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Saying goodbye to heartache; Lesley Dunlop reveals why the past few years of struggle and grief have left her full of optimism.

Lesser women would have crumbled under the weight of such a succession of emotional blows, but Where The Heart Is star Lesley Dunlop is made of sterner stuff. She even believes that overcoming her private turmoil has made her a stronger person.

Lesley is currently single again, has no house to call her own, and is coming to terms with daughters Daisy, 21, and Rosie, 16, leaving home. She has suffered a series of stress-related illnesses and is still recovering from the loss of her beloved mum. Yet, bizarrely, the 43-year-old believes this is one of the best times in her life.

"It's true, for the first time in God knows how many years, I feel more confident and happier than I can remember," she says with a broad smile. "I've nowhere to live that I can call my own and I have no partner or man in my life, but I feel that the world really is my oyster."

Lesley, who plays newcomer Anna Kirkwall in the hit district nurse drama, was determined to meet her troubles head on and find something positive from all the negative events that she had been through.

"It just seemed that all the stories I ever read about myself were so downbeat," she says. "There never seemed to be any good news about my life. So I decided to change my outlook.

"Last year I sold our house in Chiswick, West London, and took the girls on holiday to Cuba and Cornwall. I don't think they knew what had hit them. They kept asking me why, but I'd decided that we were simply going to be good friends having a holiday, all girls together. It turned out to be fabulous and I began to believe in myself. Then along came this role in Where The Heart Is which proved a great cushion for me. I had something to look forward to.

"So although I had no house of my own - I was renting a place in the North near to filming - and I was on my own, I actually felt happy and contented with myself. I began to discover my own strength and realise that I could do anything I wanted, when I wanted. Both the girls had left home. I felt so free. It's like a new book has been opened for me. For the first time in ages, I can stand on my own two feet and look to the future with confidence.

"It's a strange feeling knowing that I can please myself about what I do... Although it often simply means that I sit in with a few glasses of wine and watch the telly and read a book," she adds with a grin. "But at least the freedom is there for me.

"Of course, I want to buy a new home in London - one big enough for the girls to stay - but I'm not looking for another relationship. Although if it comes, then so much the better. I'm not off men, I'm just contented with myself for the first time in ages. I think a lot of my mum's strength and courage has rubbed off on me."

Lesley's mother Marion, a former legal secretary, died two years ago aged 68, following a brave two-year fight against leukaemia.

"Mum was so courageous in her struggle that I've learned so many things from her," says Lesley. "She showed so much dignity even though she was dying. Mum wanted the last months of her life to be as normal as possible. She decided not to have any chemotherapy - she'd seen what it had done to other people who had also died. But even though she was in great pain, she showed such spirit.

"She battled against the leukaemia since being diagnosed in 1996, and throughout that time she dealt with it so much better than I did. I was a wreck. I was with her when she died... It was the first time I'd seen anyone die, but she handled that so bravely too. It made it seem easier somehow.

"At the time I was distraught, but after her death I realised just how much strength she'd had. I feel able to cope with life a lot more because of what she taught me. Of course, I still miss her so much. "

At the same time as grieving for her mum, Lesley has had to cope with a turbulent love life. Last year she split from TV cameraman Jeremy Hiles, a 39-year-old married father of two, who she turned to after the break-up of her four-year relationship to comedy actor Paul Bown.

Lesley's health has suffered too, and she has had kidney infections, shingles, anaemia and bronchitis, all brought on by stress. Throughout everything, she has worked hard to maintain her career while also raising her daughters by her previous long-term love, actor Christopher Guard.

Ironically, her lead role in Where The Heart Is, following the departure of Sarah Lancashire, is as a single mum, struggling to build a new life for herself and her young son following the tragic death of her husband. It's a prime part for the actress who shot to fame in the 1970s medical series Angels and has starred in TV dramas, the sitcom May To December, and TV ads for Kleenex tissues. And it's a great opportunity for Lesley, who felt she had become typecast in rather dowdy, downtrodden roles.

"A few years ago I lost two stones by dieting and working out, just so that I could hopefully get some different TV work instead of always playing homely-type housewives," she says. "I lost the weight but it was incredibly hard work and I realised that it wasn't worth the pain of what I was putting myself through.

"I do seem to have cornered the market in playing mumsy-type roles. Maybe it's the way I look, but at the end of the day I am a real mum, so I might be playing to role. Now I plan to lose weight, but this time I will do it in my own time rather than for other people or work."

This determination is all part of Lesley's renewed optimism for the future which has been given a tremendous boost by Where The Heart Is.

"All these years after playing a nurse in Angels, it's like coming full circle to play one in this series," she smiles. "I feel that I've been given a new beginning and I'm going to enjoy every moment."

Where The Heart Is, Sunday, ITV, 8pm.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Hill, Patrick
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:May 20, 2000
Words:1092
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