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Today, while she's hard at work filming another episode of Where The Heart Is, Lesley Dunlop's thoughts will no doubt turn to her daughters, Rose and Daisy. Nothing unusual in that you might think - it is Mother's Day after all. But the same could be said of Lesley tomorrow, and the next day and the day after that.

"Being a mum is what I like best," she says...and that applies every day of the year.

It's obvious from the way she behaves on the set of Where The Heart Is, which returns to ITV for a fourth series tonight, that she's good at it too. She exudes a motherly warmth, dispensing hugs and the odd, "Now, take care of yourself" as she mixes with crew and cast.

Is the former May To December star - and ex-face of TV's Kleenex ads - looking for someone else to mother now that Rose has turned 18 and Daisy is 22?

"I still get broody," Lesley, 44, admits. "I'm completely loopy over children - I just love them. I'm still not too old to start again, but I'm not going to now. It's not the having a baby that I can't face, it's the thought of being the mother of another teenager in 15 years time.

"I do miss having little ones around, but I enjoy my brothers' children instead - and I can do the old thing of handing them back."

For now anyway, there is no man on the scene. Almost for the first time in her adult life Lesley is single. After an 18-year relationship with the girls' father, actor Christopher Guard, a four-year one with actor Paul Bown, which ended just as her mother was diagnosed with leukaemia, and a shorter one with cameraman Jeremy Hiles, she is on her own and revelling in her new freedom.

"It's great," she says. "You get home and kick your shoes off and have long baths and you can leave the washing-up if you want to. It's nice just to be able to get on with the job and think about that. I can learn my lines at night instead of feeling I have to talk about everything all the time. There's no pressure."

Her latest job is, of course, as the new face in Where The Heart Is, alongside another newcomer Men Behaving Badly's Leslie Ash and regular Pam Ferris.

Lesley plays Sister Anna Kirkwall, a widow with a young son, who moves to the fictional village of Skelthwaite in the Yorkshire Dales. for a fresh start after the death of her husband.

Despite her character's sad past, there are plenty of light-hearted moments - like the time Leslie Ash and her are pretending to deliver a baby on a farmhouse floor.

"It was embarrassing but hilarious. We were all in fits of giggles."

But it has been hard work too. She has been filming almost every day since September. The only saving grace is that she has been renting a converted barn near the set, complete with coal-burning stove to save her having to commute from London. It's a home from home where her girls visit at weekends, and where she plans to get fit - if filming schedules give her the chance.

"I was very thin and fit when I was in May To December," she says. "I was fanatically running and training, and I ran the London Marathon in 1992. Apart from that I have always been rounded. I was little fat Les as a schoolgirl, and I'm big fat Les now. I do want to get fit again and lose some weight."

Lesley, the second of four children, was born in South Shields, Tyne and Wear, but moved to London as a small child. Her father Pat Dunlop was a scriptwriter on Dr Finlay's Casebook, her mother Marion was a full-time mum, and both, like Lesley today, had the knack of making their children feel loved and cherished.

"If people asked my mum whether she had a favourite child, she'd say, `No, I hate them all equally'. It was in jest - I think," she laughs.

"The others were really brainy, but I was rubbish at school. I wasn't paying attention half the time."

Very early on, she discovered she had a talent and a taste for acting.

"At primary school they used to have an end-of-term concert every year with little plays," she says. "It was so exciting, the build-up to it and everything. In the first one I was a fairy. Then, when I was about eight, I got my first review in the local paper. I thought it was wonderful, oh God yes."

It meant that when Lesley failed the 11-plus, her parents knew just where to send her - a private stage school, the Arts Educational Trust.

"I knew even then I wanted to act in TV and films - as much as you can know. I was very definite at the time because of Hayley Mills.

I thought she was wonderful.

"In retrospect, I think maybe I'd like to have had a few more choices."

At 13, she had her first professional role. Several TV plays followed and she started to think school was a waste of time.

"All I wanted was to get into the business and start working properly," she says. "My parents' finances were never steady and I used to feel awfully guilty that I was at private school, knowing what a struggle it was to keep me there."

A few months before her 16th birthday, she left without taking O-levels. The gamble paid off. Within a few weeks, she had found an agent, and within months she was working on the TV version of A Little Princess - "I played the fat dunce," she laughs.

By 17, she was a regular on the TV series South Riding.

At 18, she met Chris Guard at a party. Within a year they were living together, in funnyman Mel Smith's flat in Acton, West London.

"We left in the end because I could never find any crockery and I'd say to Mel, `Where is it?' and it was all under his bed, growing mould," she recalls.

Three years later Daisy was born.

"I was 21 when I was pregnant with Daisy. When she turned 21, I thought, my God, what my mother must have thought. I'd be horrified if Daisy had a baby now.

"I had worked so much, I thought I was older than I was."

For now, Lesley's daughters are happy to remain under her wing.

Lesley is buying a flat in Chiswick, West London, and once the sale is complete, the girls will moving in.

"They're both coming home again," she says, beaming.

And although Lesley is reticent to talk about them too much - "It's not fair now they're older" - she can't help herself. She's so proud.

"Daisy works for a music production company making video promos and is the lead singer in a band. Rosie's doing a foundation course at art college.

"They're brilliant. They're just such good fun. We can walk down the high street together linking arms and laughing. They cheer me up if I get low."

It's only now that Lesley is finding out about their teenage rebellions.

"Daisy says things like, `I went to a club when I was 15' and I say, `You did not,' and she says, `You know that night I was staying at Lucy's'."

Yet minor hiccups aside, the girls weathered their adolescence and their parents' separation, when Daisy was almost 15 and Rose 11, without serious problems.

"I'm pretty damn lucky with them," says Lesley. "Neither has ever been nasty or bad. We have always talked - whether I want to hear things or not. Sometimes you think, I don't want to know that, go and talk to your friend's mother."

But of course Lesley will still be expecting a phone call and a card today. And as she opens it, she'll be reminded of Mother's Day 13 years ago when her two girls, then aged nine and six, saved up their pocket money and booked her and Chris a table at their local Indian restaurant.

"It was so sweet. They'd both made little invitation cards to go inside Mother's Day cards, saying, `Go and have a lovely dinner'.

"I could hardly believe they'd done it all on their own without me knowing anything about it."

It's enough to make you reach for the Kleenex.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Dunlop, Lesley
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Apr 2, 2000
Next Article:Jane Gordon: And they call it... puppy love.

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