This is an unenviable task. How do you approach a lovely and generous woman, designated a goddess in Nepal, voted Briton of the Year, Oldie of the Year, human rights activist, patron of more than 70 charities, much praised and brilliant actress, and say that you think her latest offering is hilarious – but unintentionally so.
We kiss in greeting and Joanna Lumley introduces me to her producers, Mark Wells and Steven Lappin, as “the doyenne of writers. Or do I mean doyen?”
“You mean old,” I suggest.
“No, I mean fabulous.”
“You wait,” I mutter, and she smiles, assumes I’m joking, but at some stage I will have to say that I think her programme – meeting The Voice UK judge and megastar will.i.am – is over-the-top gushing. I feel I’m what she might call a bounder, as she’s so trusting, lashings of her cut- glass words expressed in metaphorical italics to give emphasis.
I remind her that the last time we met, four years ago, she claimed she’d quietened down (she’ll be 68 in May). “Why do I lie like that?” she asks in a breathlessly confiding way. “I haven’t, and I couldn’t be happier, or busier. It’s odd. You can’t plan these things. Lovely jobs arrive and you’d be a fool to turn them down. Why is it when you’re desperate, you can’t get work? There’s a look of hunger, or dollar signs, in your eyes and no matter how much you act, people smell desperation and don’t employ you. They only want those who are working already.”
She’s travelled to our meeting by bus, although a car was offered. “I try to use public transport, and of course when you’ve been on television you’re recognised, but I never expect it, so you alter your mind-set and think, ‘How lovely.’ If you can’t cope you’ll have a miserable life. It’s like losing a leg. You screw a new tin one on and make it work. The latest thing is people take pictures of you with their phones and put them on Facebook – not that I know about that, because it’s missed me by a mile.”
In May she will start filming a three-part travel programme on Iran for ITV; there’s serious talk of an Absolutely Fabulous film and, the day after we meet, she starts painting a portrait of Patsy, her Ab Fab role, in the style of Vincent van Gogh for sale at a charity auction for the Amsterdam Museum. “The world loved Patsy because she was so ghastly. I know gays like me because of the part.”
There’s also the 1,200ft Garden Bridge over the Thames, which she initiated in 1998 and will feature trees and plants. “That takes two or three meetings a week. It’s really huge.”
We’re meeting to discuss the four days she spent in Los Angeles with record producer, composer, entrepreneur, philanthropist and singer will.i.am (William Adams), visiting his home in the wealthy Los Feliz suburb, his elementary school and state-of-the-art recording studio called The Future. They’re an unlikely duo: a grandmother who’s a convent school- educated daughter of the Raj – born in Kashmir, where her father was a major in the Gurkha Rifles – meets an American rapper with ADHD who was born in a ghetto 39 years ago and who never knew his father.
She hopes that the programme will inspire a series, Joanna Lumley Meets… “The first guest had to be of stature, so future ones – to take a name out of the blue, Matt Damon – will say, ‘That’s great.’ Would anyone want to walk into a show like this until they see how it’s done?”
They’ll certainly be sluiced with flattery. She massages will.i.am with compliments – four extraordinarys, two wows, five beautifuls, four fantastics – and concludes, “He’s become a bit of a hero to me, a Renaissance man for our time.”
She dubs him “an honorary Englishman”. Maybe she even sees him as a “national treasure”. “He’s beautiful, stylish, big-time – and yet look at the stuff he’s doing, helping pay for neighbourhood kids to go to college. And he’s as sweet as pie.” He donated his £500,000 fee from The Voice UK to the Prince’s Trust, which helps young people move into work, education or training.
Sensing my scepticism about multimillionaire Los Angeles entrepreneurs, she asks, “Am I too kind? Probably. I look for the best. I’ve never believed in being tough and try so hard not to be nasty because I can’t bear it in other people. I would never say, ‘Who are you sleeping with?’ I’m not a journalist. I’m Joanna Lumley, interested in people, and you get much more if you don’t prod, which makes them duck and dive. I’ve been interviewed for 45 years, so I know exactly how to deal with a hard interviewer going for the nitty gritty [attempts to sound harsh]. I’m never going to say, ‘Now you’ve asked me [that difficult or embarrassing question], I’d better admit it.’
