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Behind the John Leslie trial: 18 years in the showbiz wilderness

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 19/10/2020 Tristan Kirk
a boy wearing a hat © Provided by Evening Standard

John Leslie remembers vividly the moment his showbiz career ended and the life that he knew it changed forever; when he instantly went from lovable TV host to suspected rapist.

He and Fern Britton had spent the morning of October 23, 2002, treating ITV viewers to their usual blend of cookery, lifestyle features, and the tribulations of the celebrities of the day.

But over on Channel 5, the host of The Wright Stuff Matthew Wright had blurted out Leslie’s name when discussing Ulrika Jonsson’s claim in her autobiography "Honest" that she had been raped.

Jonsson's book identified no one as responsible for the alleged attack and the jury in Leslie's recent trial heard that she has never lodged a linked complaint with the police.

This Morning editor Shu Richmond was the person who broke the news to Leslie once he had finished the show, warning him a media storm had erupted.

“I was live on This Morning on ITV, Fern and I, and at the end of the show there was a kind of deathly silence. I went ‘what’s happened? What’s going on?”, Leslie told Southwark Crown Court.

“A producer came up to me, gave me a big hug, and walked me off the floor. She said you’ve been named by Matthew Wright as the person that attacked Ulrika. I was like ‘what are you talking about?’

“That was it, I was put in a room, there were hundreds of press outside, it all went mental. It was Armageddon.

“That was a crazy day and the end of my career because of what Matthew Wright had said by mistake.”

Ulrika’s book had kick-started feverish speculation a week earlier, when she had claimed she was raped by an “acquaintance” and it slowly emerged that the man she was referring to was a TV star.

Leslie had dated Ulrika for around six months at the start of his television career, after they had met while co-starring on ITV’s Music Box show.

Anthea Turner standing posing for the camera: Former Blue Peter presenters Diane-Louise Jordan (left) and Anthea Turner leave Southwark Crown Court in London after giving evidence in the trial of John Leslie (PA) © Provided by Evening Standard Former Blue Peter presenters Diane-Louise Jordan (left) and Anthea Turner leave Southwark Crown Court in London after giving evidence in the trial of John Leslie (PA)

“Lots of people’s names came up who it could have been”, said Leslie. “It was a witchhunt.”

Once named by Matthew Wright, Leslie was bundled out of the studio into a waiting van and took some unscheduled days away from the limelight.

As the storm grew, Leslie was accused in a series of tabloid newspaper stories of sexual misconduct towards other women, facing headlines branding him a “predator” and suggesting he could be jailed for years.

He was sacked from This Morning and entered the showbiz wilderness, ultimately never to return to the spotlight.

Former choirboy Leslie had a talent for music during his happy childhood in Edinburgh, and was training as a piano tuner when he got his big break in showbiz.

He told the court how he started as a DJ as a local roller-rink as a teenager, leading to gigs at pubs and clubs around Scotland, Newcastle, and eventually London.

Leslie was talent-spotted while warming up the crowd of dancers on ITV’s version of Top of the Pops, leading to a presenting job on Music Box.

“I was very infectious with passing on good energy and crowds coming with you on a journey of enjoying themselves”, he said.

Leslie landed the Blue Peter job on the BBC in 1989, presenting alongside Anthea Turner, Diane Louise Jordan, Yvette Fielding, and Tim Vincent until 1994.

He fronted gameshow Wheel of Fortune and then landed the Friday presenting slot on This Morning alongside Fern Britton in 1999.

“Luckily Fern auditioned on the same day – Fern and I got on so well and they gave us the Friday show straight away”, he said.

“It was fantastic, all by accident, but it was amazing”, he added. “Up to October 2002, everything was going well, it couldn’t have gone better, I was so happy, great life, great friends.”

The “shamed TV presenter” tag has followed Leslie since October 2002, despite an apology from Matthew Wright and a court acquittal on indecent assault charges in 2003 when the prosecution case was abandoned and he left “without a stain on his character”.

In summer 2008 Leslie was accused of rape but police opted to take no action after he was questioned and there was found to be insufficient evidence. And in 2018, Leslie faced a trial in Scotland over a claim that he had groped a woman in a nightclub, again ending in acquittal.

a man wearing a hat talking on a cell phone: John Leslie (left) arrives with his father Lesley Stott at Southwark Crown Court (PA) © Provided by Evening Standard John Leslie (left) arrives with his father Lesley Stott at Southwark Crown Court (PA)

Leslie says he has spent 18 years being judged by strangers, treated as a “crazed sexual monster” by the media and identified in the initial storm as “public enemy number one”.

He fought back tears in court while vividly describing an incident when he went to a park with the intention of taking his own life. Fortunately for Leslie, friends and work colleagues stood by him and gave him character references.

He was supported during the trial by former Blue Peter colleagues Anthea Turner, Diane Louise Jordan, Yvette Fielding and ex-This Morning co-host Fern Britton. He said that while close friends and colleagues had stood by him, ITV turned their back on him and he was never able to revive his career.

His 6ft 6in stature, once a welcome attribute when his celebrity star was rising, meant that he could not easily blend in when out in public.

He found journalists and photographers watching his every move and his career remained in tatters.

“That’s the legacy of what has happened”, he said. “I lost everything.”

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