'Oh dear, I think of the things I've done. Terrible.' Cue wicked laugh
Twice married, twice divorced and now back with her second husband, Felicity Kendal talks to Roya Nikkah
Published 05/04/2015 | 02:30
There is a line in Noel Coward's comedy of manners, Hay Fever, which Felicity Kendal particularly relishes: "David's been a good husband to me but he's wearing a bit thin now." Breaking from rehearsals ahead of a West End run, the play's leading lady lets out a wicked laugh: "It is heaven on earth, that line."
Twice married, twice divorced, reunited with her second husband who is now her "boyfriend" and with several high-profile affairs in between, Kendal's love life has famously kept the gossip columnists busy for years.
Which invites the question: does she think monogamy is overrated? A rueful smile, then a thoughtful pause: "I don't think monogamy is overrated. It's just underrated how difficult it is for a great many people. It isn't a natural thing for people to do. And the expectation of it being an easy situation leads to a lot of heartache.
"Look, if it's accepted that you can fall off your horse, you will ride stronger. You don't want to fall off, and hopefully you won't. But it is pretty common, in a lifetime. It's a natural tendency."
After a few tumbles from her horse, Kendal, at 68, has finally found unwedded bliss with Michael Rudman, the director, whom she married in 1983 and divorced seven years later.
A long affair with Tom Stoppard, the playwright, followed, but Kendal and Rudman, who have a son, Jacob, were reunited when it ended.
So what went wrong first time round? "I think one of the reasons it didn't work then is that if you've already been divorced, as we both were, you go in very bruised and lacking self-confidence about how clever you are about choosing somebody.
"When we got married, we hadn't dealt with the luggage that went before, so as soon as there was any bumpiness on the journey, it was like: 'Uh oh, here we go again. This is going to be a repeat of pain - I must stop this because it's not working.'
"But we stayed close, always. I'd learnt from my first divorce, the one thing not to do is become enemies. In the end, I never really could imagine Michael not in my life. It was as simple as that. I always say we had a very bad divorce, because it didn't work."
She is quick to emphasise the solidity of their partnership second time round. "It works now because you don't have that fear - you know things could go wrong. But it's not a free, open relationship." Another marriage, however, is off the agenda. "We've been married, that didn't make it any better," she says. "We've got the kid, we're together, what is the point of doing it again? To prove what to whom?"
And yet Kendal retains a surprisingly traditional admiration for the commitment she has twice opted out of. "I think marriage is a wonderful institution that should not be undermined. Too many people say, 'Oh, this isn't working, let's chuck it,' and I think I was guilty of that. I look at other people when they're separating and I think just try a bit harder, have a go, because it's just too easy to ditch marriage now." She remains both amused and bemused by the interest in her romantic life. "It was always endlessly interesting to me but I don't know why everyone else was so fascinated. Nothing's changed - magazines now are still all about who did you do it with and who knew?
"I think it was also to do with The Good Life, where there was an image of being so perfect and emotionally stable and settled, and then that shouldn't be true. It was interesting for people."
Kendal is of course referring to the role that made her famous - Barbara Good, the unfeasibly wholesome housewife, who with her husband Tom, played by Richard Briers, opted out of the rat race for a simpler, self-sufficient life. The show ran from 1975 to 1978 and catapulted her into the limelight, making her at once a British national treasure and sex symbol.
"I think what people really reacted to was that it wasn't Page 3," says Kendal. "Barbara was a less threatening sexy. Back then, the glamorous women were very obviously glamorous - it was Dynasty, full-on eyelashes, hair, and here was a very different kind of sexiness, it was not obvious."
Starring alongside Briers, Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington, Kendal also credits the sitcom with helping her survive her first divorce, from the actor Drewe Henley. As Kendal went to work, playing the perfect wife, her own marriage was falling apart. "The show was like a hammock," she says. "I was becoming isolated from my security, like anybody going through a divorce, but going into this incredibly secure environment was hugely important to me. I'm sure it helped me get through."
She met Drewe when she was 20, as they both appeared in the same play. She has described him as her "first love" but the marriage foundered after 11 years.They have a son, Charley.
Kendal grew up in India, where her father had a touring theatre company. It was, she says, "a very unusual combination of a British Raj upbringing," complete with Catholic convent schools, and "a very bohemian life with a bunch of random actors".
But she was "never in tune" with the religion of her school days, and converted to Judaism in her thirties.
The recent terrorist attacks in Paris, including the killing of four hostages in a kosher shop, are still much on her mind. "I think it [anti-Semitism] is very real and very frightening," she says. "It needs to be recognised, like any prejudice, and not under any circumstances brushed under the carpet."
Has she experienced prejudice? "Yes, I have. We were in Australia with the play last year doing some publicity, and I came across a few people saying 'We heard you'd converted to Judaism, why did you do that?' The attitude was very much 'How weird are you?' It's definitely there. We must be careful."
While many actresses are quick to bemoan the dearth of roles for women of a certain age, Kendal has no such gripes. "You just have to go over the bridges that take you from ingenue, to leading lady to the mother.
"There are many parts for the 40, 50, 60-year-old woman. I've been very lucky at playing very young women to the strong women in the middle and then the mother, and I love the transition. But that's easy to say, because I'm still working and if I wasn't, I'd be very bitter and twisted.
"I agree it's absurd to say that when a woman gets a grey hair, she's got to stop reading the news, but I think we're pushing through that, as women, I think we're on the tide and it's not going to go back. It's just not."
Kendal doesn't have a grey hair in sight, and it's clear from her tiny frame, in black jeans and biker boots, that looks still matter to her.
She has admitted flirting with Botox, but not any more, and her face, still striking, has the expression lines to prove she's not fibbing. Yoga and four or five hours a week in the gym seem to do the trick. "It isn't vanity, I just don't want to creak."
There was no creaking when she sank into the splits during one of her Strictly Come Dancing routines in 2010.
Life these days is "very much about the family" and "doing the school run"for her two grandchildren, though she has to "hide in the bushes as they don't want me there". There can't be many funkier grannies about Chelsea, her neighbourhood, sporting two tattoos - she got her first aged 63 - and a figure most teenagers would kill for.
Kendal has admitted that she would like to grow old disgracefully, but today she is contemplating a new motto. "We can always behave better. No question we can always behave better. I speak for myself. Oh dear, I think of the things I've done. Terrible." Cue another wicked laugh.
Felicity Kendal appears in Hay Fever at the Duke of York's Theatre, London from April 29 to August 1