoct a perfectly erect bow standing on her head in the dark.

Fenella’s birthday party was a suitably smart and dignified affair at the Museum of Comedy in Bloomsbury. A drinks reception for friends and invited guests was followed by a kind of Q & A session hosted by Barry Cryer. It was a chance for colleagues from the acting world to take a trip down memory lane and express their respect and love for the guest of honour. It is evident that Fenella leaves an indelible impression on all who work with her. I found Fenella to be incredibly polite and appreciative too. She scrutinised me intensely and listened carefully to my design suggestions before delivering her preferences in thoughtful, precise sentences – that sounded so lovely too.

The only time I ever saw Fenella become exasperated and almost lose her cool was in the theatre dressing room just before her party. The make-up artist Darren Evans had been brought in to repeat the beautiful job he’d done for a portrait of Fenella in The Guardian a few weeks previously. It really was a painstaking job: layers of smokey grey and green frosting applied to the eyelids with perfectly placed eyelashes. As I turned on my movie light to take a quick snap in the gloomy-lit dressing room, Fenella suddenly became agitated and started rummaging in her handbag, evidently quite distressed that she hadn’t thought of bringing her own make-up bag. She asked Darren for an eyeliner pencil and – much to his horror – began taking matters into her own hands, extending the corners of her eyes in her own familiar way and furthermore crayoning in the infamous lower line on the upper part of her cheek. He flashed me a look and said through clenched teeth ‘I think you should perhaps turn that light off…’. Darren then tactfully smoothed over the lines with his magic brushes and as quickly as possible we ushered Fenella out to greet her guests.

It’s fair to say that most people will associate Fenella Fielding with her vampish creation in Carry On Screaming for as long as she is remembered. Her figure hugging red velvet gown with the plunging neckline and train is arguably one of the most memorable costumes in any British film. Perhaps not since Joan Greenwood has an English actress used her voice to such bewitching effect. As Valeria, Fenella is Joan Greenwood – mixed with lashings of Nigella Lawson.

I’ve now lost count of the men my age who have recently told me how “smitten” they were with Fenella after watching the Carry On films back in the day, and a few black cab drivers have been particularly vocal. The Albanian taxi driver who drove me from Oxford to Bloomsbury with her outfit on the night of her birthday party didn’t know who on earth Fenella Fielding was until I Googled him a picture of her wearing the famous red dress on my phone. His eyes lit up straight away and he smiled broadly, struggling in broken English to show that he knew precisely the source of the screenshot, and then managed to sum it up in just one word: ‘Oddbod!’

To order Do You Mind If I Smoke? By Fenella Fielding and Simon McKay visit: www.fenellafielding.com

“I really didn’t see the point of trying to change the basic Fielding uniform of suit, collar and cuffs – just enhancing it with rich flattering colours.”