The lady vanishes: What ever happened to Fenella Fielding?

She wowed Noel Coward, fascinated Fellini and seemed destined to become a huge star. But after a vampish turn in 1966's 'Carry on Screaming', Fenella Fielding's film career never recovered. Here, she tells her amazing story – and reveals why her latest showbusiness venture has gone horribly wrong

Part of the charm of popular music is its tendency to foster curious and unexpected collaborations. Frank Zappa famously recorded a session with the Royal Philharmonic, in the course of which, according to a 1971
Daily Telegraph report, several members of the orchestra "became nauseous and wept". You may recall Baron Mayhew of Wimbledon's sampled contribution to "Christopher Mayhew Says" by Scottish psychedelic band The Shamen, where the Liberal peer attempts, with little success, to count from one to 20 while under the influence of mescaline, a substance he had ingested under clinical supervision for a Panorama investigation into the effects of hallucinogens.

And last year, at a recording studio in Rochdale, there occurred perhaps the most surprising collision in the recent history of contemporary music. The actress Fenella Fielding – best known for her performances in films such as Carry on Screaming – was recorded by executive producer David Britton, owner of Manchester-based publishers Savoy Books, and author of the notoriously decadent novel Lord Horror. It was a venture which united the woman famous as England's first lady of the double entendre with the last man in the country to be jailed under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act. The resulting album includes her take on songs such as "Passive Manipulation" by The White Stripes, "Rise" by Public Image Ltd and Nick Lowe's "The Beast in Me". Fielding had previously recorded literature for Savoy, including excerpts from JG Ballard's challenging classic of morbid eroticism, Crash.

It's rare that all participants emerge from a studio equally enamoured of the result, and Fielding's Rochdale excursion has proved to be no exception. Britton is broadly satisfied with the surreal experience of applying Fielding's laryngitic sensuality to classics of modern songwriting. The actress is less impressed, to the point that she does not want the CD, which has a predominantly electronic, late-1980s techno feel, to be released. Fielding's agent told me he was "not at all happy" to discover I'd been sent a final mix of the album. But Fielding, sounding far more phlegmatic, agreed to meet me at The Dorchester Hotel to discuss her career.

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 – to use a phrase deservingly derided by Alan Bennett, but in this case the only one that will do – as a national treasure. Fielding pioneered the notion that a young British woman could write and perform stand-up comedy, with her solo shows and musical revues at places such as Peter Cook's Establishment club. Her Hedda Gabler was described by The Times as "one of the experiences of a lifetime". Yet she has somehow come to be remembered only as a sort of cartoon vamp. If there's a single image that defines her in the public's memory, it's the one in which Valeria, her character in Carry on Screaming, who is a member of the living dead, reclines on a chaise-longue and asks "Do you mind if I smoke?" Seconds later, clouds of dry ice appear, apparently rising from her generously exposed torso.

Shivering on the forecourt of the Dorchester are a group of photographers waiting for a Keira Knightley or a Johnny Depp. Seeing Fenella Fielding, who emerges from a taxi dressed modestly but elegantly in a charcoal leather raincoat and her trademark white-collared blouse, the entire group turns to look at her, as if instinctively sensing the presence of a true star.

Fielding, who is one of the industry's more retiring figures, had explained that she couldn't meet me at her west London flat because she was having building work done. We sit down for tea in the hotel bar. Her appearance has scarcely changed over the past 30 years: somehow – and by what strategies I don't ask her – she has retained her looks without developing the alarming skeletal appearance acquired by actresses whose faces have had "work".

Her age has been the subject of some debate. She says she was 73 in November. Enemies, some of whom appear to have tampered with her Wikipedia entry, ungallantly ' assert that she has been with us slightly longer than that. There is, she tells me, a significant gap in years between herself and her brother Basil, otherwise known as Baron Feldman of Frognal. The baron, a former plastic-toy magnate whose business interests, according to one report, have included "Sindy dolls, aircraft kits and yo-yos", is an influential figure in the Conservative Party.

"It must be quite a gap," I suggest, "because Basil gives his age in Who's Who as 81."

"It is," she says. "But you'll have to be vague about that. Or I may never work again."

Quite why her age should be of concern to anyone, I'm not sure, given that she has lost nothing in terms of swiftness of thought or memory: there was no point during our several hours of conversation at which she had to pause to search for a name. She's sharp, engaging, and discusses the work of writers ranging from Stella Gibbons to Patrick Marber. Like her old friend Kenneth Williams, she maintains an exaggeratedly robust façade, which serves as a buffer against a potentially cruel and intrusive world. The tone of ironic seduction and improbable poshness that she brought to her two Carry on... films and movies such as Doctor in Clover, never fades. When Patrick McGoohan asked her to be the voice that hails the villagers in his 1967 television series, The Prisoner, she recalls, "He told me not to be too sexy. I mean," she adds, "such a thought would never have occurred to me."

