She’s as lively in person as she is on the box. Lisa Riley, the nation’s all-singing, all-dancing sweetheart, is as bubbly as a bottle of Bolly, as upbeat as Sir Simon Rattle’s baton and as energetic as a fox in a henhouse.
The star of Loose Women, the People’s Champion from Strictly Come Dancing and the record-breaking presenter of ITV’s You’ve Been Framed is Britain’s most celebrated dieter and the woman who became a soap legend as Emmerdale’s Mandy Dingle.
Lisa is high and life.
And why shouldn’t she be? Since starring on Strictly four years ago her phone’s not stopped. She has more work than a recruitment agency.
Tucked away in her Wolverhampton hotel, she’s gearing up for her 17th panto where she’ll be starring at the city’s Grand Theatre. From December 10 to January 22, she’ll line up witih Joe McElderry, Ben Faulks, Ian Adams and Doreen in Aladdin.
“I think the main thing is it’s our only tradition and I want to hang onto it. We don‘t have many traditions left anymore – and this is me speaking as a super crazy auntie who loves her nephew to death.
“Kids have their laptops and tablets. But panto is the way we allow kids to get involved. It’s the one time when we become interactive. They get fully on board. I love those kids. Panto is something we need to be so, so proud of. It’s not like ‘oh gawd, it’s panto’. It’s like ‘yeah, time to celebrate’.”
Irrepressible doesn’t cover it.
“Look, I’m a big advocate of theatres because they’re so important to me. They’re part of the culture that we need to hold onto. We don’t want theatres turning into Wetherspoons.”
Lisa still remembers watching Les Dawson in panto at Blackpool. She was just four and the sense of fun and colour is still with her. “I talked about it for ages. My nephew, Jakey, who’s five, he was still talking about Jack and the Beanstalk in March.
“I love the performance. I just love it. I love being part of it. As a performer, it’s the cherry on top of the trifle. All year long I’ve been working. There’s the sponge, the cream, the jam, the custard. Well, panto is the cherry.”
And we’re guessing Loose Women is both the cream and the jam.
Lisa laughs. “It is. But I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t do panto. I have friends who take a year out and they’re always at a loose end.
“It’s always so topical. Everything changes depending on what’s in the Daily Mail that day. So, there’ll be a Cliff Richard gag or something about Gail from Corrie.”
Oh no there won’t.
“Oh yes there will.”
Lisa didn’t need Strictly to make her a household name. She’d already got there through her work on Emmerdale and You’ve Been Framed. But Strictly elevated her to a new high. And the view from the top is pretty damn good.
“I tell you, I thought I’d go on Strictly and do two dances. I thought it would be a cha cha, a ballroom and go. I never for one second thought Len would call me the People’s Champion or that I’d reach the semi. It was a pinch-myself moment.
“I’ve been in the industry since I was nine and that was the one time when the curtain was opened onto me. I don’t necessarily think that people just watched the dance, they watched me as well, that’s what they fell in love with. They were thinking ‘if she can do that and pull that off and do that with fun and excitement then I can’.”
And they did. Lisa inspired legions to join their local dance groups. She resonated with the masses because she was normal.
“There’s no airs and graces. I’m proud of that. There are too many t****** in our industry and they can give people a bad name. I just do my job to the best of my ability and I go home. It’s like when I’m in Asda. I get people coming up to me saying: ‘What are you doing here’? And I tell them I’m doing my weekly shop, the same as them. I’m no different. I don’t have a butler.”
The success of Strictly catapulted Lisa onto an arena tour. She won the votes for the dancing competition when it visited her hometown of Manchester at the Manchester Arena. She’d previously been there to cheer on Justin Timberlake and Kylie as a fan. This time, the fans were chanting: ‘Riley, Riley, Riley’. “I’ll remember it until the day I die.”
More followed. Strictly’s Mr Nasty, Craig Revel-Horwood, took her for lunch and pitched a new musical about Lisa’s life, called Strictly Confidential. She was in raptures.
“When I look back at me as a kid at drama school when I was nine and my dream was to play Madame Thénardier in Les Mis and all of a sudden I’ve got my own musical. Still to this day, I can’t get my head round it.”
