Leslie Ash to return as Vanessa Lytton in Casualty after 11 years off-screen

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Having been off our screens for almost 11 years, we were delighted when Leslie Ash exclusively revealed to OK! this week that she’s got a very exciting new role on hit BBC series Casualty. Now 61 and having suffered a life-changing spinal infection, the mum-of-two is the first to admit getting back into showbiz has been tough.

Famed for her roles in 1979 cult classic Quadrophenia and 90s sitcom Men Behaving Badly, her health ordeal in the noughties left her unable to walk.

But she’s now back on her feet and finally enjoying time on set again. And as well as Casualty, she’s also landed a turn in Doctors. “Between these roles and my appearances in Holby City and Where The Heart Is, I’ve got all the medical dramas under my belt,” she laughs. Leslie also became a grandmother in April after eldest son James, 31, and fiancée Farah, 30, welcomed baby Lucas.

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Here, we find out how the star – also mum to Max, 29 – feels about being back on screen, being a gran and how she and her husband, ex-footballer Lee Chapman, 61, have made their 33-year marriage stand the test of time.

Hi, Leslie! We’re excited to be announcing your Casualty role. Can you tell us a bit about it?

A long time ago – it doesn’t feel that long but I worked it out to be about 10 years ago – I played a wonderful character called Vanessa Lytton, who was the CEO of Holby City. She brought quite a bit of trouble to the hospital and ended up having to leave. I thought I’d seen the back of her until I was recently asked to come back for an episode.

She’s coming back in quite a different way this time, though…

Yes, she’s returning as a patient. It’s a great little storyline and it’s given me the chance to be back on set again.

What’s it like being back in the game?

It’s lovely to be working again. I suppose, with lockdown, a lot of people have gone through what I went through when I was recovering from my spinal infection. You suddenly find yourself at home, not working, and so it’s great to be back.

Was it odd to work around Covid-19 restrictions on set?

Weirdly, it worked! I had to do some really emotional scenes with the guy who was playing my husband and you’d never guess that we didn’t actually touch each other.

Did you meet any old friends on set?

It was lovely to see Derek [Thompson] again. My first TV job ever was The Gentle Touch and that was the last time we saw each other. It was over 40 years ago! In an ordinary world we’d be hugging one another, so it was strange not to have any of that.

How did the role come about?

I didn’t put forward for it or have to audition. It was a lovely, fat offer which was very good for my ego!

You played Vanessa over 10 years ago now. A lot must have changed…

It was a very different time. I’d just come out of hospital and was still taking quite a lot of medication, so it was nice to play her without being on all that.

Did it feel better this time?

It just felt like the old days. I was much more aware. You could concentrate on the acting.

Were you nervous about accepting?

I wasn’t but it’s just when you step on set for the first time and hear that silence. I thought, “Oh, God”, everything goes totally quiet for the first rehearsal. But it was absolutely fine. I just did what I did in the old days. It’s like riding a bike.

You’re also doing a one-off role in Doctors…

Weird, isn’t it? You don’t work for years and then suddenly two jobs come along. I was sitting in my dressing room, going through my lines, and my agent called to say I’d got an offer for Doctors.

How did that feel?

Really good! I’m a big fan of Doctors so it was quite surreal to walk in and see the actors. The character I play is totally opposite to Vanessa.

Tell us a little bit about her…

She’s almost like a comedy character, I had so much fun with her.

You’ve been open about struggling to find work. Does it feel empowering to be so in demand now?

I’m 61 now and delighted to be working. When I hit 50, there was a lot of stigma in the industry against older women. Plus, I went from being an active 44-year-old to basically learning to walk again, so obviously that’s going to change the dynamic of the characters I play. Thankfully, there are more women directors and writers, so we’re getting more of a chance.

Are there any older actresses you look up to?

Joanna Lumley. She looks cracking – I want to look like her when I reach my seventies!

How do you feel about the ageing process?

Honestly, I wasn’t looking forward to hitting 60. A lot of that’s because my mother passed away at 68, so I felt like I only had eight years left. She wasn’t very fit though, so I do try to look after myself. After all, I’ve just been made a grandmother.

Does it feel incredible?

It’s unbelievable. Lucas is the most beautiful baby.

How did you find out?

Joe and Farah are getting married, so they pretended to send us pictures of a wedding venue. When Lee and I looked at it, we realised it was an ultrasound photo. It was the best shock and we were both delighted. I’ve got shivers just thinking about it.

Do you think going through what you did has made meeting Lucas all the more special?

Definitely. It was a lot more emotional for me than Lee, because I value life more. You can’t take it for granted.

Is there anything that worries you?

I am scared. I can’t run and any mother will know that there are scary moments where you have to be able to run after your children to protect them, or stop them doing something. I’ll never be able to be alone with Lucas until he’s a certain age because I couldn’t be fully responsible.

That’s hard…

It is. I also won’t be able to run around and play with him as much as I’d like. That’s what my mum did with my kids. Still, there’s plenty of other ways we can have fun.

Definitely. And is Lee loving being a grandad?

[Laughs] I think men don’t really know what to do when they’re so young. Once Lucas starts smiling and forming a real connection, I think Lee will just melt.

You and Lee have been married since 1988 – what’s your secret?

I know, aren’t we dinosaurs? I think it’s just being true to each other. Trust, truth, love and fun. You’ve got to enjoy one another too. I still find Lee funny, and vice versa. If you haven’t got humour in a relationship, it’s done for. Obviously, we still have our moments!

How was lockdown for you both?

I think it’s fine to want to murder each other occasionally! [Laughs] It’s not healthy to not argue. The one thing we really missed was going to pubs and restaurants. I’m looking forward to growing old with Lee, we’re the right people to take care of each another.

Lastly, what’s next for you?

I’d love to do some comedy. To be honest, I’m just happy to be working and flying the flag for 60-something grandmas.

Watch Leslie Ash in Doctors on Tuesday at 1.45pm on BBC One and later this year in Casualty.

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