Arthritis It's no laughing matter, says comedian Ella Kenion whose agonising condition, triggered by food poisoning – almost ended her showbiz dream Actress Ella Kenion got rheumatic disease Reiter’s syndrom aged 18The pain in her joints nearly kept her from following her dream of acting
15:47 GMT, 25 November 2012
Light touch: Ella's recent weight loss has helped with her joint problems
From playing the world’s laziest cleaner, Mrs Cakeworthy, in The Green Green Grass to a long-suffering teacher in The Catherine Tate Show, Ella Kenion has never been shy about taking on unglamorous roles.
So it is a surprise when the 43-year-old comedy actress opens the door to her London home wearing a silk cocktail dress and with her long blonde hair stylishly tousled.
This irony isn’t lost on Ella. But she says she is enjoying fashion for the first time after years of struggling with her weight – the lasting legacy of being blighted with arthritis in her late teens and early 20s.
At its worst, it left her unable to walk without crutches.
Having appeared with Simon Pegg, Martin Freeman, and most recently, Joanna Page and Sue Johnston in Sky’s comedy series Gates, Ella’s achievements are all the more remarkable as she almost didn’t get into drama school due to her severe illness.
‘I come from an acting family, so I always wanted to get into the profession,’ explains Ella. ‘I was determined to get into drama school.’
Ella’s father Geoffrey was in hit TV show Dixon Of Dock Green and her Australian great-grandmother was a film actress.
When she was 18, Ella picked up a stomach bug during a trip to the United States to see a boyfriend.
‘He was training to be a chef so we never figured out if it was from a duck salad he’d made or a tin of tuna,’ explains Ella.
‘I had a bad tummy for a day, and then two weeks later I went to stay with my dad in Majorca.’
On the first night of her summer job – working as a waitress in her father’s restaurant – she felt inexplicably tired.
‘My dad joked what a softie I was,’ recalls Ella. ‘But the next night I awoke at 4am in the most excruciating pain. My knees had swollen up, my toes blew up like sausages, and my feet felt very painful. I was screaming in agony, and taken to hospital.’
Ella’s joints were so badly affected that she was bedridden for four weeks. ‘I had to have a cage around the bed, as even the weight of the sheets caused me intense pain.’
After two weeks of intensive tests, doctors finally diagnosed the problem. ‘I had a bug called Yersinia in my intestine – the food poisoning I’d had in America – which led to reactive arthritis.’
Sometimes called Reiter’s syndrome, this occurs when a primary infection, either from food poisoning or a sexually transmitted disease, triggers an inflammatory response in the body. No one knows why it happens.
Up to four weeks after an initial
infection, the body’s immune systems appear to malfunction and attack
healthy tissue and, rarely, other organs. Frequently just the feet and
hips and knees are affected. Up to 3,000 Britons develop this condition
every year and one in seven people develops long-term problems.
Richard Hull, spokesman for Arthritis Care, says: ‘Patients are hit
suddenly by very painful arthritis, usually when they are fairly young.
It can be very hard to cope with psychologically.’
was badly affected. ‘I couldn’t walk for weeks. Medication began to
help slowly but it was ages before I was even allowed to use crutches to
get out the room,’ she explains. ‘Before this happened I was sporty, so
to suddenly lose my health like this was difficult to cope with.’
Broken dream: Ella, left, as Julie on Hardware with co-star Susan Earl and special guest Peter Davison, almost gave up on her career as an actor due to her joint pains
Dr Martin Richter, a rheumatologist at the Middlesex Hospital, explained to Ella what would happen next. ‘He told me that the condition could vanish at any point, so I just had to take painkillers and hope for the best.’
Ella tried to start a course at secretarial college but within days she collapsed and had to go home for weeks of recuperation.
Eventually her health improved enough for her to complete her course. She then started temping during the day and taking part in amateur dramatic productions in the evenings.
‘I managed to get auditions for RADA and the Guildhall but was too ill at first to complete the physically demanding weekend workshops that accompanied them,’ she recalls. ‘I went back for the next three years but tutors on the panels would say, “Why are you applying if you are unwell” I kept explaining that the condition could disappear but no one believed me. Finally I managed to get in at the London Theatre School, which was a huge relief.
‘At drama school, I was much better. I
had cortisone injections in my knees and hips every three months to
provide pain relief, so I was getting more mobile. However, the
arthritis would flare up twice a year. I was also putting on weight
because I was unable to exercise.’
for Ella, she quickly found work after finishing her course, including
stints at the Royal Shakespeare Company. ‘My knees continued to be a
problem but I simply couldn’t afford to jeopardise my career and admit
to the pain, so I just carried on.’
had a series of arthroscopies – keyhole surgical procedures to examine
the inside of the joint and trim or remove cartilage or any loose bone –
when she was 24 to improve her mobility.
Lazy on screen: Ella, pictured as Mrs Cakeworthy on The Green Green Grass with co-stars Peter Heppelthwaite, Ivan Kaye and David Ross, had surgery at 24 to improve her mobility
It was discovered that her knees were dysplastic, which means the shape of the kneecap and the groove that is supposed to move in do not quite match up, so the kneecap grates on the lower leg bone. ‘Doctors thought the reactive arthritis had caused damage to the joints,’ she explains.
Finally, Ella’s health stabilised in her mid-20s, although there have been the occasional flare-ups.
While working on The Green Green Grass in 2008, she had her first child, William, with husband Andrew Appleyard, 47, an office manager, and has since slimmed down to a size 12 from a size 22. ‘Having a child really made it imperative I look after myself a bit better, and I did manage to lose the weight quite quickly.’
For those with knee problems, being lighter is one of the most effective ways of preventing complications.
Ella hopes her story will give hope to other youngsters affected by similar problems. ‘For years I didn’t know if I’d ever get my life back or make it into acting,’ she says. ‘I’d encourage everyone afflicted by this type of illness to never give up fighting for your dreams.’
Sky Living’s Gates is now available on DVD. Ella will be appearing in Heading Out on BBC2 in the New Year.