Yesterday many media outlets provided obituaries of the actress Fenella Fielding, who recently died at the age of 90.
Fenella Fielding is best remembered for starring as Valeria, the camp vamp in ‘Carry On Screaming’, alongside the dysfunctional regulars of the Carry On films – the foibles of the Carry On actors were not made public when those films were made – but Fielding was in fact a serious actress.
The BBC told us that ‘Fenella Fielding survived a violent upbringing to play Ibsen, Shakespeare and Euripides on stage. As an artist, her sheer versatility captivated both Federico Fellini and Noel Coward. This was a woman of wit and wisdom who kept a copy of Plato beside the bed.’
After ‘Carry On Screaming’, Fielding turned down all future Carry On work but the die was cast. In the public mind, she was the quintessential 60s femme fatale, delivering double entendres with lashings of false innocence. Her career slowly drifted into obscurity almost as soon as she uttered her most immortal line.
Fenella Marion Feldman was born in Hackney in 1927, the youngest child of a Romanian mother and a Lithuanian father. The relationship with her parents was never easy, often strained and occasionally violent. As a toddler, she seemed to speak in gibberish. Her mother and father worried she was failing to develop normal language skills until they chanced upon her in animated conversation with a doll. ‘I suppose,’ Fenella later wrote, ‘I just didn’t want to speak to my parents.’
The young Fenella took ballet lessons and gave her youthful talent for comedy free rein in the annual end of year show – once memorably cavorting around the stage to the tune of Nobody Loves A Fairy When She’s Forty. Other mums and dads, she bitterly noted, showered their children with fresh flowers after each performance; her own parents merely offered up the same basket of artificial blooms, year after year.
As she entered her teens, Fenella’s life at home became darker. Her father – who could be charming in public – was a ‘street angel, house devil’, she recalled who ‘used to knock me about with his fists’. To make matters worse, her mother would actually ‘egg him on’. Fenella thought the violence would pass, but it didn’t – at least until she threatened to go to the police.
Fielding left school at 16 and spent a year at St Martin’s School of Art. Her parents were appalled that she might see naked men – or even worse, naked women – in class, which was bound to result in pregnancy and drug addiction. There were rows every morning. Eventually, they forced her to leave.
Still wanting to act, Fielding would hang around stage doors in the West End in the hope of brushing against Alec Guinness or Laurence Olivier. She won a two-year scholarship to the RADA – which pleased her mother and father greatly until it dawned on them she might actually become an actress. Her mother began turning up at RADA at lunchtime, making a scene and insisting Fielding leave. ‘Really, darling’, she would say, ‘these common people!’ After a while, the school quietly withdrew her funding.
Fenella considered going to university but her father told her he’d ‘rather see her dead at his feet.’ Instead, she was dispatched to learn shorthand and typing, which she found soul destroying. Fielding ingested 70 aspirin in a suicide attempt but changed her mind at the last minute. She swallowed pints of mustard water to induce vomiting after calling an all-night Boots to ask how to reverse the effects.
Fleeing home, Fenella found digs in Mayfair run by ‘friendly prostitutes’. In 1952, she appeared in an amateur production at the LSE alongside Ron Moody – then a mature student – who later found fame as Fagin, in the film version of ‘Oliver!’
Ron Moody supported Fenella’s ambition to become an actress, persuading her not to pack it in. She changed her name from Feldman to Fielding, pretended to be seven years younger in order to compensate for her late start in show business and began appearing in comedy revues.
By the end of the 1950s, Fenella had made a name for herself in the musical ‘Valmouth’. It was quirky and, for the time, rather lurid – but Fielding’s rave reviews led to an awkward reconciliation with her parents. Her mother turned up at the Lyric Theatre bearing a peace offering of sorts: a whole, fried chicken.
Next was ‘Pieces of Eight’, a live comedy revue written by Peter Cook and Harold Pinter. Starring alongside her was Kenneth Williams – already firmly established as a household name – who harboured a brittle ego under the thinnest of skins. When one review called Fielding a ‘beautiful butterfly of comedy’, Williams exploded. Encouraging her to ad lib, he ruthlessly stole her best lines. He became threatening and bluntly warned her not to steal his limelight. When Fielding extemporised the end of one sketch with the line ‘the last one dead’s a sissy’, there were hysterics. Williams went white and shrieked that she’d ‘called me a homosexual in front of the whole audience’. ‘It was awful,’ she later recalled. ‘I’d never been so frightened in all my life.’
