Joanna Lumley

Joanna Lumley

This piece first appeared in the Sunday Independent in December 2005.



The first thing that tells you that this elegant middle-aged lady really is Joanna Lumley is the voice. It’s crisply prim and proper yet at the same time effortlessly suggestive. Things are breathily (italics) divulged (close italics) in a Dietrich-esque purr that has been sexily lowered from years of smoking. Which she is dismayed to find out she can’t do during our interview. ‘What? You mean it’s banned (italics) everywhere? (close italics)’, she whispers, as though learning for the first time of some primitive tribal custom. ‘Even on this leather couch where I would look good with a cigarette? How perfectly annoying.’

‘I’m not a big smoker’ she concedes, having settled for a distinctly un-Ab Fab tomato juice. ‘But I must say I don’t like the attitude of being bullied into it. It’s been proven that overeating costs the health service more but we’re encouraged to eat until we keel over. And smoking is a part of civil society. A lot of Noel Coward’s plays can’t be performed without cigarettes. In the sixties people used to smoke just for the fabulous style of it. You could just pose with a pretty, elegant ribbon of smoke swirling above you. It seemed such a convivial thing to do.’

And of course cigarettes were an indispensable prop in Ab Fab. Patsy would have been unthinkable without a Marlboro Light dangling from those drag-queen lips. ‘Well she basically (italics) was (close italics) a cigarette. Her entire insides have been eaten away by cocaine and booze, so fags are the only things that keep her going. They’re her lifeline.’
She speaks of her iconic alter ego in the third person, as if she were describing a difficult sister who has gone off the rails in recent years. Patsy, she tells me mock-wearily, is ‘actually getting younger. She simply refuses to age.’

Patsy’s official date of birth has been kept under wraps but Joanna was born 59 years ago in Kashmir, India, where her father was an army officer. She was educated in Hong Kong before being sent to boarding school in Sussex. After leaving school she worked for a few years as a photographic model and posed for Jean Muir and the recently deceased Lord Litchfield (‘a truly darling man, sorely missed and what a talent’) amongst others. She began her acting career as a Bond girl in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which provided a springboard to her first big role: As Purdy in the New Avengers. Her high kicks were the stuff of adolescent wet dreams and her famous wedge haircut in the role was copied by a generation of women.

Her role in the award winning comedy relaunched a career that had been supposedly flagging in the 1980s. ‘That has been written so often that it has almost become true in some people’s minds’ she sighs. In fact, I was on the stage. My name was in huge lights in the West End. But there’s no point in telling people that. They say (adopts gratingly sympathetic voice) ‘oh yes but you weren’t on TV and that’s what counts.’ Papers –mostly the Daily Mail it has to be said – can report that you’re dead and then suddenly when your reappear they act surprised, as though you had been miraculously exhumed, when you never went away in the first place.’

She was at the forefront of reality TV, starring in her own one woman ‘I’m A Celebrity…’ in the mid 90s. ‘It was called Girl Friday. Initially they wanted to send Patsy out into the wilds with no Bolly or Stolly but I had to tell them that would be funny for about five minutes. So they sent me instead. I was stranded out on this island in the pacific with no bedding, no cigarettes and very little food. It was harrowing but also very enjoyable and life-affirming.’

She shudders at the reality revolution she is credited with kick starting. ‘It all seems so unbearably bitchy. I can’t imagine doing it now. I also don’t really believe they are ever as alone as I was. It all looks very staged. But one mustn’t be too judgemental; they do after all give their winnings to charity.’

Lumley, who lives in South London with her husband, composer Stephen Barlow, has her own array of causes, which she enthusiastically promotes. Vegetarianism, Save the Giraffes, Osteoporosis, she had also campaigned to have a bridge built across the Thames in honour of Diana, Princess of Wales. ‘Well I didn’t know the princess, but my attitude was that if you’re going to have a memorial and spend a fortune on it, it should be a good one. Mine was going to be a pedestrian bridge with trees and bushes and maybe a little kiosk that would sell apples and champagne and things. And we’d have some old gas lamps. Like a park really, but bang in the middle of London.’

The idea very nearly came to fruition. ‘I went to see Gordon Brown and then I went to Downing Street and it really seemed as though it might happen and then they went for this ghastly storm drain. My bridge would have been much better.’
She still gets people coming up to her and quoting lines from Ab-Fab at her. ‘Of course at some point I must have said those things but it was such a long time. And sometimes I just stare blankly. We only ever made six episodes of Ab Fab a year. I’ve met drag queens who were better doing Patsy than I was. I’m so much quieter than her.’

Sometimes though she lets her Ab Fab persona take charge. Her passport was lost this morning and she needed one to come to Dublin. ‘I had a photo and the man in customs told me we needed somebody to confirm that I was the person in the photos.’ For once she played the celebrity card. ‘It was an emergency’ she tells me sounding distinctly lacking in remorse. ‘I said ‘do you own a television? Do you know who I am?’ And eventually they had to let me have my new passport.’ Her eyes glitter mischievously and as she smiles, the corners of that wonderfully cruel mouth turn down. ‘Was that naughty of me?’

Deliciously naughty darling. Patsy would have been proud.

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~ by Donal Lynch on March 31, 2008.

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