Leslie Joseph was four years old when she told her family that she wanted to be an actress. Now 76, she is best known for her role as Dorien Green in the British sitcom Birds of a Feather from 1989 to 1998 and from 2014 to 2020, which was watched by up to 20 million viewers.
I went on stage for the first time at the age of seven, says Joseph now, when we speak ahead of her appearance in Sister’s law at Dublin’s Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.
“I grew up in Northampton and it was at the New Theatre, which was one of those great old pop houses,” she says, segueing into a song from Hansel and Gretel that she performed years ago.
She came from a creative family, she adds, explaining that one cousin went to work in the circus, and that she herself sat for Lamda (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts) exams throughout her childhood.
She is not sure if her parents encouraged her to act as they had no choice, she adds. “I know at one point the headmistress called them in and said, ‘I think you should let Leslie come on stage.’ I think she saw what was coming.”
Joseph left theater school in 1967, studying with Maureen Lipman.
“When we came out, it was a very different world than it is now. To begin with you had to do 42 weeks before you were allowed to do anything in the West End.
“This was before all the channels were on television, before the world opened up to reality shows.
“I remember we all had to go through the forms when we were graduating from drama school and it said, ‘Would you ever think about doing a commercial?’, and I said, like all of us, “definitely not”. We are serious actors.”
I’m still here, I’m still working, people still know who I am
Of course, she starred in a series of commercials for the Somerfield supermarket chain, a job she got after becoming famous as Doreen Green.
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“They were very profitable in those days, and they were also very interesting,” Joseph says of the ads now. “I guess some people focus solely on serious work, but the reason I’ve been able to last this long is because I’ve always diversified.”
Josepha did Shakespeare and Chekhov and loved them, but the musicals and comedies she came to early in her career are probably her favorite work, she says.
“Because I love working with an audience, that’s why I love pantomime and take it very seriously,” she says.
She has also participated in reality shows over the years, most recently appearing on them Chef and Pilgrimage: Road to Romeduring which she spent half an hour with the Pontiff.
I know I get really angry with myself when I do something wrong and I don’t do it so well
“I never feel that I have done as well as I should have at certain stages of my career. But I loved everything I did. I’m still here, I’m still working, people still know who I am.”
She has said in the past that she competes with herself, not other people.
“I know what I can do, or what I think I can do. And I know that I get very angry with myself when I do something wrong and I don’t do it well,” she says.
Joseph also never reads reviews or uses social media “because I don’t really want to know what other people think.”
On the topic of age, the actress notes that her mother lived to be almost 104 years old, and she will play tennis and do yoga until she is 90.
Joseph follows suit in this department; she herself performed in Strictly come to the dance when she was 71 years old.
“Running around the stage or doing three big dance numbers like we do Sister’s law, it doesn’t even occur to me that I couldn’t do it at my age,” she says. “Because I feel fit. And I never considered 76 years old.
“Just look at my face. I’ve always played characters, so aging has never been a problem for me.
“Sister’s law about the women in the monastery, so some of them are women of a certain age. It is glorious to do.
“I think people are realizing that acting isn’t just about young glamorous people, it’s inclusive of everything – and one of the reasons I’m happy to be a character actor and not just known as young and glamorous is because in that it can include everything.”
When asked what tricks she uses to stay focused, Joseph says exercise keeps her mentally clear.
During the lockdown, she and some friends practiced yoga every morning via Zoom.
“So I find aging very interesting in a way. Looking at what’s there. But I touch the wood and whistle,” she says, pausing to let out a short sharp whistle. “I was never offered a job.”
And it was only during the adjustment that Joseph first realized the appeal of retirement.
“I suddenly thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s actually great that you don’t have to worry about your voice or warming up before your performance tonight.’ Everyone was doing the same thing, and I really enjoyed it.”
But then, when things started to settle down, she said she missed work, adding: “I think work keeps my mind young.”
Sister’s law takes place at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, from 20 September to 1 October. See bordgaisenergytheatre.ie for details.