Although she would probably hate me for saying so, Felicity Kendal has become a national treasure. That, I guess, is the next stage after becoming the nation’s sweetheart, a status she achieved after first appearing in The Good Life in the mid-seventies. She was aware of the adoration but also knew that nothing last for ever. ‘When I was younger, playing Barbera, men used to come up to me and say they were in love with me. Now men come up to me and say their fathers were in love with me.’
As is often the case, overnight success can be a long time coming. Miss Kendal has been in the business since she was a baby – literally. Unlike many young actors thrust into the spotlight, success did not go to her well-screwed-on head. I spoke to her when I was preparing my new book Thespians and asked here how it all started. ‘My parents had a theatre company in India and I was thrown on the stage as a very young child. I suppose I must have been about five years old. I was travelling with my parents troupe and they needed a changeling child in Midsummer Nights Dream and I was there.’
I asked Miss Kendal what were her absolute first memories of treading the boards. ‘I can’t remember the first proper part I had because I was doing it before I was remembering it, if that makes sense. There wasn’t one particular moment, it was just part of how I grew up. I never had a first day at school, the theatre was my school. I don’t have one particular memory, those were my normal days, it’s what I did every day.’
It can be very easy to be swept along by events or your upbringing and have one’s life pre-determined, if you like. One can easily drift into something just because it’s there. I wondered if this was the case with Felicity. ‘It was always taken for granted that I would become an actress. My parents certainly did because I was part of the company. At one point I thought I might like to do something else but by the time I was fifteen or sixteen I finally decided that acting was what I was going to do, and that’s what I did. My life till then had been an apprenticeship and then I just went into it, it was an automatic thing. It certainly wasn’t an ambition to become an actress; it was just a job I had been trained to do and those were my qualifications.’
I asked Felicity if it had been difficult to leave the secure family and professional life she had in India and set sail in search for success on the English stage. ‘It was very difficult when I came to England in 1965 when I was nineteen. I wasn’t pleased with England. It was very cold after India. I couldn’t get a job for a long time, for almost eighteen months, but it seemed an eternity. I had to start right at the bottom, trying to get an agent, ringing everyone and writing hundreds of letters, all of which came back with a negative response. They all asked why I hadn’t been to drama school and couldn’t understand that I’d been brought up in the theatre and had been acting all my life. I didn’t fit in at all. I think they thought I was mad.
‘It was an enormous cultural shock coming to England from India in the middle of the Swinging Sixties. It wasn’t so much that it was England or London, it was that I’d led a very cloistered life. In one sense it was very broad minded being a theatre company with all sorts of very relaxed behaviour, but on the other hand I hadn’t been out in the wide world by myself at all. I’d always been with family. So to actually have to find my way around and be independent in that sense, that was the shock. I think it would have been the same wherever I was, it was being by myself that was the real problem.’
After a life-time in the theatre I wondered if it was possible to maintain the same passion for the business, the same excitement. ‘The thing is, it’s a job. I don’t know if I still get a thrill or nervous walking on stage. It’s like any job, I think. Of course, there is always a sense of apprehension when you do something new, but the more experienced you are, the less frightened you are of it. It’s what you do. I find going on holiday thrilling; I don’t know if I find work thrilling. It’s an area of my life which is very important to me.
‘First nights, as I remember as a very young actress, used to absolutely terrify me. I was very, very nervous. But you just learn to deal with that. It affects different people in different ways; some people get more nervous the older they get, other people less. I try and see it all in proportion now. It’s not brain surgery, it’s a show, it’s entertainment and hopefully will be very good. I don’t put my whole life and soul on to the block thinking that if I fail in this part then my life is over. I think when you’re young you do tend to think like that and it’s right that you should. It’s much more important to you when you are younger and making a reputation.’
Felicity Kendal was talking exclusively to Michael Hasted.
© Michael Hasted 2013. No reproduction in whole or in part without specific permission.
You might be interested to read the whole story in Felicity Kendal’s autobiography, White Cargo
Geoffrey Kendal’s dream was to do theatre for as much of his life as he could manage, and to be under nobody’s thumb. He and his wife put together a small company, and together they barnstormed around India doing Shakespeare, Wilde, and Shaw for the best part of three decades. Before she was one of the most famous and loved actresses of her generation, Felicity Kendal was Geoffrey’s daughter (her first film was Merchant Ivory’s Shakespeare Wallah which celebrates his company).
This memoir of her early life, and of the slow process of watching her father die recently, is distinguished by clear-sightedness; this is a book about the way you love impossible parents even when you have eventually to walk away from them for a while. It is full of the sights and scents of both India and the theatre; there are few better books on the nervous pride of the actor. It is wonderfully evocative too of the unforgivingly hip sixties London to which Felicity Kendal came back as a naive ingenue. The tone of voice is idiosyncratic and charmingly personal and the book as a whole is touching without a scrap of sentimentality. —Roz Kaveney –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.