Worse was to come as Fenella branched out into film and television. In 1959, she appeared in ‘Follow A Star’ alongside Norman Wisdom – who she came to loathe. ‘Not a very pleasant man,’ she later said. ‘Hand up your skirt first thing in the morning. Not exactly a lovely way to start a day’s filming.’
During the 1960s, Vidal Sassoon, personally, did Fenella’s hair and the bohemian journalist Jeffrey Bernard took her on riotous club nights. She would sit and talk long into the night with the flamboyant artist Francis Bacon and the rest of that decade’s rakish beau monde.
Professionally, there were small parts on television in ‘The Avengers’ and regular appearances on the cutting-edge satire, ‘That Was The Week That Was’. Her film appearances included working alongside Dirk Bogarde in ‘Doctor in Love’ and Tony Curtis in ‘Arrivederci, Baby!’
On stage, Fielding pursued her love for drama. ‘The Times’ described her performance as Hedda Gabler as ‘one of the experiences of a lifetime’. The Italian film director Federico Fellini took her to Claridge’s and offered to make a film where she starred as six or seven different incarnations of male desire. Unfortunately, she was already booked to do a season on stage in Chichester so she turned him down – to the great disappointment of her agent.
Then came ‘Carry On Screaming’, which reunited Fielding with with her old nemesis, Kenneth Williams. The filming took three weeks, made her hugely famous and her career never recovered. She played Valeria – a thinly disguised Morticia Addams – with every ounce of camp vamp she could muster. Her wig was huge, her eyelashes incredible and her red dress was so tight she was completely unable to bend in the middle. Every scene was done in a single take and, of course, she is remembered for just one. Reclining on a chaise longue, Fielding entices Harry H Corbett towards her. The eyes flutter and the voice purrs. ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’ she inquires seductively – before vast quantities of dry ice envelope them both.
Fenella politely declined all invitations to appear in other Carry On films – including the lead in ‘Carry On Cleopatra’ – partly in an attempt to avoid being typecast by the success of the first. For the rest of her life, she struggled to escape Valeria.
The offers dried up and her on-screen career quietly slid away. She did Morecambe & Wise Christmas specials and some voice work for both the cult hit series, ‘The Prisoner’, and a ‘Magic Roundabout’ project – ‘Dougal and The Blue Cat’. But she didn’t make another film for almost 15 years.
Fielding was rarely completely out of work. She continued on stage – with a string of well-reviewed provincial shows – in which she didn’t have to play ‘either a Lady or a Tart’. But, eventually, she struggled for money and was forced to go to the social security office to claim benefits.
She never married, despite a string of male admirers. One possible future husband died, another couldn’t get over his alcoholism and had to be abandoned. For 20 years, she maintained two separate lovers and managed to prevent them ever meeting. ‘I loved them both,’ she wrote but decided on ‘never committing; never having a marriage that could have gone awful’.
Politically, she was on the left – despising Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and refusing to help her older brother Bas when he stood for election under the Conservative banner. But they remained close and she was proud of him when, without her help, he became an important figure in the Conservative Party and eventually entered the Lords.
Latterly, there was work with Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson in ‘Guest House Paradiso’ and a role as an eccentric granny in the gritty teenage drama, ‘Skins’. But, for Fenella Fielding, her best work always took place on stage. At the age of nearly 90, the ‘Financial Times’ described her performance in Euripides’ The Trojan Women as ‘unbearably moving… at the extreme limits of pathos’.
Fielding was resigned to her professional fate after ‘Carry On Screaming’. The autobiography she published in 2017 – entitled ‘Do You Mind If I Smoke?’ – has little shred of bitterness or regret. The only thing that rankled was when she met fellow actors – and there were many – who’d been asked to do adverts with a ‘Fenella Fielding-like’ voice. ‘Bloody cheek,’ she would say. ‘Why didn’t they ask me?’
Throughout her long life, Fenella worked with and knew about the activities of many unpleasant people, including many of those named on this blog who colluded with, or were even responsible for, the organised abuse of vulnerable people and children. Previous posts have discussed Dafydd’s celebrity contacts, a network which was boosted by his mate and umbrella Professor Linford Rees at Barts being the father of 1970s ‘Poldark’ sweetheart Angharad Rees, who was married to Christopher Cazenove; Cazenove hit it big in Hollywood and starred in ‘Dynasty’…. (see post ‘A Galaxy Of Talent’).
