'How dare Dennis says it's MY fault he hit me': Rula Lenska reveals the terror of her ex-husband's drunken rages but says she can't bring herself to hate him
00:19 GMT, 24 March 2012
On ex-husband Dennis Waterman: 'I certainly don't hate him, I don't have any feelings of revenge,' said Rula Lenska
As an actress, Rula Lenska is used to conjuring up a range of emotions.
Bewilderment, anger, sadness, she’s done them all.
Today, though, she doesn’t even have to try, for they are all there, written in her face. Along with compassion, too, and yes, even traces of love.
‘I certainly don’t hate him, I don’t have any feelings of revenge,’ she says.
‘Once there’s been love, in my book, it never completely disappears. You still care.’
Him, in this case, being Dennis Waterman — Rula’s ex-husband and the man who not only hit her during their marriage but bullied her during drunken rages over many years.
When she finally left him in 1996, it
was the middle of the night.
Dennis was in the grip of yet another
alcohol-fuelled rage. Rula was, in her own words, ‘petrified’. The pair
have not spoken from that day to this.
has done her best to bury the pain of their 11-year marriage, but it
came back to haunt her with a vengeance this week when the former Minder
star controversially admitted punching and slapping her — but blamed
her ‘cleverness’ for driving him to it.
for an upcoming episode of Piers Morgan’s Life Stories, he said he had
resorted to ‘lashing out’ during their union, because his wife was a
‘strong, intelligent’ woman who could ‘argue well’.
While he spoke of his feelings of shame, there was no apology. Little wonder his comments provoked public fury.
For Rula, as is so often the case with victims of domestic violence, talk of her former lover conjures emotions which are not always easy for the rest of us to understand.
‘I have never called myself a battered wife,’ she says, ‘these things are never simple, are they I know he says he hates me, but hate can be very close to love, can’t it’
Rula’s hands shake as she opens her heart for the first time since the furore erupted.
It is clear Waterman still has the power to unsettle her. And while she stops short of calling him her one great love, it is clear that their relationship has dominated much of her romantic life.
But she didn’t expect him to be dominating her feelings this week — a time which would otherwise have been particularly joyful.
Two weeks ago, Rula became a grandmother for the first time and was immersed in ‘magical’ feelings towards her new grandson.
Rula and Dennis married in Australia in 1987, but cracks soon started to show. He said he had resorted to 'lashing out' during their union, because his wife was a 'strong, intelligent' woman who could 'argue well'
Then came the phone call from a friend, telling her that her tempestuous marriage to Waterman was all over the front pages once again. She has struggled to find equilibrium since.
Fifteen years ago, she spoke of the violence which ended their marriage, only to find herself publicly vilified, accused of being a liar and a fantasist — not only by Waterman but by his friends.
It is her ex-husband’s final confession, combined with his lack of contrition, that has prompted her to speak in candid detail about their relationship, the violence and their bitter split.
If only Dennis had picked up the phone, she insists, she would not be speaking out at all.
Before our meeting, she attempted to contact him through his agent to see if they could build bridges. He didn’t respond, so here she is, railing at the injustices she has had to bear.
‘For 15 years, I lived with the title of liar and sensationalist. There is now relief I can no longer be labelled that way,’ she says.
‘At the same time, it’s been a huge shock. I haven’t seen the show, but I can’t imagine what Dennis was thinking, unless he was drunk.
‘I can’t believe he had the opportunity of going on a show like that and saying not: “I did a really sh***y thing, and I lied about it, and I apologise,” but turning it into a blame situation.
‘He’s still not taking responsibility. It’s: “It’s not my fault, no, it’s because she’s this and she’s that.”
‘Perhaps he imagines that in the eyes of the people watching, it’s a rather heroic admission. “Yeah, I slapped my wife around and I’m really ashamed.”
‘I want to say: “Stop playing the lad.” He’s a grandfather yet he’s still playing the Minder character.’
She shakes her head, part in anger, part in disbelief.
Rula is particularly incensed by his attempts at self-justification.
‘Whatever the adjectives — strong, powerful, intelligent — they can never be used as an excuse for violence towards women. Whoever uses them should be brought to account.
‘If I have to apologise for being a strong, intelligent woman then what does that mean for any woman It is utterly irresponsible.
'I'm often perceived as rather aloof when in fact I'm soft as butter,' said Rula
‘Yes, I had my own career, my own money, when we met. Dennis knew that. It was never part of the deal that I would change or give that up — although it seemed that became something he wanted as time went on.
'And Dennis was no fool. Whatever his background, he could hold his own.’
