In the quarter of a century since Birds of a Feather first became a massive TV hit, Lesley Joseph has become well-known to viewers as Dorien Green. And whereas many actresses would rail against being typecast, Joseph has no problem with it. In fact, every now and then she even dresses up as her sitcom persona. “If I’m going to a function I might occasionally go as her,” Joseph reveals. “People just love to meet her, so if that makes them happy, I’m happy to be her. I’m terribly proud of her because I think we’ve created an iconic comedy character — and how many people can say they had that in their acting lives.”
Birds of a Feather has been revived and reclaimed its former prime-time slot, having transferred from BBC to ITV1. Joseph had been happy to reprise the role of Dorien two years ago when it was adapted for the stage and ITV bosses subsquently concluded that the story of two Essex girls and their overbearing Jewish neighbour still had the capacity to attract big viewing figures.
So has Dorien changed? “I wouldn’t say there’s a huge difference,” she replies. “I think this time you’re seeing a slightly softer Dorien. We’ve always tried to make her a fairly rounded character because she could so easily slip into being a pantomime dame with the outrageous clothes and the long talons. The writers and I were always really careful to make sure that while she was outrageous, there was also a soft underbelly to her.”
Joseph feels that in one regard she has benefited enormously from Dorien’s rebirth. “I have had to work quite hard to make sure I kept the weight down and tone up because she can’t be podgy and she can’t be seen in middle-aged clothes. She has to be seen in things that a 20-year-old would wear.
“I spent five months before the stage show getting into the best shape I’ve ever been in. This works for me as well because as soon as you get over 50 you have to start watching your weight and keeping everything supple, so I’m really pleased for me as well as for Dorien.”
After all this time, she feels that the public has learned to distinguish between the actress and her small screen character — even when she has dressed up as Dorien. She maintains that while there are some superficial similarities, she is nothing like her. “If Jewish princess means having your hair and nails done, dressing well and looking good then lots of us are JPs. If it means being a spoiled madam, then that’s a different thing entirely. I think she is more subtle than that. And I am not like that at all.”
She explains that one of the key reasons writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran decided to make Dorien Jewish was because of Joseph’s Jewishness. “Maurice and Laurence saw me in a play and had the idea to have me as the third character. They didn’t want another Cockney who had just moved out of the East End, so as there was a Jewish community in Chigwell and I was Jewish, they decided to make the character Jewish. It certainly wasn’t to make any point about Judaism or to make her a Jewish princess.”
Joseph’s Jewish upbringing was in the small Northampton community. However, all her family were Londoners and she considers herself one too. She is very proud of her East End forebears. “My mother was one of 12 siblings brought up in Hackney and her father used to run a temporary shelter helping Jews who were new to the country.”
She adds that she is not the first in her family to play to packed crowds. “My great grandfather was a brilliant orator — the whole East End would stop to hear him speak.”
Joseph is soon to appear in another comedy revival of a hit show — this time Hot Flush, a romp about four menopausal women, one of whom she portrays.
When the play first opened in Lincoln three years ago, Joseph recalls that it overran by about 15 minutes because the audience was laughing so uproariously. “I see it as like the naughty seaside postcard you might buy on the seafront in Clacton. It’s a 12-week tour and gives me my fix of musicals. Some very po-faced people have gone to see it and I’ve been worried about their reaction but they have all come out loving it.”
And although Joseph enjoys the process of making Birds of a Feather, the stage remains her favourite medium. “I love TV, the discipline and the reach of it. I had a radio show for nearly three years which I adored as well, but I’m a theatrical gypsy really. That’s where my heart lies.”
Birds of a Feather is on ITV1 on Thursdays at 8.30pm. The Hot Flush tour begins in March. hotflushthemusical.com