Birds Of A Feather… back together! Pauline Quirke, Lesley Joseph and Linda Robson on reviving their TV classicBack together for the first time in 13 years, Linda Robson, Lesley Joseph and Pauline Quirke reveal that they’ve still got the chemistry – if not the waistlines – for their new Birds Of A Feather stage show
There’s something rather brave about an actress returning to the role she first played over 20 years ago. As Pauline Quirke, Linda Robson and Lesley Joseph – the original Birds Of A Feather – have been discovering, the British public likes nothing better than an excuse to reminisce.
That means they’ve been forced – for the first time in ‘longer than we care to remember’ – to watch clips of themselves in their TV prime. And the comparisons have been, well, interesting.
‘We were on This Morning recently and they played a montage of footage from the early years,’ says Pauline. ‘There was part of me thinking, “God, we were good”, and another part thinking, “Blimey. The hair!” I went through every Eighties style going. There was the bad perm, the mullet, the pudding bowl! I’d look like a 15-year-old boy one week and Julius Caesar the next.’
From left: Linda, Lesley and Pauline have regrouped for a new stage show
Now the Birds are back. Common-as-muck
Sharon and Tracey and their posh-but-promiscuous neighbour Dorien have
been brought back for a stage version of the show, and when I meet the
three during rehearsals, it’s an anxious time. Linda Robson is
particularly nervy and is almost mainlining Nicorette tablets. She says
it will be a miracle if she gets through the coming days without ‘ending
up back on the fags’. Surely bringing back her most famous role can’t
be that nerve-racking
‘Oh, it’s not about the part,’ she explains. ‘It’s because I’m about to be a grandmother. My daughter is expecting her first child and I’m waiting for the call to say she’s in labour. She’s asked me to be there when the baby arrives. My big fear is that everything will kick off on opening night. Then what’ll I do Even if I go on, I’ll be a bag of nerves.’
Linda’s impending granny status is a timely reminder of just how much has changed since the threesome dominated our TV screens. It’s 13 years since they said goodbye to Birds Of A Feather, which secured ratings today’s sitcoms can never hope to emulate. ‘We had 27 million viewers for one Christmas special,’ says Lesley. ‘It brings it home how much things have changed. I guess we blossomed in the golden age of TV.’
The threesome in Birds Of A Feather in 1992. 'I guess we blossomed in the golden age of TV,' says Lesley
There are myriad problems in reviving three such distinct characters after such a long absence. The most obvious issue with this lot is the physical – but not the usual concerns about developing wrinkles and extra layers of middle-aged padding. It’s shrinkage that’s the main problem.
Back then, Sharon was the butt of endless jokes about her rotund figure. That was before Pauline lost an astonishing 8st, however. And any hopes of the ‘fatty baton’ passing to Linda – whose weight has fluctuated by some 4st over the years – were dashed when she, too, put herself on a strict diet and also dropped to a size 12.
When it was announced the Birds would be coming back, there was a moment when it looked as if Dorien – played by the ever-slimline Lesley – might actually be the largest of the ladies. Perhaps she felt the terror of that, because she admits today that she too has been hitting the Ryvita with a vengeance.
I do feel a bit “Awwwhh” when I see my
younger self, but I know I wasn’t happy with how I looked then. I
thought I was fat, when I obviously wasn’t.
‘I’ve actually lost 16lb. I wasn’t big big, but I’d put on over a stone since the show ended. When I knew I was going to play Dorien again, I realised I had to lose weight, because you just couldn’t have a large Dorien. I cut my calories down gradually to around 500 a day, and it worked. I started exercising too. My legs are probably in better shape than they were 20 years ago.’
She does look good. ‘She even looks good naked,’ says Linda. ‘We saw her in the buff in the dressing room today. Mind you, there was a thermal vest involved in the undressing stage, lest you think she’s too glam.’
Asking a woman to reflect on how she looks today, compared to a decade or more ago is a little cruel, but it’s nothing Lesley, Pauline and Linda – aged 66, 52 and 53 – haven’t asked themselves. While Pauline is clearly delighted at looking, if anything, more youthful and fitter than her younger self, Linda isn’t quite so sure. ‘Oh, the lines are there all right. We certainly haven’t gone down the Botox route. I do feel a bit “Awwwhh” when I see my younger self, but I know I wasn’t happy with how I looked then. I thought I was fat, when I obviously wasn’t.’
But how do they get round the size issue in the stage show ‘/03/09/article-2112052-000D9AF200000258-660_634x458.jpg” width=”634″ height=”458″ alt=”TV hit: The trio celebrate the 100th episode of Birds Of A Feather” class=”blkBorder” />
TV hit: The trio celebrate the 100th episode of Birds Of A Feather
Lesley’s concerns about ageing are more practical. She peers at herself in the mirror and asks aloud how you’re supposed to do your make-up when you can’t focus without your specs. And she can’t decide whether she’s looking forward to or dreading the cosmetic ordeal she’s about to face – having her ‘Dorien talons’ put back on.
