By the age of 76, most people are putting their feet up and enjoying retirement, but that’s definitely not the case for Lesley Joseph. The much-loved actress is busier than ever – and that’s exactly the way she likes it.
“Sometimes I can’t believe how old I am because I’ve got so much energy,” says Lesley, whose own mum lived to the age of 103. “There’s nothing I can’t do now that I could do when I was in my forties. I’m fit as a flea, to be honest, and I love doing yoga. Retirement just isn’t in my plans – learning lines keeps my brain young and performing keeps my body fit. There are also a few other things I would like to do before I retire.”
Right now, Lesley is in a new production of Sister Act: The Musical , based on the 1992 film of the same name starring Whoopi Goldberg, which opened last month at London’s Eventim Apollo. The show, which also stars Beverley Knight and Jennifer Saunders, sees her character Sister Mary Lazarus attempting a rap in one particularly amusing scene.
“Doing my first ever rap was so much fun,” says Lesley, who will also head out on tour when the West End run finishes at the end of the month. “I’ve never had such a great reaction from an audience. I get to sing a lot and working with Jennifer Saunders and Beverley Knight is amazing. It’s very much an uplifting show.”
Of course, wearing a flowing nun’s robe makes quite a change for Lesley, who, for many people, will always be best known as snobbish but endearing man-eater Dorien Green in comedy series Birds Of A Feather –a character who was known for strutting her stuff in miniskirts and stilettos.
The series, which started in 1989 and ran on and off until December 2020, was one of TV’s most successful sitcoms, regularly drawing audiences of more than 12 million. And Lesley admits she’s so fond of Dorien that she has a wardrobe full of her clothes at home.
“I’ve kept almost all of them – and many of her handbags. They are sort of iconic. I’ve also still got the dress I wore when I sang Madonna’s Like A Virgin on the show,” says Lesley, who performed the song again last month during an appearance on Loose Women , alongside her Birds Of A Feather co-star and friend Linda Robson. “I’m not ready to get rid of them – so I’m officially a fashion hoarder.”
Reflecting on why the show was so successful, especially back in its heyday, she shrugs and says, “Right time, right place. It was the first sitcom of its kind that focused on women – and people loved Tracey and Sharon. But my character, Dorien Green, had the high heels, the short skirts, the big hair, the jewellery and the long nails – and somehow she became a bit of an icon.”
After a final Christmas special in 2020, Lesley bid farewell to the role, much to the disappointment of the show’s fans. In fact, when she was spotted having lunch with her co-stars Linda and Pauline Quirke at The Delaunay restaurant in London’s Covent Garden in May, there was much speculation that the ladies would be reuniting. But Lesley confirms that’s not so.
“I don’t think we will, no,” she says. “At my age, I don’t know how much longer I have in this business. I’m still ambitious, but I know my time is limited so I would rather do something I’ve never done before.”
It’s true that Lesley has never been one to shy away from a challenge. She is the oldest female contestant to have taken part in Strictly Come Dancing – in 2016, aged 70 – and at the beginning of this year she threw caution to the wind to join Linda to learn how to parasail, paddle board and go-kart for Celebrity Coach Trip . Now, she’s stepping into another difficult role in Celebrity MasterChef , where she is currently squaring up against actors Clarke Peters and Richard Blackwood, former footballer Jimmy Bullard and presenter Kirsty Gallacher in her heat. And she says it’s one of the most nerve-wracking things she’s done. “It is scary. The worst thing about MasterChef is standing there waiting to be criticised,” she says, referring to judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace. “But I’ve done a few things that take me out of my comfort zone, including Strictly , so I quite like a challenge.”
Anyone who saw Lesley’s disastrous episode of Come Dine With Me in 2009 will know that she’s not exactly a dab hand in the kitchen. She made a spectacular mess of her meal – which included the cat walking over her potatoes, her lamb coming out of the oven raw and her ‘pineapple surprise’ dessert turning into a fruit salad because she managed to throw away the pineapple filling. But this time Lesley is determined not to be the comedy act.
“There is a part of me that’s competitive,” she says. “I’m competitive with myself, rather than with other people. If I think I can do well in something, I get really cross with myself if I get it wrong. With shows like Strictly and MasterChef , I want to do the best I can – and have fun.”
Lesley’s lips are sealed about where she placed in the competition, but she says she learned a lot from the experience. “What John and Gregg taught me most was about presentation – and that gave me confidence,” she says. “I love the pair of them. I think they are fantastic. They appear quite relaxed, but they still put you under a degree of pressure. They were helpful and they gave everyone support. If they think you’re heading in the wrong direction, they steer you back on track. They are both very kind in that way.”
That said, Lesley doesn’t miss competing against the clock and says she’s more of a sociable cook.
“I’m the sort of person who loves entertaining, rather than just cooking. I love making a Sunday lunch and opening a bottle of wine while friends and family are in the kitchen chatting,” says the actress, who has two grown-up children.
Before landing the role of Dorien, Lesley was a jobbing actress for 20 years, but now, she’s more in demand than ever, with stage roles in Calendar Girls and Young Frankenstein – for which she was nominated for an Olivier Award in 2018 – and a return to TV in 2019 for Pilgrimage: The Road To Rome , which included an audience with the Pope.
“My most memorable moment was going to the Vatican and spending an hour with Pope Francis,” she says, recalling her comic delivery. “I made him laugh because I touched his sleeve and said, ‘Bless you.’”
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