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The Border Kelly Chronicles
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Sassy, Beautiful, Adorable Kay

Kay Kendall didn't have much to say in 'Genevieve',
but she knocked the socks off Dinah Sheridan, the star,
and left John Gregson and Kenneth More in the same
film carrying their stupid rivalry to such daft
heights that you wanted to bash their heads together.

When  Kay clambered into that vintage car, this sassy,
beautiful, adorable thoroughbred  in her magazine cover
outfits and afghans swept everything before her
like a bulldozer designed by Ferrari. She was gorgeous,
and witty,  talked good sense, got delightfully rat-arsed
and played the cornet like Kenny Baker (it actually was
Kenny Baker on the sound-track). Why, I wondered,  had I
not noticed Kay Kendall before ? Where had they hidden
this dazzling, darling creature with the tinkly chandelier
voice and the withering glance which could burn rubber
off tyres ? I was utterly captivated, along with everyone
else who watched her perform.

I fell madly in love with Kay Kendall, there and then.
The excitement aroused in me by the mere sight of her
name or photograph continued until and long after
the dreadful announcement that she had leukaemia.
Her death in 1959, at the tragicically early age of 32,
shocked me to the core. I couldn't stop thinking about
her. I hated the thought of that perfectly sculptured
face fixed in a grotesque death-mask, cold and empty
and occupying a hole in the corner of some graveyard.

Many years later when I had progressed to the lofty
heights of documentary writer for BBC Radio, Harry
Thompson, my regular producer, asked me whom my next
subject would be. After a moment's thought, I replied,
"Kay Kendall".  He stared at me blankly for a moment,
and with genuine disappointment in his voice said,
"I rather hoped you might say 'Robert de Niro'"

But I had made up my mind. It would be Kay Kendall or
nobody. Here was my opportunity to declare my feelings
for Kay in a programme which would be broadcast across
the nation at peak listening time, and I would not
let her down. Harry, a talented, amusing fellow with
no sense of history, who went on to produce 'Have I
Got News For You' and 'Never Mind The Buzzcocks' on TV,
remained unimpressed.

"Kay Kendall or nobody ?" he repeated my words from a
moment earlier, then coldly delivered his verdict.
"Listen, mate, Kay Kendall is nobody. The controller
will never go for it. But by all means, put a proposal
together...if you feel you must !"

Yes, I must !. Kay had acted with several famous people.
All that was needed was for me to persuade three of her
co-stars to record an interview for my programme, and
I felt confident that it would be commissioned.

Dirk Bogarde, who had been a close personal friend of
Kay's, and had himself written  about her at length in
his autobiography Snakes And Ladders, was unmoved by
my request for information. My letter to his agent went
unanswered. A second one was similarly ignored.
A third and final request, along the lines of  'for
Christ's sake, Dirk, all I want to do is say how good
she was' probably sounded, now I think of it, more
threatening that it was meant to be, and Dirk continued
to offer me his cold shoulder.

Peter Finch, her co-star in Simon And Laura, had rather
selfishly died before he could help me. Ian Carmichael,
who had been in the same film, politely but firmly
declined although he or his agent had not long before
contributed some entertaining quotes for my book British
Film Characters Actors. Others also either refused to
acknowledge my letters, or left messages which could be
grouped together under a single meaning....get lost !
One neatly hand-written note, apologising for being away
filming in Greenland, carried a smudged Kensington

The sad fact was that nobody whom I knew at the BBC
wanted a programme about Kay Kendall, and none of her
friends or former colleagues wanted one, either. This
all happened a long time ago. Me ? Well,  I continue to
adore Kay Kendall. And, of course, as I've got older
she has got younger, which is a tremendous bonus for
me. She truly was a breath of sea air,  fresh and
unpredictable, zany and glamorous and classically
beautiful, in a way that we rarely see in British movies.  

Had she lived, her potential for conquering Hollywood
was enormous, although by no stretch of the imagination
could it be taken for granted. But  Kay was a fighter,
and she would have given it everything. She showed the
kind of fighter she was during those final, drawn-out
months of her final illness, which she battled every inch
of the way. Her exceptional beauty, resilience and
optimism would, I feel sure, have made any challenge
posed by the American film industry a bit like the
challenge which melting butter presents to a razor-sharp

                                           (C) 1990  Terence Pettigrew

Posted: February 15, 2005 ,   Modified: February 15, 2005


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