Most performers who have spent over 50 years in showbusiness have generated a thick and colourful stack of newspaper cuttings. But this actress's file is slim, and contains almost nothing in terms of substantive information about her. She is not, as it turns out, an aristocrat; Fielding is a stage name and Basil, her only sibling, is a life peer whose sponsors, when he entered the Lords, were Margaret Thatcher and Cecil Parkinson.

"Daddy had a cinema," she says. "At Silvertown. In north London." "Did you go there, as a girl?" "Yes." "What did you see?" "I can't remember. I can remember what I ate. Coconut squares dipped in chocolate, wrapped in gold paper." Fielding laughs. "Lovely."

She admits to being the daughter of Philip Feldman, who arrived in Britain aged about three, from Russia, and his wife Tilly, who was Romanian. She concedes that she grew up in Lower Clapton, Hackney, and went to North London Collegiate School, but won't say which London drama school she attended.

"I think you're on record as saying it was Rada."

"I ... it's not important. I didn't complete the course. There were rows every morning."

"Because your parents didn't want you to act?" "I had to hide every morning, until Daddy had gone out to work. And then stay out late to try to avoid him in the evening. Because of these terrible rows. Mummy would come and try to get me to go back home in the middle of the day. After about a year the school said look, this cannot carry on. I had to leave."

She was dispatched to secretarial college. Concerning her ambition to act, she once said, "I think my parents had visions of me being found in the Thames with six illicit foetuses in my womb and needle marks up my arm."

As a young girl, she had wanted to be a doctor. "I remember once saying that I'd like to go to university. My father told me: 'I would rather see you dead at my feet than have you go to a university.' I'm laughing about it now, but at the time I was terribly upset. I didn't even understand what going to university meant."

Asking her questions, I tell her, I keep being reminded of what the southern Spanish say about the Catalans, namely that they are so secretive that if you meet them in a department-store lift, they won't tell you if they're going up or down. She has never married, something which – combined with the many friendships she has had with gay men, such as Francis Bacon, Kenneth Williams and author Daniel Farson – have led some to assume her to be lesbian.

"I suppose it's only natural, if you don't have prominent liaisons. But my closest lady friends, if they heard that, they would shriek with laughter."

"Have you lived your life alone?"

"I don't think that would be entirely true. Not really. Years ago, a woman asked me: 'Do you have a boyfriend?' I told her: 'I have two lovers.' She got very upset and said: 'What a terrible thing to say.' Why was that terrible? And later on, I repeated this to a man who was gay. He said: 'Well, that is terrible. It must only ever be one person.' I said: 'Oh. Right. Fine. I see. I'll remember that. Thank you for the tip.'"

"Who have you lived with?"

"I don't know quite what you mean." She gives me the kind of look you might get if you'd asked her to give you one of her kidneys: astonished and slightly pitying; keen to help, but feeling you've gone one step too far for a stranger. "Oh. A lover or a husband. I see. How extraordinary. Erm..." There's a very long pause. "Isn't that terrible. I feel I just can't." [Friends say that she has had the same escort – "a distinguished-looking gentleman", one said, "of about her own age" – for at least a decade.]

"It's unusual to meet an instinctively private person, in a profession where most people are only too keen to talk about themselves."

"Well, that's a double-edged sword, isn't it?"

"Where's the danger in it?"

"People can turn on you."

"But the good side of public attention is that it keeps your name alive."

"That's true. Otherwise," she says, with a look that suggests some knowledge of the condition, "it can all go away.

Fenella Fielding was given her first break by the actor Ron Moody, who met her in an amateur production at the London School of Economics. In the late-1950s she gave a stunning performance in Valmouth, the Sandy Wilson musical that made her a star. By the autumn of 1959 she was appearing with Kenneth Williams in a comedy revue called Pieces of Eight, written by Harold Pinter and Peter Cook. It ran for a year and a half and, close as the two became, the experience prompted some of the more acerbic lines in Williams' diaries, concerning "La Fielding" and her moods.

"He was very difficult to work with," she says. "When he felt like it, it was just bliss. But he could be hideous. It was a very tricky time. I used to be innocent. I used to be trusting. But after 18 months of that..."

She went on to co-write, and star in, a satire on theatrical vanity called So Much to Remember: The Life Story of a Very Great Lady, promoted by her friend, the late William ' Donaldson: impresario, author of the classic Henry Root Letters and subject of Terence Blacker's compelling recent biography, You Cannot Live as I Have Lived and Not End Up Like This.

