Today we send many happy returns to English actress and voiceover artiste Fenella Fielding, as she begins her 90th year.
Popular in the 1950s and ‘60s and for a time known as “England’s first lady of the double entendre”, Fielding’s career perhaps suffered from typecasting, as her seductive image and distinctive husky voice overshadowed her considerable acting talent. Even so, she is remembered for a string of high-profile roles which made her a household name and many a young man’s favourite pin-up!
Born in London in 1927, she was the daughter of Lithuanian Jewish father Philip Feldman and his Romanian Jewish wife, Tilly. Her elder brother, Basil, enjoyed a distinguished career in the City of London, was knighted in 1982 and in 1996 made a life peer in the House of Lords, as Baron Feldman. However, she is not related to fellow comedy actor Marty Feldman, despite persistent rumours to the contrary.
Growing up in Lower Clapton and later Edgware, she became fascinated by the actors and actresses she saw in films screened at the East London cinema managed by her father. She began her own acting career relatively late, at the age of 27, appearing in various theatrical productions. Her first break came when fellow actor Ron Moody recommended her for a part in a new stage musical, “Valmouth”. It was a hit and made Fenella – now using the stage name of Fielding – a star.
The following year she appeared with Kenneth Williams in a popular comedy revue and made a guest appearance in “Hancock’s Half Hour”, where she stole the show. She narrowly missed out on playing Patrick Macnee’s regular partner in a new TV series, “The Avengers”, when the role of Cathy Gale went instead to Honor Blackman, but she made guest appearances in the series and in others including “Danger Man”.
In 1961 she had a small part in one of the early Carry On films, “Carry on Regardless”, which later led to perhaps her best remembered big screen role, starring as the vampiric Valeria in 1966’s “Carry on Screaming”. It reunited her with Kenneth Williams and became perhaps the definitive Fenella Fielding role, as an irresistibly seductive woman able to reduce grown men to gibbering wrecks with just a few languorous words and a flutter of her unfeasibly long eyelashes.
She also worked with Norman Wisdom in one of his biggest film hits, “Follow a Star”, and had roles in three of the of the popular “Doctor in…” movies, working with Dirk Bogarde, James Robertson Justice, Leslie Phillips, Joan Sims and a host of other well-known stars. She also appeared four times in three years as a guest on “The Morecambe and Wise Show”, a mark of her fame and popularity by the late ’60s and early ’70s.
By now her film and TV work was almost exclusively in comedic roles, and usually playing a similar ‘exotic’ and alluring character, but it was a different story on the theatre stage. There she took on a variety of roles and earned serious critical acclaim. A review in The Times described her performance as Hedda Gabler as “one of the experiences of a lifetime”.
Fielding continued working on the stage long after film and TV work began to diminish, while her distinctive voice also brought her regular work as a voiceover artiste. She was still making occasional TV appearances well into her 80s – usually playing glamorous grandmothers or ladies of a certain age with an intriguing past – but arguably never received the adulation she truly deserved for her theatrical work.
In 2007 an article in The Independent stated it was “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.”