Simon McKay, devoted friend, activist, biographer of Fenella Fielding, and Fionn Wilson, artist and curator, join forces to present this affectionate and quirky exhibition which celebrates the life and career of Fenella Fielding OBE (1927–2018). Gallery 286 is a private art gallery situated in a Victorian terraced house in Earl’s Court and consists of two rooms.

15 portraits have been commissioned from artists who did not know Fenella but were inspired by her beauty, sensuality, wigs, make-up, helmet hair, that distinctive and instantly recognisable sexy voice, those iconic eye-lashes, the films, photographs and her flat.

The artists include Natalie Dowse, Sal Jones, Cathy Lomax, Jeanette Watkins, Fionn Wilson plus Andrew Logan and some clever 3D work by Patrick Boyd and Martin Firrell. It’s a nice feeling to be surrounded by images, paintings and photographs, which bring back so many happy memories.

I first met Fenella when I was an undergraduate at Oxford, just before her huge success in Sandy Wilson’s Valmouth, a musical adaptation of Ronald Firbank’s gay novel. Exquisitely mannered, her performance as the centenarian Lady Parvula de Panzoust, a study in wit and style, full of innuendo, was High Camp personified, and it made her name. I saw practically everything she did thereafter and we remained friends until her death.

There was so much more to Fenella than the Carry On and the Doctor films and her appearances on the Morecambe and Wise television shows and her voice-overs for adverts. There were plays, musicals, revues, solo performances and readings on stage, television and radio. She was an actress and I am glad the exhibition’s title emphasises that.

Fenella, a witty, sexy, intelligent and extremely well-read actor, appeared in London and in the regions in classics and modern classics. Even her admirers may be amazed by the list of famous playwrights whose works she appeared in.

The list includes: Alan Ayckbourn, Aristophanes, Frederick Ashton, E F Benson, Anton Chekhov, Colette, William Congreve, Noël Coward, Charles Dickens, Daphne Du Maurier, T S Eliot, Euripides, George Farquhar, Georges Feydeau, Henry Fielding, Ronald Firbank, John Gay, Henrik Ibsen, Eugene Labiche, Christopher Marlowe, Molière, Mary O’Malley, John Osborne, Arthur Wing Pinero, Harold Pinter, Victorien Sardou, William Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Edith Sitwell, John Vanbrugh, Sandy Wilson and William Wycherley.

Outstanding performances include:

  • Lady Parvula de Panzoust in Sandy Wilson’s Valmouth
  • Lydia Languish in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals
  • Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll’s House
  • Hedda in Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler
  • Gwendolen Fairfax in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest
  • Cyprienne in Victorian Sardou’s Let’s Get A Divorce
  • Mrs Gracedew in Henry James’s High Bid
  • Jane Banbury in Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels
  • Lady Markby in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband

Fenella’s big success as the horror vamp in the red velvet dress in Carry On Screaming (“Do you mind if I smoke?”) sadly typecast her for ever. Her talent, especially for High Comedy, deserved far more opportunities than the theatrical profession gave her in her later years.

The exhibition will have a special appeal to her many fans. The catalogue is a delightful souvenir.