TALKING PICTURES in conversation with actress Lesley Saint John

1983 I was glued to the telly on a Friday night when the first season of Auf Wiedersehen Pet hit the screen. The show proved to be popular around the UK when the second season was broadcast and it got high ratings, confirming the show was going to be a TV classic. Written by Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais, who already had a hit show starring North East characters in The Likely Lads.

Summer ‘85 I was upstairs in Newcastle Airport sweating it – my first time flying. I was about to go on a lads holiday to Ibiza when suddenly there was a commotion from the check-in area downstairs. We ran over to the balcony to look down and see a couple of actors from the show waiting in line. I noticed the red streaks in Wayne’s (Gary Holton) black hair. The area was being roped off and they started filming a scene. It wasn’t until season 2 in 1986 when I saw this episode being broadcast and there was a bit of a buzz watching how it had been put together. So for this blog I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to interview one of the stars of that memorable series.

Good interviews have honesty and laughter and there was plenty of that when I met up with Lesley Saint-John who played Vicky in the second season… Vicky was a Manicurist from South Shields (laughs). You wouldn’t believe how much attention the show attracts. I did 5 years on Byker Grove, a Catherine Cookson film, but Auf Wiedersehen is the one that’s talked about the most. There is a AWP fan club, and because the show is constantly repeated on tv, people often come up to me and say Vicky’s lines, they know them off by heart. It’s great people remember it.

How did the job on Auf Wiedersehen come about ? I was just a normal jobbing actor in the North East, the majority of work I had done was up here, including tv shows, commercials and corporate training videos, as well as stage work. I had heard of the show because the first season had been on telly but to be honest I didn’t really watch it. My mother rang me up one night and said ‘Have you seen that Auf Wiedersehen Pet on the telly, you’ve gotta watch it’. I said ‘I’ve flicked over it but it just seems to be men sitting in a hut’. She said it was brilliant and I should start watching it.

Then my agent sent me for the audition held in Newcastle, which was great because normally a lot of auditions I would have to get on a coach or train travelling hours down to London.

How did the audition go? It went fine there was a big panel of people, normally there is 1 or 2 with the casting director but this was different. Sometimes auditions seem to go well but you don’t get the job, others you’re not sure of but you’re called back. I knew the part was for someone called Vicky but didn’t know if it was for just 1 or 2 episodes, it ended up 10 out of the 13 episodes in series 2.

Then I got a call again from my agent saying that they wanted me back to test with the rest of the cast in London and play a scene out with one of the characters. That turned out to be Gary Holton who played Wayne, who sadly is no longer with us.

Did you like Vicky, your character in the show? Yeah, I think she was quite honest, maybe people thought she was a money grabber because she was with an older man with money, but she really did care for Ally. It was Ally Fraser who was interested in money and how he could make more, Vicky was almost like the asset on his arm. It was a good relationship at the beginning but by the end it went sour.

Looking back what are your memories of the show? The scenes in Spain were filmed around Marbella in about 6 weeks, I remember having a nanny out there for my daughter who was nearly 4 at the time. Ally’s villa was up in the hills near Puerto Banus, and at the time we were filming it was actually a concrete shell being built, so after the guys had filmed their scenes real Spanish builders would come in the evenings, to do more work on it. The next day it looked like the lads had put the brick and extra tiles on the pool. Now you can rent the villa and I’ve been told by fans of the show that they clubbed together for a holiday there.

People remind me of this ‘green bikini’ scene we filmed in the Costa Del Sol, which really if I hadn’t had photographic evidence I would never of believed I was ever that slim! (laughs). But to let you know how scenes are filmed out of order with what you see on the programme, that scene outside the villa on the terrace was filmed in about August then the next scene, which continues an argument with Ally, is when we walk into the villa, and is actually January in a studio in Nottingham. So that 20 second walk was actually 4 or 5 months apart, it was a very cold studio and I had to have false tan on (laughs).

There was a line in one of the shows where I said I was going to Annabels club, well apparently there was a problem with that because there actually was a club called Annabels in Sunderland. So months later I had to go down to Central Television in Nottingham where we used to film all the indoor scenes, and go into a recording booth and record the line saying I was going to Cannibals because we couldn’t use the name Annabels. It had to be something similar because we couldn’t reshoot the whole scene because it was with Gary Holton who had passed away during the production.

The whole thing was very eery because I was by myself in the recording booth, but what they didn’t tell me was the line Gary had filmed would come through my headphones first. I was never warned and when his distinctive cockney voice came through I was silent. It completely threw me, it was if he was in the room.

The North East has a pedigree of strong women, do you think you fit into that ? For people living in London or the south auditions can be ten a penny, easy to get to, but for me coming down from the North East sometimes it felt like an expensive ordeal. I am strong…ish, but could definitely do with toughening up. But when I went to London for an audition I met someone also going for the same part, funnily enough she ended up becoming my London agent. We talked about it and me getting the part and not her, I asked how she felt and she just said it wasn’t to be. I want to be that philosophical about it, but I still take it personal, I still need to toughen up.