Fielding is no stranger to the withering aside. "It's really splendid, my dear," she once told a fellow actress who was showing off her new house in Wandsworth. "Are you going to bring it into town?" She had no difficulty holding her own in the company of humorists such as Donaldson, Cook and Jeffrey Bernard (the late Spectator columnist is the only lover whose name she will confirm, even though "it wasn't a really serious fling – he was always so pissed"). Yet, for all her literary enthusiasms and mental agility, Fielding found herself typecast in knockabout film comedy. She interspersed appearances in the Doctor... films opposite Dirk Bogarde with plays by Ibsen, Shakespeare and Henry James, and reputedly kept an edition of Plato's writings by her bed. When it came to public perception of her range, though, she found low farce overcame serious drama as paper wraps stone.

"You get set on a path and, if you succeed, you get better parts, but of the same kind. If you don't take a lot of trouble, you get stuck like that." "And that's what has happened to you?" "I've managed to get away from that, time and time again. But people still think of me in a certain way because of the Carry on... films."

In recent years, one of her most prominent film appearances was an unflattering role in Adrian Edmondson's 1999 production Guest House Paradiso. She had a small but memorable part in James Callis and Nick Cohen's imaginative 2001 film comedy Beginner's Luck, and reached what was probably the nadir of her movie career last year, in the catastrophic British comedy The All Together, which stars Martin Freeman of The Office, where she made a cameo appearance which was barely credited.

It hasn't escaped her notice that some cinema producers have not accorded her the respect she deserves. "It was hideous," she says of one recent movie. "It was revolting. They shouldn't have had me in it. Bastards."

David Britton and his co-author and fellow producer Michael Butterworth – remarkably enough, considering their aberrant and subversive attitude to almost every other British institution – approached Fielding out of genuine respect for her work. "The most important thing you have to understand," Britton told me, "is that we have never, ever, set out to make her look foolish."

Fielding first worked with Britton's Savoy Books in 2002, at a studio in east London. The room had been decorated by the punk designer Jamie Reid. "They approached me to do some readings," she recalls. "I refused at first, but they kept coming back. The first thing I did was La Squab, which was a book of David's." Later, they recorded TS Eliot's "Four Quartets", and pieces by Colette, who was the subject of a one-woman show Fielding performed in New York, in 1970.

Some of these recordings work magnificently well – the TS Eliot, especially, is extraordinary.

"Except that they wouldn't let me re-record things," says Fielding, who has less time for William Burroughs' one-take ethos than Britton and Butterworth.

"Yet you read Crash for them; the idea of you broaching that is almost inconceivable, but the result is very powerful." '

"I had to think very hard before I did that. I talked to [the former head of Radio 4 drama] John Tydeman. He said: 'Look, it is marvellously written.' But I had to tell David and Mike that there were some things in there that I didn't want to say. At the recording, they expressed some displeasure when I skipped bits that I knew I wouldn't get out of my mind. Now they say that without those lines, it's no use. But they did promise me that if there was stuff I couldn't do, I wouldn't have to. I just couldn't make myself. It is extraordinary how far you can go, and the point where you balk."

"Where is that point?" "I can't explain."

What is certain is that, between Fenella Fielding's balking point, and that of Britton and Butterworth, there's quite a bit of what her brother might call clear blue water. Until very recently, Fielding had no real idea of the history of the people she was dealing with.

David Britton grew up in Collyhurst, an area of Manchester most famous for producing very good footballers. Together with Butterworth (a writer who emerged in the 1960s as part of the new wave of science-fiction authors encouraged by their friend Michael Moorcock) he has run bookshops and locksmiths in and around the city since the early-1970s.

As a schoolboy I used to visit Britton's record shop in Manchester's Tib Street: an unforgettably sleazy establishment sandwiched between a transvestite goldfish dealer and a porn store; it had an unrivalled selection of illegal recordings by obscure punk bands. "Ian Curtis used to visit that shop," Britton says. "Morrissey came in and talked to us when he was researching his book on James Dean. Tony Wilson came in with people like Ian Dury. But in Manchester, we always felt as if we were outcasts in an outcast culture."

I interviewed Britton and Butterworth in 1990, at Savoy's then-headquarters, a room above their locksmith shop, close to Granada TV studios. Days earlier, Greater Manchester Police had seized their entire stock of Lord Horror. A magistrate declared the book obscene on the grounds of anti-Semitism, and ordered all remaining copies to be incinerated.

It's fairly easy to grasp – if not necessarily empathise with – the inflammatory aims of their most controversial book. Britton was driven, among other things, by a desire to bait his long-standing enemy, the then-chief constable of Manchester, James Anderton. In Lord Horror, one of Anderton's homophobic outbursts is replicated with the word "homosexuals" replaced by "Jews" throughout. Britton was duly rewarded with a four-month sentence, served in Risley Remand Centre and Stafford Prison. The overall tone of some passages of Lord Horror is such that reproducing quotations in a family newspaper is simply not an option. As I recently explained to Britton, my own preference, if I ever find the copy that is festering somewhere on my shelves, would be to incinerate it rather than sell it for the £300 that the edition now fetches.

