ARTNEWSPRESS: After making a recovery from a near-fatal superbug infection, the actor has struggled to find work. Now she has started making films herself
‘You see that grey building?” Leslie Ash says. We are standing at the window of her central London penthouse. “That’s Charing Cross hospital. Now, see that bit sticking out on the left? That was my room, on the top floor.” In 2004, Ash spent nearly three months there, recovering from the superbug methicillin-sensitive staphylococcus aureus (MSSA), a variant of MRSA, perhaps watching her old life out of the window and wondering if she would ever get it back.
She had contracted the infection from a different hospital, the Chelsea and Westminster – she believes from an epidural needle – after being admitted with cracked ribs, and for weeks it was unclear whether she would walk again. Her husband, the former footballer Lee Chapman, and her two sons, were warned that she might die. It must be strange to have her near-death experience perpetually hovering out of the corner of her eye. “Yes,” she says mildly. “It’s a bit of a shadow in the background there.”
“Shadow” is an understatement, because although Ash walks well, darting around the living room in trainers or sitting as upright as a dancer on one of her enormous sofas, her ordeal, and her recovery, are never out of sight. She was 44 when she was admitted to hospital, still best recognised as the perkily luscious Debs in the BBC sitcom Men Behaving Badly. At 59, she still looks perky, but with the slightly skittish movements of a creature emerging from an unscheduled hibernation.
“I really feel like I’ve lost 10 years out of my life,” she tells me as we sit down. In the years that followed her illness, Ash underwent endless physiotherapy, pilates and workouts, and swore off alcohol, but the doctors “kept upping the doses of painkillers until I actually felt like a bit of a zombie,” she says. It was her son Max who told her: “‘You’re slurring!’… I thought: ‘God, this is terrible! What can I do?’ When you’re on those pills, they are antidepressants, you don’t feel any emotion at all.”
So two years ago she came off all medication. With her brain firing again, she has “woken up, like a film, like a dream”. The duration of the dream appears to be as hazy as the outline of Charing Cross hospital, because sometimes Ash says it lasted eight years, sometimes 10. This feeling of having been dormant seems to have embedded itself in Ash’s mind as a reality rather than a metaphor, because next time she refers to the experience, she says simply: “After I woke up …”
And what happened after she awoke was that Ash found herself locked out of an unrecognisable industry. She had spent years broadening her range of movement, regaining her balance, waking her nerves – they grow 1mm a month, she says, giving the impression that she watched them daily. She devoted herself to her physical recovery, and wrote monologues she hoped to perform but would struggle to remember. But when she tried to find work, she was hit with a fresh and unexpected disorientation.
“All doors were shut. All doors were shut.” She says it twice as if they are rebounding in her face. “When I was doing Men Behaving Badly, people were asking: ‘Can you endorse this? Would you like this job?’ I was inundated,” she says.
In those days, she says, if someone broke a leg during filming, the director would say: “Let’s shoot around it!” So while she recovered, she thought, “quite pretentiously, I suppose, that my career would carry on. They would just ‘shoot around it’. But in fact, I was quite amazed at how I got dropped. Completely. It was just … it was quite suffocating,” she says with a small gasp. “It’s like the rug being brought up from beneath your feet. No one wants to know you … I thought, I have to start again.”
It was in this spirit of a personal reset that Ash was browsing Spotlight, the casting platform, when she noticed an ad for a trailer for a pilot for a possible show. The person who posted the advert, Elaine Sturgess, is the writer of Gin and It, a short film that Ash liked the sound of, and which the two women have now made. They got on so well, they have launched a new venture, BooksOffice, a website that allows users to vote on which unpublished or self-published books Ash and Sturgess should try to bring to the screen. They have meetups for authors and actors at the bar Ash and Chapman own in Clapham, south London – once her parents’ painting and decorating shop; Michelle Collins is among those to have come along.
“Everyone wants content,” Ash says, and of course she herself wants work, and BooksOffice can provide her with parts, and the chance to move into production or direction. All of this makes sense, but has it really been so hard to find work that she has had to devise a way to make it for herself?
Did industry friends not check up on her, to make sure that she was OK? She gives a small laugh. “Erm. No. Not really. I can count on one hand how many people checked in. No. I was quite remote. I think a lot of people thought: ‘Give her space to sort herself out.’ And then years turned into a decade.”
“I think it comes from me as well,” she says. “And I just couldn’t find a way of doing it.” She would phone people up and say: “Hi, what are you doing? Let’s meet for lunch!” But when she got there, she couldn’t push past the pleasantries. They would say: “It was lovely to see you. You’re looking really well,” she says sadly. “You go through a grieving process when you’ve lost your career. You know. And it can catch you at moments where you just feel like shit.”
Ash has recently played a small part in To Be Someone, a film inspired by the Who classic Quadrophenia, in which she starred at 18, back in the days when she was buzzing around town in her little white Mini, smoking Consulates and imagining the life that lay ahead. So why can’t she get it back?
During the course of the afternoon she offers at least half a dozen explanations. She still attends auditions, but is “crap at doing self-tapes”, a requirement for many roles. Being older means there are fewer parts for her, while having a disability places her in two overlapping categories of discrimination. You would think that the experience of swerving death and adapting to a hugely altered body must have added to her emotional range as an actor. “That was my thought,” she says. “But it is a very difficult business. If you’re not the whole package, they just choose someone else. It’s as brutal as that.”