‘Dorien was all about the nails, and I always had to have false ones put on. I had to go to a special shop to have them done. Barbara Windsor went there too. For years afterwards I couldn’t escape the talons. When I played one of the witches in Macbeth on stage, someone asked me, “Where are your big long nails” They honestly assumed the nails were part of me.’ The others nod, lost in memories – not necessarily all good ones. ‘We had to pull up her knickers for her when she had those nails on,’ says Linda, as they all fall about laughing.
That the chemistry between these three has survived the last 13 years is clear. Linda and Pauline have known each other since childhood and their lives have always been enmeshed. Things have become even more interwoven with this new show, however, because the part of one of their sons is being shared by… both their sons.
‘Charlie, my boy, is sharing it with Louis, Linda’s son,’ explains Pauline. ‘They’re both actors, but Charlie was doing his A-levels and couldn’t commit to the part full-time. Louis was in the same position, so it made sense for them to share it. It’s been lovely having them working with us for the first time.’
‘Weird, though,’ admits Linda. ‘The funniest bit is Charlie actually looks more like me than he does Pauline. The audience will be most confused.’
They've still got: The girls in Weekend magazine
The original show was a family affair
too for Pauline and Linda, who each have three children, and Lesley, who
has two. ‘We had no idea how family-friendly Birds would be,’ says
Pauline. ‘We thought we were signing up for six episodes but it ended up
running for more than 100 and represented ten years of our lives. But
the job was a godsend because it allowed us to put our families first.
The schedule meant we could all do the school run in the morning, get to
rehearsals for 10am, and still be home in time to pick the kids up
As for the show itself, it was very much of its time. ‘Now you have programmes like The Only Way Is Essex,’ says Lesley, ‘but we were the original Essex girls. People were making money and moving out of the East End of London. Essex was the place to be, so you had these people moving in – and their snobby neighbours looking down on them.’
It may seem very safe now, but in its day Birds Of A Feather was shocking to some. ‘It was edgy,’ recalls Linda. ‘There was a big hoo-ha after the first episode because there was some swearing. It got lots of complaints, which did us no harm because everyone tuned into the second episode to see what the fuss was about!’
Later, when the show had become a British institution, there were discussions about whether the US networks would buy it. ‘They didn’t in the end,’ explains Pauline. ‘They made their own version of it. The networks wouldn’t touch ours because of the criminal aspect. Because Tracey and Sharon’s husbands were doing time, they thought it glamorised crime. Can you imagine it Even at that time, you could buy a gun in the US, but Birds was too edgy for them. Madness.’
Linda laughs at how ‘British’ the programme always was. ‘We had a few trips abroad for specials, and I’ll never forget going to the States. The US actors – George Hamilton was in it – all had huge trailers, and couldn’t get over the fact we were getting changed in the loo.’
Why was it such a success here, though Lesley thinks it was because of the simplicity of the drama. ‘It wasn’t a big-budget affair. It was essentially three women talking around a kitchen table. The success was in the characters. People just loved them.’
All three actresses have gone on to other things, but say it is primarily Birds for which they are still recognised. ‘It’s still the big one,’ says Linda. ‘Pauline will get recognised from Emmerdale too, but everyone still says “Birds…”’ Lesley adds, ‘It’s the biggest thing any of us will ever do in our careers. It put us on the map.’ And yet there hasn’t ever been any talk of bringing it back to TV. Are they annoyed by that ‘Well, it would be nice to do,’ says Lesley, carefully. ‘The interest is certainly there.’
And the BBC is supposedly concerned about reflecting the lives of older women. ‘Yes, though I’m not sure the Birds are role models,’ says Lesley. ‘Dorien would be a very dubious role model. And Sharon’s a layabout. If all women our age were like her, we’d be in trouble.’
That these are very different TV days is brought home when talk turns to the DVD box set of the original Birds, which has only become available recently. Nowadays actors reap lucrative rewards from their work being immortalised in a box set. Not these three. ‘We don’t get a penny from the DVDs,’ says Linda. ‘When all the contracts about that sort of thing were drawn up, DVDs didn’t even exist, so they weren’t covered. It’s a good job we’re not sitting at home waiting for the cheques.’
So how have they found bringing their most famous characters back to life They can’t give much away about the plot, other than to reveal it involves a murder and an old people’s home. ‘The characters have obviously changed, but it had to be subtle. We were very aware we couldn’t change them too much, because the audience needs to have that recognition,’ says Lesley. Linda, as ever, is more blunt. ‘They’re still the same old birds, but with more lines, and give or take the odd stone or two.’ And with better hair, suggests Pauline’s grin.
Birds Of A Feather tours the UK until Saturday 7 July. For tickets and information visit www.birdsontour.com