“You go on gorgeous chat shows because you’re promoting something and it’s part of the job to sit on a sofa and entertain an audience. I’m OK because I’m a show-off, but it’s exactly the sort of programme I didn’t want to make. I’m not in competition with Jonathan Ross, Graham Norton, Alan Carr or Piers Morgan, who loves people to cry, which viewers enjoy, but I don’t want it. In real life you don’t want to make me cry – and anyway what would I cry about?
“I have to say I don’t watch much television, but Will seems a different kind of judge on The Voice. I’m not sure about talent shows, though. My husband [conductor and composer Stephen Barlow] works with singers who have trained for 14 years, so it’s hard listening to someone say, ‘I sing well in the bath, so here I am and can I make a million?’ But that’s the world. We love to see others having a go, being rebuffed or succeeding. It was ever thus. It reinforces my belief that we’re fascinated by people. When they’re crestfallen, we’re safe on the other side of the screen where no one’s saying hateful things.”
When will.i.am arrives at his home he finds Joanna waiting. “He gives me a kiss and ‘Hi Joanna’, which is how showbiz greets itself. It’s quite sweet.” Immediately he disappears to have his hair rearranged by his brother, Carl. “He’d been in Thailand, returned via Washington where he talked to the President [his 2008 song Yes We Can, which was inspired by an Obama campaign speech, went viral], and wanted to look good for our cameras,” she explains.
“I’d heard of the Black Eyed Peas, but never their music – it’s not my age group. I’d read he was a dandy [she buys him a jacket as a present]. I like peacock men and the flamboyance of clothes. Look at the scarf you’ve put with your shirt. You didn’t just pull it out of a basket and put it on.” Only the most extremely flattering person could compliment me on a purple, moth- eaten scarf and a two-year-old M&S shirt. I’m ashamed to say I preen.
On another occasion, will.i.am picks her up at her hotel and drives her to his studio, where she’s intrigued by a lavatory seat that rises automatically when the door opens. He begins to compose a song in her honour, but doesn’t finish – “Joanna is a useless word to rhyme,” she says.
“We were there for four hours and he recorded and mixed an entire song step by step [Alright, dedicated to his mother]. There’s a nutritionist at his side all the time who makes smoothies so he doesn’t have to resort to trash food. Fascinating! Health is very important, and also recycling, which is my thing, too.” He wears Ekocycle black trousers, made from recycled Coca-Cola bottles, that she can’t resist touching. He’s in them at the time. “Wow! The feeling of the cloth is fantastic.” She dines with the family, including his formidable mother, Debra. “Wasn’t she great? It’s a very matriarchal society. No father figure, apart from his excellent uncles. When Will was bussed across the city to school, Debra put him in a suit and tie every day from the age of seven because she said he must respect education. They’re proud that none of their children has been in jail. That made me feel, ‘What a different world I live in,’ than one of knives, guns, drugs and drive-by shootings. It was huge to pull himself out of it.”
Given how courteous he is, will.i.am seems tame compared with the rock stars of the 1960s, when Joanna was growing up. “Those leading a riotous life, like Keith Richards, were few and far between – most were working their socks off driving about in vans, as were we models. I never earned more than £100 a week.” She became a single mother at 21 to her son James by photographer Michael Claydon. “We muddled through.” There was a six-month marriage to comedy writer Jeremy Lloyd in 1970, and she didn’t marry again until Stephen Barlow in 1986.
“You can’t generalise about the 60s. For some people, in some places, it was the time, but most girls didn’t wear miniskirts. Not in Macclesfield they didn’t. Young boys and girls today are very beautiful, and as a mother and grandmother I’d counsel them not to get blind drunk or out of their minds on drugs, but that’s not for me to talk about.”
Despite being so positive, she thinks about death all the time. “I believe each day is a life – you’re born at dawn and die when the lights go out. You have to make sure your day is as fully used as it can be, because you probably won’t come back in this kit again.” She’s expressed a desire to be reincarnated as a giraffe. “I hope so. You train them with a bun and in two days they’ll be yours and follow you – sweet, gentle creatures who don’t fear anyone.”
We end on friendly, if slightly frosty, terms – mwah, mwah. Perhaps hagiography – sorry, being nice – is the new reality. That might be no bad thing.
See Joanna Lumley meets will.i.am Friday 10:35pm BBC1