I’ve written here before about the joys of audiobooks read by people with distinctive voices. You can read the books by Sir Michael Caine and Sir Roger Moore but you’re only re-creating their voices in your head. Why not cut out the middleman and have them read for you?
And so it was in sunny Corsica a few months ago when the delicious tones of Fenella Fielding OBE transported me to the London of the 1960s. Entitled Do You Mind if I Smoke? – after her most famous line in Carry On Screaming – it was the most exquisitely delivered memoir. Tender, sometimes bitchy, but as warm as the beach I was lying on. I almost fell off the lilo, when in a late chapter Fenella mentioned me and Paddy O’Connell, my old pal from Radio 4’s Broadcasting House.
Paddy has used Fenella’s talents several times on his show, and my very loose association with her dates back to 1993. At the time, I was about to launch a phone-in show (does this sound familiar?) and someone had the splendid idea of asking Fenella to record some idents for us, announcing the phone number, etc. She graciously agreed and perfectly recorded everything we asked, including silliness such as the phrase: “Eddie… it’s time to get the bucket under the cow.”
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We knew that even if all else on the new show failed, at least we’d have the sheer class of Fenella to lift it. In my head I can still hear her saying, “Call Eddie now… 041 338…”
Fast-forward to the summer of 2018. On the Corsican beach, I realised we simply had to have Fenella for my show on LBC. We were honoured when she agreed – at the age of 90 – to come into Global’s global headquarters in London a few days before our launch to record more words. “Call Eddie now… 0345 60 60 973.” It being 2018, we also wanted her to record phrases such as, “Brexit: it’s going to be great!” and “Brexit: it’s going to be awful!”
On her arrival at the studio, not having seen her for a long time, it was a shock to see her moving so slowly – as if a puff of wind might topple the great star. But once she’d made it to the studio chair, grasping the script and poised at the microphone, the years fell away. The creamy caramel of her unmistakable voice enhanced every word and number on the page. She was professional to her fingertips. Afterwards, a hug, and she made her way out of the studio with her friend Simon McKay, who took such care of her. I understand she enjoyed a good lunch.
A couple of days later, a note from Simon. A severe stroke had snookered Fenella. As the days went on it was clear, and she understood, that this was it. With sadness, we decided not to use the recordings.
After her death earlier this month, we played some of her recordings for LBC listeners, and asked if they felt it would be appropriate to use Fenella’s voice in future. They told us yes. So we will, for a while at least.
As the obituaries correctly observed, she was a fine, underrated, actor who should be remembered for far more than simply appearing to be on fire in front of Harry H Corbett. I will also remember her grace and kindness. She didn’t have to associate with the likes of me, but I’m thrilled to bits that she did.
And, in the nicest possible way, whenever I see someone milking a cow, I will think of Fenella.
Eddie Mair is on LBC, weekdays from 4pm to 6pm