Joanna Lumley on her Bafta fellowship: “I have been thrashing about in this business for about 50 years – I think they felt it was a good time”

The 71-year-old star reflects on a life in the limelight

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“Hello-ohhh,” exhales a breathy voice. “How LOVELY to be talking to you, Ginny.” There’s something spookily captivating about that particular, familiar sound – the depth, the tone, the articulation, the capital-letter emphasis, the old-fashioned pronunciation (“theatah” for theatre).

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It belongs to La Lumley and we are speaking ahead of the announcement of her being granted the ultimate Bafta accolade of a Fellowship, in recognition of a lifetime’s work. She joins her profession’s hall of fame alongside greats such as Sidney Poitier, Martin Scorsese, Helen Mirren, Dawn French, Julie Walters and Vanessa Redgrave.

Is she thrilled? I should coco, as she probably would not say – her idiom being less cockney, more Raj. “It’s so grand! It’s like being crowned queen,” she says. “I’m so thrilled, I’m practically walking about with it tattooed on my forrid [forehead].”

The award could be seen as a perk for not being young: “I have been THRASHING about in this business for about 50 years – I think they felt it was a good time, you know.”

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As Patsy in Ab Fab

Her first role on television was in 1969 on BBC1’s The Wednesday Play slot. The Mark-Two Wife was written by William Trevor and Lummers was the title part, which sounds more significant than it was: “It was this huge, long complicated play – terribly dramatic and all kinds of weepings and gnashings – and at the very end, the door of this big party opens and in comes me, the Mark-Two Wife.”

She was always more of a trouper than a complainer. No longer hard up, as she was at 21 (a single mother, with her son James, by photographer Michael Claydon; she had some tough times being skint and anxious), Lumley’s preferred mode of London transport is still the Tube, “the most thrilling way to travel”. She cuts and dyes her own hair – “because I’m mean and I can’t see the point of spending tons of money when I can just get something off a supermarket shelf and stick it on my head” – and relishes being taxed so that her earnings can strengthen the education system and the NHS. So one feels like a bit of a heel prompting her to dwell on anything negative. Still, needs must, so I ask – were your good looks ever to your disadvantage?

The main difficulty was that Lumley had started out as a model, “which, unlike now when it’s perfectly acceptable, like lovely little Lily Cole, in those days, it was the WORST thing you could have done. People were terribly supercilious, saying, ‘Oh, she won’t be able to learn her lines.’ So I played endless pretty girlfriends.” (A typical RT review line reads “…the naked, doubly delicious Miss Joanna Lumley”.) “I was the pretty girlfriend in Steptoe and Son and in Coronation Street, General Hospital, Up the Workers…” She recites a long list.

She hates to moan about it, even at this distance – “I was always grateful for any work” – but the parts were dull, and she longed for more meaty roles. After The New Avengers, Lumley had the joy of playing Hedda Gabler on the stage, even if it was in Dundee Rep: “I loved being treated seriously as an actress rather than just being eye candy.”

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La Lumley on the Cobbles

Playing Purdey, the female sidekick to bowler-hatted, brolly-brandishing secret agent Steed (Patrick Macnee), was a breakthrough for Lumley; a popular series, with actual characters. And “at least then people could remember your name! Even if they didn’t like you, they knew who you were.” Ah, Purdey… Even her pageboy blonde bob was a trademark, albeit one shared with Wendy Craig. “Yes,” she laughs. “In Butterflies! And guess who’s got it now? The Prime Minister.”

Taking a break from This Is Your Life, I wonder how she reacts to our second female PM – which prompts Lumley to segue into a roll call of global and historic women at the helm, from Indira Gandhi to Angela Merkel. “When we had Mrs Thatcher, everyone gasped and said, ‘Oh my goodness, a woman! A woman can’t do things!’ And all of us women just sat there and said ‘Yesss?’ [like, ‘What’s the big deal?’]”

