Felicity Kendal’s main concern when she arrives at a smart London hotel to talk about a new production of an Alan Ayckbourn play is not her role in it but the terrible cold a colleague who’s accompanied her is suffering. ‘Go straight home and I’ll make you some chicken soup,’ she orders in that mock bossy tone so familiar from more than 40 years of playing characters that manage to be both sparky and spiky. With her tiny frame dressed simply in a sweater and jeans, she exudes an intriguing mixture of mischief and concern.
The Good Life
A youthful 66, she remains freeze-framed in the public’s heart as Barbara – the unthreateningly sexy girl-next-door in the BBC sitcom The Good Life, alongside the recently departed Richard Briers. She dismisses his assertion shortly before he died that she’d ‘disappeared’ from his life. ‘Dickie often said negative things, but only tongue-in-cheek. I don’t believe he meant that seriously at all – the truth is we were devoted to each other. I am very sad he has died. Although we had not been in close touch recently, he was and is an important part of my life. He taught me so much. He was a special person, my mentor and my friend and I loved him dearly. To have lost both Paul Eddington, who played my neighbour and now Dickie, The Good Life doesn’t seem so good any more.’
She is back on stage next month, however, playing the somewhat baffled Sheila in Relatively Speaking, an enduringly hilarious farce about mistaken identities and infidelity, Alan Ayckbourn’s first major hit. It will be the first time she has starred in one of his plays since 1973. ‘I’d previously been in some of his comedies, but then turned one down because I wanted to do something serious instead.
An Alan Ayckbourn play
‘I think it left a slightly bitter taste for Alan as he likes to use the same people again and again, so it is a tremendous joy to go back to his work. At the time I only wanted a break, not a change of direction. I now know from experience that people like and expect loyalty when they offer you a part.’
Felicity Kendal OBE has had an astonishingly successful 45-year career on stage and TV, yet curiously her appearances in films have been negligible. ‘I am very bad at auditions. I went to my first one when I was 19, but they never secured me a part. I finally stopped doing them ten years ago because I didn’t want to continue being upset. I think my talent is more suited to the stage.’
Performing on stage is part of her DNA. She grew up in India where her father Geoffrey ran a touring repertory company, and made her stage debut aged nine as Macduff’s small son. In her teens she played various Shakespearean roles. Her childhood, and that of her older sister Jennifer (who died in 1984), was, to say the least, unusual as they performed to a wide range of audiences, from royalty to rural communities. She believes the experience has given her the ability to cope with whatever life throws at her. ‘We travelled all the time and weren’t at all well off, so it was all hands to work – even when I was tired. It has always stopped me thinking the world owes me a living.
A close-knit family
‘My parents’ work and family ethic was to stick by each other no matter what, rather than each man for himself. It’s a good one and I have continued the ethic with my own family. My parents were also very strict about boys, drinking and smoking. I did all three, but knew the boundaries even if I occasionally stepped over them.’
Felicity came to London when she was 19 to seek her fortune. ‘I was determined to get work, not least because I had no money. It was tough and because I didn’t want to be diverted from my ambition by boyfriends, I was almost puritanical. If I went on a date and a boy tried to kiss me I would go [she pauses to slap her leg] “stop it”. Not being sexually active meant the early Sixties passed me by.’
All that changed when she was 20 and met actor Drewe Henley when they were in a play together. ‘He went for me and that was it. He was my first love.’
Her first love
The marriage was not a success. Drewe suffered from bi-polar disorder at a time when it was barely recognised: he suffered badly from mania and depression.
‘He was very unwell,’ she says. ‘In addition our personalities were not a good combination.’ They divorced after 11 years, having had a son, Charley, now 39. ‘We are not pals but Charley sees him,’ she says.
Her attitude to sex changed dramatically once she left Drewe. ‘I was faithful while I was with him but then had one boyfriend after another. Sex was incredibly important to me and had a direct effect on who I stayed with. It is still important, but now it wouldn’t change my life.’
Has she read reports that women over 50 are more sexually active now than when they were younger? ‘They couldn’t have more than I had,’ she chuckles, ‘but it was only ever one at a time. Now I am too busy. It’s something I hate most about ageing. There seems to be less and less time.’
