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Diane Keen as Jenny and Christopher Ravenscroft as Burden

Having the Last Laugh

Article by Chris Hughes • The Mirror • 06 Feb 1996

It is 15 years since sitcom queen Diane Keen unwisely announced: “I don’t do comedy anymore.” She turned her back on such TV hits as The Cuckoo Waltz, Rings On Their Fingers and Foxy Lady - and the result was devastating. Casting directors took her at her word and the phone fell silent. Work dried up. Soon, one of the nation’s favourite comedy faces was a lonely woman approaching 40 without a job and burdened with money troubles. Worse still, her five-year marriage to TV producer Neil Zeiger was on the rocks.

The next eight years became a nightmare struggle against a tide of debt and depression. Diane says: “I walked into a shop in town and this chap said: 'Ere, didn’t you used to be an actress? I thought I hadn’t seen you on the telly for a while. Thought you’d gone abroad.” He didn’t stop there. Diane explains: "he said: ‘I mean have you changed career, or what?’ “I was in bits when I walked out of the shop. I cannot believe I said: ‘No more comedy’. It was mad - the stupidest thing I ever said. The strange thing is that it can so easily swing the other way. I walked into a supermarket and an elderly woman behind the till struck up a conversation with me. She was lovely. She said: ‘Oh, you have made my day. I am a huge fan of yours. It’s really great to see you in real life.’ That changed everything. I realised life was not so bad, that I was still known and that I had a history.”

Today, approaching her 50th birthday, going on 40, life is looking brighter. She and Neil are back together, and her career is looking solid again. Diane starred in the series September Song, and now plays the wife of Det Insp Mike Burden (Chris Ravenscroft), Wexford’s sidekick in the Ruth Rendell mystery Simisola. And there’s no more talk about giving comedy a wide berth. “I am up for anything - comedy, serious plays,” says Diane. “I love work.”

Wearing a woolly jumper and short skirt, and puffing the occasional cigarette, she smiles as she recalls the bad years. She lost everything. Her home in West London was repossessed, her two American cars had to be sold and she ended up £120,000 in debt. Her apartment in Spain had to be sold off. “I decided not to go bankrupt,” she explains. “It would be a terrible thing to do as other people would lose out. I decided to pay off the debts, and now I am well on the way. It is under control.”

It was while she was working on the Ruth Rendell mysteries that she fell in love with her husband for the second time around. He is the executive producer of the series. Diane says: “We had always remained friends, but in the end decided we no longer wanted to be apart. It was not a quick thing, and there was a lot of coming and going. There were niggling things between us that had to be ironed out. People assume that, in relationships, if two people have a great sex life and love each other’s company it is as simple as that. It never is. It has to be constantly worked at. When the warning signs start now, we recognise the signals telling us that we should talk and sort things out before they get worse.”

Diane is busy renovating a four-bedroom home she and Neil have bought near Southampton. “When a woman is alone she learns to do things for herself,” she says. “I became quite handy at mending things about the house. You pick it up. I love our new home. It’s like starting again.” Diane has been changing her interests as well as her habits. “For years I have wanted to take up diving and I finally did it,” she says. “I am a qualified diver, and Neil and I go on dives all over Britain. Looking back at the way I was, I often wonder how I came through it. I know other people suffer from their own problems, but nobody knows why these depressions start. I feel new and fresh and optimistic. I want to live. Worrying about age and that sort of thing does not bother me as much now. In many ways, the forties are a bad time for people. It’s the cusp, the time when you wonder what you are doing. Maybe that’s why I said that stupid thing about not wanting to be in comedy anymore. It was disastrous.”