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'Just get me a wife'
(Filed: 20/09/2004)

Few celebrities fall as spectacularly and scandalously from grace as TV presenter John Leslie. But, he tells Jan Moir, he has learnt some valuable lessons

John Leslie is 6ft 5in, the kind of big, big man who gives wardrobe departments a huge headache.

 
John Leslie as George Wickham
John Leslie as the cad George Wickham

Look closely and you will see that his army breeches are a little bit too short and his cavalry boots keep slipping down, while his giant red and gold jacket looks as if it was made out of a pair of theatre curtains. Never mind, for he gives it his singing and dancing best as villainous George Wickham in this adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice.

"I've just arrived from London to join my regiment," is his booming opening line and, for much of the play's first half, he is forced to trot back and forth across the stage in a series of Regency dances. It's not his fault that he looms above the rest of the cast like a Scots pine in an orchard, nor that some in the audience are cross-eyed with boredom by the interval. Gah. Its like watching Farrow & Ball paint dry. Get on with it!

Later, Mr Wickham sings, plays a ripple on the piano and famously elopes with young Lydia, bringing shame upon the Bennet family.

"It seems I attract the ladies," he muses, at one point, although, during this matinée performance at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, there is no cognitive stirring in the stalls to indicate that yes, we're all quite aware of that, thank you very much.

For, in real life, John Leslie is the former Blue Peter and This Morning television presenter whose professional contracts were all cancelled, two years ago, following a string of sexual allegations against him. In the end, only two charges of indecent assault were actually made and both of those were ultimately dropped, with a judge proclaiming that Leslie could leave the courtroom "without a stain on his character".

Of course, it never quite works like that, does it? The ship of scandal cruises on the breeze for years, although Leslie would be the first to admit he did his fare share of filling the sails with wind.

As recently as last September, there was more disgrace, with instances of group sex being reported and photographs published of Leslie taking cocaine; all the tawdry, red-hot action relayed by strangers who had been to parties in Leslie's west London home. After all he had been through, what on earth was he thinking?

"I wasn't thinking, that was the thing," he says. "My home was never a sex party scene, it was just a party house. It wasn't people running about naked. There was the odd occasion… but not what was written. Not an orgy, as such. I like to think that I have learnt my last lesson. I just want to settle down now. I've got a new house and a dog. Someone, please, just get me a wife. And that will be me! I'd get married tomorrow, if I could find the right bloody girl."

His appearance in Pride And Prejudice - a touring version adapted and directed by Sue Pomeroy - is the first step in his public and personal rehabilitation. Television still won't touch him - he says he understands, he's not bitter - so he's taken a few acting lessons and tiptoed out into the spotlight again.

It is a small role and he was cast only 10 days before rehearsals began but, you know, it was fine. When he's doing his dancing bits, his facial expressions seem to suggest a goose after a particularly pleasurable bowel movement, but no one threw a cabbage at him, he's not quite the worst thing in the production and he's brought in some useful extra publicity; perhaps that's why Pomeroy cast him in the first place?

"No," she sniffs. "I don't read the tabloid press, so I hadn't taken anything to heart. But with John, I had a real sense of Wickham's pain. Wickham is quite a complex character, you know. He's not just a handsome devil. There is a pain in his heart." Quite so, although, in a more candid moment, she says that what she really needed was "someone from Edinburgh who could play the piano".

Does Leslie feel the pain, too?

"There were certain lines in the script when Sue said: 'Give me more pain','' he says, modestly, "so I tried to do that."

John Leslie and former girlfriend Abi Titmuss
John Leslie and former girlfriend Abi Titmuss

John Leslie's years in the wilderness began when Ulrika Jonsson claimed, in her 2002 autobiography, Honest, that she had been raped 16 years previously by a fellow television presenter.

"That's funny," thought Leslie to himself, when he was helping prepare an item about the book on one of his television shows, "because that's around the time that I was going out with Ulrika." It never occurred to him - "not once, not for a nanosecond" - that his was the name that would end up in the frame as the guilty party.

Back then, in their courting days, he had just moved down to London from his native Edinburgh and was thrilled to be dating Ulrika, although, he says, she was unlike any other girl he had been with.

"She was quite cold, quite detached, everything was an effort. I wasn't getting anything back. That is what I remember. But she was stunning, she was beautiful, one of the most beautiful girls I had ever seen." In Honest, the man who rapes Ulrika does so after a one-night stand. Notwithstanding the fact that Leslie had a "proper relationship" with her, he still became associated with the attack after his name was blurted out on a television programme. Jonsson still refuses to confirm or deny the name of her alleged assailant, an action that ultimately caused Leslie to lose his job and his living and caused great anguish to his family.

"She has come this close to ruining my life," says Leslie, holding his thumb and index finger a few inches apart. "To associate me with this is heinous, but I can't sue her because she never actually made the allegation. She is very clever. She knows she can't say anything. I was pleading with her to come out and say something. I begged her to either say or not say it was me - then I could at least defend myself. But just please do not sit there on your honest fence and take the money. But that is what she did."