Ageing, it seems, has barely affected the part that Felicity is arguably still best known for. In 1981, two years before Pippa Middleton was born, she received a Rear of the Year award. She has stayed remarkably fit and her athletic splits in 2010’s Strictly Come Dancing caused a collective gasp around the country.
‘One of the sad things about Strictly is realising how fit and strong one can get at any age, but you can’t maintain it unless you have nothing else to do,’ she says. Keeping a pert bottom obviously takes a lot of work. ‘I used to exercise three hours a week doing Pilates and weights,’ she adds. ‘Now I have to do five or six hours to get the same result. Sometimes it’s like pushing treacle upstairs. However hard I push, some of it slides down! Nor am I as disciplined as I was.’
The next tattoo
Three years ago, at 63, she decided to have her first tattoo – a star on her foot representing her younger son Jacob, 25, a fledgling criminal barrister, from her marriage to director Michael Rudman. A year later she had another: a moon surrounded by feathers on her calf, which symbolises her elder son Charley and his two children. She insists it was not a rebellion against the march of time. ‘When I was younger I wasn’t interested in tattoos. I thought that what was important to me would change and I’d regret having it. It’s only now I am older that I know which bits of me won’t wrinkle, so I can choose the right place to have the tattoo,’ she laughs. ‘I also know what design I can live with over the next 20 years. I’m going to have a third, but haven’t decided what or where.’
Her looks are important to her. She used to have Botox but last year decided it was ‘silly’ at her age. She’s now changed her mind. ‘I might have it again soon,’ she admits. ‘It’s nice not to have lines when you frown, especially on TV. I don’t know why people make such a fuss about it. No one is interested if a woman has her teeth capped or her hair dyed.’
There is a much deeper side to Felicity than her looks and her love life, however. She was drawn to Judaism for many years and in the early Eighties, shortly before her sister Jennifer died of cancer at 49, decided to do more about it.
Learn more about Felicity Kendal here
‘I was brought up as a Catholic but I didn’t get anything from it,’ she explains. ‘In my thirties, a girlfriend who was converting gave me some books about Judaism. I then started going to synagogue and met Hugo Gryn – a rabbi and broadcaster – who guided me and recommended a rabbi who could give me private lessons. Michael is Jewish but non-practising. My conversion was nothing to do with him. It took me more than three years. But it seemed to fit with us. Jacob’s bar mitzvah was a wonderful accomplishment and gave him a link with his father’s ancestors. Michael and I married in 1983 and I loved using the title Mrs and knowing any child would keep Michael’s name going.’
Once they’d divorced seven years later, Felicity started a relationship with playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard, but has always stopped short of admitting that they had an affair. ‘It’s a decency code,’ she explains. ‘Tom is a private person and I respect that. Whereas Robert Bolt [like Tom, also an Oscar-winning playwright and screenwriter], who I was also madly in love with, wouldn’t have minded my talking about him at all.’
When her relationship with Stoppard floundered after seven years, she and Michael ‘drifted’ back together. ‘We wondered about marrying again but decided there was something about our psyches that didn’t suit marriage. Michael asked if I would call myself his partner. I said it made us sound like colleagues in a bank. Instead I call him my boyfriend, which makes me feel rather attractive, even if he is 73.’
She revels in being a grandmother. ‘I have Charley’s two, my late sister’s grandchildren who I think of as mine and Michael’s grandchildren from his first marriage. There are now so many little ones we can’t all get round the table for a traditional Jewish Friday night.
A loving grandmother
‘I am a matriarchal grandmother and do as much as I can for the children, including at least two school runs a week. I have an understanding with Charley’s wife, Anna, that what she says is how we do it, but I still have to stop myself saying, “I think it should be like this”. I love being available to help, but when I am working I can disappear for months.
‘Growing older has given me a perspective on things. I used to have sleepless nights worrying about whether a play I was in would be successful and my own part in it. Now if it doesn’t work I think “fair enough, on with the next”. I’m just so glad to be here. That in itself is an achievement.’
Learn more about Felicity Kendal on her IMBd
This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Saga Magazine. Subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition for this and more great articles delivered direct to you every month