Helen Lederer has always done it her way, be it hair, fashion sense or comedy style. But she agrees with Radio 4 veteran Libby Purves that women are routinely overlooked because of their age and looks, and that angers her… a lot
SHE is one of Britain’s most familiar female character actresses, best known for her role as the dippy fashionista Catriona in Absolutely Fabulous, and has appeared in cult classics such as The Young Ones and Bottom. Yet Helen Lederer admits she can’t help but feel angry women of her age are still severely under- represented in comedy, drama and entertainment on television. Despite her pedigree, the veteran star, who turns 65 on Thursday, has found roles scarce in recent years.
Joining the debate about older women at the BBC, kicked off by veteran Radio 4 presenter Libby Purves, 70, who wrote in the Radio Times this week that the “middle- aged female must struggle to look youthful”, she agrees the corporation and other broadcasters discriminate against older women based on their looks.
She sighs: “It’s true presenters like Zoe Ball and Lauren Laverne look much younger for their age, and that must be a massive pressure. It’s always a disappointment for men in charge to favour the young and prettier participant but if the person is good at what they do, the young person shouldn’t be punished.”
But Helen says she can’t make people laugh and worry about her appearance.
“I can’t be self- conscious when I am doing stand- up comedy. And Libby is right when she says equality will come when women are allowed to be grey, stout and in proper cardigans. I applaud her view.”
She is also concerned about the controversial recent axing of Sue Barker from A Question of Sport. “I was surprised and disappointed to learn about Sue Barker. I always thought she was meaningful and relevant and it was disappointing to learn the BBC had let her go,” says Helen, though she adds: “But on the other hand, life evolves. You can’t hang on to something and there is no point in being desperate.”
THAT said, she continues: “It is still a surprise that women of relevance are let go by the BBC and very disappointing. The only power that I have is to be myself and myself is somebody with dyed hair, who is the age that I am and is a bit fat and I can’t do anything about it. If I had a job on Countryfile, I would be sacked. Absolutely. I hold my hands up. I would be sacked for my roots today. Luckily I am not doing Countryfile and I have discovered hair powder. “But I admire people like Libby and anyone who speaks out and puts their head above the parapet is great.” However, Helen is heartened to see close pal and fellow comedienne Caroline Quentin, 60, flying the flag for older women on the BBC as a contestant on this year’s Strictly Come Dancing. “There should be greater diversity in comedy and on TV generally and shows should strive to include as many contrasting acts of both genders and varied backgrounds,” insists Helen. “It’s a shame that in the 21st century, women are still so underrepresented. Visible role models are vital to inspiring women and girls to fight for their right to sit at the table alongside men. I’m a hard worker and my experiences of hardness first started when I came into comedy at a time in the ’ 80s when there wasn’t support for women. I was fortunate to star in comedies like Naked Video, The Young Ones and Bottom alongside my friends Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson. But it was really tough to get those roles. “My 30- year- old daughter and other people say women aren’t angry any more, but they really are about not getting the roles they deserve. Myself and other women of my age have to keep going and that’s why it’s brilliant Caroline is doing Strictly.”
Helen points to the “handful” of older women on Strictly since it launched in 2004, including Stephanie Beacham ( then 60); Gloria Hunniford ( who was 65); Felicity Kendal ( 64); Ann Widdecombe ( 63); Pamela Stephenson ( 61); Anita Dobson ( 62) Lesley Joseph ( 71); Debbie McGee ( 59); and Anneka Rice ( 61). To the uninitiated, it sounds like a formidable list, but Helen insists older women are underrated on the show compared to men.
“Ultimately it is an entertainment show and somebody in casting has decided which individuals will connect with an audience, even though each year, everyone always says, ‘ Who are all these people?’ I know they’ve been told they need to have a mix. You need your funny aunt, your rogue son, your mad nextdoor neighbour and it’s a mock- up of people that we can connect with.”
