Lesley Manville & Peter Duncan: 'Being with him and his family feels like a safe haven. I'm happy soaking it all up - though I'm secretly jealous'

The actors met in 1972 at the Italia Conti stage school. Both are patrons of Neighbourhood Midwives, a community-based midwifery service offering individualised continuity of care

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The Independent Online

Lesley Manville, 58

After a successful early career at the RSC and the Royal Court, Manville embarked on a long-running collaboration with film director Mike Leigh, working on seven films together, including 'Secrets & Lies', 'Another Year' and 2014's 'Mr Turner'. She has also appeared in stage adaptations including 'His Dark Materials' and 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses', and won an Olivier for her role in the National's revival of the Ibsen play 'Ghosts'. She lives in West Sussex

We met in 1972 at the Italia Conti stage school. I was 16, he was 18. I was sitting in a music class, the door opened and in walked Peter. He was cherubic, with a sweet face and gorgeous curly hair; dreamy. I thought, "He won't want to go out with me," as I was quite plain.

We ended up going out for five years. We'd often go off on adventures together. We had a holiday in Cyprus, sleeping underneath the stars, and went to France. He always used to tease me, as I like cakes, so once, in France, he brought me a great big gateau and said, "I'm just going to take a picture of you with it." He shoved it in my face and took a picture.

We had an amicable split, and we've been friends ever since: we were too close and had known each other for too long for him not to be a part of my life. And now I'm so glad that he's my oldest friend.

He had a cheeky-chappy style about him, so I knew he'd be a good Blue Peter presenter when he was offered the job. But he was such a good young actor that I was worried that, by making dolls' houses out of toilet roll, it could be hard for him to get back in. But he likes being in front of the camera with his own persona, while I prefer playing a character.

Our lives have been very different: he's had a solid marriage and family life. I, regretfully, haven't had that: I was a single parent, which creates something in you that's perhaps more introspective. Peter is more of an extrovert, which is probably why he is an entertainer in the truest sense, while I do Ibsen. Being with him and his family feels like a safe haven. I'm happy soaking it all up – though I'm secretly jealous. He met Annie a few years after we split, when she was a social worker; they've been married for 30 years now. I wish she'd been a midwife [as she is now] when I had my son [in 1989]. I'd have had him at home rather than in hospital with an array of midwives.

Peter drives me mad when he talks about himself too much, but I love the cheeky schoolboy persona he still has: he's always up for an adventure. It's down to me to say things like, "No, Peter, please, please, don't do Tumble." [The BBC gymnastics reality show was axed after one season.] But he did it anyway. At least he's going to do [the stage adaptation of] Birdsong again this year. He's amazing in it. It's been his first straight acting role for a long time and he's wonderful.

Peter Duncan, 60

A 'Blue Peter' presenter in the 1980s, Duncan went on to embark on his own adventure TV series, 'Duncan Dares'. As an actor, he has appeared in films including 'Flash Gordon' and 'Stardust' and was nominated for an Olivier for the stage musical 'The Card'. He lives with his wife and children in south London

We didn't know it at the time but we went to the same primary school when we were little – St Andrew's in Hove. I was two years older, but I have this vision that we must have stared into each other's eyes in the playground.

We met at drama school. She told a friend of mine that she fancied me. She was the younger girl making a move for an older boy. We connected over Brighton: she grew up there and my parents had been doing a summer season there on the pier. We were young, but as we were busy working actors, we bought a place together in Chelsea. We'd go on holidays to visit my parents in Blackpool, and she was part of my family life, as I was part of hers.

We even ended up on a [1977 BBC] kids' thriller series together, called King Cinder: I was a speedway ace, she got the role as my girlfriend – I don't think the producer knew we were together. After five years we stopped being lovers, but we stayed friends.

I've seen everything Lesley has done and I loved Ghosts. I saw her in it twice. She's often doing all-consuming roles. Another Year, in which she played an alcoholic, was another one: she was so convincing, I felt concerned about her. It's a testament to her skill.

She's best friends with my wife, Annie, and together, when they get going, they're like a pair of raptors; I like to prevaricate and I won't make decisions and that frustrates them. Which brings me to Lesley's worst habit: she can be so bossy, and when she's with Annie, she reaches full throttle.

She's watched Annie go from social worker to midwife, and when Annie embarked on [midwifery service] Neighbourhood Midwives, we both saw it as something very important, so we became patrons together.

Lesley's had a lot of hard times with her relationships over the past 40 years [her first marriage, to actor Gary Oldman, ended soon after their son, Alfie, was born], but with us, it's just been continuity and friendship. A few years ago I went to Italy for her 50th birthday. I remember contributing photographs of an early part of her life: silly shots of her doing leaps and hiding behind things. It was lovely to see her happy, with lots of people from her life. She had a sort of throne at the end, covered in decorations; it felt like visiting the queen.

Peter Duncan will tour the UK in 'Birdsong' from 4 February. Lesley Manville appears in an adaptation of Ibsen's 'Ghosts' at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, from 5 April to 4 May; her BBC drama 'River' will air this autumn. Both are patrons of Neighbourhood Midwives (neighbourhoodmidwives.org.uk), a community-based midwifery service offering individualised continuity of care throughout pregnancy, birth and the postnatal period

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