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‘I was paid a ridiculous sum for an Advocaat ad in the 80s – then blew it all’

Helen Lederer for DT Weekend Travel. Picture shows Helen Lederer in the Bath House of the Gainsborough Hotel in Bath
Absolutely Fabulous actress Helen Lederer lives in East Dulwich with her husband Chris Browne - Andrew Crowley

Actress and comedian Helen Lederer, 69, played the role of Catriona in the BBC programme Absolutely Fabulous and has recently joined the cast of Coronation Street.

Her comedy novel Losing It was nominated for the P.G. Wodehouse Comedy Literary Award. She lives in London with her husband Chris Browne, a GP, and has a daughter, Hannah, 33, from her first marriage to newspaper editor, Roger Alton.

How did your childhood influence your attitude to money?

My older sister, Janet, and I were given pocket money when we were young and, when we reached our teens, we each got a monthly clothes allowance of 10 shillings.

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I was particularly keen on small pretend Pan Am shoulder bags and Mary Quant tights. I also ran errands and washed the car for half-a-crown.

What did you learn from your parents?

My mother worked at the Board of Trade but gave up her job when she got married – you had to in those days – and my father was a civil engineer, born in Czechoslovakia but raised in England from the beginning of the war.

Neither was particularly aspirational: I’d describe my upbringing in south east London as comfortable, suburban. My father’s one indulgence was skiing.

What was your first job?

As a waitress, aged 16, in Chez Maurice in Eltham. It was not a success – in fact, I got sacked on my first day because I couldn’t add up the bills properly. My friend, Christine, who’d got me the job, tried to help me out but I wasn’t a natural fit in a fast-moving restaurant.

Helen Lederer
Helen Lederer is playing the role of Elspeth on ITV's long-running soap Coronation Street - ITV

Are you a saver or a spender?

By the 80s, I was working a lot on TV and then I landed two adverts: one for Advocaat, the other for Finish dishwasher tablets and they paid ridiculously well. I frittered it all on clothes.

I went to Donna Karan – the proper posh shop, not DKNY – in Bond Street and bought a coat for £300. So yes, I’m a spender. I hate meanness. My attitude is that, if the money’s there, spend it.

Have you ever had a money scare?

When I had my gap year and lived in a squat in north London – this was me aged 19, living away from home for the first time – I knew you needed money in your hand to survive. I worked first in a local bakery selling doughnuts and then I was a traffic counter in Crouch End, counting who was using the zebra crossing – an old person, a babe in arms.

I wouldn’t describe it as a scare but you couldn’t let up – it was hand-to-mouth living. In the end, I got so good at counting that they made me a supervisor with a desk in Haringey Town Hall.

Have you owned property?

I moved from the squat into a nice room above an aquarium in St Albans while I studied sociology at Hatfield College. My parents gave me some money and I got a bit of a grant.

My father died unexpectedly of a heart attack when I was 21 and I was left some money with which I bought my first flat in Finsbury Park. Then I got a job as a social worker in Kentish Town before finally, aged 27, getting a place at the Central School of Speech and Drama.

My father’s mother had died in the meantime and I had just about enough money from her to finance one post-graduate year.

Which property came next?

Post-college, I worked on a TV series called Naked Video and met the actor, Gregor Fisher, who was selling his cottage in Brixton to move to a big pile in the Scottish countryside. I bought his place in south London with the help of a bridging loan and money I earned from being in a play with Dennis Quilley.

I was there 10 years and then I met Roger, married him, divorced 18 months later, and raised Hannah alone until she was nine when I met Chris. I’ve lived with him for 20-plus years in East Dulwich.

What has been your best investment?

My black jackets. I’ve owned quite a few down the years and they flatter me. Because I’m doing the literary festival circuit supporting my autobiography, I feel I’ve got to look a bit smart.

I own a 1940s black coat dress made for me by a costume person on a TV job and I’m now going to find someone who can insert panels so that I can do it up.

What’s been your worst investment?

Gadgets. I bought a very expensive diffuser for my bedroom but I invariably forget to switch it on. And, just the other day, I bought a spray to clean my computer keyboard because friends were bullying me about it.

I got one on Amazon but I don’t know how to make the spray attachment work. Now, it’s gathering dust in a cupboard. It’s fair to say that I am not a practical person.

What has been your most lucrative piece of work?

The Finish dishwasher tablets ad. I was paid £70,000 for a day- and-a-half’s work and that was twenty years ago – one day to say the lines, half-a-day to show my hand inserting the tablet.

Unbelievable!

Absolutely Fabulous
Featuring in a Finish dishwasher tablets ad proved more lucrative for Helen Lederer than her time acting as Catriona in the BBC's Absolutely Fabulous - BBC

Are you a gambler?

I was lucky enough to be invited to Ascot by people who really knew about horses. So, watching races with them was exciting even though I felt a bit of a fraud.

I did once bet on the National. I backed an outsider who crossed the finishing line first. I was watching it on TV in a pub in Brixton. I won about £100 so I was thrilled with that.

But, generally speaking, my brain is too busy to find out all the facts you need to gamble intelligently in whatever field. Nor am I one of those people who really needs to win.

Sounds like you’re not very interested in money…

No, it doesn’t make me like a person more. And I’m not a fan of luxury. If you were to put me in a luxury hotel, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to relax because of the required behaviour that goes with it.

I like to be free. I like to have air on my face. I don’t like the constraints of wealth. Which is lucky, in the circumstances.

Do you and your husband share the bill-paying?

We have a joint account. So, if I’ve earned some money, it will go towards whatever is the latest bill. I am capable of tightening my belt even if I can be irresponsible when I’m flush.

And what have you taught your daughter about managing her finances?

Hannah is part of a new age of what I would call creative entrepreneurs – in other words, she has a strong creative streak allied to a well-developed business sense.

I find the whole subject of money rather embarrassing which I know is old-fashioned and ridiculous. But she knows what she’s worth and is unafraid to ask for what she believes to be the right price. She’s a partner in a successful catering company based in Ibiza.

Have you put anything away for your retirement?

I do have a modest pension plan which my accountant set up for me in the high-rolling years – the 80s and 90s – which results in a little money drifting in each month.

Obviously, I hope this memoir sells well but, if it doesn’t make money, I’ll still be the same person.

Not That I’m Bitter! by Helen Lederer, published by Mirror Books, is available now