Social media may also have contributed to her exclusion, and to combat this she has joined Instagram “at the grand age of 59”. She has only been on it a week and already got 70 followers, she says, sounding chuffed. “I’m actually very proud of that.”
She has a vague sense that during all those dormant years no one wanted to interrupt her. Which is funny since she was so desperate for someone or something to break the spell. I can’t work out whether Ash thinks people didn’t know how tough her recovery was, and that’s why they left her alone, or if she thinks they did know, and that’s why they didn’t approach her. “You know what, no one likes to speak to people when they’re not doing well,” she says, laughing. “Well, when you’re not in the limelight any more, it’s true. People don’t particularly care.”
In 2006, Ash was awarded £5m compensation from the NHS for loss of earnings following her MSSA ordeal. The lawyers came up with the figure, she says, and if anything her loss has probably been greater. For years, her accountancy bill exceeded her salary. But the payout outraged parts of the media. The Daily Mail headlined with “The £5m trout pout”, a reference to the swelling of Ash’s lips caused by fillers she had in 2002. (The News of the World coined the phrase “trout pout” in her honour, but the subject is off-limits for Ash, who will only say: “It is very much in the past.”)
“I was quite amazed – they made me feel like I’d won the lottery,” Ash says. “I felt that was probably the reason why I wasn’t working. Because I think people thought I was putting it on.” There is a pause. The sun has set while we’ve been chatting, and her face is harder to read in the dark. “I honestly don’t know,” she says.
While Ash has made a remarkable physical recovery, there is one issue that she has never been able to fully resolve. When she contracted MSSA, she was in hospital with two broken ribs, having fallen out of bed during “energetic lovemaking” with Chapman. (This was at 7am after an all-night bender.)
Chapman was later arrested on suspicion of assault, but never charged. Ash’s sister subsequently claimed that Ash was a victim of domestic abuse. Ash and Chapman have always denied this claim. The sisters remain estranged.
Chapman, who is downstairs in the apartment while Ash and I talk, had previously been arrested in 1997, when he pursued Ash, after an argument, to the home of her Men Behaving Badly co-star Caroline Quentin. He was arrested after trying to kick down Quentin’s door. Ash took out an injunction against him but they quickly reconciled, and the injunction was dropped.
At the time of those incidents, Ash and Chapman’s marriage was routinely described as “tempestuous” or “turbulent”. Ash doesn’t like these words. She prefers passionate. “Passion, passion … Absolute passion!” she says. “I’m a person who walks out and slams the door. Always have been, always will be.”
She has spoken in the past about the time she chipped Chapman’s teeth, when she threw a phone at him during one row. Indeed, some reviewers of her 2007 autobiography, My Life Behaving Badly, objected to the degree of responsibility she took for problems within their relationship. But Ash says now that she did so because “I didn’t want everyone to think about Lee being a bad person. Because, no, it takes two to argue.”
I can’t help thinking that some people’s suspicion that Ash was the victim of assault added an additional dimension to her recovery. She was suspected of suffering in silence, when silence is seen as weak or disobliging, and she was denigrated for it, her denials distrusted. And all this despite the fact that there has never been proof that an assault took place. “No!” she says. “Because there’s nothing there!”
She and Chapman have been married for nearly 32 years. “We’re growing old together,” Ash says. “It’s weird. We’re just like the same person sometimes. I know what he’s thinking. I can finish his sentences. I can be somewhere, walking the dog, and suddenly he’ll come running past. I’ve got this sense that he’s always there.”
I wonder how Ash feels about the #MeToo movement, which draws its strength from women speaking out and the tendency sometimes now to see a person who chooses silence as irresponsible.
“That’s what worries me about social media,” Ash says. “Everyone is in this frame of mind that they have to tell everything. With #MeToo I can understand completely about horrible things that women have gone through … But I just don’t want women to lose their empowerment.” She seems to be saying that talking frankly about a violent experience can be a double-edged sword. “Because it can make women look terribly weak. And at the moment we are trying to be strong. But at the same time you don’t want to let people get away with it,” she says. “So therefore I do agree with the #MeToo movement. But … people have to be careful, and make sure that stories are told the right way.”
She herself, she says, feels stronger now than at any point in her life. “I’ve found my voice the older I’ve got.” In the 90s, when she was filming Men Behaving Badly, she mostly sat and listened on set. “I was terrified that if I said anything, they wouldn’t find it funny at all.”
And although in her 40s, in the aftermath of the MSSA, she dreaded ageing, now that her 60s are looming, the number doesn’t seem so bad. In any case, she works out four times a week, “and I know I can keep my face toned”. She runs her fingers down her cheek. “I’m going in certain areas. But I think you’ve just got to take a deep breath,” she says, exhaling heavily, “and just go with it.”
So she isn’t scared of the big number? “No,” she says, and immediately adds, “I don’t know. Because my mum died at 68. So I’ve got that feeling of: ‘Oh God, have I only got eight years? So that’s a thing.” Maybe her mum is on her mind, because when she goes to the bar in Clapham, which was her parents’ old shop, Ash can picture her there, sitting on her stool, with a photo of Ash by the counter. “I’d like to live,” she adds. “You know. I just don’t know whether I will.”
Ash believes she is a better actor now – all she needs is the chance. “But I am going to do it again,” she says. “Even if I have to make the shows myself.”