Rula Lenska talks to The Chiswick Calendar about her new show: From Dzików to Willesden Green

Image above: Rula Lenska with her mother ‘Bisia’ (Elizabeth)

A homage to her mother – “a wonderful woman”

If you were asked to name three things about Rula Lenska, one would probably be that she is the actor who became famous in the 1970s in the TV drama Rock Follies and went on to work on both Coronation Street and Eastenders.

You might also remember her tempestuous relationship with Minder and New Tricks star Dennis Waterman – they kept the tabloids busy for years. The third thing you would probably remember about her is that she is a Polish countess.

She doesn’t use the title here, she told The Chiswick Calendar, because “over here it makes me sound like a stripper, and it became pretty meaningless when my family lost all their property and land in the Second World War”, but she finds as she gets older that her Polish roots are more and more important to her.

She has put together a one woman show from her late mother’s memoirs, telling the story of how her family lived as aristocrats in Poland, fled the Nazis, were imprisoned and survived Ravensbrück concentration camp to come here to the UK as refugees.

Image above: Rula at home in Chiswick

“We came from a very highly aristocratic background”

Rula, who lives in Chiswick, talked to us about the show, which she is performing at the Tabard theatre on Sunday (3 December) at 3pm and 6pm with a Q&A after each performance.

“We came from a very highly aristocratic background and when I was riding high from Rock Follies the BBC recorded our family’s story –  five hours of interviews with my mother. She was an extraordinary woman and it was fascinating, but of course they only used the most dramatic soundbites.”

The story is as dramatic as they come. Twelve of her immediate family, including Rula’s mother Elizabeth, then 18, her sister and their mother, fled their castle in Dzików in 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland, with some of their servants – chauffeurs, maids and nannies.

Her grandmother took what she could of her jewels, which kept them alive, bartering their way through Romania into Yugoslavia, where they lived for three years under Italian occupation. Once Italy capitulated and they came under German control, they were arrested and the women sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp.

Images above: Rula’s mother Bisia (Elizabeth) as a young woman; Rula and her sister Gabriella with their father; Rula with her own daughter Lara and Elizabeth

Fleeing the Nazis and coming to England as refugees

Rula wanted to tell the story in its entirety, with the purple passages in context, so with a director friend she set about turning her mother’s memoirs into an hour-long stage show. She reflects the on very dark times her mother endured in the concentration camp, but there are also some light moments, she says.

“One of her jobs there was to make parts for V1 and V2 bombs. She made sure there was something wrong with every one of them, in her own personal war effort.”

Why has she chosen now to tell this story? I asked her.

She rolled her eyes. “With all that’s going on in the world? The world never seems to learn. Look at all the antisemitism that’s going on.”

Rula’s family were political prisoners, incarcerated along with other political opponents, socialists and communists, as well as anyone else who didn’t fit into the Nazi ideology: homosexuals and Jews.

It’s not hard to see why the Nazis would have wanted their land, with its forests, carp pools, and vodka distilleries. Rula went to see it for the first time in 1989 after the fall of communism.

“I felt like part of my soul was coming home”.

Born in 1947 in an army camp at St Neots, she is a Londoner and has lived in Chiswick for nearly 20 years. Her parents made sure she spoke only Polish when she came home from school – “which I hated at the time” – and learned about Polish geography and history, for which she is now grateful.

Images above: Rula with Hayley Mills in The Real Exotic Marigold Hotel; Rula with Charlotte Cornwell and Julie Covington in Rock Follies

Rula will be performing From Dzików to Willesden Green on Sunday, in between tours of The Real Exotic Marigold Hotel. She has just finished the English tour, with Hayley Mills (Wild at Heart, Pollyanna, The Parent Trap), Paul Nicholas (Jesus Christ Superstar, Just Good Friends, Eastenders) and Andy de la Tour(Notting Hill, Star Wars, The Young Ones). Next year she will be reprising her role on tour in New Zealand.

Book tickets for From Dzików to Willesden Green on the Tabard theatre website.