Felicity Kendal is about to hit the road in the most unglamorous role of her career – as a cockney cleaning lady. Could this kill off Barbara Good for good?
“I do hope not,” exclaims the actress, who is forever freeze-framed in the nation’s consciousness as the plucky, pretty wife of Richard Briers’s self-sufficiency obsessed Tom in the BBC’s influential and endlessly repeated 1970s comedy classic The Good Life.
Yet she admits of the part that made her name: “There was a time when, if things had been different, Barbara would have been a bit of a curse – because for 10 years afterwards, I was always being offered similar light comedy things. But as I’ve got older, I’ve done so much theatre – from Ayckbourn to Beckett – that The Good Life has now become a lovely memory for me. And it was an incredibly lucky break that did me no end of good, by making me a recognisable actress.”
Having been set to work full-time at the age of 12 in her parents’ travelling theatre company in India, the actress became a stage addict for life. And for the first time since the recovery of her partner, the theatre director Michael Rudman, now 83, from a life-threatening six months of Covid between September 2020 and March 2021 – as well as from breaking his back in a shocking fall afterwards, only revealed here now – she finally feels able to return to her nomadic roots on a short 40th-anniversary tour of Michael Frayn’s famous farce Noises Off.
The actress went back on stage last summer for a short run in the musical Anything Goes at London’s Barbican, which meant she was able to get home at night to the Chelsea house she shares with Rudman – the ex-husband with whom she reunited in 1998 after eight years apart and whom she now flirtatiously likes to call her “boyfriend” rather than “partner”.
But going on the road away from home is another step altogether, especially in a comedy as demanding as Noises Off, in which backstage chaos keeps upstaging a trouser-dropping farce called Nothing On. Reassuringly, however, Amanda, one of Rudman’s two daughters from his first marriage, lives not far from them in London.
It was Amanda, herself still suffering from long Covid, and her sister, Katherine, who set up the charity Feed the Frontline in February 2021. Their aim was to provide hot meals for the NHS staff at the Royal Free Hospital, Hampstead, to show appreciation for how their father was looked after in intensive care in October 2020. To publicise the initiative, Amanda and Felicity went public on Rudman’s “very scary” Covid ordeal in his early 80s.
Very, very ill
Now talking for the first time in detail about that nightmare, Kendal tells me that Michael contracted Covid in September 2020 after the couple had come out of six months of isolation to go to a restaurant, following the Government’s Eat Out to Help Out initiative to boost the pandemic-damaged economy.
“Michael collapsed at home and was taken to hospital, and you just knew that you were joining a lot of England in going through this,” says Kendal, who herself tested positive for the virus the next day. “He was on oxygen in intensive care and was very, very ill. I would say it took him six months to get over it.
“Even when he went to recuperate, I still wasn’t allowed to see him because he was in a place where they didn’t allow visitors. It’s hard to remember how extreme it was, that you couldn’t visit anyone in hospital – it was a terrible, terrible time,” she now recalls of the unprecedented situation in which even the usual support system of family and friends rallying around the patient’s bed was banned.
As she commented last year: “The feeling that you don’t know what state your loved one is in and knowing you still can’t go and see them – it’s not like anything you have experienced before.”
Kendal adds: “Funnily enough, if I hadn’t been so ill with it myself and not completely firing on all cylinders, I might have been even more worried. I kept ringing and wanting an update, and very often you couldn’t get through, or he’d been moved to another ward, so it was a constant worry. But he got through it, which was amazing – a lot of people didn’t.”
A practical soul, Kendal doesn’t panic easily. As she explains, “I know I don’t, because I’ve put Michael into an ambulance so many times.” And she’s the one with the toolkit in their household (“the only time Michael ever tried to change a light bulb, he broke it!”) after her childhood apprenticeship as a stage manager in India, immortalised in the Merchant Ivory film Shakespeare Wallah and her own memoir, White Cargo. “I quite like the mechanics, although I don’t see an alternative career as a plumber beckoning,” she laughs.
“Just being in India toughened me up,” explains Kendal, who survived a bout of typhoid when she was 17. “The life we led there was very basic, certainly building up the antibodies and getting on with it, which was my parents’ generation’s mantra after going through a world war. ‘Don’t complain!’ And that’s the mantra of actors on tour, too – you can’t say, ‘Well, I don’t like this week’s dressing room,’ you just get in there.”
An ‘incompetent divorce’
We meet for coffee and Earl Grey tea around the corner from her gym in Chelsea. Kendal arrives in a khaki shirt pinned with a ribbon in the colours of Ukraine, blue jeans sawn off at the knee and hippie-looking bangles on one sunburnt wrist; she has revelled in this summer’s heatwave.