It’s not all bad news though. She is proud of the fact Strictly has its first allfemale pairing this year in gay ex- boxer Nicola Adams, 37, and an as yet unnamed female pro- dancer. “It’s a little microcosm where the show can demonstrate their awareness that society has moved on and really good luck to them. Why not support two women dancing together?”
Helen has never been one for convention, including the way she looks with her wild hair and bohemian dress sense and has been open about her struggles with her weight. “I’ve done everything from the Slim Fast and Lighter life diet, which I lost three stone on. I was even going to have a gastric band. But people were really cross with me and said I’d lost too much weight and that I had a pinhead. They said I didn’t look normal. Secretly I did enjoy that power and I had that ridiculous feeling of, ‘ Woah, look at me’ and I quite enjoyed it. But for me it was impossible to sustain.” In recent weeks, Helen’s energy has been focused on the Comedy Women in Print awards. Now in its second year, it was launched by Helen in response to the perceived lack of exposure for female comedy
‘ It’s not all bad news. She is proud that Strictly has its first all- female pairing this year’
writing. Celebrity special guests taking part in a recent star- studded virtual ceremony included Jilly Cooper, Mary Berry, Maureen Lipman and Jenny Eclair. Chair of judges Marian Keyes praised an “excellent year for comic novels by women”. Helen explains: “Many female comedians continue to battle against the idea that women aren’t funny, while TV panel shows and comedy bills remain overwhelmingly dominated by men. Comedy is very much a boy’s club but there are great women of a different generation out there.” Having been through a “low- low” period associated with the menopause some years back, she is taking HRT and believes it has made her bigger. “I looked at some photos the other day and I am bloody huge,” she smiles. “I have to accept I am larger than I should be, so I’m not sure I would be the fittest if I were to be on Strictly.” No stranger to reality TV, Helen joined Celebrity Big Brother in 2017 and ill- fated celebrity diving show Splash in 2013. For the latter, she had her swimming costume adapted to cover the parts of her figure she wasn’t happy about. “I was not OK about that swimsuit,“she says, shuddering at the recollection of the lacy diamanté number that covered the tops of her thighs.
MARRIED to her second husband, GP Chris Browne for 21 years, one of Helen’s most high- profile roles was in Absolutely Fabulous. She appeared in all five series between 1992 and 2012 and Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie in 2016. She admits that she is eternally grateful for the role but, having hit her 40s, she found that she was not in the place that she wanted to be in. “I think I had a time of sulking,” she confesses. “I didn’t have the TV work I wanted and I wasn’t where I wanted to be but it’s nice not to be sulking now. The delight of being over 60 is that I don’t have room for sulking because I’m on the other side of it. “I look at my contemporaries, who are still working, and I’ve always been older. I’m about three years older than Jennifer [ Saunders] and Dawn [ French]. But being in the show did change my life – none of us realised how well it would do.” Absolutely Fabulous led to the Ben Elton comedy Happy Families, in which she played a maid to Dawn French’s cook. So, does Helen think in a more politically correct age of television that Absolutely Fabulous, with its risqué jokes about heavy drinking, drugs, vanity, diets, and general chaos, would be allowed today? “Probably not,” she says firmly. “When Jennifer started writing it she had free- range to write what she wanted and producers didn’t interfere. I think Jennifer would have a very different experience writing for today’s television because I don’t think she would get free rein.” She is talking with another of her Ab Fab co- stars, Jane Horrocks, 55, who played Bubble in the sitcom, about working together. “I know about wine as a hobby and Jane and I are in discussions about doing a tour of UK vineyards. It will be like a female version of The Trip with Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan except that we will be visiting vineyards not restaurants with cameras following our every move.” ● For more on the Comedy Women in Print Awards, visit comedywomeninprint. co. uk
WOMEN’S VOICES: Helen, main, and with Jennifer Saunders, above. Right, broadcaster Libby Purves
MASSIVE PRESSURE: Star presenter Zoe Ball
CLOSE PAL: Caroline Quentin will star on this year’s Strictly