Monday 13 August 2012

An Interview with Fenella Fielding

In delicious anticipation of The Misty Moon Gallery’s 2012 celebratory evening dedicated to her, Paul Worts was granted an exclusive interview with the seductively (and quite literally) smoking-hot temptress from ‘Carry on Screaming’; the truly iconic and velvety voiced Fenella Fielding. Although perhaps best known for her role as vampish Valeria Watt, Ms. Fielding has an extraordinarily rich and diverse CV which ranges from Carry on to Chaucer by way of Chekov; from Dickens to ‘Danger Man’ to ‘Dougal and the Blue Cat’; and from Shakespeare to Shaw and the plays of Ernie Wise (what he wrote).

Now I recently went along to the National Portrait Gallery for the sole purpose of viewing one particular photograph. Can you guess which one it was?
I think you’re going to say it’s the picture of me.

Indeed I am. It was the display of photographs by former Vogue photographer Peter Rand. Now there are three images of you in the Gallery’s library, but Kenneth Williams apparently has four...

Oh well!

And rather disappointingly, when I enquired in the gallery’s bookshop as to whether there was a postcard of your photo to purchase one of the two assistants at the counter informed me there wasn’t (although I could order a print). I continued to browse for a few moments and passing by the counter on my way out I overheard one assistant whisper to her colleague: “Carry on Screaming”...

I don’t know what to say! Do you know a woman stopped me in the street yesterday and she said, “Oh, it’s you!” and then she said, “May I kiss you?” and before I had the chance to say yes or no she did and kissed me on the cheek and said “I can’t get over you!”

Now I mentioned Kenneth Williams earlier, who of course you firstly worked with in the comedy stage revue Pieces of Eight written by Harold Pinter and Peter Cook. What was it like working with Kenneth back then (some six years before Carry on Screaming)? Was it, shall we say, a bit of a ‘challenge’ at times?

Well yes because he didn’t always feel like it. And if he didn’t feel like it he would kind of throw it over to you – so I had to play both parts at once! But on the other hand when he did feel like it he didn’t really want you to be in it at all! It was a tricky time. 18 months of it, but the thing is when we did Carry on Screaming we got on fine. But I think you see with film it’s different because you only do each scene once, if it’s done right that’s it – you move on to the next – you never have to do it again. But with the stage you had to do it every night – eight times a week – and if it goes on for a long time that’s a great many repetitions.

From Kenneth Williams to Patrick McGoohan (absolutely no connection) who you firstly worked with on an episode of ‘Danger Man’...

He was absolutely lovely.

And then of course you provided the voice of the Loudspeaker Announcer & Telephone Operator in the cult classic series 'The Prisoner'. Did you ever visit Portmeirion during the filming?

No, and as a matter of fact I didn’t see the series itself till years and years later (and I mean only a few years ago). I didn’t know anything about The Prisoner at the time because when it was first broadcast if you were out for the evening you missed it [no TiVo back then] and I was in plays and shows at the time. So I had to listen to other people talking about it which was very interesting...For example, I went to a dinner party one particular night and practically everybody there was a writer of some sort, a script writer or a playwright and they were all talking about The Prisoner and saying how fascinating it was and what a brilliant series it was and what they couldn’t make out – any of them – was how it was going to finish. 

So you’d only got around to seeing it a few years ago, and at the time you’d had no advanced glimpse as to how it was going to finish?

That’s right. I recorded it in a sound box at the studio, and I had no idea at the time what it was even about! I remember Patrick popped in to see me before I recorded my parts. He said be careful, don’t make it too sexy! Well, from the script I saw in front of me I couldn’t possibly see how it could sound sexy!

Oh I don’t know I’m sure you would have found a way...

Some people apparently do find it sexy! Well all I can say is it takes all sorts!

And yet you weren’t originally credited for it?     

No, but I had tons of fan mail from it so people must’ve known it was me mustn’t they?

Now before we get on to a certain film with the word ‘Screaming’ in the title, I must ask you about ‘The Old Dark House’ horror-comedy remake, directed by William Castle.

Our remake was about the millionth remake I think! It was meant to be a comedy-horror film. I know it didn’t get a premiere, and I know that they kept on thinking they hadn’t done it right – we must take out the comedy they said – and make it more horror. So they did that and then that was not a good idea, so then they took out some horror and put back the comedy! I don’t really know what it’s like now; I think they must have lost some bits with all the cutting out and changes! Is it a good film, I just don’t know?

Well I enjoyed it immensely. It was entertainingly unpredictable – then again after what you’ve just told me I can see why! And of course what an amazing cast: Robert Morley; Joyce Grenfell -   

Lunchtimes on the set were wonderful!

I can imagine. And of course Mervyn Johns, who was also in one of my favourite scary films of all time – ‘Dead of Night’.

Oh yes! That was a wonderful film – now that one frightens me!

‘The Old Dark House’ was a Hammer co-production. Now I’ve always wondered why Hammer never asked you to be in one of their horrors. I suppose after ‘Carry on Screaming’ they feared the audience couldn’t take you seriously in a full-blown horror film?

I think that’s it, yes.

Which is a shame...

I suppose so, but I’ve not really seen many horror films so I don’t know whether it would have been a good idea or not. The most brilliant horror film I did see was Rosemary’s Baby. I mean to me that was really frightening and a brilliant movie altogether.  [Although the tension was momentarily broken for Fenella by spotting ‘The Old Dark House’ director William Castle in a cameo role during the scene where Mia Farrow runs into the phone box!].

