Felicity's a woman of many parts

She’s a serious actress you know! Sarah Hardy finds Felicity Kendal a bit prickly as she discusses her latest stage venture which arrives in the region on Monday.

You may know her best as the bubbly Barbara Good in that hugely successful TV series in the '70s, the Good Life, or indeed enjoy her rather eccentric character Rosemary Boxer in the ever so slightly corny Rosemary and Thyme seen more recently.

But speak (as opposed to chat) to Felicity Kendal on the telephone and you're left in no doubt she's a fairly hard-nosed lady who's so very much more than just a fluffy TV actress.

Fortunately I didn't plough straight in with questions about her marriage, subsequent affairs (Tom Courtenay and Robert Bolt, since you ask) or even cosmetic surgery but rather began with her latest project - a thought-provoking David Hare play, Amy's View.

It's directed by Sir Peter Hall and is on a short regional tour before heading into the West End. Its credentials, then, are good and Felicity is immediately keen to stress its merit, too. “It's a very interesting piece, brilliantly written, of course. It has layers, you think it's a domestic play and then you realise it's as much about values, about how we judge ourselves and each other.

“And it's clever, it'll get you thinking and is such a change to all the musicals that are around at present. But it's not heavy, you might shed a few tears but there are laughs too.”

Felicity is keen not to give away too much about the play but says that it's set in 1979 and she plays Esme Allen, a successful actress at the pinnacle of her career. She's a West End star and all is well until her daughter visits along with her new boyfriend, a brash young gossip columnist and film critic.

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Esme's world then starts to spin as the drama explores family relationships, looks at the changing face of our country and the rise and rise of so-called popular culture as opposed to high art. The action takes place over 16 years and certainly sounds like a play where you have to concentrate!

“Ultimately, it's about the power of love and loss so people can relate to it - and there's always the undercurrent of a woman who is maturing, coming to the end of her career and how the younger generation is taking over,” explains Felicity.

As with the play's central character, Felicity is a big fan of theatre. “Yes, I do support it but I also support the radio and television. It's all work, and I enjoy the diversity - and I like to be stretched.”

Indeed, one of her more recent roles was as a half-buried heroine, Winnie, in Samuel Beckett's black comedy, Happy Days, which gained great critical acclaim in London.

Yet, after putting herself on the high ground of fine art, Felicity mellows as I ask about her family and the joys of being a grandmother. Fortunately, she isn't in denial about being a granny like many more mature actresses and happily describes her extended family as simply a joy.

She has one son, Charley, from her first marriage to actor Drew Henley and a second, Jacob, through her marriage to American director Michael Rudman. She and Rudman split up in 1990 when she became more than just a muse to playwright Tom Stoppard but they have since reunited although not remarried.

When her older sister, Jennifer, died from stomach cancer in 1984, Felicity became a surrogate mother to her two sons and is now surrogate granny to their children.

“It's wonderful to have an extended family, we meet up as much as we can.”

Felicity, who made her stage debut when just nine months old as part of her parents' acting company in India, continues to come across as all warm and cosy when you mention that softest of detective series, champion gardening duo, Rosemary and Thyme. “Yes, it's obviously at the lighter end of my work. It's very nice and I get to work with my great pal, Pam Ferris. I think the series will go on and on as people love it,” she says.

One other puzzle remains unsolved - and one that's for a braver type than me to solve. Has Felicity, Miss Rear of the Year twice - ever been under the surgeon's knife?

She certainly looks in the pink for someone in their 60s and Felicity, to her credit, has never said “never” to the prospect of cosmetic surgery. But equally she's never admitted to it.

Her figure is that of a young girl and while she has said that her looks are hereditary and that she works hard to keep in shape, rumours abound of some serious cosmetic work.

Her looks and figure are no doubt prolonging her career but that's probably more a reflection of the society we live in than any vanity on Felicity's part.

Back to the show and she's looking forward to visiting East Anglia, saying that she knows the area fairly well. “I have filmed in Cambridge and appeared at the Theatre Royal in Norwich. I love the Norfolk coast, too, very much.”

But despite all those years spent in the Good Life, would Felicity be keen to take up rural living? She's pretty quick with her answer and it's a definite no. “I like London, it's where I've always lived. I like the actual living - the theatres, the galleries and the parks so I can't see me taking to the country. I do like to get away but London is my home.”

t Amy's View opens at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on Monday October 23 and runs until Saturday October 28. Call 01223 503333 or visit www.cambridgeartstheatre.com for more details.