I mentioned that the lives of unpleasant actors in the Carry On films were sanitised by the media at the time. Kenneth Williams was quite nuts: misogynistic, gay but hated the rest of humanity so was solitary, had a Jimmy Savile-esque relationship with his mother and was so obsessive that he wouldn’t allow visitors into his house lest they used his bog and left their germs behind. When Kenneth Williams was found dead, many questions about his death which should have been asked weren’t. Sid James was a ferocious wife-beater and Babs Windsor was married to a gangster and friends with many other gangsters, including the Krays. This was known but was packaged as Babs’s ‘glamorous’ life. Those targeted by the scumbags with whom Babs and Dafydd were mates didn’t perceive them to be glamorous, we thought that they were dangerous and unhinged.
Norman Wisdom gave an interview when he was an elderly tax exile living on the Isle of Man and he came over as a deeply unpleasant man, not just a cheery chappy who shouted ‘Mr Grimsdale’ and fell over a great deal. Norman waxed lyrical about the joys of flogging and hanging people and the necessity of hanging onto every penny of his substantial wealth.
Francis Bacon was openly gay and for a while was the partner of George Dyer. Bacon’s wiki entry tells us that he:
‘met George Dyer in 1963 at a pub, although a much-repeated myth claims their acquaintance started during the younger man’s burglary into the artist’s apartment. Dyer was about 30 years old, from London’s East End. He came from a family steeped in crime, and had till then spent his life drifting between theft, detention and jail. Bacon’s earlier relationships had been with older and tumultuous men. His first lover, Peter Lacy, tore up the artist’s paintings, beat him in drunken rages, at times leaving him on streets half-conscious. Bacon was now the dominating personality; attracted to Dyer’s vulnerability and trusting nature. Dyer was impressed by Bacon’s self-confidence and artistic success, and Bacon acted as a protector and father figure to the insecure younger man…
Dyer abandoned crime but soon descended into alcoholism. Bacon’s money attracted hangers-on for massive benders around London’s Soho. Withdrawn and reserved when sober, Dyer was highly animated and aggressive when drunk, and often attempted to “pull a Bacon” by buying large rounds and paying for expensive dinners for his wide circle. Dyer’s erratic behaviour inevitably wore thin – with his cronies, with Bacon, and with Bacon’s friends. Most of Bacon’s art world associates regarded Dyer as a nuisance – an intrusion into the world of high culture to which their Bacon belonged. Dyer reacted by becoming increasingly needy and dependent. By 1971, he was drinking alone and only in occasional contact with his former lover.
In October 1971, Dyer joined Bacon in Paris for the opening of the artist’s retrospective at the Grand Palais. The show was the high point of Bacon’s career to date and he was now described as Britain’s “greatest living painter”. Dyer was a desperate man, and although he was “allowed” to attend, he was well aware that he was slipping out of the picture. To draw Bacon’s attention, he planted cannabis in his flat and phoned the police and attempted suicide on a number of occasions. On the eve of the Paris exhibition, Bacon and Dyer shared a hotel room, but Bacon was forced escape in disgust to the room of gallery employee Terry Danziger-Miles, as Dyer was entertaining an Arab rent boy with “smelly feet”. When Bacon returned to his room the next morning, together with Danziger-Miles and Valerie Beston, they discovered Dyer in the bathroom dead, sat on the toilet. With the agreement of the hotel manager, the party agreed not to announce the death for two days.
Bacon spent the following day surrounded by people eager to meet him. In mid-evening of the following day he was “informed” that Dyer had taken an overdose of barbiturates and was dead. Bacon continued with the retrospective and displayed powers of self-control “to which few of us could aspire”, according to Russell. Bacon was deeply affected by the loss of Dyer, and had recently lost four other friends and his nanny. From this point, death haunted his life and work. Though outwardly stoic at the time, he was inwardly broken. He did not express his feelings to critics, but later admitted to friends that “daemons, disaster and loss” now stalked him as if his own version of the Eumenides (Greek for The Furies). Bacon spent the remainder of his stay in Paris attending to promotional activities and funeral arrangements. He returned to London later that week to comfort Dyer’s family.
During the funeral, many of Dyer’s friends, including hardened East End criminals, broke down in tears. As the coffin was lowered into the grave one friend was overcome and screamed “you bloody fool!” Bacon remained stoic during the proceedings, but in the following months suffered an emotional and physical breakdown. Deeply affected, over the following two years he painted a number of single canvas portraits of Dyer, and the three highly regarded ‘Black Triptychs’, each of which details moments immediately before and after Dyer’s suicide.’
