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

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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

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