Ulrika was just the beginning. Following Leslie's much publicised link with her, a series of aggrieved females sold their allegations of maltreatment at Leslie's hands to various newspapers, further shredding his reputation. The girls were paid for their tales and several were interviewed during the 10-month police investigation that followed. Although Leslie was cleared at the end of it, and made an emotional speech on the courthouse steps, his career seemed effectively over, his mother had been made ill with worry, everything had changed.

But, he says today, all that he was guilty of was a lack of courtesy.

"I was never an abuser of women or someone who didn't treat them well. I wasn't a nasty guy, I was a party boy. I love women, I'm a big kid, a softy, a gentle giant. I'd never even kiss a girl against her will. To be frank, the only thing that has happened in this whole thing is that a lot of women have made a lot of money out of me. And not one of their allegations has been proved." But why so many allegations? And such commonality of experience?

"The only set pattern was I maybe didn't treat women with the respect I should have in terms of phoning them back and being more honest with them and more genuine, but that is no crime. I don't think that I deserved what I got in the end. It got to the stage that if I didn't phone a girl back, I got two pages in a tabloid."

Leslie, now 39, grew up in Edinburgh, the eldest of two sons to his salesman father and social worker mother. He was a happy and nourished boy, although bullied and awkward in early adolescence, when he shot up to more than 6 ft when he was only 12.

However, by the time he was in his late teens, the ugly duckling had become a groovy club DJ who adored girls and was adored by them in return. Back then, he already had a reputation as a womaniser - but it was always the women who were queueing up to get at him.

By the time Leslie was a Blue Peter presenter alongside Anthea Turner, his bachelor antics might have made Biddy Baxter's sticky-backed plastic curl up at the edges - had she ever known about them - but everyone seemed to be going home happy. Leslie, with his good looks and blithe, cocktail personality revelled in his man-about-town image.

Leslie and Titmuss
John Leslie after being cleared of allegations of sexual assault

"Perhaps," he says, "every guy is addicted to sex, but I enjoy women's company more than sex. I don't have a voracious appetite for it. And I love having women there in the morning. I don't have sex and kick them out. I am a very intimate guy, I love company and cuddles. The thing is, I do get lonely. A big part of all the sex stuff was that I just wanted women for company." That sounds, I suggest, just a little bit unbelievable.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Leslie's fate has been a peculiarly modern kind of crucifixion, a warning that no celebrity now can expect to get away with living the louche life. He is gregarious, generous and always desperate to be liked - a hangover from his bullied days, perhaps - and one can see the seeds of Leslie's downfall in his endless stupid invitations to friends and strangers alike to come back to his lavish home, to join in the endless party.

And, if you have been a handsome television celebrity for more than 18 years, someone used to handsome amounts of sex from people who want to bed your celebrity body, then that kind of excess must ultimately become corrupting.

"What was wrong, Jan, was that I kept getting sex on a plate; it was just there you go, there you go, there you go," he says. "My respect levels went down. I didn't respect women, I didn't respect myself, and I think that was what got the better of me. I would rather have a girlfriend that I loved and respected, but I am too bloody fussy. I kept going from one girl to another, searching for the girl that I was always looking for and wanting."

Previously, one of his most successful relationships was with actress Catherine Zeta Jones, whom Leslie dated while he worked on Blue Peter. She wanted to get married, he feared the commitment, so they split.

"We weren't ready for marriage. We loved each other, but we weren't in love," he says. "I wouldn't settle for second best. Not that Catherine is second best! What I mean is, I am waiting for an amazing, knock-out love."

In the meantime, he remains good friends with Zeta Jones and was pleased when her husband, Michael Douglas, rang up with messages of support after his court appearance. "He said: 'We are so proud of you, John. Well done. Fantastic. Catherine has always said how well you treated her'," says Leslie.

Now that his relationship with nurse Abi Titmuss is over - he's not jealous, he's "really pleased" that she has gone on to become a television star, although it was "weird" at first - and a four-month relationship with a new girlfriend has also just ended, he lives alone in a two-bedroom flat overlooking the river at Kew.

Apart from the play, his main income comes from renting out his former home and, although his career has been studded with claims that his "party lifestyle" is over, he makes the declaration again: "Yes, I have changed. I'm not so open to suggestion any more," he says.

But there is one problem.

"I get more attention from girls than I ever did before. Why? Because I am even more famous. Ironic, isn't it? I am not scared of them, but I am very alert."

  • Pride And Prejudice, adapted and directed by Sue Pomeroy, transfers to the Playhouse Theatre, Edinburgh (0870 606 3424) this week, followed by Southend, Greenwich and Windsor
  • 2 August 2003[News]: I am not turned on by violence in sex, says Leslie
    1 August 2003[News]: I've been to hell and back, says John Leslie of 8-month inquiry
    24 October 2002[News]: Ulrika's alleged rapist named on live TV show
    6 December 2002[News]: Police quiz John Leslie over rape and assault claims
    31 October 2002[News]: John Leslie is sacked by ITV