Lesley's musical high

She’s best known as the man-eating Dorien in TV’s Birds of a Feather but, in more recent times, Lesley Joseph has been flying high in musicals. She tells Sarah Hardy about her latest role in Thoroughly Modern Millie, at Norwich Theatre Royal.

Were you one of the millions that loved the sex-obsessed Dorien Green in the hit TV series of the 1980s and '90s, Birds of a Feather? Along with its two stars, Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson, Lesley Joseph quickly became a household name as the snobby nextdoor neighbour in Chigwell who couldn't keep her hands off a series of toy-boys despite being “happily married” to accountant Marcus.

“It was marvellous fun,” she gushes on the telephone to me. Speaking in between acts - not even an interval - one matinee a couple of weeks ago, Lesley is gracious about the series that brought her fame and fortune.

“It was so well written, you see. And both Pauline and Linda were very talented,” she says, adding that she still keeps in touch with them. “It's difficult as Pauline is in the Bill and Linda is doing her own thing, too. We've all gone in different directions but we try to keep in touch. Linda and I were in the Vagina Monologues together recently which was great fun.”

Birds of a Feather ran for almost 10 years and Lesley doesn't mind that people still mainly remember her for that role. “I'm very grateful to Dorien as, through her, I showed that I could put bums on seats in theatres so I can work,” she says.

And indeed, in recent times, Lesley has worked mainly in the theatre, most recently appearing as Miss Hannigan in the musical Annie which also came to Norwich. She has always loved both going to the theatre and appearing on stage and indeed her CV is as impressive as anyone could wish. And it's certainly diverse with everything from Chekhov to pantomime.

“Oh yes, I love panto. I've done it for years and nowadays the role of the Wicked Queen in Snow White is really mine! I'm doing it again in Bradford this Christmas, it'll be the third year now.”

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Lesley has starred in major pantomimes across the UK, an art that she takes very seriously as she considers it to be one of the most difficult aspects of stagecraft.

While some people turn their noses up at it, Lesley says: “Panto done properly is great - a magical experience - an eclectic group of people producing a real family show. You have to be a mix of serious actor and stand-up. It's important to work with and guide your audience, which is not easy - this is the successor to the Victorian music hall and these days no one really has the training for it.”

Since March, Lesley has been starring in a lavish production of Thoroughly Modern Millie. Set in the '20s, it offers a bit of everything from toe-tapping songs, to eye-popping dancing and headline-grabbing frocks.

Lesley explains: “We're really bringing a bit of the West End to the provinces. It's a big production, with great sets, fabulous costumes - nothing has been changed.”

The show, which originally starred Amanda Holden in the title role, was a real hit in the capital and has been playing to capacity audiences around the country. “Now Donna Steele plays Millie, she was Amanda's understudy but she's really made the role her own and Grace Kennedy is the diva Muzzy Van Hossmere - she has a fabulous voice.

“People love it because it's just a great piece of theatre. It's got a proper storyline, there's a decent plot which isn't always the case with other musicals. Often, they are just a collection of songs simply strung together.

“Basically, it's a love story but there's a lot more social comment going on, too,” says Lesley.

“In this show we have great songs, a great storyline and, of course, the dancing is quite incredible. The choreography is stunning - it's musical theatre at its very best.”

Lesley, who has been based in London for several years, also gives special mention to the costumes which, from all the publicity photographs, do look stunning and are reputed to have cost more than half a million pounds.

Lesley, who is 59 and has two children, replaced Maureen Lipman as Mrs Meers, a woman who runs the Hotel Priscilla where Millie decides to board. But Mrs Meers likes to disguise herself as a Chinese immigrant so that she can kidnap young women and sell them as slaves!

“It's an unusual role, a hard one to pull off,” explains Lesley. “You have to get the balance right but it is great fun.”

She remains on tour until just before Christmas. “Well, yes, touring can be exhausting but it is a great way of seeing many different cities. I try to get out as much as I can. I was last in Norwich with Annie. But I'm not sure how much free time I'll have this time as we're only with you a week and I think we have three matinees! So we'll be busy.

“Usually you have a couple of days where you can fit in a little sight-seeing but I think it's just a case of heads down and getting it done this time.”

She says that she does try to keep in tip-top condition when on the road.

“I walk everywhere. I try to stay about a half-hour walk from the theatre so that I start and end the day with a decent walk. I don't go to the gym or anything. I just find it so boring.”

Lesley also mentions the difficulty of eating well and healthily while on the road.

“It is something that suffers. You maybe want to eat after the show but then it's difficult to find somewhere that's open so you end up getting ready meals or something similar. You do get lazy.”

For Lesley, her emphasis on theatrical work is really a return to her roots. She says that she decided to be on stage when she was just four years old. At seven, she appeared in Hansel and Gretel in her home town of Northampton - where her mum still lives - and soon joined a local amateur dramatics company.

From there she won a place at LAMDA and afterwards, as was the then tradition, spent several years in repertory theatre, learning the ropes.

It was, she has said, a vital training ground and she is concerned about its demise.

“Rep is collapsing for TV. People now just want fame, not to act. I was lucky coming in when I did in the innocent days when things weren't so commercial.”

After her stint in panto this Christmas, she hopes to get back on the small screen.

“I feel that I've been taken seriously again as an actress so perhaps next year, after I've had a bit of break as I do feel very tired, I'll start to look at television scripts.”

She adds that she feels very fortunate to be still working and to still enjoy her work.

“It's great to be offered things and to still have choices. It's not easy out there these days so I know that I'm lucky.”

t Thoroughly Modern Millie opens at the Theatre Royal, Norwich, on Tuesday, October18 and runs until Saturday October 22. Box office: 01603 630000 or www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk