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Your Life: I'd rather be single than go out with a loser; TV'S LESLEY DUNLOP ON FINDING LOVE AFTER 40.

Byline: BY RICHARD BARBER

LESLEY Dunlop stared at the man sitting opposite her at the restaurant table and thought: "You're actually rather boring."

But behind her fixed smile she carried on listening and nodding, knowing this was the price of being back on the dating scene as a single mum in her late forties.

Then the star of TV's Where The Heart Is got a shock. "I was just beginning to think he wasn't all that interesting when he suddenly announced he thought we needed a break from each other," she says.

"It was only our third date. "Bloody cheek. If anyone was going to end it, it should have been me.

"My reaction to being dumped was to laugh. But then I got angry and began thinking, 'What's wrong with me?' But now I'm laughing again."

Lesley has learnt that laughing is probably the best way to cope with looking for love with a 50th birthday approaching.

"Yes, of course you miss the cuddles and someone to talk to about how the day has gone," she says. "But I firmly believe it's better to be single and happy than in a relationship which is going nowhere."

Lesley - who plays nurse Anna Kirkwall in the hit Sunday night drama - was plunged back into the single life when her long-term partner walked out on her.

She had been with actor Christopher Guard - best known for playing gay nurse Kenneth Hodges in Casualty - since she was just 21.

They have two daughters together, Daisy - now 27 and an actress to be seen next opposite Zoe Lucker in Bombshell - and 24-year-old Rosie, a children's book designer.

But after 18 years together Christopher left her for actress Cathy Shipton, who had played nurse Duffy in Casualty.

Lesley - who was 39 at the time of the split - was left to bring up the girls and she struggled to make ends meet before landing the role in Where The Heart Is.

"I hadn't worked for two years," she says. "It was terrifying. I had to sell the house to pay my bills and support my two daughters. I'd been keeping everything going single-handedly for a long time."

Things weren't made easier when Christopher and Cathy had a daughter Tallulah, now four. "When she was first born, I don't mind admitting I felt a bit strange," says Lesley.

"My daughters had a sister and she was nothing to do with me. But I quickly got over that. And she's beautiful, an adorable child."

There have since been other men in Lesley's life.

A relationship with actor Paul Bown, still known for his role in Watching, ended badly. Another, with cameraman Jeremy Hiles, matured into simply friendship.

And when we met a year ago, Lesley was less than happy with a mystery man she had been seeing.

"He was younger than me and I didn't feel the relationship was equal," she says now.

"When I'd finished filming the fifth series of the show, I went off to Cornwall, which I know well.

"I intended staying for a few weeks but I spent more than four months there. I realise now that I'd taken my unhappiness with me so I did something I often do when I'm beside the river near my London flat.

"I went down to the sea and, metaphorically speaking, I threw my troubles over the harbour wall. Cast your cares on the water and they'll be borne away. That's what I believe." Except that it didn't work on this occasion.

Lesley explains: "Not to begin with. I thought I'd feel a sense of liberation. But my initial reaction was of overwhelming sadness, even though I knew I'd done the right thing. But slowly, slowly, I started feeling better."

Now Lesley is trying to pull her life together. "I'm getting there," she says. "I'm pleased I ended that relationship. I let things drift and allowed myself to be dominated.

"I'm conscious of needing to assert myself. I tell myself over and over that I plan to be physically, mentally and emotionally fit by the time I hit 50."

The milestone birthday falls next March and Lesley intends to hit the gym and get herself in shape.

"Twelve years ago I ran the London Marathon. But I damaged my joints and then my dad died. I just sat around feeling sad and getting fat."

Then Lesley's sadness deepened when she lost her adored mother, Marion, to leukaemia seven years ago. "She was the funniest woman you could ever meet. I still write to her - stories I know would make her laugh and any worries I have. Then I throw the letters away."

Unhappiness only added to Lesley's existing battle with her weight. "The trouble is, I like carbs and I like booze," she says. "I've been known to wake up in the middle of the night and scoff bowls of Sugar Puffs - the shame.

"And I used to automatically open a bottle of wine the minute I got home. It helped me unwind. I'd buy in bulk - but that means you tend to drink in bulk. I've got it under control now, though."

Now she's back in charge of her life, all that would complete the picture is to finally meet Mr Right.

"I'd like to continue to be self-supporting although I do want to be looked after a bit," she admits. "He'd be an understanding grown-up, someone my own age, and into big women."

She pauses and begins to chuckle again.

"You wouldn't consider popping in my phone number, would you?"

Where The Heart Is is on Sundays on ITV at 8pm.

CAPTION(S):

DRAMA: Lesley as sister Anna Kirkwall with co-star Phil Middlemiss in Where The Heart Is; HAPPY DAYS: Lesley and Christopher with their children Rosie and Daisy
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jul 13, 2005
Words:964
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