in the best “come to bed” voice in the business – encourage them with one throaty laugh to be very, very naughty indeed. Well, she even seemed happy with that hopeless old duffer husband in The Good Life. Many women can look sexy in a mini dress
and high heels, but Felicity Kendal pulled it off in a woolly jumper and wellies while talking about chickens with Penelope Keith; quite an achievement.
Sussex Style is catching up with her because she is in God’s own county starring in A Room with a View, the classic Edwardian romantic comedy by E.M. Forster which later launched Helena Bonham Carter’s career in the Merchant Ivory cinematic version. Adrian Noble, former artistic director of the RSC, has turned it into a lavish theatrical production already tipped for a West End transfer. Kendal, of course, could no longer pull off the part of prim cut-glass English virgin Lucy Honeychurch seduced by the charms of Italy and indeed by the earthier English charms of George, played in the film by Julian Sands.
This isn’t some little drawing comedy of manners, it is set in Italy and is very much the vision of the director with a wonderful script
Instead Kendal takes the role of the thoroughly ineffective chaperone who, in failing to stop a certain type of de-flowering, allows the flowering of something far more beautiful – the transformation of Miss Honeychurch into a strong, independent woman capable of determining her own path. It will surprise audiences to find Kendal in matronly mode, because few would believe she is nudging 70.
“If you strayed in 1908 you would be a fallen woman, but women are still under huge pressure, just a different pressure,” says Kendal. “Now the pressure is to obey some sense of feminine nature and be completely free, but that can be equally difficult.”
As Kendal knows in real life: she is back together with her second husband having earlier divorced him, and has had a fairly extensive list of suitors, including the celebrated playwright Tom Stoppard who even wrote a play for her. While a man would have been painted as a rather endearing Lothario, you can detect the shock in some tabloid reporting that the nice Kendal should have taken advantage of the romantic amenities out there.
“There is such a pressure on women to have an attractive picture on Facebook. Women haven’t escaped from the male idea of what women should be. But women don’t have a view of how men are or should be.”
This will be quite a surprise to many. There is little sign of Barbara. Here is a woman who has remained at the peak of her profession for almost half a century, ignoring the rule book which says as an actress you have to retire when your first bloom fades. She has powered through that nonsense, able to turn down more roles than she accepts.
Interestingly, she rejects the usual feminist argument that actresses are discriminated against. “TV will reflect the times. Forster was writing about women in his time, they couldn’t hope to be Prime Minister. Modern writers have to represent life, so they will have to show women as Prime Ministers and pilots.”
How different that was to Forster’s world of 1908. “What has changed is that a lot of the control came from women themselves. Women bandied against women who dared break the rules. Lucy is one of the New Women – now she would be running a hospital or writing a novel. She only breaks out with the help of the spinster.”
I ask if she were Lucy Honeychurch, would she have stuck with safe Cecil or risked gorgeous George? Cue, the famous laugh. “I don’t think that has changed too much…” No prizes for guessing there, then.
She declares herself “very excited about this production, and I don’t say that often. This isn’t some little drawing room comedy of manners, it is set in Italy and is very much the vision of the director with a wonderful script.”
Her own youth would also make a cracking play, so it is no surprise when she says there is talk of a TV series loosely based on her early story. She grew up in India, her parents running a theatrical company which toured the country at the fade of empire.
“My parents were very romantic. They worked together every day of their adult lives. They met very young and it was very much a partnership. My mother needed to have been willing or it wouldn’t have worked. Financially it was very hard, but they loved India. I have so many vivid memories, life was so varied, and all in Technicolour.
I have so many vivid memories, life was so varied, and all in Technicolour
She first appeared on stage as a baby. “I was apprenticed from 12 years old,” she says without bitterness. “Theatre gripped me.” She returned to England as a teenager, “but not to be a movie star. I wanted to try to be an actress in the theatre. It was an amazing time with Maggie Smith and Peggy Ashcroft.”
There was a practical consideration: “I wasn’t qualified to do anything else. It was like being the son of the butcher, you became a butcher.”
But her first impressions of England were that it was “cold and unfriendly”. This was the late 60s and while London was swinging, Kendal swung into a low mood: “It was buzzy but I didn’t feel at home. There was the pill, Annabel’s, mini skirts, smoking pot…but I didn’t fit in. I had grown up in a very prim, enclosed family. Yes, it was a theatre company I grew up in but it was very conventional. Night life didn’t exist for me. And the English countryside seemed so grey and dull.”
As a young actress she was “terrified” and made “lots of mistakes” but got her big break aged 19 when the late, great John Gielgud gave her a part against his initial instinct. “He was exceptionally funny and generous. I remember every day he would sit there
very studiously filling in The Times crossword. One day we looked at it – and it was utter rubbish. All fraud. He was all fun.”
I ask if still being associated with The Good Life – 40 years on – is a curse, when she has starred in so many critically acclaimed plays. “No, it’s a compliment – the worst thing for an actor is to be ignored. I can understand that for some celebrities it can be an intrusion, but if you want a quiet life don’t go on the stage.” Well that’s telling ‘em. Generously, she said it wasn’t the stellar cast which made the show but the script, “we just ran with it.”
She is grateful to have such a varied career (The Norman Conquests, Othello, Arcadia, even Strictly). But surely very few actresses have had some of our top playwrights creating plays specially for them? “I think lots of playwrights have a particular actor in mind. But the part isn’t yours – others take it over the years and it becomes owned by hundreds.”
As for her personal life, she declared herself very happy to be back with her ex-husband, but has no plans to marry again. They have had children, there is nothing left to prove.
As for the problems of keeping a relationship going, she says: “I don’t think monogamy is overrated. It’s just underrated how difficult it is for a great many people. It isn’t a natural thing for people to do. And the expectation of it being an easy situation leads to a lot of heartache.”
We come to her quite remarkably good – and enduring – looks. There have been press reports of a “small” amount of Botox. “I do as much as I can which isn’t extreme and would be ridiculous at my age,” she says. “Following in my mother’s footsteps what makes me happy is being fit, and I am a manic fitness person. It is about how you feel about yourself. If you walk with a walking stick at 40 you look 100.”
She says she is “so busy with a huge family and I like to travel.” She helped with school runs and the bringing up of grandchildren near her Chelsea home but they have now grown more independent. Instead it is the theatre she loves, and always draws her away from any thought of retirement.
She would not have kept doing it if she didn’t love it: “That is the achievement of my career – that I can still do it.”
What are her remaining ambitions in life? “To have as much of it as possible.” Again the laugh, still infectious, still sexy. “So far, so good.”