The first time I was aware of the existence of the actress Leslie Ash was when my Mum and Dad let me stay up to watch the seminal nineties sitcom Men Behaving Badly. Unbeknown to me at such a tender age, Leslie Ash was by then twenty years into a career which has spanned generations. Yet she has always remained timeless in her appearance and is among just a few actresses to be a sex symbol across three decades.
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Leslie made her television debut in a 1964 commercial for Fairy Liquid asking, “Mummy, why are your hands so soft?”. That one line was to change the course of her life and made Leslie a familiar face in Britain but it would be a few more years before Leslie had another television credit to her name. As a teenager, she turned her hand to the world of modelling and became a cover-girl for teenage magazines Jackie and Pink. This brought the young Leslie into contact with iconic photographers of the time including David Bailey.
After taking a break from the business during the 1970’s , Leslie returned to acting in 1978 when she appeared in her sister’s TV drama Rosie Dixon – Night Nurse. However, just a year later, Leslie was cast in the first of many career defining roles as Steph in the coming of age big screen smash Quadraphenia alongside the young Phil Daniels. This British drama loosely based on The Who’s 1973 album, tells the story of unrequited love between Leslie’s character Steph and Phil Daniel’s Jimmy on the backdrop of a mod rally from London to Brighton. This cult classic struck a chord with a very definite section of the British public and transformed Leslie into a star.
A string of comedy cameos followed Leslie into the eighties with possibly the most famous being her 1983 portrayal of the damsel in distress Melissa Winthrop in The Two Ronnies spoof Raiders Of The Lost Aux written by the legendary David Renwick. This was closely followed by a small part as a cleaner in the ITV sitcom Home to Roost alongside the late John Thaw.
Then in 1992 Leslie secured probably her most celebrated role as Debs in Simon Nye’s seminal sitcom Men Behaving Badly. The first series took the form of a light-hearted ITV early evening comedy predominantly starring Harry Enfield and Martin Clunes with Leslie and Caroline Quentin playing the two love interests. Yet when the show transferred to the BBC after just one series, the characters of Debs and Dorothy became increasingly integral to the show’s success. This wasn’t the only difference in the switch to the BBC as Harry Enfield’s character Dermot was replaced with the lovable oaf Tony played by Neil Morrissey.
Throughout the succeeding series of Men Behaving Badly, the will they, won’t they relationship between Tony and Debs became one of the most popular themes in the show. The enduring sitcom decided to end on a high at Christmas 1998 which saw the hapless Gary and Tony finally committing to Dorothy and Debs. Like any classic situation Comedy, Men Behaving Badly reflected and celebrated the mood of the time whilst keeping one eye on the zeitgeist. The nineties was a very pivotal decade for British culture; the rise of Lad Mags, Ladettes, Britpop, New Labour each impacted on the way Britain saw itself and Men Behaving Badly was able to satirise this. This not only made the sitcom one of the most successful programmes of its generation, but in turn reignited Leslie’s popularity in the public eye.
After Men Behaving Badly, Leslie took the leading role in ITV’s heartwarming Sunday night drama Where The Heart Is alongside Lesley Dunlop and Philip Middlemiss. This was quickly followed by the lead in the BBC’s cop series Holby Blue. In 2009 Leslie began a year’s stint as Vanessa Lyton. This was Leslie’s last credited performance due to a series of ill health. In 2004 Leslie contracted a rare near fatal form MRSA which confined her to a wheelchair for over two years. Since then, she has re-taught herself how to walk and can now walk without the aid of sticks.
She hasn’t discarded show business for good and is often found on a splattering of chat shows discussing her remarkable career. However, Leslie is not frightened to go on record with her belief that there doesn’t seem to be the opportunities for disabled people in her business. Even with a distinguished career in entertainment, she still feels invisible within the industry that made her a star. In 2017 this remains somewhat of a bad endite on an industry that prides itself on its inclusive attitude towards diversity. This is a situation which hopefully will only improve to high profile figures such as Leslie highlighting this issue.
It was a great pleasure to spend the morning with Leslie and in such a diverse career in entertainment, it’s impossible to know where it will take her next. Yet we can rest easy to know that thanks to her iconic roles in film and television, Leslie Ash has always and will always occupy a very special place in the hearts of the nation.