At 75, she still looks like the tomboy she was raised to be by her demanding actor-manager father, Geoffrey. He yearned for a replacement for the baby boy that his wife, Laura, lost after a Second World War bombing raid in their home county of Cumbria (Kendal is a stage name, replacing Bragg – the family is distantly related to Melvyn).
Her parents, she says, took to Rudman right away. And a shared sense of humour seems to play a big part in Kendal’s relationship with the man she admits is “the love of my life, looking back – and now we are endlessly back together”.
Once known as the Walter Matthau of Maida Vale, the Tony award-winning Texan is an Anglophile who moved here in his 20s to study for an MA at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, and work in British theatre, two of which he has run as artistic director.
It’s a relationship that has proved quite the roller coaster. “Our divorce didn’t ‘take’. People said we had the worst, most totally incompetent divorce ever,” admits Kendal, chuckling. They even went out to dinner together the night the decree absolute was signed, which must have raised eyebrows. There then followed what she has described as “an incredibly close friendship” with the playwright Tom Stoppard, whose muse she was for several of his plays, although she has never admitted to a relationship – citing both her and Stoppard’s privacy.
Sense of humour
Rudman, who once laconically described Kendal’s sexy star quality to me as “turning up the voltage”, maintained she had “picked me out” when he first met her while directing her in another Michael Frayn play, Clouds, in 1978-79.
“I did, sort of,” she now admits, laughing. “I registered that he was a funny American, a good director and an attractive guy – and mentioned this to my agent, who rang him and suggested he ask me out. Which he did as soon as the play ended. If you’re in the same business and can understand each other’s fears and joys and difficulties, that’s really lovely. To know why you’re nervous or happy – and to live it with you.”
She adds affectionately: “He’s appalling as a patient when it’s a more minor situation, but a hero who stays incredibly cool when it’s serious. The fuss when he was recuperating from Covid was intolerable, but when he fell down the stairs and broke his back – this was after Covid – his sense of humour stayed with him in that very serious situation. He was on all sorts of terrible morphine, but he made all the nurses and the doctors at St Mary’s [Hospital in Paddington, London] fall in love with him by joking his way through this really appalling situation.
“But then he got better and the toys came out of the pram for a bit because the inconvenience became intolerable. He’s been put together and is fine, the back is perfect. I think Michael is retired now, though he wouldn’t say it. Running a theatre was when he was happiest, but he wouldn’t consider that he would have anything like the energy now. He enjoys being master of his own day, relaxing at home and going out to dinner.”’
And his return to health has now freed her up for the short tour with the ultimate theatrical in-joke of Noises Off, a virtuoso play-within-a-play. Kendal leads as the appropriately-named actress Dotty Otley, who keeps forgetting her lines in the role of cockney cleaning lady Mrs Clackett, whilst conducting a chaotic affair with a jealous toy boy in the cast. “Those are the parts that I prefer – when a character is slightly losing the plot and secretly hyperventilating,” she says with relish.
She has an elder son, Charley, 49 – a visual effects director in film – by her first husband, the late Drewe Henley, and a younger son by Michael, barrister Jake, 34. Between them, Kendal and Rudman have 12 grandchildren: he five and she seven, including those by her late elder sister Jennifer, who died of cancer in 1984 at the tragically young age of 50. There was a 13-year age gap between Jennifer and Felicity, who says that her adored sister’s love for her “was always maternal”.
Jennifer’s husband, the Bollywood star Shashi Kapoor, died in 2017 at 79 of cirrhosis of the liver, having never really recovered from Jennifer’s death. Yet her Indian upbringing has left Felicity with an Eastern acceptance of the circle of life and death. “There comes a time when death is OK. There’s a difference between people that aren’t ready, they would really like to be alive, and some people for whom it’s time, it’s natural. And the prolonging of things beyond that time is not always kind,” she concludes.
Although she has no plans to retire from acting, what this chicken-soup-cooking matriarch loves most is a family gathering. “It was agony not being able to go over to India to see Jennifer’s family during lockdown, but I’ve been back twice since. It’s still home to me. I do put family first: I just love them around me. Michael and I had a dinner party last night for my best friend and all her children and my children and the grandchildren – and it was just heaven.”
She adds, with her trademark throaty chuckle: “We’re still here, we’re still here. It’s a triumph, isn’t it? It’s an achievement. You can’t complain about it – it’s ‘Hold on, hold on!’ ”
‘Noises Off’ runs at Theatre Royal Bath, September 22- October 1; Richmond Theatre, October 4-15; Theatre Royal Brighton, October 18-22; and Cambridge Arts Theatre, October 25-29