Last time they met, Leslie Ash was still suffering from that botched lip job and could barely walk after contracting a superbug for which she received a record £5 million compensation. Now, she tells REBECCA HARDY, she finally feels alive again after ditching the drugs that were messing her up.
Leslie Ash hasn’t seen her old pals from her Men Behaving Badly days for goodness knows how long.
A month before lockdown she reached her 60th birthday, so she asked, she says, ‘everyone I’ve ever known whether they wanted to come to my party’ at the @Bar & Bites in Clapham, south London, the bar that she runs with her husband, ex-footballer Lee Chapman.
Not one of her co-stars from the hugely popular 90s BBC sitcom – Caroline Quentin, Neil Morrissey and Martin Clunes – came.
Twenty-five years ago when Men Behaving Badly was the must-watch programme of the week, these much younger actors were as thick as thieves, particularly Leslie and Caroline. So much so that when Leslie had an argument with Lee – and there were many alcohol-fuelled rows in this volatile relationship – she’d storm off and beg herself a bed at Caroline’s flat.
Leslie Ash (pictured) said that none of her co-stars from Men behaving Badly turned up to her 60th birthday party
‘We were really, really close but it’s a bit like going to school,’ says Leslie. ‘You can be close to people for a long time, then your life just moves on. You might move out of London, as Caroline did, you have kids, you go into another production and you become friends with people in that production. We all went our separate ways.’
Caroline, now 60 too, married Men Behaving Badly set runner Sam Farmer, moved to Devon, had two children and went on to become one of our most bankable TV stars in shows like Life Of Riley, Jonathan Creek, Life Begins and Blue Murder. This year she’s been appearing on BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing.
Similarly Martin Clunes, now 58, hotfooted it to Dorset where he lives with his TV producer wife Philippa and their daughter, Emily, and stars as the taciturn Martin Ellingham in hugely successful ITV drama series Doc Martin.
Neil Morrissey, also 58, divorced his wife Amanda with whom he has a 31-year-old son, famously had a short-lived affair with another Amanda (Britain’s Got Talent’s Amanda Holden), eventually settled down in a long-term relationship with Emma, a lawyer, in north London and has landed roles in some huge TV hits such as Line Of Duty and The Night Manager.
And Leslie? Her career ‘stopped dead’ (her words) in 2004 after she contracted a variant of the superbug MRSA while having an epidural injection at London’s Chelsea and Westminster Hospital – the bug attacked her spine and left her so terribly injured that specialists warned she’d be in a wheelchair by the age of 60.
She received a whopping £5 million in compensation, but would gladly hand back every penny to be able to waltz around the Strictly dance floor like her one-time chum Caroline.
In 2004, Leslie’s acting career stopped dead after she contracted MRSA while having an epidural injection
‘Lee is one of the only people who really understands what it was actually like,’ says Leslie, who’s been married for 32 years and has two grown-up sons, Joe and Max. ‘I was quite heavily medicated for 13 years with all sorts of things – painkillers, antidepressants. I was sort of a bit brain dead. You don’t get too happy and you don’t get too sad. You sit in the middle.
‘A few years ago Max told me I was slurring my words. He was right. I thought, “God that’s got to stop.” I went to my GP to get help weaning myself off the drugs. I thought my spine would hurt and I’d suddenly be in all this pain. But the pain was no more and no less. I thought, “Jesus, this happened when I was 44, now I’m nearly 60. What a waste of time.” I’ve definitely lost about 13 years of my life by being on painkillers.
‘I suppose you always think, “Did it happen for a reason? Was I just too happy?”’ She snorts. Shakes her head. ‘But you can’t do that for too long or you’d drive yourself mad. You’ve got to move on – got to move on.’ She repeats the words and you sense she tells herself this often. ‘I couldn’t just sit on the couch watching daytime TV. I had to do something.’
Indeed. When I last interviewed Leslie five years after she contracted the bug she leaned heavily upon a silver-topped stick and spoke with the sort of slur you’d normally put down to having had a few too many vodka shots.
Leslie Ash attends a party in 2009 with ex-footballer Lee Chapman, who is now her husband
She told me then about the ‘tipsy’ sex with Lee that ended in the ‘horrible, horrible accident’ when she fell off the bed, punctured a lung and broke two ribs, and ended up at London’s Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. It was during her treatment there that she contracted the bug, and she vowed then to give up the booze and get a hold of her life.
She addressed the drinking but remained an emotional mess. ‘The last time I spoke to you I think I was very heavily sedated,’ she says now. ‘I found it difficult to string two words together and sometimes when I started a conversation I forgot what I was talking about.’
Today, Leslie’s blonde bob has grown, falling below her shoulders, and when she needs to fetch something she darts across the room without a stick. She actually looks remarkable – better, in fact, than she has in decades.
Remember her ‘trout pout’ when, in her early 40s, she decided to ‘plump’ up her upper lip but the procedure went horribly wrong? Her lips remained abnormally swollen for years, leading to ridicule.
MEN REALLY DID BEHAVE BADLY!
Leslie recalls how she was forced to stand up for herself when she worked on Men Behaving Badly.
‘Women’s lib used to be about burning bras, and my father used to say, “Oh lovely, lots of jiggly bosoms.” I’d have to say, “That’s not the point, Dad.”
‘I remember the time Caroline Quentin and I found out we weren’t getting paid as much as the boys, so we said we weren’t going to do another series unless we got parity.
