There’s more to Rula Lenska than her ex-husbands and a TV encounter with George Galloway. The striking 65-year-old on travel, ageing and her return to the stage
She sweeps into the Covent Garden hotel shaking the rain from her umbrella, tossing that trademark glossy copper hair, and heads can’t help but turn. She’s tall – around five foot eight, even taller in heels – with killer legs, and holds her head high. There’s none of that slouching some statuesque women do in an effort to diminish their height. And when she opens her mouth she doesn’t so much talk as purr, that deep voice made deeper over the years by smoking (she’s given up now).
If you didn’t already know Rula Lenska was descended from Polish aristocracy, you’d sense it from the regal way she holds herself. Not everyone knows who she is these days, of course – she admits she never quite achieved the level of fame or recognition she would have liked – but they know she must be SOMEONE.
And while she is now aged 65 and a very proud grandmother, she’s still impossibly glamorous. That word, she says, has been a curse as much as a blessing over the years. “It’s a lovely compliment in some ways, but it’s a bit two-dimensional. It seems to me that if you’re glamorous then you’re not talented and you’re not clever.”
On the contrary, Lenska has plenty going on beneath the bouff. She speaks four languages and trained as a balloon pilot (though her licence has now lapsed because she wasn’t able to maintain the flying hours). She was expelled from Catholic school for doing a war dance on the school roof wearing her gym knickers and swinging a lacrosse stick. She has trekked in the foothills of the Himalayas, roughed it in parts of the jungle and was banged up in a Sardinian jail for six months, suspected of drug dealing and, at one stage, spying. For all that aristocratic upbringing and boarding school discipline, she’s a bit of a wild one, is Rula Lenska. And she thinks it’s about time people knew about that side of her.
“I wanted to show people my life was much broader than my ex-marriage and Big Brother and that I’ve done an awful lot of extraordinary, exciting things people don’t know about,” she says.
And so, before we can talk about the why’s and the wherefore’s of her autobiography, we’re into Celebrity Big Brother and her infamous encounter with George Galloway. The year is 2006, long before the franchise’s fall from grace, and while Lenska had been holding out for Strictly, this offer came along and it was too good to refuse. But she could hardly have imagined how she might eventually be immortalised, with Galloway’s head in her lap, stroking his face gently, as they both pretended he was her cat.
“I was very keen to meet him and had followed him closely when he was doing War on Want,” says Lenska of her initial impressions of the Scottish politician. “I had huge admiration for him and, having met everyone in the house, mostly youngsters I didn’t know, Michael Barrymore and George Galloway were going to be the most interesting people to get to know.”
In the end, however, he become “over-controlling” and she says now: “He wasn’t the gentle person I’d imagined him to be who had always stood up for the victim.”
There was talk afterwards of Lenska and Galloway doing a cat food commercial but that came to nothing, “sadly,” says Lenska. And now she has just had a serious shoulder operation, she fears Strictly will never come calling. “I don’t think I would physically hold out.”
Born Róza Maria Laura Leopoldyna Lubienska on 30 September 1947 in an army camp in Huntingdonshire, Lenska’s parents were political refugees from first the Nazis, then the Soviets. A count and countess, from a long line of Polish aristocrats, they arrived in Britain with nothing, her mother via a harrowing route that involved the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Had they stayed – had war not broken out, forcing them to flee – Lenska might have grown up in a fairytale castle in Dzików, surrounded by servants and vast estates and her life would no doubt have been very different.
As it was, she was a born performer and the stage was already beckoning. “Acting had been in my blood since I was a tiny tot,” she says. “I was always ready to do a little turn, do a dance.”
That truth was universally acknowledged when she won a starring role in the 1970s series Rock Follies, the tale of a girl band that also starred Julie Covington. It ran for two series and should have led to worldwide fame and fortune, but things didn’t quite happen that way.
Instead, there were more parts in series such as To The Manor Born, Doctor Who, Casualty, Minder … and a memorable advert for VO5 shampoo. “I was billed as an international star, which of course I wasn’t,” she laughs. “On a Johnny Carson show one night he said, ‘Who the hell is Rula Lenska?’ and it sort of went into a cult.” It sparked a fan club devoted to ‘The Fair One’ – a mainly gay community – “and it was great fun. I was invited over there to attend various gatherings and treated like a queen. But it never led to any further work.”
She missed out on the Stephanie Beacham role in The Colbys because, she says, of a clause that insisted the producers be able to dictate when and what cosmetic surgery its stars would receive. “No-one is going to make that decision for me,” states Lenska. For the record, she has still not gone under the knife. “I think I’m too old and I’m too scared.” She has had non-invasive treatments, Botox once or twice, and something called mesotherapy, which is a series of vitamin injections. “But actually cutting? Even if I could afford it, I don’t think so.