But did she run rings round him, like he suggests
‘What I will say is that I was one of those women who couldn’t leave things alone. I couldn’t just go to bed and let things be. I always waited for him. Perhaps that is what he means by “provoke”.’
At 64, Rula still cuts a glamorous figure, with the same striking looks and slender figure that first so entranced Waterman all those years ago.
Swathed in her favourite green — the colour that compliments her red hair best — she turns heads in the lobby of the hotel where we meet.
Yet behind the sophisticated veneer lie many deep-seated vulnerabilities. Her hands won’t stop shaking and she is close to tears for most of our interview.
She is clearly uncomfortable with her public image as a posh firecracker, saying: ‘I’m often perceived as rather aloof when in fact I’m soft as butter. Any of my family will tell you that.’
If anything, she seems rather fragile, and, it has to be said, damaged.
To understand where she is today, we need to go back, to her first encounter with Dennis Waterman in 1981.
The pair were both married with young children when they met on the set of Minder, the popular TV series which, along with The Sweeney, made Waterman such a bankable star.
The hard-drinking Jack the Lad and the refined daughter of a Polish count seemed an unlikely pair, but their attraction proved so intense that within a year both had left their families to be together.
‘We were hugely upset by wrecking both our homes and, yes, we were chalk and cheese,’ she recalls.
‘But we were madly, passionately in love.
‘I always knew he was one of the lads. But he was also hugely charismatic, very amusing and incredibly romantic.’
Even now, after all that has happened, her wistful smile is revealing.
The first six years with Waterman were, she says, ‘idyllic’.
Waterman’s daughters Hannah, then seven, and two-year-old Julia bonded well with her own daughter (who has asked her mother not to mention her name), who was also just a toddler, and the couple settled in a 500,000 country house in Buckinghamshire.
‘We worked together, we travelled, we had incredible adventures,’ she recalls. ‘Our house was full of fun, laughter and dinner parties. Some of my great sadness is that Dennis has never acknowledged that.’
In 1987 they married, spontaneously, while touring in Australia. But, ominously, Dennis got ‘staggeringly drunk’ on their wedding night.
‘I remember being baffled by why he felt the need to do it.
'Everything started losing its charm fairly quickly after that. It was almost a case of: “I’ve made the catch so I don’t have to try so hard.” ’
‘In some ways, there was virtually no difference between Dennis Waterman and the character he played on Minder. He loved getting p***ed with the lads, and did it often.
'He’d promise to be home at 9pm, then roll in at two in the morning. /03/23/article-2119530-00DA3D6700000190-17_634x555.jpg” width=”634″ height=”555″ alt=”'We were hugely upset by wrecking both our homes and, yes, we were chalk and cheese. But we were madly, passionately in love,' said Rula” class=”blkBorder” />
'We were hugely upset by wrecking both our homes and, yes, we were chalk and cheese. But we were madly, passionately in love,' said Rula
At this point, she says, there was no physical violence.
‘But there was mental abuse to which the children were occasionally privy when they were at home.
'He’d come in at 3am and turn the music up so the house was shaking. When I’d turn it down, it was “it’s my f***ing house” — nasty things like that. The following day there would be flowers and undying promises that it’d never happen again.’
Like many women in her position, Rula chose to believe them, suggesting counselling on numerous occasions.
‘For many years, I believed he must have been damaged in childhood or never been properly loved — I always found a reason to excuse it, hoping it would get better.’
The son of a ticket collector, Waterman was the youngest of nine and by all accounts wasn’t close to his parents.
Then there were the affairs — three that Rula states she now knows of for certain, although she didn’t at the time.
In 1990, she discovered Dennis had been conducting an affair with a producer, Fiona Black. He walked out to set up home with her, before returning with his tail between his legs, 18 months later.
Rula forgave him and they were reconciled. Given the destructive pattern that had been established, I ask what on earth was she thinking The question makes her defensive.
‘I’d been divorced once and I didn’t want to be divorced again,’ she says.
‘If it was possible to mend I wanted to mend it. And I still loved him. But my family were aghast.’
For a year or so the couple ‘stumbled along’.
But, says Rula: ‘I could never really regain my trust. He worked almost constantly — most of it a long way away. I was always convinced something was going on.’
Throughout this time Waterman continued to drink heavily.
‘There were still patterns of three or four really nice days and then he’d go on a bender and there’d be erratic behaviour, shouting, nastiness.
‘He accused me constantly of being unfaithful, which I never was, and of putting my Polish family, who had been very welcoming to him, above him.’
Rula cannot specifically recall the timing — although she believes it to be around 1994 — or the circumstances which led to the first physically violent episode, but she remembers what unfolded next with crystal clarity. Her hands shake uncontrollably once more.
