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Interview: Anne Charleston - The Neighbour who came back from hell; Why Anne Charleston hopes a new sitcom will help to put her troubled past - and Neighbours' Madge - behind her. By Tessa Cunningham.

Byline: Tessa Cunningham

Playing Ramsay Street's bossy Madge Bishop made her a household name, but Anne Charleston's own tragic life story could have come straight out of a soap. After finding fame in the mid-1980s alongside rising star Kylie Minogue, she quit Neighbours in 1992 after seven years. But following a failed lawsuit and mounting debts, she was lured back for an acrimonious second stint, which left her miserable and exhausted.

So Anne hopes that her latest series, Dossa And Joe, written by Royle Family creator Caroline Aherne, will help her blot out the memories of her traumatic past.

Her decision to return to Neighbours always seemed bizarre. Aussie Anne was happy in her new life near Galway in Ireland, but when bosses offered pounds 100,000 to her and Ian Smith, who plays Madge's husband Harold, to return to the soap, she had no choice but to accept.

Anne had crippling debts after a failed legal battle with a Sunday newspaper. It had published a report headlined, "Strewth! What's Harold up to with our Madge?" with pictures of the pair simulating sex. Anne and Ian's faces had been superimposed onto bodies of porn actors. The soap stars took their case to the House of Lords - and lost.

"The horror started in 1992 and went on until 1998," says Anne, 60. "We were shelling out money hand over fist. We had to come up with pounds 18,000 to take the case to the House of Lords. We still lost. I had to pay pounds 45,000 in legal fees, of which I borrowed pounds 30,000."

Anne then found that her agent had been cheating her out of thousands of pounds.

"I was working relentlessly," she says. "I trusted my agent to bank my money. Instead, she took the panto earnings from an entire year. I sued her and I won, but she liquidated her business, so I've never seen a penny. When Neighbours asked me back, I didn't have any option. It was the only way to get back on my feet."

It wasn't a happy return. Anne, who quit the soap again a year ago, came to loathe life in Ramsay Street.

"Madge became a joke," she says. "I'd made her into a feisty firebrand, but bit by bit the writers dismantled her. They tried to change her into a bitch. I argued with them, so they turned her into a victim. Madge had an aneurysm - an enlarged artery. Then she went blind. Then the coffee shop was broken into and she had post traumatic stress disorder... all in just a few weeks."

Missing Ireland and her London-based son Nicky, 32 - whose father is actor-singer David Ravenswood - she decided to quit. Soon after, Madge died from cancer. Anne insisted on having a nurse on set as an adviser, keen to get all the details right because of her own brush with the disease. Before joining the soap she had to have a breast removed. But not all her Neighbours memories are bad, and she still has a soft spot for Kylie - Madge's daughter Charlene.

"I can't take any credit for Kylie's success because I was her screen mum, but I'm thrilled for her," she says. "When Kylie joined Neighbours she was only 17, but she had a huge talent. Now she's more successful than ever."

Anne is hoping for more success of her own in Dossa And Joe. In the Sydney- based sitcom, she plays Dossa whose marriage hits the rocks when her pig- headed husband Joe retires.

"I'd rather not have a partner than be with someone I wasn't happy with," says Anne, who has never tied the knot, although she had a 10-year affair with a married man. "But I admire women like Dossa who manage to keep a marriage going.

"She and Madge are like chalk and cheese - Dossa is downtrodden where Madge was strong and stroppy. It's such a relief to get away from Madge. Ian Smith tried to persuade me to stay in Neighbours. He has this attitude that at our age we can't expect to find other work. He thought I was mad for going. Well, I've proved him wrong."

l Dossa And Joe, Wednesday, BBC2, 10pm.

DOSSING AROUND

For troubled Caroline Aherne, the six-part comedy Dossa And Joe is a welcome return to British television after a traumatic four years.

Just a year ago, she went to live in Australia, vowing never to be seen on our TV screens again. But now Caroline, 39, whose hit show The Royle Family has won two Baftas, is back as creator, writer and director of Aussie-set drama Dossa And Joe.

Fame for Caroline has come at a high price. Her marriage to New Order's Peter Hook ended in 1996. Her next romance was with Matt Bowers. They split up but remained friends and she was devastated when he died of cancer in 1998. By now the Mrs Merton star was drinking to excess. She attempted suicide, but was found in time and admitted to The Priory with depression.

Caroline's luck changed when she moved to Australia last July. There she met Sydney businessman Brett Whitford (above) and got the idea for Dossa And Joe. Now back in the UK, she has vowed to make her long-distance relationship work and Australia looks set to remain her second home.

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MOVING ON: Anne starts a new chapter in her life; Picture: BRIAN MOODY/SCOPE
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:May 11, 2002
Words:910
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