Her life has run at the pace of a Bugatti Veyron in a Deutshcland autobahn ever since. “My life is like being at the airport on the travelator. There are so many gates when you get to the end and you don’t know which one to choose.
“I’m doing this new drama on BBC One in the New Year, Three Girls, with Maxine Peake, Lesley Sharp and Jill Halfpenny. Then I’m talking about boob jobs on Loose Women. Then I’m saying ‘it’s behind you in panto’.”
If variety is the spice of life, and all that.
“I’m a performer. If you’re a cellist you need a bow and a string to make a beautiful sound,” she says.
And – you got it – Lisa has more than one string to her bow.
“I don’t put myself in a certain bag. You can be an all-rounder and have a lot of fun. If you work in Barclays, you don’t just do the cheques. In my field, I love to write as well.”
She’s been in showbusiness for 30 years and has learned from her co-stars. She cites Lynda Barron – Nurse Gladys Emmanuel in Open All Hours – as being one of the biggest inspirations.
“God. What she taught me. If it wasn’t for her I would never have gone back to my theatre. We did five years on Fat Friends and had this unbreakable bond. It was me who idolised her, she was a comedic genius.”
Her own mother, Cath, however, is the person to whom she owes it all.
“God rest her soul, she’s my joystick in the air. I find solace in that. I really do. My mum was more than my mum and she came with me everywhere, she was my backbone. I talk to her still and say ‘thank you for making this happen’. She wouldn’t want me dying in my pillow grieving.”
She talks about Ma Riley on Loose Women, a show that she’s proud to be a part of.
“I love it as a viewer. It’s an hour, right. Look, you’re a bloke. If you went down the pub with your mates tonight, you’d talk about Man United and Liverpool. If there were four of you, you’d all have an opinion of Klopp and Mourinho.
“We’re the same. The four of us will get a topic and we like to find the comedy in that. A little bit of laughter helps you through times of hard. We became a talking point. I’ve finished the show and gone to Euston in my shades and heard women talking about it. We give the nation a conversation. And we don’t slag men off – we’re the proof that women don’t. I love the show. I’m permanently Loose.”
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We come back to the way she became a national treasure.
Her portrayal of Mandy Dingle in Emmerdale made her a national favourite.
“We’ve lost Jean Alexander – Hilda Ogden – God rest her soul. And I think about memorable soap characters in history. Jesus Christ, that’s what they call me. Mandy Dingle put me on the map. I go back to the trifle. . .”
Except she doesn’t. The metaphor hangs in the air, like, well, like a sherry-soaked sponge finger.
“The writers always wrote for me. On soaps, there are gin’n’tonic characters, the sort you can take or leave. But Mandy was there for seven years and always in the storyline. She was incredible.”
As, indeed, was her stint as Jeremy Beadle’s replacement on You’ve Been Framed.
“I think they took a massive gamble with me and it worked hugely. There was only me and Davina McCall doing prime time Saturday night and Davina was totally Channel 4. It could have gone one of two ways. The gorgeous Nigel Hall took a gamble on me and I took the viewing figures to the highest in their history. I want that tattooed on my back. It’s true. When all the stuff was written about Tess and Claudia taking over from Bruce on Strictly, I just thought ‘get on with it’. Women love watching women, it’s a fact. These shows are great family viewing.”
We’ve over-run our allotted time – the clock reads double what we were allowed. But Lisa’s still gassing: “Ah, don’t worry, it’s fine.”
She can’t wait for Three Girls in February.
“It’ll be everywhere. Baftas here we come.”
And she plans to remain an inspiration to millions.
“Through my weight loss I want to help people. You know, you would never cheat on your partner, so you shouldn’t cheat on what you eat. Be loyal to your body, just the way you would be to your man.”
Spoken like a true (pantomime) princess.
Aladdin is on at the Wolverhampton Grand from Saturday, December 10 to Sunday, January 22. Perfomances are at 11am, 2pm, 2.30pm, 6pm or 7.15pm depending on the day. Check the website for details and to book tickets, costing from £18.50 to £31.50.
Visit www.grandtheatre.co.uk or call the box office on 01902 429212.
By Andy Richardson