Saturday, 18 October 2008

The Good Life

As promised, another book to add to my (in no order) 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About - and the sixth non-fiction book to make the list. White Cargo by Felicity Kendal was a book I picked up 20p in a local charity shop years ago, on the strength of loving her performance in The Good Life. For those who don't know it (the programme was called Good Neighbors in the US) it was a 1970s sitcom about self-sufficiency in Suburbia. Felicity Kendal and Richard Briers kept chickens and a goat in their suburban back garden, much to the displeasure of their decidedly upper-class (and hilarious) neighbours, played by Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington.

So, I assumed Felicity Kendal's autobiography might focus on this sitcom, and the British acting scene of the 1970s. I couldn't have been much further from the truth. What I didn't know about Felicity Kendal was that she was born and brought up in India, as part of an acting troupe led by her father Geoffrey Kendal - they toured from place to place, performing everything from (lots of) Shakespeare to (hurray!) A. A. Milne. These recollections are leant poignancy by the fact that Kendal writes her autobiography at the bedside of father Geoffrey, who is in a coma and slowly dying. It would be mawkish in fiction, but in non-fiction it is courageous and moving and gives Felicity Kendal a real drive to write her history.

And a compelling history it is. Having her father so near death doesn't affect the honesty of her narrative - the loving/warring relationship between the two is represented with great truthfulness, and comes to a head when she decides to move to England to pursue her acting career. Before that decision is made, she describes a childhood surrounded by hand-to-mouth actors with a love of their trade - as well as a firsthand guide to living in India in 'the long twilight of the British Empire', as the Evening Standard described it.

Utterly fascinating, moving, witty and with a writerly skill which makes one wonder if the stage's gain was the book's loss. Certainly the best autobiography I've read by someone whose profession isn't writing. Even if you've never heard of Felicity Kendal, this is a captivating account of an experience both extraordinary, and representative of a type of acting group whose story is seldom told, and which doesn't seem to exist anymore.

6 comments:

  1. The Kendall family activities in India are dramatized in the Merchant-Ivory film Shakespeare Wallah starring a very young Felicity Kendall. I believe the last appearance in film of Geoffrey Kendall was in the excellent Bengali film 36 Chowringhee Lane starring Felicity's sister Jennifer.

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  2. I read this fairly recently and also loved it. And I can highly reccommend both the films referred to in the first comment.

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  3. I re-watched Shakespeare Wallah last year and was enchanted by it all over again. I'll try the library for the book.

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  4. I can't get 36 Chowringhee Lane, but Shakespeare Wallah is available from Netflix. Thanks, ndm.

    I love FK's acting. Even in Rosemary & Thyme which seemed to be criticized by just about everybody. I loved those older women, happy, goofy sometimes, living good lives - not something that visible on television. Plus, all those gardens! And Good Neighbors was our favorite, favorite show back when it was on, except for two things: one, the way it ended. I hated the vandalism, and thought it of shock value only - not in tune with the show at all; and the second was the flirting between the couples. It made me uncomfortable.

    Anyhow, thanks a million for such a great review of a book I'd never heard of. Wonderful.

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  5. Don't you love finding books you end up absolutely loving for an incredibly cheap price--you don't even realize what a real treasure it is until you read it! This sounds really interesting. I've been interested in India for a long time--I'll have to see if I can find a copy of this.

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  6. what a great book to find ... thanks so much, Simon, for the review

    I travelled to a library in the next town to find it (none here) ... starting reading that night and haven't been able to stop since. I first turned to the chapter on the TV series "Good Neighbours" (not great), so just began at the beginning. What a surprise, and what a colourful troupe she travelled with.

    Have placed a request at the library for the next copy of the DVD for "good neighbours" ... we did love that TV series, especially Margo. The other series "to the manor born" starring Penelope Keith airs on our PBS channel

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