Francis Bacon’s wiki admits that as a young man, Bacon was a rent boy and involved in petty crime, but states that in middle age Bacon was charismatic, friendly and engaging and spent most of his time ‘eating, drinking and gambling’ with his friends in Soho. I used to know someone who knew Francis Bacon and that is not what I was told. I was told that Francis Bacon was an absolute bastard, that he was drunk, aggressive, angry and a prolific user of young men for sex. The person who knew Francis Bacon was a Hergest Unit patient. As with so many of his other adventures in his younger days, this man chatted away to the Hergest Unit staff about Francis Bacon and his circle… See post ‘The Killing Floor – I Know Cos I Was There!’
Francis Bacon’s circle of friends included Tom Baker of ‘Dr Who’ fame and of course Lucian Freud.
Fenella provided voice-overs for ‘The Prisoner’. That series was famously filmed at Portmeirion, the Italianate village in Gwynedd built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, who lived at Llanfrothen just down the road.
Sir Clough married Amabel Strachey, one of the Bloomsbury set and throughout the middle years of the 20th century, Clough and Amabel’s bohemian friends spent their summers in the Llanfrothen/Croesor area. Their friends included Bloomsbury originals, as well as a whole variety of intellectuals, artists, internationalists and radicals. Among them lived the locals, some of whom had their lives wrecked by Gwynne the lobotomist, Dafydd and the gang. See my post ‘The Village’ for details.
In later life, Bertrand Russell lived near to Clough and was a friend of his. Russell was sexually predatory, callous and abusive to his nearest and dearest and is suspected of having sexually used/abused his granddaughter Lucy, who burnt herself to death when still young. Russell employed an expensive dodgy solicitor who, along with Top Doctors, obligingly declared Russell’s relatives/victims mad and banged them up/had them disinherited at Russell’s request. See post ‘So Who Was Angry About What?’
Russell’s son Conrad – his son by Russell’s third wife Patricia – became the 5th Earl Russell, after Russell’s eldest son John Conrad, the 4th Earl Russell, who pretty much had his life ruined by his father, died. Conrad Russell was an historian who specialised in 17th century British history and wrote and lectured extensively on the origins of the English Civil War. His major works include Crisis of Parliaments: English history 1509–1660 (1971), Origins of the English Civil War (edited, 1973), Parliaments and English politics, 1621–1629 (1979), Unrevolutionary England, 1603–1642 (1990), and Fall of the British monarchies, 1637–1642 (1991).
Conrad Russell stood as a Labour candidate in the 1966 General Election but was not elected. He later became active in the Liberal Party and sat in the Lords as a Lib Dem.
Harold Pinter married Lady Antonia Fraser, the daughter of the Labour peer Lord Longford who, along with many members of his family, knew about organised abuse, including the contribution to it made by Dafydd and the gang (see post ‘Comedies Of Menace’). Lady Antonia is, like Conrad Russell, an Oxford-educated historian. Her works include Cromwell, Our Chief of Men (1973) and The Weaker Vessel (1984), a study of women’s lives in 17th century England.
Fenella Fielding’s brother is Basil Samuel Feldman, Baron Feldman and sat in the Lords as a Conservative from 1996 until his retirement in 2017. Basil Feldman is a former member of Lloyd’s of London and was the director of The Young Entrepreneurs Fund, 1985-94. He has been described as a former plastic-toy magnate whose business interests reportedly included ‘Sindy dolls, aircraft kits and yo-yos’. Feldman married his wife Gita Julius in 1952. He has two sons and a daughter. One of his sons is Nick Feldman, bass guitarist of the band Wang Chung. Feldman is a member of the Garrick and Carlton Clubs. As were/are many of those who protected Dafydd et al.
Feldman was knighted in 1982 – as Mary Wynch began her legal struggle against Dafydd and the gang. On 15 January 1996 Feldman was made a life peer. His sponsors were Thatch and Parkinson.
By Jan 1996, Sir Peter Morrison and Dafydd’s mate, the corrupt Home Office Drugs branch mandarin Bing Spear (see post ‘Little Things Hitting each Other’), were both safely dead, having died within four days of each other in July 1995. Sir Ronnie Waterhouse knew that he would be Chairing the Waterhouse Inquiry that William Hague ‘didn’t know’ that he would be announcing in six months time and Ronnie had already spent 1995 conducting a tour of Wales, where he supped and dined with many of those who should have asked questions about the abuse of children in care in north Wales but didn’t (see post ‘Heart Of Darkness’).
So Fenella ‘refused to help’ her brother with his political career. When one considers whom she had hung out with, it is fairly clear that she didn’t need to help him…
And now – it’s The Gallery