Interview: Life's a Sunset Beach

She was going to be the next Elizabeth Taylor. These days Lesley- Anne Down takes work where she finds it - right now, it's in the best daytime soap opera since `Crossroads'

So, here she is, then, Lesley-Anne Down, once "Britain's Most Beautiful Teenager" and once, of course, the flighty, ravishing, utterly captivating Miss Georgina Worsley in Upstairs, Downstairs. I can still see her now, in her little sparkling bugle dress, with those big sparkling eyes, flirting outrageously with someone jolly handsome in the Eaton Place drawing room, while, downstairs, Mrs Bridges was bellowing: "RUBY! ROO- BEEEEE! YOU COME AND HELP ME WITH THIS MILK PUDDING NOW, MY GIRL!" The part quickly transformed her into the nation's, and the tabloids', absolute darling. She may even have been Elizabeth Hurley before there was any Elizabeth Hurley. The prototype, if you like. And very, very big things were predicted for her. "The next Elizabeth Taylor," declared the Daily Mail in 1973. But today? Today she is not a great big movie star. Instead, she is Olivia Richards in the American daytime soap Sunset Beach.

Now, let's see, how best to give you a little thumbnail-sketch of Olivia? OK. Here goes. Olivia used to have a drink problem, and also used to be married to Gregory Richards, played by a cracking actor who can do lines, and facial expressions, but singularly fails to ever tie the two in together. Olivia has a baby son, Tres, unbeknown to her grown-up daughter, Caitlin, who is a graduate (cum laude) of The American School of Dramatic Hair Tossing - they are all, actually, very good at tossing, but Caitlin's the best - and who thinks Tres came from a prostitute. Caitlin certainly doesn't think Tres could be her brother, or might even be her half-brother, because Olivia once had an affair with Cole, who suffers under the weight of a great deal of hair gel and thus looks permanently perplexed, and who is now married to Caitlin, while Gregory is now married to Annie, who has lips like dinghies and who drugged Olivia and stole Tres in the first place before Olivia found out and Gregory divorced her, because he thought Tres died as a result of her drinking. And that's about it. I think. Tragically, Sunset Beach is only on here at 10.20am on Channel 5 which means that, for a busy, professional, go-getting high-brow like me, I only ever get to see it daily.

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking: "Look what Lesley- Anne has come to!" And: "Where did it all go pear-shaped!"Well, if that's the case, and I suspect it is, then I can only say you are mad. Sunset Beach is, almost certainly, the best thing on telly at the moment. Indeed, for anyone who has had, say, a Crossroads-shaped hole in their lives ever since Crossroads was axed, then Sunset Beach is just the ticket, and possibly more so. The plots are ludicrous, the acting is appalling and, as for the dialogue! Well, take Olivia to her ex, Gregory, while they are stuck in a lift, and he's coming on to her, because he's unknowingly been doped with Viagra, and she finds herself succumbing: "LOVE [breath] ME [breath] GREGORY [long breath]. LOVE [breath] ME!" It's all you could ever hope for, frankly, and no Benny in his silly bobble hat, which has to be a plus.

I say all this to Lesley-Anne. She is not offended in the least. She has, she says, never considered herself an artiste in any way. Do you think you can act, even? "God, no. Absolutely not. But if someone pays me to do something, I will do it to the best of my ability, and on Mars if necessary." How would you describe what you do in Sunset Beach? "Technique. Just full-blown technique! Although it's very hard work, darling. We average four scenes an hour. We don't rehearse. It's brush your hair, then boom- boom-boom, you're doing it." So, in short, it's a matter of trying not to fall over the props, then waiting for the truck to come round with your wages? "It is certainly much better paid than Upstairs, Downstairs ever was!" She says she now takes her jobs where she can find them. She once did a season in Dallas as PR Stephanie Rogers. "Why? Because they offered me a quarter of a million dollars for seven days' work over 10 weeks. What do you think I am, darling? STUPID?" Still, she agrees that "Who shot JR?" might be up there with "Is Amy Turtle a Russian spy?" as one of the greatest soap storylines ever. "Was she a Russian spy?" she asks. I say she got off in the end, but frankly, I always had my doubts. There always looked like room for a kalashnikov under her pinny, to me. "I see," says Lesley-Anne. "Hmmm."

