The amazing bond we never knew we had Corrie besties Rula & Maureen on their connection
Corrie's Maureen Lipman opens up on living with Rula Lenska
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In a series of remarkable revelations, as told in the new series of ITV’s DNA Journey tonight, Maureen learned she had Polish ancestry, and Rula discovered her great-aunt risked her life saving countless Jewish children from the Nazis. The surprise link marks a new chapter in their friendship, which began two years ago after they appeared together in Coronation Street.
“It’s made us closer because we experienced so much together from sadness to happiness, and from giggles to extraordinary discoveries,” says Rula, 74.
“It can’t help but bring you closer when you live through something that was quite a tough journey at times. But we always had a good time, even when we were sad.”
Maureen interjects: “And she’s a brilliant laugher and that’s how it works – because I’m droll.”
What they learned on the genealogical TV show, now in its third series, affected them both deeply. First, they discovered that Rula’s beloved great-aunt, Maria Hutten-Czapska, was a member of an underground movement helping to rescue Jewish orphans imprisoned inside theWarsaw ghetto.
More than 400,000 Jews, nearly a third of the city’s population, were forced to live within 1.3 square miles, enclosed by a tenmetre wall and barbed wire. Anyone who tried to escape was shot on sight. A quarter died of starvation and disease.
“She was amazing because she risked her life every single day, smuggling ill children out of the Warsaw ghetto,” Rula says. “It was the beginning of a sort of shared Jewishness for me.”
Maureen, 75, had seen the ghetto wall while filming Roman Polanski’s 2002 film The Pianist about the famous Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman who survived the ghetto and Holocaust. She played Szpilman’s mother.
“The fantasy based on the truth of The Pianist suddenly happened in real life,” she says. “I was brought back to myself in real life.”
The pair recited prayers and Rula was moved to tears. “It was terribly moving,” she says. She remembers, as a teenager in the 1970s, visiting great-aunt Maria in the Paris suburb where she lived with her brother, the famous diplomat and artist Józef Hutten- Czapski. He also led a jaw-dropping life, as tonight’s show will reveal.
“I had no idea about what they’d been through and the lives that they’d had, and I was too young and too stupid to be interested,” Rula says, somewhat dismayed. “Now I am full of awe for them.”
She does have one funny story about Józef, which won’t feature, concerning his funeral. “The coffin had to be made to fit his huge size but nobody had told the people who dig the hole in the ground.There were television crews from Germany, France, Poland and America and it was pouring with rain. The coffin gets to the hole in the ground and they can’t fit it in. It sounds funny now but it was pretty horrendous, although my mother says she giggled so much she wet herself.”
Maureen, meanwhile, discovered that her mother’s grandfather, Victor Slimmer, had been born in Kazimierz, in east Poland, just as Rula’s father was. ShoemakerVictor ended up in Hull, then a stopping point for Jewish immigrants en route to America in the 19th century.
Maureen says: “He was escaping Russian conscription, which considering current events is extremely important.”
She adds that she and Rula are both people “who react strongly to injustice in our lives and that’s probably genetic”. And discovering her Polish heritage has been “warming”, she says, in light of the war in Ukraine. “Because the Poles are behaving extremely well during this current crisis,” she adds.
She was initially reluctant to participate in the show because she thought her story would be about “coming out of some long-gone shtetl (a Jewish town in Eastern Europe)”.
But fate intervened. She was originally booked to star on the BBC’s genealogy series, Who Do You Think You? but it never got off the ground. The researchers only found “a few stories about Hull” and old records of prosecutions “which neither of us wanted to get into”, she says. “But it resulted aper e t in me getting down on paper in London all the names of living relatives because we’re not a close-knit family at all.And then the following morning, on our way to synagogue, my mother had a heart attack and died.
“She was an efficient lady, the opposite of me. I live in chaos. And I had every name written down in front of me to ring them. So it was almost as if it was meant to be.”
To help them cope with the emotional stories, Rula and Maureen made sure they had a good time on the trip to Poland.
“These things can be manipulated, and to a certain extent it is but we didn’t feel it,” Maureen says. “There was a flowering going on in the programme, not just about us but g of a good friendship forged in later life. So the whole thing was a great lark.” Rula agrees. “We got to try 82 different types of vodka, didn’t we?” she says. But viewers won’t see that.
“It was immediately following the discovery fo an lig of my great-aunt Maria and we thought a bit of light relief was a good idea so we were taken to this shop that had 82 different brands of vodka and we were all given tasters including the crew,” Rula says. “It probably wasn’t in the programme because nobody could point a camera without shaking any more.”
The pair first met at the Royal Variety Performance years ago but only got to know each other properly on Corrie.They shared a flat in Manchester. “We had the most wonderful time,” Rula says. “We did so many strange things: we went swimming, walking and to yoga and we cooked amazing meals for each other.”
They’re completely different but clicked. “It was like being at university, which neither of us ever did,” Maureen says. “Suddenly we were two ladies of a certain age living in a flat. She’s got all her rugs and gauze that she puts over the lampshades and beautiful, scented candles and I’ve got a lemon squeezer and grater.
“It was so nice to be able to say goodnight. It’s a bit like Eric and Ernie isn’t it, although we didn’t share the same bed.”
The pair constantly talk over one another, laughing and joking. But Maureen admits she nearly ruined their relationship while filming DNA Journey.
“There was one point where Rula is singing in Polish and I texted the producer, ‘If you don’t stop her singing in Polish, I’m going to bludgeon her to death!’ But I sent it to her instead of the producer. When we got to Krakow, they had to confiscate her phone and tell her they needed to look at something so they could wipe my text in case she wouldn’t be my friend any more.”
They regularly catch up at The Polish Hearth Club in South Kensington, London. The private members’ club has been an important cultural and social hub for British Poles since the start of the SecondWorldWar.
Maureen became a member at Rula’s insistence and celebrated her Damehood with friends on its terrace last year.
“I never felt connected,” says Maureen. “Now I feel” “super connected,” interjects Rula.
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Sadly, the pair no longer work together. Rula’s Weatherfield character, Claudia Colby, last appeared on the cobbles following her break-up with Ken Barlow, played by William Roache, aside from a guest cameo last year.
“It was sad when her character wasn’t taken forward because most of the cast on Coronation Street have their own lives and their kids are in school, so you spend a lot of time on your own when you’re there,” says Maureen. Her partner of 13 years, Guido Castro, died in January last year after contracting Covid. He had been living with Parkinson’s for some time. Maureen says the Corrie family ask after Rula all the time. “Yeah, what about that petition you were going to start,” Rula says. “A petition to get you back? I don’t want you back that much,” Maureen shoots back. “She is competition after all.”
They plan to cement their future lineage. “We’re hoping our grandchildren will seal the knot,” Maureen says. “Get married,” Rula adds.
The two 10-year-olds met when Rula and Maureen took them to see The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in London. But it didn’t go to plan. “Mo’s granddaughter Ava is bright and loquacious,” Rula says. “She was talking to my grandson Ethan about the periodic tables. She was going on and on. Mo was driving and we were lifting our eyes at each other. Finally, Ethan said, ‘That is so boring.'” If Corrie doesn’t reunite them, they hope to move their double act into TV travel documentaries. “I have plans afoot to take Mo abroad again somewhere more intrepid, exciting and dangerous,” Rula says. “We’re waiting for the offers to come rolling in.”
“We’d like to go and see some slopes, wouldn’t we?” Maureen says. “And maybe some orangutans,” Rula adds. I already can’t wait to see it.
DNA Journey, featuring Rula Lenska and Maureen Lipman, is on ITV tonight at 9pm
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