Known for her colourful character roles, Helen Lederer, 63, has lit up our screens since the Eighties. She looks back on her favourite roles and family memories…
…We used to go to Hampstead and enjoy different European foods.
My grandparents came to England in 1939 from Czechoslovakia. They were a very close family, which was understandable, having started their lives again in a new country. We were the first people I knew to have croissants and ham in their home. Where I grew up, in Eltham, I don’t think any of my mates had the same kind of food that we got from my grandmother.
…We were allowed to do our own thing.
Her parents’ wedding day in 1950
I had one friend at school whose mother thought we were dangerously liberal but we weren’t as liberal as my best friend because her parents allowed them to paint murals on their wall, which I thought was the bee’s knees. My sister had frightening, bright orange walls in the Mary Quant era—oh my God, the worst colours.
…I had a shelf above my bed that I used to graffiti the names of boys I liked on.
Then, one time, my sister’s boyfriend came to stay. He had to sleep in my bedroom and he revealed all this knowledge. I was outed by my future brother-in-law of all my crushes when I was a teenager.
…Learning that my mother worked at Bletchley.
She did quite important work deciphering intelligence and she then worked at the Board of Trade until she married. In another generation, I’m sure she would have carried on working in the civil service. She was always busy.
My memory is of somebody very competent, and when my father died, she had a few female friends and they would go off and do these interesting holidays. I have always been full of admiration for her.
…Me, my sister and two of our friends—
a boy and a girl of the same ages as us, would make maps of the golf course at the end of our garden and then we would taunt the golfers as they walked past. We’d usually sing “Nelly the Elephant” at them, thinking we were being very, very rude.
Helen with her sister Janet in Austria, aged six
"I think I'm slightly mad. I get an idea and I just go off with it and I don't think of the consequences"
…At junior school I wrote a sketch show
because I really wanted to be David Frost. At that point I had started to see That Was the Week That Was, and I just wanted to do sketches and interview people and I was kind of precocious with it, pretending to be grown-up and pompous. That programme inspired me more than anything.
…Aged 10, my teacher asked me to write a play—
for the summer fête. I did it but it wasn’t very good, so from very early on I knew the highs and the lows—that you can get it right and you can get it wrong—and that’s stayed with me all my life.
…At senior school I got into quite a lot of trouble.
Relaxing in the garden aged 14
I didn’t mean to get into trouble—this is the thing—but I just did. The headmistress had me marked out and by the third time I was told to go and see her. I just remember she said, “You… you…” And I was mortified. I did set off stink bombs when I was 12—I was the ringleader on that—but what I’ve never been able to do is think of the consequences. I think I’m slightly mad like that, I get an idea and I just go with it. I never thought, Well if I do that, then it will blight my school career.
…I studied sociology at Hertfordshire University.
I felt a certain pressure from my parents to do something sensible. That was a time of boys and parties and the era of Party Sevens, where you had those big cans of beer that would turn up at a party. It was a fine time and I got the hang of studying very late, so I have no regrets about that. I had a short spell as a social worker, though I don’t think I was a very good one. I did my best but I would go to bed worrying and wake up worrying.
"Part of me thinks I should have stuck with stand-up, particularly as there were so few women doing it"
…Having a light bulb moment when I was 27.
I went to drama school and did a year’s postgraduate study at the Central School of Speech and Drama. That whole year was spent actually waking up happy and going to bed happy. I don’t think I have ever been as happy because, of course when you’re with students now, they have no idea what’s up ahead, do they? It’s, “I’ve got to do an essay…” but because I had already done a degree, I kind of relished the freedom to learn.
…When I was a student, I went down the Dordogne with a boyfriend in a canoe for a month.
It was just the best. I don’t think I’ve ever been away for a month since. It was a trip where I could just completely get away from everything. We’d pack the canoe up and it was this canvas thing; unbelievable, nobody would do it now. I’m not usually that kind of person, but if a boyfriend says they are going to do it, you tag along, don’t you? That was a time when you didn’t hear any cars or anything—I can shut my eyes and I can just see the river. It was very peaceful and we’d go into the villages to get baguettes, and then we would have those Calor gas things. We lived off hardly any rations and we were really very happy.