William Castle was of course legendary for his cinema gimmicks, like suspending skeletons above the audience or most infamously for wiring up the seats in the auditorium to give patrons a mild electric shock during ‘The Tingler’ with Vincent Price.

Oh gosh that would do it wouldn’t it! I did a poetry reading with Vincent Price at the Wigmore Hall once.

Wow! And what did you read?

Ooh, some pretty scary stuff...I don’t want to tell you actually because I might just recite it at the Misty Moon on the night...

Intriguing...Okay that’s one question I can’t ask you then! So, in that case let’s move away from the scary stuff (for now at least) and talk about comedy, particularly your experiences working with the legendary Morecambe and Wise.

It was lovely - a big thrill. It was wonderful to be asked, and having done it once it was then wonderful to be asked to do it again. And everyone was so jealous of me I can’t begin to tell you! Glenda [Jackson] didn’t do it until after I’d done it!

She obviously saw what she was missing! Did they do a lot of rehearsal before they recorded? It looked so natural and at times improvised?

That’s the marvellous part isn’t it? They rehearsed very thoroughly. Eric was the boss, and he more or less told Ernie what to do. I mean Ernie knew what to do but Eric told him more. They rehearsed a lot which I found a great relief.

Right, now of course as part of the ‘Evening with Fenella Fielding’, the Misty Moon Gallery will be screening the one and only ‘Carry on Screaming’ – naturally. So let’s start at the beginning...

They had already asked me to do Carry on Cleo and I didn’t do it because I was going off to America at the time. 

How was it working with Harry H. Corbett [drafted in as a replacement for Sid James who was unavailable at the time of filming]?

It was lovely darling, so nice, so sweet; we’d have lovely chats between scenes.

Speaking of scenes...the”Do you mind if I smoke?” scene...did it require many takes?

Well we only did it twice. In fact I asked for a retake. I told Gerry [Gerald Thomas, director] why - I won’t mention why to you – [I’m intrigued!]. Gerry said ‘fine’ and so we had a retake, which was most unusual because providing you got the words out on a Carry On film it was usually straight on to the next scene as quickly as possible!  My character of course was meant to be a take on that lady in the Addams Family [Morticia Addams].

Was it true you had to buy your own ring as part of your costume for the role?

Well, yes. I went out with the lovely wardrobe lady one day and she took me to a place called Paris House in South Moulton Street that did costume jewellery. She wanted me to have these tube shaped gold-earrings. Well, while I was there I thought wouldn’t it be lovely if I had a ring with a big drop of blood in it [as you do]. So I asked if I could and she said, “Well, you can if you like, I don’t disapprove of it, but if you do you’ll have to pay for it yourself!” So I did – it was nine quid! (And I still have it – although it doesn’t come in handy that often now).

And did you get to keep the dress?

Oh good lord, I wore it every day for six weeks! No I haven’t got the dress. I had to have a ‘leaning board’. It’s something they give you for a tight frock. You just lean backwards on it on a slant. I couldn’t really sit down in it without spoiling it. I mean the only time I sat down in the whole film was in that scene with Harry.

So going to the loo must’ve been quite tricky as well!

That’s just a question of disrobing completely!

And you got along with Kenneth Williams a lot better by then as well?

Yes, it was like all the ‘difficulty’ had completely been forgotten – thank heavens.

Now, your voice once gave me nightmares – not from ‘Carry on Screaming’, but from a far more terrifying film: ‘Dougal and the Blue Cat’ (1970) and your voice as The Blue Queen...


And then far less disturbingly, I believe you were once considered for the voice of Lady Penelope in ‘Thunderbirds’?

There was talk of it yes, but it never came to anything.

And with that gorgeous voice you’ve naturally done a number of spoken word recordings. What would you say is your favourite recording?

I’ve done loads of radio plays. I did Hedda Gabler - the same week that I recorded a little novelty record called: ‘Big bad mouse’ [1966]. I’m quite keen on that.

Now more up to date, I understand in February of this year you read an extract from Mary Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’ down in the Old Vic tunnels.

Oh yes that’s right! I’d never read it before, nor ever seen a Frankenstein movie, so I didn’t really know what to expect. I found it quite chilling.

Well perhaps I could give you a crash course in horror some time?

Well, fine! Fire away, I’d love it!

Theatre-wise, not quite horror, but certainly sinister and spooky, you played Mrs Danvers in a production of ‘Rebecca’. 

That’s a wonderful roleReally and truly, but it wasn’t a wonderful production. Dear me no. We had a week’s rehearsal!

That’s less than a Carry on film!

Unbelievable. Never again. I didn’t get anything to wear until the opening night!

Let’s pretend I didn’t mention that then (!) Any particular role you always wished you could have played?

There’s that lovely lady in ‘Uncle Vanya’ (Helena), but I love the fact I’ve done ‘Hedda Gabler’ on stage as well, and then there was ‘Nora’ from ‘A Doll’s House’; they’re wonderful parts.

And just before we conclude our little chat, let me lower the tone if I may and ask you who is the sexiest actor (or actress) you’ve worked with?

Oh good lord! I can’t possibly say. (You’ll have to ask me on the night!)

How do you celebrate Halloween (if at all)?

In the usual way, going to a party.

You wouldn’t watch a scary film then?, I’d much rather have a lovely time!

Fenella Fielding: 17th November 1927 - 11th September 2018.  

Interviewed by Paul Worts

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