FELICITY Kendal thought she’d said all she wanted to about India, where she grew up, but the chance to explore the country’s love of Shakespeare changed her mind, as Lisa Williams discovers
With her gloriously plummy voice and an unforgettable role in a British television classic, it’s surprising to think that Felicity Kendal lived in India until she was 17 years old.
The Good Life actress was born in Warwickshire but grew up in India, which draws obvious comparisons with another English actress, Joanna Lumley, born under the British Raj. It’s hard to say which one of them, both born in 1946, is more quintessentially English. But while Lumley’s family relocated back home to England after her birthplace gained independence in 1947, the Kendals stayed in India for most of Felicity’s childhood.
Kendal’s parents ran a touring theatre company, specialising in putting on Shakespeare plays. Father Geoffrey changed his surname from Bragg to Kendal, his place of birth, for his stage name, and his children took the new surname.
Kendal wrote all about her bohemian upbringing in the 1999 autobiography White Cargo: A Memoir, and her first major screen role was in a 1965 Merchant Ivory film Shakespeare-Wallah, based loosely on her family’s experience.
Apart from that, Kendal, 65, has turned down requests to document the experience further.
“I’ve been asked to do documentaries in the past but I just didn’t see the point in it,’’ says the actress, who now lives in Chelsea with her partner, American theatre director Michael Rudman.
“I wasn’t interested in going somewhere and saying, ‘Look what a beautiful building this is!’ because I’m not trained as a presenter.’’
But then the BBC approached, asking if she would be interested in making a film about India’s current interest in Shakespeare, to tie in with the broadcaster’s Shakespeare Unlocked season.
“I thought it was a fabulous idea to see if Shakespeare was still alive and around in India. It wasn’t about me – it would be about Shakespeare and I would front it,’’ says Kendal, who speaks fluent Hindi.
Of course, once out there, it was nearly impossible to avoid talking about herself and her family. As well as taking in the vast and varied Shakespeare-inspired cultural events, the actress visits the places her parents toured with their company Shakesperiana, talks to old family friends about the company’s influence on their love of the 17th century playwright and interviews her niece and nephew, who continue with the family’s work in India.
“It did become a little bit more about the family, but that happened organically rather than on purpose,’’ says Kendal.
Her father’s great passion for Shakespeare has obviously had a lasting effect on the people who grew up watching their shows.
“I discovered that he is remembered with some love and respect, and that he did influence quite a few artists that perform Shakespeare in various ways today. He is directly responsible for their interest in Shakespeare,’’ she says proudly.
In fact, the Bard of Avon and his stories are very much perceptible in the country’s culture – from dance to Bollywood films. “He’s been pillaged all over the world for films and things – damn good stories is why,’’ says Kendal.
Educated in convent schools in India, Kendal’s theatrical education came from being an integral part of her parent’s company.
She made her stage debut aged just nine months in a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Kendal visits the theatre where it was shown during the documentary – and went on to play more roles as she got older, including Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing’s Beatrice and Lady Macbeth.
“Shakespeare is the building blocks of any classical work as an actress,’’ she says. “Playing Shakespeare is part of your training and your craft and something that I think, if you’re hoping to have a career as an actor, you should have experienced.
“I was very lucky to have had that grounding forced upon me instead of having to get into a company where I could hopefully play one part.’’
Kendal is also known for her theatre work with her former partner Tom Stoppard, and the detective series Rosemary And Thyme, but it’s the sitcom The Good Life with which she’s most frequently associated.
The oft-repeated comedy positioned self-sufficient couple Tom and Barbara Good, played by Kendal and Richard Briers, against their wealthier and more conventional neighbours Margo and Jerry Leadbetter, played by Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington. Kendal was cast, along with Keith, after the pair were seen on stage together in The Norman Conquest.
The show ran for four series between 1975 and 1978 – 30 episodes in total – and has endured because of its popularity and the daydreaming appeal of quitting the rat race for a more frugal, but happier, lifestyle.
Having turned 40, Tom gives up his job with a company that makes plastic toys for cereal packets, and with wife Barbara, turns their suburban home into a small farm, with the gardens converted into allotments, and pigs and chickens introduced – to the horror of their neighbours, the conservative Margo in particular.
With climate change and a double-dipping economy, some think the comedy has even more resonance today than it had back then – but Kendal doesn’t agree. “I think they keep showing it simply because it’s there and people laugh and it’s cheap to show,’’ she says with a chuckle. “I don’t think it’s got a message any more.
“It’s still relevant, in that people are thinking of having less, while more people are thinking they can’t do without much, but that will probably be the same for a long time to come.’’
She admits she might watch it in passing, but adds: “When I see it I think, ‘That’s quite sweet and funny’ but the day I sit down to watch The Good Life I will feel very sad about the rest of my life – because I haven’t got anything better to do.’’
When she’s not working Kendal, who has two adult sons (one from her first marriage to Drewe Henley and one she had with Rudman), spends her time with her grandchildren, shopping or walking her dog. She also likes to keep fit - honouring the Rear Of The Year title she landed in 1981.
“I love the tag – wouldn’t you?’’ she asks, laughing.
“In this business if anyone says you’ve done well you have to appreciate it. There’s enough criticism that is flung at one that when someone says you’ve got a nice bum I’ll say, ‘Thank you very much, I’ll go to the gym more’.’’
Plans for this year include a play in the summer, which she can’t announce just yet. Kendal hasn’t ruled out more shows like Strictly Come Dancing – she made it to the Blackpool heat of 2010’s competition, paired with Vincent Simone – although she wouldn’t like to do Dancing On Ice: “I’m addicted to it, but on the whole you have to be very young to do that.’’
And she certainly hasn’t ruled out any more Shakespeare.
“I do hope to do more,’’ she says. “I’ve probably played the roles I most want to, but there’s always another one.’’
• Felicity Kendal’s Indian Shakespeare Quest is on BBC2 on Wednesday, 9pm
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