‘We got it, so that was a bit “Wow!” then.
‘Now women have great authority on set, but when I started horrible things happened – there was the bum-pinching and the sexist comments.
‘I was a model before I was an actress and once I had my dress pulled up when I was doing a commercial.
‘The men had had a bet on what coloured pants I was wearing. I went bright red. I was absolutely devastated.’
The cast of Men Behaving Badly, including Leslie Ash (second from left), in 1996
Now she practises facial exercises every day to tone up her face – and walks, she says, ‘better than I have ever done before, more upright.
‘I have to keep my muscles really strong because if you don’t use muscle you lose it. If you lose your muscle you lose your strength, and if I lose my strength I won’t be able to walk, so I have to keep this machine [she gestures to her body] going all the time. I have to keep my core strong so I do a lot of Pilates.
‘In 2004 when all of this happened I was 44, so 60 seemed quite a long way away. The doctors told me that I’d probably be in a wheelchair by the time I was 60, so that was in my head and I was terrified.
I thought my whole life was going to come to an abrupt end because I’d end up being extremely disabled.
‘My mum died at the age of 68, of a heart attack in her sleep, but she’d had breast cancer and a mastectomy. She wasn’t the fittest person.
‘She used to drink a bottle of cava a day – whatever gets you through.’
Leslie was 26 when she met future husband Lee in a nightclub. It was, she says, ‘a passionate’ relationship punctuated by jealous rows and far too much alcohol, particularly when they opened the London private members’ club Teatro 24 years ago.
That’s closed now and life, you sense, is quieter, sweeter, for Leslie.
‘We know each other very well,’ she says. ‘We enjoy each other’s company. He’s really cared for me. If ever I was ready to give up he was there to keep me going mentally and physically. Before all this I remember driving to work thinking, “Oh God, I’m so lucky. I’m so bl***y lucky. I’ve got absolutely everything – the boys, Lee, my career.” I never took it for granted. Not to be able to act was…’
She stops. Breathes deeply. ‘It’s so much part of my life that, literally, I was grieving,’ she continues. ‘There was such an emptiness. I’ve always lived for walking into that rehearsal room, sitting down, doing the read-through, working with other people, meeting new actors, the nerves before doing a new show. It’s all part of it and that’s just taken out of your life. It was horrible. Terrible.
‘Lee was there for me, as I am for him. We have a nice little life but it’s nowhere near as busy as before. Your life quietens down when you reach 60. At the weekends we go out for lovely meals or check in on the bar, but Monday to Friday we don’t go out so it’s lockdown for us every day.
‘We go to the gym, stuff like that, and Lee works from home. But once I came off the medication I started to get really interested in how programmes are made.
‘I used to watch lots of television, obviously, because I didn’t have anything else to do. I decided if I couldn’t actually be in front of the camera then I wanted to be behind it. I didn’t want TV out of my life. I wanted to be a part of the business, and that’s where I am now.’
Leslie’s just launched a new venture with novelist Elaine Sturgess that brings authors together with actors who aren’t able to work because theatres are closed. Devised during lockdown, it is, she says, a bit like the audiobooks app Audible meets Netflix, as books are performed live on screen via Zoom by casts of actors working from their own homes or individual locations.
One actor narrates the book while others speak the characters’ dialogue – it’s a bit like you’re being given your own private performance, and these can be viewed as they happen live or on catch-up.
She says that her life is now far quieter than it used to be when she was younger and first met husband Lee. Pictured: Martin Clunes, Neil Morrissey, Caroline Quentin and Leslie Ash
‘I began talking to Elaine about the difficulties she’d had promoting her book Gin And It,’ says Leslie, who will appear in the TV film version of that book, which is currently in production. ‘We decided to set up a platform for people to get their books out there and called it BooksOffice.
‘It really started to grow during lockdown when so many actors were out of work. We then began performing books on Zoom to raise money for the NHS, and it was so great we wanted to carry on with it, so we formed a collective with production, management and actors and called it BookStreamz.’
From last week audiences at home have been able to start enjoying a range of books performed live on their tablets, smartphones and laptops as BookStreamz builds up a library of hundreds of hours of entertainment. The first two books to be performed, and with daily episodes continuing this week, are courtroom drama A Short Film About Serial Killing by Alex Radcliffe, and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
Episodes of the next book, sci-fi fantasy Man O’War by first-time novelist Dan Jones, begin on Monday.
We’ve been talking for most of the afternoon now and Leslie’s cocker spaniel Blue is growing restless. He’s ready for his walk. Leslie searches for her stick. ‘I use it when I’m out to let people know that my balance isn’t too good and that I’m doddery.
‘Look,’ she says, leaning forward in her chair. ‘I didn’t see any of this coming and it isn’t always easy but you make it work. It’s like lockdown. That wasn’t easy with the bar. But Lee is a very determined person. We nearly didn’t make it through, but when they allowed takeaways we jumped on that and started to do really well.
‘If we have to shut down again, you’ve still got to pay your rent and your staff, so it’s another part of our life which is just up in the air.’
She shrugs in an it-is-what-it-is sort of way. ‘But since I’ve come off the medication I do find my brain is firing on all cylinders. I’ve got more spark,’ she says.
‘I feel more alive than I have for 15 years. I’ve got my ambition back, which I lost for quite a while. I just love this business. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s been my entire life and I really don’t want it to stop.’
To watch the BookStreamz productions and for schedule information, visit bookstreamz.com.