How my darling sister's death changed my life: Felicity Kendal reveals how a return trip to India stirred up childhood memories
22:14 GMT, 11 May 2012
Felicity Kendal has two weaknesses: wine and men. Which isn’t the sort of confession you expect from an actress who, to a whole generation, is forever the gorgeous, butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth Barbara from the classic sitcom The Good Life. Remember Green wellies. Pert bum. That voice.
Well, scrub that. This Felicity walks into cupboards after a few glasses of wine. Or as she puts it, when she’s ‘p***ed’. She’s had two husbands: actor Drewe Henley and director Michael Rudman, and lovers including Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Bolt and playwright Sir Tom Stoppard.
‘Sex is very, very important. It’s part of daily life like breathing, communicating, touching,’ she says.
‘But for me it’s part of falling madly, passionately in love as opposed to, let’s have an affair. Although I did live through some raving times.’
'Sex is very, very important. It's part of daily life like breathing, communicating, touching,' said Felicity Kendal
Felicity’s worn well. She’s 65 but there’s no Botox. No face-lift. No saggy bits. There is, though, a bruise on her face after she whacked it on a kitchen cabinet door, just as she’d done when she made one of her astonishingly bendy appearances on Strictly Come Dancing.
‘I love wine. I probably drink too much for my liver. I used to get p***ed in the olden days, but now it goes to my head very quickly. There’s just something about that glass cabinet,’ she says.
‘You forget you’ve left it open and walk straight into it.'
She laughs, a dirty, throaty laugh. She enjoys the odd fag too. See Nothing like goody-two-shoes Barbara on The Good Life.
‘If I flick through the channels and come across a bit of The Good Life now, it looks like a very good performance of a cute, slightly daft young woman. I was filming while I was going on a train, then a Tube and a bus to a mental home where my beloved husband was having shock treatment for depression. Then I’d go back and do another episode.’
Felicity was married at the time to Henley – the father of her eldest son, Charley, 38 – who suffered horribly with manic depression. He’s recovered now, but the 11-year marriage left deep scars.
‘I was very childish when we married. I hadn’t had many boyfriends. I’d walked down the street with a boy and kissed one in a swimming pool, but I wasn’t a grown-up lady.
'Then, wallop, I fell in love and was married at 21. He’d been married before. He seemed so sophisticated. I thought, “Now this wonderful, amazing life begins.”
Felicity with her sister Jennifer in 1982, who was only 50 when she died of cancer
‘Months later, the manic depression started. We went from bliss and glamour to total horror. He was terrifyingly ill, hugely violent against himself and a deeply distressed person.
'One of the most difficult things is accepting the person you love has a problem and you can’t do anything to help. You try and reason, if we had another baby, if we moved house, if we went on holiday, it will make a difference. So you join in this half lie. You do your bit and it doesn’t make any difference. It was very dark, and some of that darkness attaches itself to you.’
This is the first time Felicity has spoken so openly about her early marriage. She’s now back with second husband Michael, the father of her younger son Jacob, 23.
They divorced in 1991 after seven years when she fell in love with Stoppard, but reconciled when the affair ended in 1998.
‘Michael and the family were always very, very important to me. With him it’s like we’ve been polished with Brasso. There are no abrasive corners any more.’
Our closeness came because we were
nomads growing up, so didn’t really have local friends. When she died,
it wasn’t just the tragedy of her death, it was also that selfish thing
of, “Who am I going to say this to”
We’ve actually met to talk about a BBC
documentary she’s made exploring Shakespeare’s influence in India, which
uses her crazy bohemian childhood with her parents’ touring repertory
company as a starting point.
Felicity was six and her sister Jennifer 19
when her parents, Geoffrey and Laura, set sail for the subcontinent
with his troupe of actors, Shakespeareana. Felicity recalls a ‘terribly
uncomfortable’ childhood with ‘mosquitoes, illness, bad food, long hours
travelling’ and a succession of schools.
‘But put the whole thing together and it didn’t matter,’ she says.
‘My father was my trainer, my teacher. He was closer to my sister in the sense that she adored him and he adored her. He was more like my pal. Because of the 13-year gap, I think by the time I came along it wasn’t a big deal. I wasn’t spoilt or cherished, I was just put to work. I was the prop wallah. My sister was the leading lady. We were a tribe.’
So much so that, when Felicity decided to leave India and her family at 17 for a life in England, her father went ballistic. ‘He said, “You stupid little b****r. You’ll marry the first clot you meet and end up in hell with mortgages and misery.”’
Of the four Kendals who set sail in
1953, Felicity is the only one still living, and returning to the
continent of her nomadic childhood with the TV crew stirred up all sorts
‘I thought I’d moved on,’ she says.
‘I’m quite spoilt now in
the way I live. I’d begun to feel the rough side had been civilised out
of me. I thought I’d have to take a deep breath and try to put up with a
way of life that I once took for granted, but I was totally surprised. I
was deeply at home in the middle of nowhere with nothing to eat or
drink, no soap and no towels.
Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal as Tom and Barbara Good in The Good Life
‘It helped me understand a lot of things. I never quite realised how strange my childhood was. I can see the person I am and how it formed me.’
Which is why, I guess, she’s finally able to examine the more difficult parts of her life, including her sister’s death from bowel cancer in 1984.
Today, Felicity’s house in Chelsea is a chaotic, warm place that is, more often than not, fit to burst with her extended family. There are her two sons, her grandchildren and her sister’s three grown-up kids plus their families, who come and go as they please.
Felicity had just married her second husband Michael when Jennifer, who’d stayed in India after marrying the actor Shashi Kapoor, died aged 51, leaving a 16-year-old, an 18-year-old and a 20-year-old.
‘It changed me,’ she says. ‘She was all my friends, my sister and mother in a way because she was older than me and looked after me a lot of the time.
'She was the life and soul of the family, popular and funny, and was deeply missed by a lot of people. She was ill for three or four years. I was with her the night before and went home about 11pm. I called in the morning and she’d just died. I had a son and had been divorced, but I think it was only then I started to grow up. I was unusually dependent upon her. There was nothing I ever did that she didn’t know about. We’d write or talk every day of our lives.
‘Our closeness came because we were nomads growing up, so didn’t really have local friends.
'When she died, it wasn’t just the tragedy of her death, it was also that selfish thing of, “Who am I going to say this to” I couldn’t make any decisions. I remember a really painful year or two.
'I don’t think, until you’ve actually lost somebody you really love, that you can go through that door that allows you to be grown-up. I was much more self-centred before. You realise how precious things are that you used to take for granted.
‘Towards the end, Jennifer’s only concern was for her children. I think her desperation – they’d need advice and she wouldn’t be there to give it – made me much more protective of my children and hers too. The gift she gave me was that my decisions became more to do with family than career. I don’t regret that. I saw what would be missing from the children’s lives. I adore them and think of them as mine.’
Her sister’s death also ended her parents’ love affair with India.
‘My mother was never quite the same afterwards,’ says Felicity. ‘She was very religious before, but lost her faith. The light went out a bit.
'My parents used to spend half the year in India with my sister but, when she died, they felt going back was too painful, so they lost their home as well as Jennifer.
'Going back for the documentary, I realised India was truly my home too. We take ourselves so seriously moment by moment, but India shows you a sense of eternity. You’re one little ant on a hill.
'You’re part of life but you’re not the whole thing. However dark things are, everything leads to something else; for me that’s my family. If there’s a price I’ve had to pay for that, it was worth every minute.’
It’s a sentiment we can all raise a glass to. Just watch out for those cabinet doors.
Felicity Kendal’s Indian Shakespeare Quest, Wednesday, 9pm, BBC2.