Britton says he was interested in the "subtext of menace" in Fielding's voice. The actress, for her part, says she knows nothing about Lord Horror, but does add, "Historically, I have never thought of the police as great literary critics."

I'm not sure there's anyone alive who would enjoy every track on the CD that Fenella Fielding made in Rochdale. That said, some of the songs, I suggest to the actress, do work on some peculiar level. A splendidly bold interpretation of "Rusty Cage" – a song by Seattle-born songwriter Chris Cornell, made famous when it was covered by Johnny Cash – begins with Fielding needling the producer. "Isn't that a nasty sound?" she asks, referring to the rhythm track. There is a mumbled negative from the mixing desk. "No? Oh. I see. I just wondered. Because if I wasn't doing this to the record, I'd think, well – fuck it, you know."

There's a highly original version of ee cummings' poem "may I feel said he"; I even like her version of John Lydon's "Rise". "Oh," she says. "That was ludicrous. It just goes on and on."

"You say that, but have you heard Jessica Mitford's recording of 'I Am The Walrus?'"

"Yes, but she chose that song."

"What about 'Angels'? That's a potential single."

"I didn't think 'Angels' was terrible. I just thought it was a bit of a nerve for me to record it, as though I thought I was better than Robbie Williams. At one point in the studio I thought: 'These people are simply mad.' It was just me droning away. I mean ..." Fielding laughs, "...why?"

Crash, "Four Quartets" and all of her other Savoy recordings, remain unreleased. "We had an agreement that we would not put them out without Fenella's permission," said Britton, "and we are going to respect that."

If the Savoy CD represented a radical departure from Fielding's usual repertoire, the dissatisfaction she has experienced as a result of making it has taken her to more familiar territory – namely, a dread of not being taken seriously. As long ago as 1966 – the same year in which she recorded a single called "Big Bad Mouse" – she was telling a reporter that "I don't want to be a joke."

Was there one moment, I ask Fielding, where she might have broken away from the stereotype typified by Carry on Screaming? "I turned down the chance to work with Frederico Fellini in the late-1960s." The director of La Strada and La Dolce Vita, she adds, "had a big thing about me. He saw me on stage in the Sardou comedy, Let's Get a Divorce. He wanted me to do this film in which I'd play the incarnation of six different men's desires. Not a bad role." Fielding laughs. "You see, Fellini had never heard of Carry on... He just saw what he saw and thought: I like that. It was thrilling. I had to meet him at a hotel. It was a fascinating time; full of secret telegrams and so on. He was gorgeous. But I'd already said yes to a play at Chichester. I thought it would be dishonorable to let them down. I would say that's the thing that I really regret."

"What happened to the Fellini film?" "He never made it. He sold the script. What I did was really stupid, I know. But everybody does something really stupid. That was my one."

It's not as if she hasn't done outstanding work in recent years: Dearest Nancy, Darling Evelyn, her dramatised performance of the letters between Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, has toured to excellent reviews, but always in small venues. And she had a successful tour of Ireland in 2006 with The Vagina Monologues.

In 1996, at the tiny New End Theatre in Hampstead, the theatre director Andrew Visnevski gave Fielding a starring role in Maria, the life story of Polish poet Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska. (She was a truly great writer, often referred to as the Polish Oscar Wilde – just why has Ms Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska never become a household name?) Talking to Visnevski, I mentioned how many contemporary films I'd seen – mostly, but not exclusively, comedies – in which Fielding might have shone. The scarcity of her recent appearances on screen has, I suggested, been little short of tragic.

"There are so many parts she could have played," Visnevski said. "Her mind is crystal-clear, she does yoga every day, and she is still interested in everything. She judges films for Bafta. I cast her in that straight biographical play about a woman writer who dies of cancer partly because I wanted to see her shed that caricaturish Carry on... image that has haunted her for years. She was just phenomenal. She is an incredible, multi-faceted actor."

"So why isn't she working more?"

"Everybody sees Fenella through the image she's created. She is, let's face it, one of the last great stars in England. And every great star has an image. But hidden under there is a vigorous, highly intelligent, uniquely talented and sensitive artist who still has a great deal to offer."

Uniquely talented she may be, but the urgent question that faces Fenella Fielding is how long it may be before any contemporary casting directors notice. When we leave The Dorchester, the photographers turn to stare at her again. Fielding seems oblivious to them. She has to prepare for an audition the following day, she says, but she doesn't like to talk about prospective roles in case she doesn't get them. She picks her way across the forecourt, which is crowded with limousines and taxis, and boards a bus for Marble Arch, still dreaming of a less trivial kind of fame.

Pinewood Studios is holding a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 'Carry on...' films on 16 March

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