How did you get into acting? When I was around 12 I wanted to go to stage school in London but my parents couldn’t afford it. Today you can get a degree in performing arts there was nothing like that up here when I was growing up. I was brought up on the stage because my parents were in Amateur Dramatics and playing the lead roles, they met at a choir in Gateshead. They used to put on shows and concert parties in Old people’s homes and I would go with them, sing a couple of songs and do my ballet or tap dancing. I’d just always knew I wanted to be on stage as some sort of performer.

I was listening to music then and when I was about eight, the first album I bought was Chopin, I can’t remember why, but I loved it. Then as a teenager I listened to T.Rex, Status Quo, Roxy Music and Alice Cooper. I saw all of them at Newcastle City Hall except Alice Cooper who I loved.

But the way I got into acting as a profession was singing on stage in a band to get my Equity card. You had to have 40 weeks on stage and be nominated by somebody. So I joined a band at 19 year old where I did 2 or 3 solo’s and the rest backing vocals in workingmen’s clubs all around the North East. My songs were like Blondie and Dionne Warwick ‘If you see me walking down the street, just walk on by’ (sings). I never thought of myself as a strong singer but that’s how I got in because you had to be in Equity in those days before you could work in tv. This is all I ever wanted to do I just never got as far as I wanted to get.

When was the time you thought you had missed an opportunity? After Auf Wiedersehen Pet came out, my London agent asked if I was going to move to London but I didn’t because my personal circumstances of being a single parent after my husband left made it difficult. The practicalities of buying a house and not having my parents to support looking after my daughter might have been too much. A lot of woman go away from the scene and have their kids so when they come back, if they do, people have forgotten them or moved on.

I think there is a massive amount of untapped talent here, but to get really established like, some of my colleagues from Byker Grove, Jill Halfpenny, Ant and Dec, you have to make the move down South or you will be making the journey up and down the motorway for auditions and shows. A good thing is today there are more chances to get out there with all the social media and magazines. So looking back it was sort of missing a trick there, it might not have worked, but if I had my way I would have been in London when I was 12 (laughs).

How did working on Byker Grove come about? Straight off the back of an audition I done, in the show my character Kath (Dobson) had 3 daughters, Jill Halfpenny was the eldest one. What also helped was that we looked similar, we had dark hair, and I have freckles like the youngest, plus it was in the curly perm days (laughs). The guy who played my husband was Tony Hodge who was in a big North Eastern band, The Piranha Brothers.

Kath was very different from Vicky. Vicky was glamorous with the clothes and great locations. In nearly all my scenes as Kath, wardrobe gave me navy blue fuddy duddy skirts and button upped blouses to wear, and not much make up, just housewife scenes of making the meals, getting the kids to school, it was great playing a totally different role. The Dobson’s used a real house in Newcastle where we filmed their scenes and our internal shots were set in The Mitre building in Benwell, Newcastle.

After leaving Byker Grove Lesley had a role in the tv series ‘Harry’ starring Michael Elphick, then took on another part…In 1996 I was in the Catherine Cookson film The Girl, I played Nancy Boyle who has a daughter, wears raggy clothes and I’m dying of T.B. I go to the big house and tell the master that this is his daughter, and as I’m dying he’s got to look after her. Typical Cookson film but I love all these different looks that I’ve done.

What’s next Lesley? It can be 10 or 20 years when you find yourself working with people again and it’s like you’ve never been apart because I’m in a show called Moreland’s Firm, a criminal family from Newcastle where Michael Moreland is trying to become a businessman and go straight. I play the mother Rose Moreland, and my son Michael is played by Craig Conway who in real life was married to Jill Halfpenny. So it’s weird to have played both their mothers. Tony Hodge, who was also in Byker Grove plays opposite me, in fact he was one of Roses clients as she starts the show as an alcoholic prostitute (laughs).

Rose Moreland swears and I never swear in real life, I had to slap Michaels face and tell him to f..off, his face was going really red it was like ‘We’ll just do one more’. He said just go for it but I could see the shock on his face after I slapped him. But Rose comes good in the end (laughs).

Craig Conway who is producing it, is looking to get the programme commissioned, we shot a lot of footage so he has got something to show rather than just an idea or bit of script.

What would be your favourite role ? My favourite job would be one of the co-hosts on Loose Women because I love talking, and I love debating or be a character in Emmerdale. But yeah, Loose Women I’d do that in a heartbeat.

I will be performing at Newcastle Arena this weekend in ‘Sunday for Sammy’ (23 Feb) I love it as I get to catch up with loads of old friends and it’s all for Charity. I am really looking forward to that. Can’t wait!!

 

Interview by Gary Alikivi  February 2020.