INTERVIEW: Fenella Fielding | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Fenella Fielding is perhaps best known for her role as the ghoulish Valeria Watt – the character she played alongside Kenneth Williams in the 1966 film Carry on Screaming – most of all for her immortal line “do you mind if I smoke?”, spoken as plumes of smoke rose eerily from her body. The film has since become iconic; the combination of comedy and horror having been cited as a formative influence by the gentry of British comedy, from The League of Gentlemen (Mark Gatiss describes it as ‘seminal’), to Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead.

“I’m really amazed by its popularity,” Fielding tells me, with trademark elegance, “it had a wonderful script though. Scary enough for those that want to be scared, and very funny for those that want to laugh. I think it also has a very good plot, and a good plot is fantastically important.”

Fielding’s love for stories, for good literature and for language is obvious in the way she speaks. Her tongue rolls around each vowel, carefully enunciating each and every word as she cheerily tells me what she has planned for her visit to Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema on Sunday 2nd August. “I will be doing a reading!” she tells me. “I think I’ll be reading Frankenstein – not all of it of course!” she adds, dryly. “It really is pretty smashing stuff!”

Fenella at Liverpool Homotopia November 2014__1438094891_128.65.101.133

This won’t be her first trip to the Tyneside Cinema, though, and she has fond memories of both the cinema and the city following a visit in the 1970s to see a Woody Allen film while performing at the Theatre Royal in a Noel Coward play. “Yes, I’ve been [to Newcastle] twice.” She says. “I remember it being remarkably cold and coming out of the theatre after the show on a Friday night, everybody was out in the street all dressed up and the girls were wearing practically nothing!”

Fielding’s long career will always remain synonymous with the likes of Morecambe and Wise, Peter Cook, Noel Coward and Kenneth Williams in the 50s and 60s, as well as her brief dalliance with cinematic icon Federico Fellini – who famously offered her a major role, which she then turned down. Since then Fielding has quietly carved out a remarkably eclectic career for herself: recently appearing on Channel 4’s Skins as well as lending her vocal talents to a variety of intriguing projects with David Britton’s controversial Savoy Books, including an audio book of JG Ballard’s Crash and an album of cover versions of songs by the likes of Public Image Ltd and The White Stripes. She has also worked with video artist Martin Firrell on a piece called MetaFenella, an interactive video portrait which places her own life and work into a series of different contexts. “I went to his studio and he asked my opinion on a variety of topics, then he challenged the things that I’d said and he got more out of me that way,” she explains. “It was extremely tiring and at the end of the day I wasn’t even sure whether I would be able to speak again. Or walk. Then, about 18 months later he screened it at the Soho Theatre and I was absolutely amazed to hear the things that I’d come out with. He’d asked me about religion and I had said ‘I do think that religion can be very time consuming’ and he found all of these nuggets of things I’d said like that. I was flabbergasted! I wasn’t sure whether it was me or not, I mean it was my voice and my face so I suppose it must have been. I mean, it’s fascinating to realise you have opinions on things which you didn’t realise you had an opinion on.”

I adored playing Hedda Gardner – I mean, who would not!?

Despite these forays into modern media and art, it is theatre and literature that remain closest to her heart and continue to stand as her proudest achievements: “I think one of the most exciting things I ever did was a play by Henry James. It was relatively unknown, it was very romantic and some of it was very funny. Also, I adored playing Hedda Gardner – I mean, who would not!? These Ibsen parts are terribly good parts and terribly good plays. The plots are simply wonderful!” I wonder what is it that drives the woman who was once dubbed ‘England’s first lady of the double entendre’ to carry on working well into her 80s? “Well, when you love doing something you just keep doing it, don’t you?” And how will she be spending the three hour train journey from London to Newcastle, I ask. “Oh, I’ll probably just chat, chat, chat. Or read a lovely book.”

An Evening With Fenella Fielding is at Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema on Sunday 2nd August, with a screening of Carry On Screaming at 4pm.

MetaFenella is available online.

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