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Blonde, slim and happy - Saffy's amazing transformation


Julia is coy about her
relationship with Alan Davies

Julia Sawalha is a woman transformed. The trademark brown curls - pre-Raphaelite on a good day, tangled thicket on a bad one - are gone, replaced by hair that is blonde. She is also, not to put too fine a point on it, strikingly slim.

'I don't look like Saffy, you mean!' she cries, in mock indignation. Nor, it must be said, does she look like the old, comfortably curvaceous Julia Sawalha.

Her hair colour, she says, dates from a Jonathan Creek Christmas special last year. 'I'm doing another series this year, so I thought I might as well keep it,' she explains, tugging at a honeyblonde strand.

She lost weight after embarking on the blood group diet, which advises people of different blood types to avoid certain foods. In Julia's case, it meant eating ' slowburning' foods such as lentils and brown rice.

'I did the diet for health reasons, but the massive bonus was that the weight I couldn't seem to lose before just came off and stayed off.' Now, she says with some pride, she weighs just 81/2st.

Often, of course, such dramatic metamorphoses have other, underlying causes. In particular, it's impossible not to wonder whether this new, glamorous Sawalha is linked to a rumoured relationship with her Jonathan Creek co-star, Alan Davies.

In April the two were photographed together, arms entwined, looking as relaxed and carefree as only lovers can.

Life has changed radically for Sawalha. At 33, the mood swings that earned her the childhood nickname 'Sunshine and Showers', and beset her into adulthood, have finally disappeared.

'On this diet I'm completely stable,' she declares. 'The highs and lows have gone. I'm not as hungry now as I used to be, in every sense of the word. I've become a little bit more relaxed.'

In her 20s, after her inspired - portrayal of Saffy - the determined, straight-laced teenager in Absolutely Fabulous - work consumed her. High-profile parts followed, notably Mercy Pecksniff in the BBC's Martin Chuzzlewit and Lydia in Pride And Prejudice.

In private, she flung herself into relationships - with Dexter Fletcher, the Jagger-lipped costar of her first TV series, Press Gang, whom she dated for four years; the rumbustious Keith Allen, whom she worked with on Martin Chuzzlewit; sculptor Carl Duncan; and, until last year, comedian Richard Herring.

Too often, it seemed, outspoken passion gave way to disillusionment. 'At the age of 22, you think you're in love,' she says now. ' Probably I was in some form of love. Everything's very intense at that age; it's very exciting.

'Now, things are more mellow, thank God. When you come out of your teens you think you're sussed. But you don't know who you are at 22. You're constantly trying to fit in. You get a little lost.

'When I was younger, I was always putting myself down, making out I was nothing special. Now I look back and think: "You survived." '

On the day we meet, Sawalha is busy filming a commercial for Argos, with fellow actor Richard E. Grant.

In her lunch break, she describes how her young nephew likes nothing better than leafing through the Argos catalogue, and asks for her sister to be sent the new edition.

In fact, it is little wonder if what she calls 'auntie duties' are uppermost in her mind. She already has two nephews, children of her eldest sister, Dina, an artist.

And last month her middle sister, the actress Nadia Sawalha, married BBC director Mark Adderley, with whom she is expecting a baby in December. The reception was held at the Sawalha family home in Upper Norwood in South-East London.

'It was very sweet,' Julia enthuses. 'The ceremony was in a chapel with lovely gardens all around. It was a proper little white wedding.'

Was she a bridesmaid? 'Ooh no!' she shrieks, aghast. 'I'm much too old for that!'

The occasion was an emotional one, not least because Nadia's first husband, musician Justin Mildwater, committed suicide five years ago, shortly after the marriage ended. Nadia was devastated, and maintained she would never marry again.

Is the family more protective of her this time round? 'No. We're just very happy for her,' Julia says simply. 'She'll be a good mum. I saw her the other night - she'd come in from filming, pregnancy tired, wanting a glass of wine and not having one.'

And are Julia's own thoughts turning the same way? 'I never compare anything with my sisters,' she says firmly. 'I'm not much of a baby freak - I like them when they're older.'

Even so, it's hard to overestimate the importance of family life for Julia Sawalha. Her father, the actor and writer Nadim Sawalha - best known for his portrayal of Dr Shaaban in Dangerfield - was a Bedouin, who left his native Jordan at the age of 20.

He came to Britain hoping to become an actor, and spent ten years at the BBC, working for the Arab section of the World Service. There, he fell in love with his secretary, Bobbie; the pair have now been married for some 40 years.

Life at the Sawalhas' was a colourful affair, complete with a Bedouin tent in the dining room, where the family would sing, dance, feast and drink arak. When his daughters reached their teens, Nadim built self-contained flats for them, which he dubbed their 'launching pads'.

Even now, all three live in adjoining houses, wandering from garden to garden - though, as Julia emphasises, her parents always ring before dropping in.

As the youngest - with a six-year gap between her and Dina, and four years between her and Nadia - Julia was bossed around by her siblings. But she was very close to her charismatic father, a bond that remains to this day. 'Cuddles,' she says simply, in a succinct description of their relationship.

Eighteen months ago the family was shaken when Nadim suffered a minor stroke.

Today, says his daughter, he is completely recovered. 'He's playing at the Young Vic and just back from playing Moses in Morocco. He's fighting fit, he's amazing. He had a knee operation and had a little fainting attack after that. But he's very, very well now.'

The stroke, she says, was less a reminder of her father's mortality than a sign to all of them to take care of their health.

'It's more a wake-up call to me: to look after yourself. In a way, it's had more of an impact on me than it has on him. He's always passing me vitamins. I come in and there's a little pile of things on my table. It's very sweet. We're both health fanatics and we're always exchanging tips.'

In any case, she says poignantly, she has always been aware that her parents will not be with her for ever. 'Ever since I can remember feeling love for my parents, I've been frightened of losing them.'

Her mother took her daughters' father-worship in her stride. 'She's not a jealous type of person. Because she loves my dad so much, she totally understands our love for him.'

What about boyfriends - surely it might be more difficult for them? 'If it is, it's their problem,' Julia responds robustly. 'My dad's so likeable you wouldn't feel in competition with him. If any boyfriends have ever felt that, they're long gone.'

Are her family welcoming, I ask, imagining a certain tousle-haired comedian sidling up the parental front path. 'God, yeah,' breathes Julia. 'They're probably grateful for someone to take me off their hands.'

Her career, meanwhile - for all her relaxed demeanour - is continuing apace. She is filming a new series of Hornblower, in which she plays Ioan Gruffudd's wife, and later in the year will film another series of Jonathan Creek.

So, I wonder, is she happy with every aspect of her life?

'I'm working with Richard E. Grant,' she teases. 'In Hornblower, I get to kiss Ioan Gruffudd, which I'm sure a lot of women would like to do.'

And in real life, does she get to kiss Alan Davies as well? Julia may not be saying, but my guess is she most definitely does.



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