Birds of a Feather: Linda Robson, Lesley Joseph and Pauline Quirke talk to Saga

Daphne Lockyer / 19 March 2014

As the sitcom Birds of a Feather returns to our screens after an absence of 15 years, Daphne Lockyer meets Chigwell’s finest, Tracey, Dorien and Sharon, AKA Linda Robson, Lesley Joseph and Pauline Quirke – the original ‘Essex girls’.

A lot of bottled blonde hair dye and shiny, shiny nail polish has passed under the bridge since sisters Sharon Theodopolopoudos and Tracey Stubbs and their man-eating next-door neighbour, Dorien Green, fluttered off our television screens and Birds of a Feather disappeared into the wide, blue Essex yonder.

The sisters made their BBC One debut in 1989, when poor relation Sharon moved in with nouveau riche Tracey as the two of them coped with being ‘single’ after their errant husbands were jailed for a bungled armed robbery.

When the show, penned by the legendary comedy team Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, ended on Christmas Eve 1998, it attracted UK audiences of nearly 20 million.

‘Not surprisingly, for us, the show was a complete game changer,’ Lesley Joseph (Dorien) says. ‘It’s been opening doors for us ever since.’

In 2012, the show was revived for the stage and a UK tour sold out two years running. ‘Whole families came along bringing their kids and their teenagers too and it didn’t matter if they’d seen the original or not,’ Pauline Quirke says. ‘It was obvious we were on to something because everybody still seemed to love it.’

Last year, Marks and Gran convinced ITV (rather than the show’s original home) to film a new eight-part series. We look forward to the return of the original Essex girls – older, though not necessarily wiser.

Meanwhile, the three actresses talk about friendship, flirting and why Birds of a Feather has never really gone out of fashion.

Q: Which of you is most like your screen character?

Linda Robson: I’m the one that probably has the most in common. Like me, Tracey is house-proud – very clean and tidy – verging on OCD. She’s also very family orientated and loves her sons, Garthy and Travis, to bits. Likewise, my three kids and now my granddaughter, Lyla, are the centre of my universe. Tracey’s not stupid but she’s not educated either.

She’s streetwise and a good judge of character – and that is true for me, I think. All three of us have put elements of ourselves into the characters to make them more realistic. And you have to remember, too, that Laurence and Maurice knew Pauline and me before they ever wrote Birds of a Feather. Things we’d say in rehearsals would turn up in next week’s script.

Pauline Quirke: I’m probably the least like my character. Sharon doesn’t have kids and she’s married to Chris who’s been in prison for most of their marriage – whereas I have three kids and a lovely husband who has always been there for me. Sharon’s always been angry with her lot and she’s angrier still in her fifties. She’s bolshie and confrontational and that’s fun to play. But I’m not really like that myself.

Lesley Joseph: I’m nothing at all like Dorien…. Well, maybe I am just a little bit! I mean, we all appreciate the male form, for example, don’t we? I probably also share her desire to stay forever young and not grow old gracefully. Neither of us will ever stop dyeing our hair or wearing tight things.

Q: Dorien is the master of flirting in the show, but who’s the biggest flirt among you three?

Linda: Lesley!

Pauline: Lesley! She can get almost anyone to do her bidding.

Lesley: Who, me? Surely not… But, then again, when we used to film at the studios we’d always meet for breakfast in the café. One morning, Pauline said: ‘Why haven’t you paid?’ I replied: ‘I didn’t know I had to!’ For eight years I’d been eating for free just by batting my eyelashes at the man behind the counter.

Q: Which of you is the most likely to read Fifty Shades of Grey?

Linda: Well, I’ve read it. But I’m the only one who has. Mind you, it was total crap.

Pauline: Uh… no. Not my cup of tea.

Lesley: No, I haven’t read it, but I probably should. In the show, Dorien writes a book called Sixty Shades of Green, using the nom de plume Foxy Cohen. She gets sued for plagiarism, but her defence is that everything in the book actually happened to her!

Q: Is there a pecking order – pardon the pun – between you?

Linda: Well, none of us is what you’d call a shrinking violet. We all have strong opinions, although maybe we defer to each other in certain areas. Pauline and Lesley do occasionally want to know my opinion on what they ought to wear, for example…

Pauline: And the other two always ask me about food and cooking. In the end, though, the good thing is that no one is in charge. We all listen to each other and want the best for each other too. We’re fiercely loyal.

Lesley: Yes, like the three musketeers. If one of us feels strongly about a subject, the other two are prepared to support her. We’re very much a unit in that sense.

Q: Did you maintain your off-screen friendship even after Birds of a Feather ended?