Although she now lives in the very Hello! territory that is Malibu - "Jane Seymour lives round the corner. Her kids came trick or treating the other night" - she is over here for a few days, so we meet in her London hotel suite. We are joined, at various times, by Lesley-Anne's younger sister, Angela, Lesley-Anne's husband, Donnie, and her and Donnie's eight-month-old son, George, who seems to have black teeth ("We think the housekeeper is feeding him juice"), plus a succession of chambermaids who knock then come in to say: "Hiya, Olivia. I just wanted to say hiya, and maybe I could have a photo, Olivia?" "Maybe a little later, sweetie," says Lesley-Anne, who isn't even very good at acting friendly sometimes. Later, she complains: "This has been going on endlessly. In fact, when I first arrived here a few days ago, I went out in the evening. I was knackered, I looked awful, I wore a big hat - but still everyone in the street was shouting, `Ohhhh, Olivia'. And `Ohhh, Sunset Beach'. I don't understand it. It is such a silly little show."

Nonsense, I protest. It's a terrific show. In particular, I love the strange kind of time warp that goes on, so that a character knocks on a door, then 139 episodes later someone finally answers it. I like the fact that there are only ever two camera angles. I like the fact it makes Santa Barbara look slick. I like... "Oh, stop," pleads Lesley-Anne. Her sister Angela interrupts to say she thinks Lesley-Anne is a better actress than she thinks she is. "You were very good in Hanover Street with Harrison Ford," she insists.

"But that was such romantic drivel, darling!" Lesley-Anne cries.

"Trouble is, that film didn't know whether it wanted to be a war story or a love story," says Donnie.

"Ag-ga-ga-ga-goo," goes George, through his spooky, rotten teeth.

I say that, aside from anything else, she did do truly great cleavage in the American mini-series North and South. She can at least feel proud of that. She says: "That wasn't cleavage! That was my spare tyre being pushed up!" Lesley-Anne is possibly rather bonkers. But, still, she can be quite bright and funny at times.

She is now 44, but is still very fine looking, with the huge green, sparkling eyes, and great bones and everything, although she might be a bit over- made-up. You know, lots of black round the eyes and lashes so mascara- ed they look crunchy. She has so far resisted plastic surgery, "but only because Donnie won't let me". "Roy Orbison died on the table getting a face-lift," retorts Donnie. "It is a life-threatening operation."

Donnie, her third husband, is a cameraman whom she met on the set of North and South. Lesley-Anne seems to have spent much of her life going from one bloke to another, actually. First it was Bruce Robinson, the actor who turned writer (The Killing Fields) then writer-director (Withnail and I, How to Get Ahead in Advertising) and with whom she lived with for 10 years from the age of 15. Next it was an Argentine, Henrique Gabriel, an assistant director whom she met in Egypt on a film set, and whom she married on a whim, but left after 18 months for William Friedkin. She married Friedkin, the director of The French Connection and The Exorcist, and together they had a son, Jack. But when Jack was two, Lesley-Anne met Don, and upped it again. Lesley-Anne and Friedkin then fought a custody battle for Jack in a case which even her own lawyer, Marvin Mitchelson, described as "the nastiest, most vicious, custody case this town has ever seen". Friedkin said Lesley-Anne was an alcoholic, promiscuous coke fiend. She said he had threatened to kill her on more than one occasion, and had used a stun gun in front of Jack. After spending a million dollars each, they eventually agreed to a pre-trial settlement and joint custody, but only after Lesley-Anne had been vetted by a team of shrinks.

