Fenella Fielding: the velvet-tongued marvel trapped in a camp cul-de-sac

Fenella Fielding
Sexy-campy-vampy cartoon persona … Fenella Fielding. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

Some time in the late 1960s, Federico Fellini is said to have taken the beautiful young Fenella Fielding out to dinner at Claridge’s in London and offered her a movie that he would direct, featuring her in half a dozen roles: a sensational showcase. But Fielding turned him down, on the grounds that she was booked for a theatrical season at Chichester. It may not have happened quite that way – Fielding had a mischievous way of exaggerating anecdotes for the benefit of saucer-eyed interviewers. But however serious or merely seductive Fellini’s movie idea (did he expansively improvise it over brandies?), the great director was undoubtedly impressed with Fielding’s acting talent. She was a brilliant interpreter of Wilde and Ibsen on stage and had written and performed one-woman revue shows at the time of the Peter Cook satire boom. Perhaps Fellini was also a little in love with her.

What would have happened if Fielding had somehow broken her Chichester contract and done the Fellini film? Perhaps her career and public reputation would have gone another way, and she would have achieved a position in film to match the very real respect she had earned in the theatre.

Fenella Fielding in Carry on Screaming, with Billy Cornelius and Kenneth Williams
In Carry on Screaming, 1966, with Billy Cornelius and Kenneth Williams. Photograph: Films/Rex/Shutterstock

As things turned out, she was destined to be remembered for just one thing, and she good-humouredly accepted that: a sexy-campy-vampy cartoon persona. This was most obviously her slinky Valeria in Carry on Screaming (1966), in which she reclines languorously on a chaise-longue, asks Harry H Corbett’s uptight-but-tempted police inspector: “Do you mind if I smoke?” and starts to emit vapour from her whole body. “And I was trying to give up!” says Corbett, reaching eagerly into the fog. That deathless line became the title of her autobiography. Everyone agreed that Fenella Fielding was smoking hot.

Many talented actors have their careers derailed by one distinctive thing about them, which goes from meal ticket to millstone. Fielding became the victim-beneficiary of that extraordinary voice: outrageously, hilariously velvety and kittenish. In her early movie career, doing light comedies such as the Doctor movies and a farce with Norman Wisdom (whom she detested), she just sounded posh, husky and sexy. If things had been different, she could have had Joanna Lumley’s career. But everyone could see how well the voice played on screen. Fielding prudently declined to do any more Carry Ons after that, seeing all too clearly how she would be imprisoned. But it defined her.

Fenella Fielding with Noël Coward and other stars of High Spirits in 1964
Richly resonant voice ... with Noël Coward, bottom left, and other stars of High Spirits in 1964. Photograph: Moore/Getty Images

In her film career, she was arguably the equivalent of Kenneth Williams, who played her brother in Carry on Screaming: the absurd undead scientist Dr Orlando Watt. He, too, was a very intelligent stage performer, great raconteur and chatshow turn with a richly resonant voice that he allowed to become a self-parody; he was tempted into the cul-de-sac of popular British cinema at a time when that appeared to offer regular work and the easy hit of popular fame. But it was a Faustian bargain. As for Fielding, she continued to work in television and the theatre, including some stints with Morecambe and Wise (unlike Gerald Thomas’s stingy Carry On film deals, TV work with Eric and Ernie would have earned her handsome payments for their endless repeats). She became something like a national treasure, and her theatre work is a cherished memory. It would have been interesting if someone had offered her a decent film role.