Actor best known for femme fatale roles in Carry On films
Fenella Fielding shared the screen with Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Dirk Bogarde
Fenella Fielding in 1971: You never felt that she had skimped on mascara, eyeshadow or lipstick, or that her hair was necessarily all her own in its chaotic and often strangely unkempt manifestation. Photograph: PA Wire
Fenella Marion Fielding (Feldman)
Born: November 17th, 1927; Died: September 11th, 2018
Inimitable, luxuriantly breathy and slyly mellifluous, Fenella Fielding, who has died aged 90, was a household name in the 1960s when she graced and sidled across the West End stage and the television screen, as well as appearing in the Carry On and Doctor films, usually playing a vamp, or the femme fatale, alongside actors such as Kenneth Williams, Sid James, Dirk Bogarde and James Robertson Justice.
There was always something exotic and possibly louche about Fielding. You never felt that she had skimped on mascara, eyeshadow or lipstick, or that her hair was necessarily all her own in its chaotic and often strangely unkempt manifestation. At the same time, she might appear in public, and occasionally on television, on a chat show, or the popular word game Call My Bluff, dressed in clothes of a distinctly severe line, with white collars back and front, clasped with big jewellery, which gave her the appearance of an unlikely modern nun on the run. No one ever had such a laughing drawl, or haughtier, naughtier intonations.
And then she would be spied scuttling around the stacks in the London Library, researching and reading, writing up her diary; as an intellectual, she was no slouch. She was as clever as she was innately funny, the emphatic articulation a sign of both the musical value she attached to words and the precise weight and emphasis of their meaning. A lot of gurgling and swooping went on, but years at the coalface of cabaret and intimate revue ensured that Fielding’s timing was never out, her meaning never insecure, her indecision always final.
Fenella grew up in a mansion flat in Clapton, east London, with her parents, Philip and Tilly Feldman (both Jewish, he an immigrant Lithuanian, she originally Romanian), an elder brother, Basil (later Lord Feldman, a Tory peer), and a “sort of nanny person” who took Fenella to dance classes on the Holloway Road. Philip was a cinema manager and boss of a ladies’ underwear factory, a prominent freemason and, according to his daughter, abusively violent towards her.
The family moved to Edgware in 1940 when Fenella was 13 and a pupil at the North London collegiate school. She won a scholarship to Rada, but left after one year, pressured by her parents to “get a proper job”. She took a secretarial course while studying at Saint Martin’s School of Art (now Central Saint Martins ) and worked for the actors’ agent Al Parker, and in a beautician’s parlour.
But she was determined to go on the stage. After a grounding in concert halls and club theatres around London, she left home, took a flat in Clarges Street, Mayfair, which she shared with a prostitute, and started making cameo appearances on the night club scene of the 1950s: at Churchill’s in Bond Street, the Don Juan in Brook Street and in the Washington Mayfair hotel.
She did not marry, but said that for 20 years she kept two lovers on the go, without either knowing of the other’s existence
She was talent-spotted while appearing at the London School of Economics in a revue written by Ron Moody , and this led to her first West End professional engagement, in a 1954 revue, Cockles and Champagne, at the Saville. So she was a comparatively late starter, but she made up for lost time as an exotic vamp, Luba Tradjejka, in Jubilee Girl (1956) at the Victoria Palace.
Her earliest films included Doctor in Distress (1963), with Bogarde at his smoothest and sprightliest as Simon Sparrow, and Ken Hughes’s Drop Dead Darling (1966) in which, as a wealthy object of Tony Curtis’s attentions, she was treated to a ride out in the country, where she jumped over a hedge Curtis had artfully placed on the edge of a cliff.
Fielding played Valeria the vampire in Carry on Screaming (1966), a very funny spoof of the Hammer horror films, in which she curled up on a sofa and exhaled the line, “Do you mind if I smoke?” while wreathed in a billowing, fiery furnace; the phrase served as the title of her chatty 2017 autobiography, written with Simon McKay.
She moved in 1966 into a top-floor flat in Connaught Mews, near Marble Arch, which cost her just £13 a week. She had a knack for landing on her feet in her personal life that perhaps evaded her professionally later on. She did not marry, but said that for 20 years she kept two lovers on the go, one of them married, without either knowing of the other’s existence, as befits a Feydeau specialist.
In her memoir she described the men who had behaved badly in the workplace: Tony Hancock was “drunk”; Warren Mitchell simply “horrible”; and Norman Wisdom (with whom she filmed Follow a Star in 1959) prone to on-set lechery: “His hand up your skirt first thing in the morning was not a lovely way to start a day’s filming,” she said.
Fielding continued working past her 90th birthday, making radio programmes, recording poetry and voiceovers and rarely going anywhere without her spider-like eyelashes, eyelashes Dusty Springfield once acknowledged as the model for her own. She was not immune to the appeal of drink, drugs and psychotherapy, but survived all these brushes to come out fighting, and as huskily cheerful and optimistic as ever. She was appointed OBE in the Queen’s birthday honours in June.
She is survived by her brother.