Life & Culture

Lesley Joseph: I'm not an inspiration!

She wowed the nation when she lasted five weeks in Strictly, despite being the show's oldest ever female celebrity. But how well do we really know the Birds of a Feather star?


Everyone knows Lesley Joseph. She became a household name, thanks to her long-running role as Dorien Green, the Jewish man-eater in Birds of a Feather, neighbour to two prisoners' wives played by Linda Robson and Pauline Quirke. 

Then she won the nation’s admiration for her style and energy on last year’s Strictly Come Dancing.

But how much do you really know about the 71-year-old actress? Not much, because Joseph guards her privacy fiercely.

“I tend to keep work and private life separate and I always have done,” she tells me, in a short break from rehearsals for the Strictly tour which starts today. She won’t talk about her immediate family, apart from the bare facts that she is divorced and has two adult children. I glean from the internet that she was brought up in Northampton and trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda) where her best friend was Maureen Lipman.

“The only thing I can tell you is that my mother was one of 12 and her father ran the Jewish immigration centre in the East End. Her grandfather was a rabbi who came over from the Russian Polish border and he was a very inspired speaker,” says Joseph who describes herself as “very religious,” but insists, “it is a private thing.

“I can’t say Judaism guides my life because it doesn’t,” she adds. ”I’m Jewish and that is it really.”

Her mother still went line dancing at the age of 98. She died last March at 103, and no doubt would have been proud of her daughter’s performance on Strictly where Joseph was the oldest female contestant ever to take part, and lasted five weeks before being eliminated.

She is looking forward to performing to crowds of tens of thousands of people on the Strictly tour. “I have always been very fit. Linda Robson had always said to me: ‘You should do Strictly, you would love it.’

“I would say ‘Oh no, it looks like too much hard work, I couldn’t keep up’ but I did, I had the stamina and I didn’t get injured, touch wood.”

Joseph does not understand why so much fuss is made over her age, pointing out that after all, unlike others who have taken on the same challenge, she is “no stranger to demanding performances.

“Going out night after night is what I do.”

And she is keen to point out the past five years of her career have been “some of the busiest” of her life.

She recently appeared as Miss Hannigan in the touring musical Annie, alternating the role with Strictly judge Craig Revel Horwood. She did Strictly, alongside filming the Birds Of a Feather Christmas special for ITV, and went straight from the series to star in Snow White in Plymouth.

“I understand why people think the way they do about my age but I’ve done musicals all my life,” she explains. “Doing Strictly was not something extraordinary. I’ve never seen my age as a thing, people in the business don’t see it, you just sort of get on with it.”

“In my head I’m still 35. Having played Dorien for so many years I don’t think there is anything wrong or unusual about wearing short skirts and leopard print all the time.

“I suppose to a lot of people it is mutton dressed as lamb.”

She may be a confident Jewish woman like Dorien, but in reality they are worlds apart, despite people apparently confusing the two “often.”

“Dorien is so much a fictional character. I don’t think there was anything of her in there when I was doing Strictly, it was just Lesley.”

One of her favourite things about Strictly was the chance to get glammed up. “The dressing up on Strictly was pure wonder. On Friday you walk through things and it is all starting to look bling. Nothing is too much or over the top, the only thing I can equate it to is pantomime.

“You have glitter, you have glamour, and you have everything all slightly twisting reality. I love the magic of it; you can indulge in your bling-tastic fantasy.”

She goes to yoga four times a week to keep fit and says she feels uneasy about being called an “inspiration” for older women.

“I’ve never looked at Strictly that way. I certainly didn’t go into it thinking I want to inspire anyone, I went into it selfishly thinking I want to learn ballroom and I guess the rest is by-product.”

Ever the professional, Joseph says she took the judges’ criticisms on the chin whenever she and her dance partner Anton Du Beke faced the panel.

“I found it unnerving on the first show because they are picking apart something you have put your heart and soul in. But it is all pantomime really.

“Not being a dancer yourself there are hundreds of things they can pick apart and you have to take it on the chin and learn from it.

“It was quite strange having just job-shared with Craig to be criticised by him, but I listened and I really like what he says a lot of the time. I think they all say what they think and have relevant things to say.”

She tells me that his year’s cast really did all get along and shared a similar camaraderie to the one she experiences with her Birds co-stars (with whom she’s expecting to film another series later this year) .

“Me and the girls are a family, we know how it works and we have been doing it since 1989. But I think it took us all by surprise how we all became so fond of each other on Strictly. Not just the celebrities but the pro dancers too.

“With some things you get together and there are one or two people who you think you’ll get on with, you might see one of them, but with this I know I’ll see everyone again.”

Disappointed to leave the show when she did, Joseph can’t wait to get back on stage to show off her dance moves. She’s still amazed that she’s dancing alongside former Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls. “I said to someone the other day, can you image Ed Balls going out to crowds at the O2, the cheers are going to be overwhelming.

“There isn’t any other time you are likely to get that experience unless you are a pop star.”


The Strictly Come Dancing 10th Anniversary Live Tour runs from January 20 to February 12

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