Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a dose of Birds Of A Feather

Pauline Quirke as Sharon, Linda Robson as Tracey and Lesley Joseph as Dorien
Pauline Quirke as Sharon, Linda Robson as Tracey and Lesley Joseph as Dorien
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After a jaunt to sunnier climes last year, 2017's special sees our favourite trio back to causing havoc in their native Essex. Linda Robson and Lesley Joseph tell Francesca Gosling about their festive reunion, friendships and the longevity of the ITV show

The season of Christmas TV specials is officially upon us and, for the cast of Birds Of A Feather, that means a long-awaited return to their Essex turf.

Last year, the much-loved threesome, Tracey, Dorien and Sharon, took a festive break in Morocco. But this year, in response to popular demand, they are safely back in Chigwell.

When we met up with two of the stars, Lesley Joseph (who plays Dorien) and Linda Robson (Tracey), they were clearly quite happy about that - and to be reunited on the sitcom that's almost 30 years old.

"As much as they loved the Moroccan one, people preferred Birds in their own environment," says Lesley, now 72. "I get that."

Linda, 59, chuckles: "It's like we've never been away. It's just getting us to actually work when we're showing each other pictures of our grandchildren all the time.

"We still have lots of the same crew and it's lovely being at Pinewood Studios. I sometimes pinch myself and think 'My God, we first did this in 1989'."

A fresh batch of arguments, laughs and warm moments will all be served up in this year's special, when Tracey plans to downsize the house she shares with her sister Sharon (played by Pauline Quirke). She wants to give her sons a financial boost - but the status quo is threatened.

Oh, and they get locked in a crypt.

Although the regular series ended in the late 1990s, enjoyed a quiet revival in 2014, and has an uncertain future ahead, the Birds Of A Feather Christmas special remains a yearly staple.

And the love-hate bond between the sisters and their leopard print-clad neighbour Dorien is as timeless as breakfast Bucks Fizz.

So why do we love it, year in, year out? According to Lesley, it's all about the characters.

"They're funny, but also they're real. They're not sitcom characters."

Linda considers: "They're real people you can relate to. They like Dorien because she's of a certain age, she's still in high heels and she doesn't give a...

"They love Tracey and Sharon because they're thick as thieves, but they row like so many families do."

With that in mind, the pair muse over how best to celebrate the show's 30th anniversary in 2019.

"We haven't thought about it," confesses Lesley. "We should do a proper retrospective as to why it's still on screen - if it is by then - and what people love about it.

"Life has changed. You didn't have all the emailing we do so much now, we didn't have the internet, people didn't have mobile phones. In 1989, you did sit and watch television more and you didn't live in that little square thing in your hand."

The Birds of a Feather stars love Christmas - each year, the three have a festive lunch together, where Linda gifts her co-stars table centrepieces - and they have their own ideas for a dream Yuletide special.

If the script were in Lesley's hands, she says: "We should do one based around Christmas dinner and what can go wrong with the turkey. Just literally 24 hours in the life of Birds.

"That would be a brilliant episode, because what works best is the conversations between these three people, who love each other, but hate each other, on every level, all the time."

While we're on the subject of Christmas plot lines, I am keen for more hints about what to expect in this year's big show - especially after that mention of getting locked in a crypt.

Apparently, it all centres around a sub-plot which will see Dorien presented with her own ghost of Christmas past, resulting in an off-set church scene.

Explaining the method behind the madness, Lesley says: "One of the most popular episodes ever was when we got locked in a garage and couldn't get out.

"We've always loved that and we said we'd love it if, somehow, we all get stuck somewhere again. So that's what happens. We're stuck in the crypt."

In case you are wondering, part of the scene is actually filmed in a real crypt.

But back in the studio, they promise some less ghoulish gags that all viewers will relate to, especially when it comes to the trio's attempts to embrace the latest technology.

Robson teases: "Sharon starts getting all these gadgets like the Alexa thing, though we're not allowed to call it Alexa, and a dust-buster, because she's a lazy cow.

"It doesn't listen to her, but it responds when Dorien asks it something. Every time Sharon speaks it goes 'Billericay Tennis Club'."

With so many stories still left to tell, it is impossible not to ask about reports of a future series.

The last few years have been busy ones, with Lesley warming our hearts on last year's Strictly Come Dancing and currently owning the West End with her role in Young Frankenstein, while Robson has arguably become more recognisable to many for her regular Loose Women slot.

Could they find time for a regular recording? They are careful not to go into too much detail.

"ITV would like one. It's just at the moment all of us are doing different projects," says Linda.

Lesley, meanwhile, confesses that the traditional style of sitcom filming with an in-house audience can take its toll over the years.

Working on the 2016 special while also rehearsing for Strictly - a double booking that required her partner Anton Du Beke to fly out for practice - she admits was a bit "too much".

Describing that usual process as "incredibly stressful," she says: "For this one, we filmed it all and then showed it to an audience, which was much more relaxed."

Speaking of relaxing, the pair are back onto the subject of their team Christmas lunch. This time, it will be a treat at The Savoy, giving them a chance to catch up on each other's busy year - and exchange presents for the grandchildren, of course.

Birds of a Feather Christmas Special will air on ITV on Monday, December 18.