Lesley Joseph may be famous for playing larger-than-life Dorien Green in the classic sitcom Birds Of A Feather, but when we chat to the 77-year-old actress, who’s currently on tour in Sister Act: The Musical, she is noticeably more subdued than her TV alter ego. In fact, Lesley is the first to admit that her stint playing Mother Superior is taking its toll.
“I am a bit tired to be honest,” she tells Notebook over the phone. “Sometimes at the beginning of the week [the tiredness] is worse than at the end because you come back after a day off and your voice takes a while to get going again.”
Even so, the star – who has been working in show business for more than 50 years and lives in north London – has the energy of someone half her age and says she’s inherited her mother’s zest for life.
“My mother died when she was just under 104 and she was playing tennis in her nineties,” Lesley says.
“I sometimes don’t know how I do what I do, but I just think I’ve got her genes, really. I look at some of the people I went to school with and I think, ‘Oh my goodness, you look so old!’”
Lesley goes on to explain that she thinks staying active is the key to having so much energy. She says, “I did Strictly Come Dancing at 71 and I did Pilgrimage: The Road To Rome [a BBC series in which eight celebrities walked 621 miles in 15 days] at 72. I walk everywhere. When you’re doing something like Sister Act, which is quite a physical show, it does give you energy. I think working keeps me young.”
When we point out that Lesley looks barely a day older than when she shot to fame back in 1989, she admits she hears this all the time. “I just can’t believe how quickly time passes and suddenly you think, ‘Oh my God I’m in my nineties!’” she says. “I can still get into the minidress I wore when I sang Like A Virgin [Lesley is referring to the iconic Birds Of A Feather episode where Dorien performs the Madonna hit in a sequinned minidress] and that was 32 years ago. I’ve not let myself go in any way, for no other reason than I want to make sure I’m fit and healthy.”
As well as retaining her youthful looks, Lesley has also maintained the close bond she forged with her co-stars Pauline Quirke, 63, and Linda Robson, 65. And while much has been said of the reported fall out between her co-stars, who were childhood friends, Lesley maintains that she’s still in touch with both of them. “Yes, of course, absolutely,” she says. “I really miss working with them.”
It’s no secret that she’s closer to Linda, though, and the actress admits that they have an undeniable chemistry. “There’s always been a big difference between the two of them,” she explains. “Pauline is a brilliant serious actress, which is not to say that Linda isn’t. And I love my serious work, too, but I’ve gone down the musical comedy route for some time. Both Linda and I love to do things like Celebrity Coach Trip, which we did during lockdown and won. We went away to Portugal for three weeks. We did Supermarket Sweep, too!
“When I think about it now, I can’t believe some of the things I’ve ended up doing, but they are such fun. Linda and I, much more than Pauline, have always loved doing those camp, audience- participation-type things.”
But what is it about their friendship that works so well after all these years? “I’ve not a clue!” she admits. “You could be 70 and be very friendly with a 33-year-old because you talk off the same page. We laugh a lot, we love meeting for lunch and we’re both good friends with Christopher Biggins. I’ve known Biggins for 45 years. The three of us will often go out for lunch or dinner and catch up. It’s just one of those good friendships.”
Linda has spoken in the past about how she used to deliver food parcels to Lesley during lockdown and when we bring this up with the actress, she bursts into fits of laughter at the memory.
“Everyone delivered food to my house,” she says. “I was hysterical during lockdown and was very scared to go out. It got very extreme, where there would be gloves and scarves, and as soon as anything was delivered I would be washing and shampooing all the clothes. But it didn’t last that long. Linda and lots of other friends would come round [with food]. She always used to joke that she’d got me lots of things including Tena Ladies, which was absolutely not true!”
Clearly there is a huge amount of loyalty and affection between them and when we touch on Linda’s recent marriage problems with her husband Mark Dunford, Lesley gently says, “That’s not up to me to talk about, you’d have to talk to Linda about that.” Nor is the notoriously private star keen to talk about her own family, or being a grandmother, telling us she prefers to keep that part of her life out of the spotlight.
She does say, however, that her former co-star has watched her perform in Sister Act and has seen her in every panto she’s been in.
“Most people you meet in this industry are very supportive,” she says. “I know people think show business is all rather false, but that’s not been my take on it at all. I think people in showbiz can be the most generous, the most loyal, the most fun people that you could ever meet. I love show business. It keeps me young and I consider myself to be very lucky.”
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