'I always knew he was one of the lads. But he was also hugely charismatic,' said Rula
‘It was late, and he’d done his usual turning the music up number. He was very angry about something, and started grabbing photographs of my family off the wall and smashing them.
'The room was littered with glass and he was picking up bits and threatening me with them. I was deeply frightened.’
Thankfully no children were at the house that night, Waterman’s daughters were with their mother while Rula’s daughter was at boarding school.
Rula says: ‘I ran to the phone to call a close friend for help but when I picked up the handset, he grabbed it out of my hand and whacked me across the head. I lost consciousness briefly.’
When she came round, Rula called the police.
Waterman was later cautioned after Rula declined to take further action, a decision which will resonate with many victims of domestic violence.
‘He was weeping and crying, begging for forgiveness. We wept in each other’s arms.’
She confided in nobody about what had happened.
‘I was ashamed. In these situations men have an uncanny way of making you feel like it’s your fault.
'There was also a naivety there — that with the right kind of love and support we would find a way. It doesn’t matter how grown up or intelligent you are, you believe it will get better, because you want it to.’
Of course, it didn’t.
‘The reality was that fear was slowly becoming a part of my life,’ she says.
‘I would know from the sound of the key in the lock the degree of his drunkenness. I was always scared about when Dennis was coming home.’
And the Dennis that did come home some months later was the one who liked to use his fists.
‘Truthfully I can’t remember what provoked it, but again it was drink-fuelled, in the small hours. This time he punched me in the face, and hard.
'I ran upstairs and locked myself in the spare room but he broke the door down, punched his fist right through it and ordered me back to our bed. I was very frightened.’
Again, there was enormous repentance almost immediately.
‘But this time I said to him: “If you ever lift another finger to me again I’m going.” ’
She was as good as her word: several months later, when another violent altercation broke out, Rula got in her car and drove away.
‘I was doing a play in Stafford, staying in a hotel there some of the time and commuting the rest.
'Dennis became convinced I was having an affair, which was simply not true. An argument blew up and he was smashing things again, calling me every name under the sun. After what had happened previously, I was petrified.’
Running through the house to find a phone, Rula saw her car keys, and fled outside.
‘But he lay in front of the car and said: “If you leave, you have to kill me first.” Then he started crying — he used to cry a lot when he was drunk, but I managed to get him to get out of the way and I drove to my hotel in Stafford.’
To her utter disbelief, she says, Waterman followed her there.
‘He was drunk beyond belief, but he still got behind the wheel and followed me all the way. I’d managed to climb into bed when I heard him outside my door, begging forgiveness. I didn’t let him in and I never went back.’
In the aftermath, Rula moved with her then 16-year-old daughter from the spacious family home into a small terraced house in Chiswick.
The separation of TV’s golden couple was big news, and, besieged by requests to give her side of the story, Rula finally consented, granting one interview in which she spoke of how the relationship had descended into a ‘violent, abusive pattern’ in which her husband had hit her.
She spoke out reluctantly, she says, but hoped it might help other women in her position.
What she hadn’t expected was to be roundly turned on. Waterman’s first wife, Patricia Maynard, wrote an open letter denouncing her, while Waterman’s actress daughter, Hannah also publicly defended her dad, saying Rula had plotted to turn Dennis against his own family.
It was, she says now, both bewildering and painful.
‘I know blood is thicker than water, but the way his family jumped to his defence was horribly upsetting. Remember those girls had been my step-children for 16 years. The kids were all great friends with each other.’
To this day, she has not spoken to Hannah, and remains baffled by her hostility.
‘I don’t know whether she and her sister felt obliged or were ordered to defend their father. They both saw and heard some of what went on.
‘The accusations from them, that I was always trying to turn him against the children, were unbelievable and made me very sad.’
Waterman meanwhile has continually painted his ex-wife as a publicity-hungry, avaricious liar and control freak who deliberately tried to damage his career.
Rula believes, however, it was her own career which was, as she puts it, ‘gently damaged’.
‘He had huge protection on his side, a powerful agent and powerful supporters. His wife supported him, actors such as Amanda Redman and Warren Clarke supported him with all this ‘he’s a wonderful man,’ sort of thing.
‘He was the rough diamond with a heart of gold in the public’s eyes. He could get away with anything — and for the past 15 years he has.
'And yes, it has hurt. I’m a strong woman and I’ve got on with my life, but something like this leaves its residue. I’ve had to learn to build a little wall around myself.’
And what would she do, I ask, if he did make that phone call, to say sorry
‘I would say thank you. And what took you so long.’
One must hope, at the very least, that it is a question Dennis Waterman is asking himself.