Leading Lady

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Felicity Kendal made her stage debut while on a tour of India at the tender age of nine months as a changeling in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Her actor/manager father changed his surname from Bragg to Kendal - after his Cumbrian birthplace - and the family moved from Birmingham to post-colonial India when Felicity was seven.

The Kendals’ Shakespeareana ensemble toured the country and Felicity attended six different convent schools while learning various roles from the classics.

She returned to the UK and struggled early in her career but never looked back once she had shot to fame wearing dungarees and gumboots as the meek and patient Barbara in the late 1970s TV series The Good Life.

Since then Kendal has largely remained in the public eye, receiving a CBE for her services to drama in 1995, appearing in television series including Rosemary & Thyme and The Camomile Lawn – and doing the splits on Strictly Come Dancing.

She has also married, divorced, married again, had a relationship with playwright Tom Stoppard before reuniting with her second husband, American theatre director Michael Rudman. She has two sons, one with each of her husbands.

At 68, she could look back with satisfaction on a glittering career and a life well lived. Instead, she is performing for the first time in Australia as the eccentric Judith Bliss in Noël Coward’s Hay Fever.

Hay Fever is a comedy of bad manners, set in the 1920s. If Noël Coward could come back and see his play now, do you think he would be happy with it?
I think he was a bit of a perfectionist, so I don’t think he would be happy with it, but I think that by the time we get it to you, he probably would be.

Will the jokes still translate in 2014?
It’s all about human nature and about either misunderstandings or people being witty. I don’t think that at the calibre that Coward writes, it does date. There isn’t a laugh in the play that people don’t get, so clearly, he writes for the modern audience.

From the age of seven, you travelled around India with your family’s company Shakespeareana and the Merchant-Ivory film Shakespeare Wallah cast you in the leading role…
That’s true. It was very loosely based on my family. Friends made the film and it didn’t cost any money but I did not audition for the part!

But it must have been frightening when you contracted typhoid in Calcutta when you were 17?
Well, even in India, you get things. It’s not particularly alarming. I was really lucky that I didn’t get other things, such as chicken pox, when I lived in India. I was very, very sick but we didn’t take things that seriously in our family…we just got on with it.

Is that why you left India two years later?
I was going because Shakespeare Wallah was going to the Berlin Film Festival and to open in London. I went to be part of that and then I stayed on to try and get work and I found it almost impossible. I had a really terribly tough two years. I hadn’t been trained here (in the UK) and I didn’t know anybody.

I had a lot of experience but I couldn’t tell anybody about it. I didn’t have an agent and I had no friends in the business so I didn’t know where to start. I just wrote a lot of letters and got rejection after rejection. Eventually I got an agent and a job, then another job and another job. It was a really difficult time financially and emotionally but I was determined to succeed because there was no alternative and I had no other qualifications.

In your memoir White Cargo, you described growing up in India. Did that affect your way of looking at the world?
Obviously if you grow up in a country that your parents have adopted, you are going to have a different view on things. And if they are a couple of actors who don’t believe in owning houses, you have another different view on things.

People would associate you with the long-suffering character Barbara Good in The Good Life. How much like Barbara Good are you?
I wish I had a penny for every time someone has asked me that question. I think the answer is in the life that I’ve led and the work that I’ve done…clearly I’m not. Like all the characters (in The Good Life), she was a wonderful creation of the writers. The Good Life was something of a fairy tale and I think that was why it was so successful.

Now that your co-stars Richard Briers and Paul Eddington have gone, do you still keep in touch with Penelope Keith and is she as hilarious as she was in The Good Life?
None of us are as hilarious as if we have comedy writers writing us a laugh every four minutes. Yes, we keep in touch. She is a very witty woman and we worked in the theatre before we did The Good Life, so we go back a long way. But I wouldn’t say she is as witty as Richard Biers who was as witty offstage as he was on-stage.

I see that after The Good Life, you were voted ‘Rear of the Year’ in 1981. That must have done wonders for the sales of dungarees…
I don’t make dungarees, so I’ve no idea. That award is a larky fun thing but it’s mainly a manufacturing ploy to sell jeans. I don’t know that it’s a serious inspection of one’s bum.

You also posed naked for Esquire magazine when you were 50…that was a big complement .
The photographs were actually rather lovely, I think. But when I arrived from India I was incredibly prudish about the seventies ‘thing’ of actresses being naked everywhere and I was slightly old-fashioned about it and I thought I was not going to get a job because I take my top off. One of the reasons I did the photo shoot with nothing on but a pair of shoes was because I thought that I don’t need a job and I can call the shots. I don’t think it matters because I grew up on a beach in Goa where nobody wore anything.

You have two tattoos. Where are they? And what are they?
I’ve got one on my heel and one on my foot. I’ve got a star for one son (Charley) and a moon for my other son (Jacob), with some feathers for my grandchildren. But you never know, I might come back with a wonderful dolphin from Australia.

You’ve described ageing as ‘liberating’…why is that?
It isn’t so much liberating as your values do change. I spend a long time worrying about things which are totally unimportant. You can’t always enjoy everything and it’s absolutely stupid to say ‘I’m going to be happy every day’ unless you are completely bonkers but you can get to an attitude where you don’t waste time on things you are not going to change. That is the ‘liberation’ of it. You can only change what you feel - you cannot alter fate.. If it’s going to happen, you can push it but you cannot alter it.

At 68 do you have any plans to cut back on your workload?
I don’t actually. I have as much energy now – probably more – than I had 10 years ago. Strangely enough, when I get to work I get a bit of a rest. When you are on tour, you are looked after, you have a schedule, you don’t have to do the washing up, fetch this or change a light bulb because you are not there. It’s just as hard work staying at home.

So retirement is not on your horizon at the moment?
Acting is a group activity and being part of that group is part of your life and to actually say ‘I’m not doing that any more’ – I don’t see that as being part of most actors’ psyche. I think if I wasn’t offered any work, I may have a different opinion, and I may say ‘I’d much rather walk the dog’ but I’ve still got a lot of work coming, so in that sense I’m very grateful that I’ve got work. Most actors are very grateful to be offered anything. It just goes with the job.

How do you relax?
I don’t. I’m always endlessly doing things. I relax when I go on holiday but even then I want to go to the gym. Relaxing for me is going abroad with the family. My life in London is very busy and we have a very big extended family and there’s always something to do with meetings and charity things.

If you had to give advice for aspiring young actors, what would it be?
Think twice and be absolutely ready for rejection and if you can’t take criticism, reconsider. Criticism is vitally important and you will get it.

This article by Rosemary Desmond was originally published in the October/November 2014 edition of 50 something magazine.

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