Linda: Yes, of course. But then Pauline and I have known each other since we were at primary school. Even our mums were friends; in some ways we’re like sisters in real life. Since Birds of a Feather we’ve all shared a lot of experiences, too. We’ve lost parents, had births and marriages. The three of us have always known we can call on each other, and we often have.

Pauline: It’s always been easy to keep my friendship with Linda going because it was there long before the work and will still be there long after we’ve retired. With Lesley, too, the friendship we built over nine years of filming is so strong you can’t imagine not having her in your life.

Lesley: I first met the girls in the late Eighties and I thought, ‘God, these two have 25 years of history under their belts, will I fit in?’ They do have an incredibly strong bond, but they included me immediately. When the series ended our families continued to socialise, so all our children are great friends too. Linda and I also did the occasional charity game show together, such as Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Then, more recently, we lived in each other’s pockets when we were on tour with the show. It felt like being part of a travelling family.

Q: You were the original Essex girls. What do you think of today’s incarnations – in The Only Way is Essex, for example?

Linda: We were, weren’t we?! And funnily enough in this new series Amy Childs from TOWIE makes a guest appearance at a car-boot sale. She came on set and she was adorable and fitted in brilliantly. In terms of her show, though, I can’t really comment. I think I watched half an episode once in which someone took a pig into a boutique. I thought, ‘This is too bizarre for me’ and switched it over.

Pauline: A pig in a boutique? Why? Is it a reality show? Are they acting? I’m confused.

Lesley: We captured the whole Essex thing first in Birds of a Feather and TOWIE plays on the same phenomenon, the same myths, legends and jokes about criminals and new money, men in white vans and women in white stilettos and spray tans. Say what you like about Essex, but there is just something about it. You’d never, for example, talk about Sussex in the same way, would you?

Q: It looks as if there’s a lot of laughter on set. Do you play practical jokes on each other?

Linda: Yes… and yes. I’m the practical joker on set. I especially love to get Lesley going. Her dressing room is always immaculate, but I’ll go in and mess it up.

Pauline: Then there was the scene where we hear that Chris – Sharon’s husband – has testicular cancer. And because it’s such a serious subject and the word ‘testicles’ was involved, we all got the giggles.

Lesley: The director got fed up with us and told us a rambling story about Gordon Jackson telling off a young actress for corpsing during Upstairs Downstairs. When it came to filming the scene in front of the live audience, the director yelled ‘Gordon Jackson’ at us from the wings. But that just made it worse. The three of us fell about laughing.

Q: Have you ever been called on to help each other off screen?

Linda: Well, over the years, we have all lost people. Last year, when we were on tour with the show, my mum was in a Marie Curie hospice before she died and I had a lot of support from Lesley and Pauline. They really helped me get through it.

Pauline: It’s not so much about the big occasions when you call on people for help. I just always have a constant sense that I could pick up the phone to either of them and they’d be there in a shot. We have shared the bad times and the good. Which is what friendship is all about.

Lesley: I agree. We have been there for each other through the bad times and the good. The birth of Linda’s granddaughter or the professional highs, like Pauline’s fantastic role in Broadchurch.

Q: Where would each of you like to be in ten years’ time?

Linda: I’ll be 65, Pauline will be 64 and Lesley… will be 111. But seriously, in my case, I hope I’m happy, healthy, still working while watching the grandchildren grow.

Pauline: Please God, I’ll be alive and well, although I’m not too bothered about carrying on working. I’d be more than happy to potter around at home. And I’d like to spend more time on the Pauline Quirke Academies – a nationwide network of drama schools that I set up for kids aged from four to 18. I’ve been so busy recently it’s prevented me visiting them as much as I’d like to.

Lesley: I hope that I take after my mum. She’s 101 years old and still extraordinary. She played tennis until she was 90 and line danced until she was 95. She’s still going strong. I have enormous amounts of energy myself and I think my mum’s genes must be responsible.

Q: A lot of remakes don’t work. Will Birds of a Feather?

Linda: We hope so, because the characters and the humour have kept up with the times. It’s also still novel to see a sitcom that’s led by three women. The situation on British TV is better for women now, but it still feels ground-breaking.

Pauline: It really comes down to the writing and we have so much confidence in Laurence and Maurice because they created the characters, and Gary and Jon, who wrote some of the best earlier Birds episodes. We record in front of
a live audience and the laughs came exactly when and where they were meant to, which is a very good sign.

Lesley: I do think it will work because the characters have such enduring qualities. Yes, we all look older – as I’m sure the critics will point out – but these three women have something that transcends time. Personally, I think the show has every right to be back on and hopefully we’ll prove it.

Birds of a Feather, Series 1 is out on DVD now. Enter our prize draw for your chance to win a copy.

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