Cult Movie: Femme fatale Fenella Fielding was smoking until the end

Fenella Fielding in Carry On Screaming (1966)
Ralph McLean

IT'S unquestionably one of the most memorable lines in British film history. It's 1966 and the Carry On franchise has decided to turn its comic attention to the lushly appointed world of the gothic horror film with Carry On Screaming.

The great Harry H Corbett is playing the clueless Detective Bung and the beautiful Fenella Fielding the camp vamp femme fatale of the piece, Valeria. Draped seductively over a chaise longue in a red velvet dress so tight she was apparently unable to so much as sit down, Valeria beckons Bung towards her.

“Do you mind if I smoke?” she says, fluttering her oversized eyelashes seductively before the room fills up with enough billowing clouds of dry ice to cover them both.

That one joke and that one film would haunt the career of Fenella Fielding from that moment on but it's to the credit of the much-loved actress, who died last week at the age of 90, that she never seemed to care.

She was a seriously impressive stage performer whose acclaimed performances in Shakespeare and Ibsen productions had critics drooling in admiration. She hung out in the bohemian drinking dens of 1950s Soho with rogues like Francis Bacon and Jeffrey Bernard, worked with the likes of Noel Coward, added a little comic class to everything from Morcambe and Wise to That Was The Week That Was, and had film directors like Federico Fellini following her around town.

She could, and possibly should, have been a huge star of stage and screen. She certainly had the charisma and outrageous eyelashes to carry it off.

To most observers, though, including those of us who stumbled across that sole Carry On offering via the wonders of television repeats in the 70s and 80s, it's that singular role as the sultry Valeria that represents her true moment in the spotlight.

Bickering away alongside a wildly over-acting Kenneth Williams as a kind of Gomez and Morticia Addams, she steals every scene from her notoriously difficult co-star.

That plummy intonation and barely contained sexiness made her the ultimate comic queen of the double entendre. It was a tag she found almost impossible to shake off.

She turned down every subsequent Carry On film she was offered down the years but the sheer power of the vamp Valeria meant she remained firmly typecast and ensured she barely appeared on the big screen again for the best part of 20 years.

Given her obvious talent, that's a real shame. Still, I imagine it's better to have touched a nerve with the public for one role than to have laboured away for a whole career without connecting at all.

An eccentric but charming presence on the fan convention scene, it was always a pleasure to hear that velvety voice on screen, even if it simply wasn't often enough.

Accounts suggested she passed away wearing her trademark false eyelashes. That sounds just about right to me. A proper femme fatale, always cool and always smoking, right until the end.

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