Simon Hemelryk on the enduring appeal of Felicity Kendal at 75
She remains an icon of wholesome sexiness. How extraordinary that Felicity Kendal, loved – and fancied – by millions as Barbara Good from The Good Life, turns 75 on 25th September.
Still very active on stage, she’s currently starring in her first West End musical, Anything Goes. She remains as glamorous, lithe and youthful as ever.
Kendal’s parents, Geoffrey and Laura, had a repertory company that toured India. Though the young Felicity was able to learn about stagecraft and occasionally appear on stage, it was a life of little security. But it gave her her first big acting role, in Shakespeare Wallah – a 1965 Merchant Ivory film about the troupe – and the resilience to return to the UK to take on the acting profession.
In 1967 she made her London stage debut in Minor Murder, and followed up with television roles in the likes of the 1975 mini-series Edward the Seventh.
But it was as Barbara that she became a household name. The Good Life’s charming portrayal of a middle-class couple’s attempts to live off the land in deepest Surbiton ran between 1975 and 1978. It was a huge hit with the dream cast: Kendal and Richard Briers played Barbara and Tom Good; Paul Eddington and Penelope Keith played the upwardly-mobile Jerry and Margo Leadbetter.
Barbara was bright, pretty and funny, with a go-for-it attitude to everything from pig-rearing to making clothes. She was also a loving wife to the often frustrating Tom. It was a very attractive mixture.
‘I think what people really reacted to was that it wasn’t Page Three,’ Kendal says. ‘Back then, the glamorous women were very obviously glamorous – full-on eyelashes, hair. Barbara’s was a less threatening sexiness.’
It was an appeal that endured, with Kendal winning Rear of the Year in 1981 and making FHM’s list of the world’s sexiest women in 1995, when she was 49.
Kendal went on to have a very successful TV career, starring in Solo, Channel 4’s 1992 drama The Camomile Lawn and Rosemary and Thyme. Her West End theatre work has included Relatively Speaking and Noël Coward’s The Vortex. She won a 1989 Evening Standard Theatre Award for her roles in Ivanov and Much Ado About Nothing.
She’s been married twice and has had a number of high-profile relationships – including with Sir Tom Stoppard, who cast her in several of his plays, such as The Real Thing and Indian Ink.
‘I didn’t have affairs,’ she says. ‘I just went from one to the next, with a bit of overlapping.’
She struggled with her temper during her marriage to theatre director Michael Rudman. They divorced in 1990, but later reunited and are still together – though they have no intention of marrying again.
Kendal has retained Barbara’s spirit of adventure and pluck. She appeared on Strictly Come Dancing in 2010, aged 64, and has taken on her new role as Evangeline Harcourt in Anything Goes despite, she claims, not being able to sing.
She keeps fit through yoga and is happy to have made the transition from 1970s sweetheart to the consummate older actress.
‘I’ve been very lucky at playing very young women, to the strong women in the middle and then the mother,’ she says. ‘I love the transition.’