“Anyway I’m not bad for a grandmother,” she adds. “I’ve always been tall and thin. I have to be careful what I eat but I don’t have an enormous appetite. I’m not a keep-fit fanatic but I love walking and active holidays. I’m certainly the one with the most wanderlust in my family,” she says. “My daughter hasn’t inherited it at all. All my life I’ve craved adventure and, to a certain extent, danger and landed in lots of different types of hot water over the years, but I like the challenge, physical and mental. What’s the point of just drifting from five-star hotel to five-star hotel.”
She achieved one of her greatest dreams at the start of this year when she visited the Galapagos with her sister. “It was indescribable. Two weeks on a boat, skipping from island to island. In some of the places you feel like you’re the only people on earth.” But, as much as her story is about her passion for travel, her family, and the work she is best remembered for, it is also about the great loves of her life: the Italian who betrayed her, her first husband, Brian – with whom she is still incredibly close – and her second marriage, to Minder star Dennis Waterman.
It was while working on the 1980s series about a Cockney wheeler dealer and his hard man bodyguard that she met and fell dangerously in love with TV’s archetypal rough diamond. The pair were both married to other people at the time, with young families, and from wholly different worlds. He wasn’t even the sort of man she would normally go for. “He was an attractive personality and he had enormous charisma,” she says. “I knew very little about his career as it wasn’t the type of television I’d watched, and he was very obviously a man’s man from the beginning. But there was an instantaneous and very powerful click between the two of us which we both tried to overcome. It was just too powerful.”
The pair were together for 15 years, ten of which she describes as “magical”. But, ultimately, it all turned sour, with accusations of drink-fuelled violence. She doesn’t go into any great detail about the form that violence took in her autobiography – “it was a long time ago, I have my family to think of, my grandson to think of, and it’s not something that’s necessary” – but she was branded a liar by Team Waterman when he denied the lot.
The marriage ended suddenly in 1998 when she fled the family home, and it wasn’t until last year that Waterman finally admitted in the Piers Morgan television confessional that, yes, he had hit his ex-wife. He has never apologised to her – “I’ve never set eyes on him from the day I ran away” – but she writes fondly of their time together and still can’t quite shake a sense that she, somehow, was partly responsible for his temper. “Of course I’m fond of him,” she says. “Love and deep feelings like that don’t die. I don’t carry anger or bitterness anymore, or sadness. And I’m not without blame on my part.
“Although,” she adds, on seeing my raised eyebrows, “I still maintain there is absolutely no excuse.”
After Waterman she fell madly in love with “a wonderful Polish man”. He was very distantly related to Lenska, of the same background, and they had the kind of spiritual connection she’s never experienced before or since. “Probably my greatest all-round love was with the Polish man,” she says. “The relationship lasted for five years. But when I finally got an ultimatum that said, ‘Drop everything and come and live in Poland,’ after careful consideration I didn’t think I could.”
She would still like to meet someone special but, as time goes by, it seems increasingly unlikely. “Where ARE all the men?” she moans. “Learning to live alone was a long and tough struggle, but I think it’s a very important part of one’s growing up. It’s wonderful not to be beholden to anybody else, but one of the greatest pleasures in life is sharing. And, of course, one misses special cuddles.”
There are some great stories in her book: tales of escaping Oliver Reed’s clutches; the dubious honour of appearing as a character called Luce Habit in a film that has since become a Japanese cult classic; and of being told by Michael Winner that her tits were too small for horror movies. She has no regrets, though. “It’s all part of life’s rich pattern, and everything is an anecdote.”
Most recently she has been on our screens again, playing Audrey Roberts’ nemesis Claudia Colby in Coronation Street, whose most memorable line was surely: “I’ve been made a fool of by a tranny and a granny.” The door has been left open for her return and she is hopeful.
In the meantime, she is being more proactive in her search for worthwhile work. “I think every female actor of a certain age will bemoan the fact there are far fewer parts written for and available to older ladies. I don’t have a big enough name for things to be created specially for me, but I have been asked to put together a one-woman cabaret show so I’m going to work hard at that.
“Because I’ve flown by the seat of my pants all my life, I’ve had the most extreme highs which always attach to deep lows. But that’s the nature of my emotional make-up. I’ve always been a rebel,” she says. Although she has not, fortunately, been touched by the bipolar disorder that afflicted her mother throughout her life.
“I’ve had a bloody mixed life so far, and I hope it’s nowhere near over. I remember my mother saying to me the older you get the quicker it goes. I never believed that but now it seems you’re having breakfast every five minutes. I’ve had a rich and exciting life, peppered by extraordinary adventures and extraordinary highs, but I really wouldn’t change anything.”
• Rula, My Autobiography is published by Biteback Publishing, £20