She says the shrinks ultimately declared her "a super-intelligent woman" which, she adds, "was very funny, because I lied to them every step of the way. They did these Rorschach tests on me. You know, the ink-blots. And they'd say, what does this one look like? I wasn't about to say it looks like two women having it off, was I? So I said, `Ohhh, it's a beautiful butterfly."' What did they conclude about you emotionally? "That I'm a complete hysteric!" And she might be, although perhaps not dangerously so. Certainly, she doesn't seem entirely whole somehow. I think she is intelligent, yes, but am not sure she's entirely all there.

She was born in Wandsworth, south London. Her father, James, apparently a very dashing-looking man, was caretaker of the local Territorial Army Centre. Her mother, Isobel, stayed at home to bring up the two girls, although did a bit of cleaning on the side when things got tight. Lesley- Anne, however, craved a more colourful life. "I had these cousins in LA, who'd send us care packages of clothes they'd grown out of - the most amazingly beautiful dresses that were totally alien to, say, going to Clark's for another pair of lace-ups in black, black or black. So I always had this desire, and image of myself, leading this fantasy life."

She started modelling at 10, was drinking gin and orange and clubbing at 12, started appearing nude in films at 14, and was living with Bruce at 15. I ask her if she thinks her childhood finished too early. She says. "I don't think it ever started!" What do you mean? "I just never felt like a child. I always had this desire to be a grown-up. I never had friends. I never felt I belonged. I was always happiest on my own, inventing things, finding secret places. If I'd also mutilated small animals, I think I'd have the perfect psychological profile of a serial killer." Did you ever, for example, have birthday parties? "Perhaps once. Although, then again, I might just be jealously appropriating someone else's." Did you like school? "Hated it. In particular, I hated Miss Harden, the maths teacher, who had hairy armpits and never wore long sleeves."

The trouble with Lesley-Anne, perhaps, is that she focused for so long on achieving things outwardly, via her own admittedly fabulous looks, that something within her just shrivelled and died. When, later, I ask her what attracted her to Friedkin, she says: "Money, talent, power." And you find those things attractive? "I did then. I'd met men with one or other of those things but, until Bill, I'd never met a man with all three." And the combination was lethal? "Lethal is the right word. That man was MERCURY IN MY BLOOD!" She can seem quite hysterical at times, yes.

Her first modelling assignment was for school uniforms, then it was bonnets, then it was a commercial in Barbados for an American soap powder - "and I thought, this is the life". She hooked up with Bruce at a party thrown by Ava Gardner. "He walked into the room in a white coat. I was in love. I didn't have a comb, so I ran into the lavatory and used Ava's toothbrush on my hair and lashes." He assumed she was at least 18. He, nearly 30 then, wasn't best pleased to find out she was only 15. "He called up all his friends, and said: `What am I going to do?' He went though a difficult time. My parents called him all sorts of names. Bruce would pack my bags and send me back to mum and dad. `I want to be with you,' I would scream. "

He proposed to her just the once, when she was 16. "But I said no. I didn't believe in marriage then." He never proposed again, although they stayed together until she was 24. She doesn't see him now. "He's become such a hermit, hasn't he? He lives in place near Wales that begins with H." Hereford? "Yes, that's it. He has so much to play for, but just tucks himself away." Perhaps he just doesn't want the whole LA shebang? "Oh. yes. Perhaps."

She says she is happy now, with Donnie and George. She doesn't mind that she never really achieved anything after Upstairs, Downstairs apart from a number of lacklustre films culminating in Death Wish V with Charles Bronson. "I'm happy to have survived, to still be here," she says. She has, yes, had her run-ins with drink and drugs but never, she insists, excessively so, and certainly not now. She adds that it's now time for her afternoon nap. "I'm very tired, darling." Bye, Olivia, I say. And I hope you get out of that stuck elevator shortly. "Oh stop!" she pleads again.

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