Rula Lenska, after a lifetime on stage and screen, has more goals. At a time when most people are thinking about pottering about the garden and generally slowing down, Ms Lenska is planning her next wildlife adventure with the mountain gorillas in Rwanda. That is, after a full Fringe run of an hour and a half of Eurovision-inspired poptastic musical mayhem, Eurobeat.
In 1976, before the majority of her cast-mates in Eurobeat were born, the Thames Television controversial musical drama Rock Follies launched the relatively unknown Lenska into stardom, culminating in awards and number one albums around the world despite running for just two series. Parts in television favourites including Coronation Street, Casualty, Minder, Dr Who and the notorious Celebrity Big Brother cemented her place in the popular cultural psyche. On stage she has starred in such entertaining shows as Hot Flush, the Vagina Monologues and Calendar Girls, as well as Shakespeare, Noel Coward, Sondheim and a critically acclaimed 2004 tour of 84 Charing Cross Road.
We meet in the back room of a coffee shop and I am struck by how petite Rula Lenska is, whilst exuding grace and strength that is at once commanding and warmly welcoming. She is as glamorous as one might expect yet despite many of those sort of roles, she has played the very gritty part of Irina in Jan Dunn’s award winning 2005 feature film Gypo, without makeup and completely improvised. It is an intense performance for which Lenska drew upon her mother’s experiences fleeing Poland years ago. This is a subject she touches upon in her 2013 memoir, My Colourful Life, a deceptively breezy account of her life until 2013. I say deceptively, since Lenska’s writing style belies the deep emotional impact of several major life events and never, at any point becomes blameful or bitter. Not even that her second husband, Dennis Waterman, took twelve years to admit on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories, without remorse, to his drunken violence towards her. ‘It was only ever with alcohol,’ Lenska reiterates. I ask about the difficulties of being disparaged by the press throughout those years and she simply nods; ‘Women seem to get vilified for something that’s not their fault… the press attacked me for not being able to stay the ground,’ she says, not about Waterman’s drunken violence, but about his infidelities; as a woman she was expected to put up with it. Her Buddhist practices helped enormously. ‘It’s very grounding …. In the end you can’t blame anyone or anything, or expect anyone to complete your picture of life. It’s up to you.’ She was introduced to it about 25 years ago, travelling to Tibet to study but found it too strict; ‘I went back to the Nichiren Daishonin Japanese Buddhism which is much easier to fit into everyday life.’ This form of Buddhism focusses on self-responsibility, the inner transformations of which may be the secret to longevity for performers; Tina Turner also practices Nichiren Daishonin.
The most surprising aspect of her book, however, is Lenska’s impeccable dry delivery when relating certain anecdotes, notably those regarding Sue Nicholls (Audrey in Corrie) and the late Margaret Thatcher. Lenska is more well-travelled than the memoirs have room to allow and I ask about a second volume. ‘It didn’t even go into paperback,’ she states plainly. It is perhaps the lack of “kiss and tell” that readers crave, the “dirt” on past relationships; but whilst Lenska is candid and matter-of-fact over her relationships, she has moved on.
Meeting her, it is clear that Lenska is entertaining, kind and keenly knowledgeable about wildlife and preserving our planet. She supports charities with a more empathic and sensitive approach to symbiotic existence; the antithesis of say, hunt saboteurs. Lenska’s involvement with the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust which rehabilitates orphaned elephant and rhino, Animals Asia who work to rescue bears from the bile industry, and the Born Free Foundation among other charities, benefited from her stint on Celebrity Big Brother in 2006. ‘I am an ardent conservationist, so when they mentioned the amount of money, I thought sod it, I might be in an uncomfortable situation, I’d not watched much of it, but I can’t overlook giving this amount of money [£60k+] to charity. It was a delight to write out huge cheques … things I will never be able to do again in all probability.’
After completing the commentary on a documentary on Daphne Sheldrick’s life for BBC Wildlife, Lenska travelled to Kenya to visit and they became close friends. These charity involvements, Lenska says are, ‘…not something that’s an earner, but one of my most important hats.’ The next trip to see gorillas in Rwanda is more of a problem, ‘It’s in a regularly war-torn zone, … the habitat is being destroyed on a daily basis throughout the world. There are very few lowland gorillas left. They are all monitored.’ She points out that there is perhaps no such thing as “wild” anymore, instead areas become “protected”.
Again, Lenska does not blame, but seeks to support the work being done and raise awareness instead of outrage; she is a shining example of mindful living in the present moment. Which, just now, is making the most of her time at the Fringe by seeing world arts performances before she pulls on Katya Kokov’s boots for Eurobeat.