Life & Culture

Lesley Joseph's new habit

Can the actress ever escape Dorien Green, her glam and gabby character from 1990s sitcom Birds of a Feather?


This is the third time I have interviewed Lesley Joseph, the actress who to millions — yes millions — is still Dorien Green the glam, Jewish best friend and annoying neighbour to Pauline Quirke’s and Linda Robson’s Sharon and Tracey in Birds of a Feather.

The last time we met was in 2009, when Joseph was cast as the psychologically fragile Kathleen in David Storey’s 1970 drama Home. The time before that she was nearly 20 years ago, when she was starring in Stewart Permutt’s trilogy of female monologues Singular Women.

On each occasion, Joseph seemed to be attempting to break free of the limitations that go with starring in a massively successful sitcom of over 130 episodes. And, it seems, there is that same impulse to break free. Even at 76.

“I’d love to go back to Chekhov and Shakespeare and do more serious acting,” she says during this our third interview.

One might take that statement with a pinch of poignancy. Joseph is, after all about to appear in what might be described as the opposite of Chekhov and Shakespeare — a new starry revival of Alan Menken’s musical comedy Sister Act. She is one of an impressive cast that includes West End star Beverley Knight, Jennifer Saunders, Lizzie Bea and Clive Rowe.

Joseph plays Sister Mary Lazarus. When the show goes on tour, she’ll take over from Saunders’ Mother Superior. For both roles she wears a habit, but even in costume she still looks pretty Jewish. Right now, however, the black and white dress she is wearing is a silky affair, with a pattern like a jazzed-up zebra. Chic but still suitable for rehearsal — the timing of which has been called forward.

The rest of the cast are already on stage. We don’t have much time, the company manager warns. But Joseph is a fast talker. Thoughts and speech run at twice the speed of most people. It works well on radio and she has used it to great effect hosting her own programme on BBC London and standing in for Vanessa Feltz.

You need energy for all this. However, during lockdown Joseph wasn’t sure she still had it. Or even wanted it.

“I almost thought I was going to retire,” she says. She found herself warming to the new morning rhythms, “without having to wake up in the morning thinking ‘Can I still sing?’”

She emits a musical “Aahhhhh”, which was part of the daily ritual to check if the voice was still there. Strong and steady, it definitely is.

“And then [I normally think] ‘Where have I got to be? What have a got to do? What lines have I got to learn?’ In lockdown, it was so nice to go…” she exhales a relaxing breath.

But being cast in Sister Act has put an end to notions of taking it easy with her family. Her private life is closely guarded, which may be why she asked the show’s publicist to be present during this interview. But it is known she was married and has two children — Andrew and Elizabeth — from a previous relationship.

Now she is back in the spotlight as much as she ever was. The audience reaction to the show in Manchester “was off the page”, she says. And with the showstopper Raise Your Voice And Take Me To Heaven at the end of the first act they “went mental”.

“That’s because the show is in the right place at the right time,” she continues, now in full-on promo mode. “After two years [of pandemic] this is a musical people know they’re going to love. It’s about the bond between people; it’s about community, which was what a lot of people found in lockdown in their street. All that sort of thing.”

But back to the serious theatre she spoke of earlier. Has Dorien been a barrier to Joseph doing more of the kind of work she wants to do?

“I never thought that for a minute,” she says without a moment’s hesitation. “I know an awful lot of very, very talented people who never got the break of a character like Dorien Green. We were watched by over 20 million people in the early days. That has set my career and it’s never gone back down again.”

The “break” happened when Laurence Marks, co-creator of Birds of a Feather, saw Joseph in a play in the late 1980s called Exclusive Yarns by Gary Lyons and Permutt, the writer of the aforementioned Singular Women. The production was playing at the Comedy Theatre in the West End (now the Harold Pinter theatre) and Joseph was playing Pippa Goldblatt, the proprietor of a wool shop. Marks was so impressed that he and Maurice Gran ended up writing Dorien with Joseph in mind.

There is a “but” though. It comes after all the other lovely things that came as a result of Dorien: the game shows, the stint on Strictly Come Dancing, the regular spot she had for three years on GMTV, the pantomime which includes touring Dick Whittington with John Nettles (“such a fine actor”) for eight years.

Without Dorien she wouldn’t have been a shoo-in for the many musicals she has starred in, including Mel Brooks’s West End production of Young Frankenstein for which Joseph’s Frau Blücher received an Olivier nomination. And without Dorien, Michael Aspel would almost certainly never have presented her with a red book for This Is Your Life in 1995. The show definitely would have mentioned that she was born in Finsbury Park and raised in Northampton, but may have omitted that she is the great-granddaughter of the Kamnitzer Maggid, a great rabbinical sage.

And without Dorien, she wouldn’t have met the Pope. It happened while shooting for the BBC series Pilgrimage: The Road To Rome, as she was one of eight well-known personalities who trekked 620 miles of the Via Fancigena. It’s a story she tells with relish.

“I had half an hour with the Pope,” she begins…

“For Sister Act?”, I hear myself saying.

“We went through to the Vatican,” she continues, “and then someone very high up in the Vatican presented us with our testimonials to say we’d walked the Via Francigena. He came round to shake our hands and I went into a monologue. I don’t know what happened.

My voice dropped into that of being an actress and I said, ‘Hello, Your Holiness. My name is Lesley Joseph. I’m 72 years old…’ We had a little conversation. He said, ‘you don’t look 72,’ at which point I put my hand on his and said, ‘bless you’.”

Of course, without Dorien, she would never have worked with Mel Brooks in Young Frankenstein.

“I worked with him for three months. Before I was cast I did a workshop with the choreographer with the assistant director and the casting director. They sent the video over to the United States and I had an email back from the producer saying ‘Mel Brooks’s agent adores you’.

“I didn’t hear anything for a week but eventually I had a phone call to say, ‘you’ve got it’, which took me about a day to digest.”

Months later, Joseph’s first meeting with Brooks was at the Savoy with Ross Noble, who had been cast as Igor on the show.

“I was so nervous. When I got there, I’d had two champagnes. When he arrived, he said, ‘what do you want to drink?’ So I said, ‘champagne please’ and he said, ‘oh, you’re killing me, killing me’. I said I didn’t mind paying and he said, ‘one thing I do have is money’. Then I got drunk and showed him a picture of me in my underwear backstage at Strictly.”

During rehearsals, Brooks was tough with Joseph. He stopped her “on practically every line” to correct the way words were said or sung.

“I heard afterwards that if he didn’t like you, you were gone the next day. So I guess he must have liked me.” He later sent Joseph a video message in which he said: “Lesley, it doesn’t mean I want to marry you but I love you.’”

So it seems without Dorien, Joseph wouldn’t have met the Jewish Pope either. Which is where the “but” comes in. “But at the same time,” she says, “I never feel I’ve reached the top of the acting profession, because I think a lot of people do put you into a box.” And with that, the company manger calls time and Joseph joins the rest of her cast on stage.

‘Sister Act The Musical’ is at the Eventim Apollo, London until August 28

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