…I spent the five years I was a stand-up, in a state of nerves.
Helen performing at her first Saturday Night Live show in the 80s
Part of me thinks that perhaps I should have just stuck at it, particularly as there were so few women doing it. But I got a proper, grown-up, radio job relatively soon afterwards. It was such a joy. There was the joy of going into the BBC radio theatre and hearing people clapping for you when you hadn’t even done anything, and the joy of people just being nice to you and giving you a script that somebody else had written.
The joy of it all was so immense that I signed up to the next bit of the journey unquestioningly and made sure that I turned up at the right times and always did the best that I could.
…The West End show I did when I had just had my daughter, Hannah.
With her then three-year-old daughter Hannah
It was called Having a Ball and was written by Alan Bleasdale. I did that for six months. I hadn’t done much theatre before and as it was set in a vasectomy clinic, I had to be on stage with a naked man. You eventually start to get used to it, of course. In this funny life, opportunities come and you take them.
…Just saying Ab Fab puts a smile on people’s faces.
That’s true even now, which is amazing because it’s endured for 25 years. I knew Dawn and Jennifer from the stand-up circuit and they were three years ahead of me in what they had done. It was lovely to do the film recently—it was really funny just to see all those faces again. There was something special about it, maybe just because we had had the gap and we had learned to appreciate what it was, because often, one just goes and does the job.
…Doing Celebrity Big Brother.
Sith Sandi Bogle after her elimination from the Big Brother House
I just tried to be myself throughout the process, and I was always trying to find a way to have a laugh with people, because at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter where you come from or what you do as long as you can have a laugh.
…My luckiest break was Naked Video, the BBC sketch show.
The cast of BBC Radio 4’s In One Ear in 1983. L-R Nick Wilton, Helen Lederer, Steve Brown and Clive Mantle
My time at Naked Video felt like having a proper job. And then, of course, there was also my break in Ben Elton’s series, Happy Families, where I played Flossie.
It was kind of exciting to get a proper job, because so much of my life is just not a proper job—writing scripts, getting rejected, or after dinner talks—everything I do, I make it up. So the joys of getting a proper, endorsed job from somebody else have been rare in my life and I really appreciate it when I get them.
…I was 35 when I had my daughter, Hannah.
I was considered an old mum in those days, though maybe I wouldn’t be by today’s standards. I knew that I wanted a baby—some people do just know. It was absolutely the right time for me and both her father and I really wanted her…
Of course, the marriage didn’t last and we ended up getting divorced a year later, but her birth was just one of those things that happened and we are so pleased it did.
…My toughest time was when my former agent was exposed for stealing money from her clients.
I was a single mum and commuting to Birmingham to do an antiques programme at the time. I really didn’t want to be away from Hannah but I had to do it. Then, I had a sudden phone call from the agency’s accountant saying my agent had stolen money out of her clients’ accounts. She stole a huge amount from me—in the thousands. These were fees that were a big deal at the time and, more to the point, were unlikely to come again for some time.
People asked, “How did you not know?” That was a low point, when I thought, I’ve done all this work and now the money that I earned has been stolen. But you just have to move on and not hold grudges. I hope she has moved on by now but it did affect my trust with other agents, which wasn’t fair or helpful.
…My mother and my father dying were total moments of bereavement in my life.
But however hard it might be, you just have to accept that as you get older, these things become inevitable. And some people have more of that than others in their life don’t they?
Some people just don’t seem to have had anyone they love die on them, and that’s just the way the cards fall, and you have to deal with it. You don’t have a choice about these things. There’s that phrase: It’s not what happens in life that matters, it’s how you deal with it.
Helen Lederer is performing at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. Tickets available from edfringe.com. She’s also starring in ITV’s The Real Full Monty: Ladies Night this spring.