Felicity Kendal – My Cultural Firsts, Sunday Times. Writer’s Cut

150 150 Rob McGibbon

Felicity Kendal, 75, spent much of her childhood in India on tour with her father’s repertory company. She shot to fame playing Barbara in the BBC sitcom The Good Life in 1975. She is about to tour in Michael Frayn’s farce Noises Offand is writing the follow-up to her 1998 bestselling memoir, White Cargo.

First stage play I saw
My family’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream — but I was nine months old, so does that count? I was the Changeling Boy to my mother’s Titania and my view was from a basket. My childhood was spent watching Shakespeare plays from the wings or performing in them all over India. The first play I saw that was not ours was a school production of Richard II at the Doon, a posh boys school in Dehradun, in the north. It was an open air production with a forest as the backdrop. My sister Jennifer, who was 13 years older than me, played Queen Anne and King Richard made his first entrance on a real stallion. Fabulous!

First film I saw at the cinema
This will date me. The original Walt Disney Peter Pan from 1953 when I was about seven. My aunt Mary took me to see it in Bangalore. I loved Captain Hook and his wicked smile and Tiger Lily, but I thought Tinker Bell was a pain in the arse. One of my very few regrets in life is that I turned down the Peter role in a great production at the Coliseum in 1976 because I was having problems in my love life. Damn. Whoever that boyfriend was, he wasn’t worth it.

First actor I admired
Paul Scofield
playing Timon in Timon of Athens at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1965 when I was 19. I went on my own and sat up in the gods. Paul was mesmerising. He was physically beautiful and I remember him striding the stage like a panther, his voice filling the theatre. He had such charisma that he commanded concentration from the audience. I went again the following week, even though I had so little money.

His performance gave me the determination to fight to get into the business. I went on to work with him three times — in Amadeus, Othello at the National and in Heartbreak House. He was very special and I loved him dearly. I flatter myself that, as much of a recluse that he was, I became one of the few who could claim to be his friend.

First TV show I never missed
I was never that interested in television when I was young because I saw it as second class compared to theatre or films. Plus, there weren’t many televisions on tour in India. Back in England, I first lived with my mother’s family in Solihull and they watched TV every evening after supper. It was me and my three cousins, my aunt and uncle, all crammed into a tiny front room. The Avengersand The Man from U.N.C.L.E were firm favourites — but if there was anything remotely sexual my uncle felt so uncomfortable that he’d get up and go to his study.

First sitcom that made me laugh
Dad’s Army
was unmissable. All the cast were fantastic, the scripts were to die for, and the comic timing was blissful. They made it all look so effortless. My favourite was John Le Mesurier as Wilson. I called him Eeyore because he was always the gloomy one. Comedy is all about timing and great scripts, which is what we had in The Good Life. I have done a lot of comedy over the years because it is fun and lifts my spirits. That’s why I’m doing Noises Off.

First book I loved
A thrilling biography about Mary Queen of Scots, simply called The Queen of Scots by Stefan Zweig. I remember reading it in my early teens on a voyage from Bombay to Singapore. Our theatre company always travelled in the cheapest cabins and I could not wait to crawl on to my top bunk, open the book and disappear to the 1500s. It was a total escape.

First album I bought
We only had a very basic portable gramophone in India and we had very little money, but when I was about 14 my sister Jennifer gave me an LP of Albinoni’s Adagio for Strings in G minor. I listened to it endlessly and I still love it. It is haunting and beautiful and it takes me straight back to those years. Jennifer died of cancer in 1984 when she was only 50, which was awful. She was the star of our family and that piece of music always reminds me of her, so it is particularly moving. It makes me want to cry.

First famous person I met
[the Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru] when I was about six. He came to our production of The Merchant of Venice in Delhi. He always invited my dad to lunch whenever we were in Delhi. I also met the Maharani of Jaipur — Gayatri Devi — when I was 12. She invited our company to tea. She wafted into the room on a cloud of glorious jasmine perfume. To this day, she is still the most beautiful person I have ever seen. I didn’t know at the time that she was famous, but I was stage struck.

First time I cried at the cinema
The first film that made me cry as an adult was Brief Encounter with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. They gave such subtle, beautiful performances — a masterclass in the lesson that less is more when acting in films. Being real is what works, not hamming it up.

Felicity Kendal is in the 40th anniversary production of Noises Off, opening at Theatre Royal Bath on Sep 22, then touring until Oct 29