I say that now, of course, Theresa May is forever being compared to Margaret Thatcher – her actions always judged through the prism of gender. Lumley takes this back to acting: “I was the fourth Avenger girl – before me there had been Honor Blackman, then Diana Rigg, who was the most famous because her show went to America, then Linda Thorson, then me, and you were always being compared to somebody else. ‘Oh, you’re not wearing leather!’ [Rigg wore a fetching black leather catsuit.] And you’d go, ‘Well, no, I’m a different one,’ you know?

“You just have to brave it out, and I guess prime ministers are just the same.”

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Theresa May has adopted the haircut sported by Purdey in the 70s

Ab Fab’s Patsy is one of her favourite roles but was not – contrary to received opinion – the 
actor’s first stab at comedy. When she was in her early 20s, Lumley was in a Jilly Cooper sitcom called It’s Awfully Bad for Your Eyes, Darling about four posh girls sharing a flat: “I got £60 an episode, which made me feel as though I was walking on air.”

Fast-forward and
 Ruby Wax offered her a 
gig on the comedian’s 
show where Ruby and 
Joanna both played alterna
tive versions of themselves: “It
 was very daring and very funny and
 Ruby took me seriously as a creative performer, which was like a world opening up for me.”

That world became Absolutely Fabulous, which, one way or another (with specials and the recent film), has been going for almost a quarter of a century since its launch in 1992. What impressed Lumley was how new and original the show was when so many scripts she receives are a version of something she has read before.

“I absolutely adored playing Patsy. It was like being given a glass of champagne [aptly, given her character’s reliance on Bolly, when she has run out of Stoli; Lumley continues to smoke old-school Rothmans] quite out of the blue and you go ‘Oh, my heavens!’”

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She runs through what she considers her highlights in a long career (the travel documentaries just keep coming, with a new three-parter soon on India; she was born in Kashmir), with a slightly wistful aside that they are all things “that people have forgotten now”. Working alongside Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay “two heroes of mine”, producing Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Cazalets with Verity Lambert; standing in for Terry Wogan on his TV show when he went on holiday; two seasons of Sensitive Skin; playing Miss Marple’s best friend Dolly Bantry, twice, with two different Miss Marples… “All fabulous things to do, and the word ‘fabulous’ keeps coming in because the most fabulous role of all was Patsy, because it was funny and I adore making people laugh.

“I adored working with the gorgeous four Js [Julia Sawalha, who played Saffy; June Whitfield, Edina’s mother; Jane Horrocks, Bubbles; and Jennifer Saunders]. We used to cry with laughter and it was just paradise.”

There is a brief intermission in our interview while Lumley has a conference call responding to the news that day that her baby, the much-discussed Garden Bridge, has been scrapped by London mayor Sadiq Khan. Before our break, she was determined to be upbeat: “Que sera sera – I will channel Doris Day.” But when she returns, despite some gentle pressing, she doesn’t feel able to express her disappointment other than to say, “It was a terrible shock to hear that Sadiq Khan, who had said that he had been in support of the bridge, has finally pulled out.”

She is delightful – with her warmth, and funny ways – but where Lumley is slightly maddening is that she is non-committal about quite a broad range of subjects. Perhaps she likes to conserve her energy for the battles she picks. Who can forget her Boudicca-like championing in 2008 of the Gurkhas, who had fought alongside the British army, to be allowed the right to settle in England. (Her father had served in the 6th Gurkha Rifles.)

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Joanna Lumley with Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple in The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side

I read that she agreed to meet Donald Trump, at his request, some years ago. “Well, it wasn’t at his request, I can promise you,” she answers quickly. The invite to some big bash at somewhere like the Dorchester was on the back of Patsy – here Lumley’s voice drops a few octaves as she morphs into her – saying, “I think Ivana Trump is rather marvellous.” And so the host thought it would be absolutely fabulous for Lummers to come with her hair up and
 meet Ivana’s by now ex. “He was married to Marla Maples [who had been the Donald’s mistress] at that time and I don’t think she had any idea who I was, and I didn’t know who she was. Marla said [bimbo-ish gush], ‘Oh, how lovely to meet you – you’re so nice!’ and that was it.”

What is her opinion of the new president? “I was in India when he was elected and so everything seemed far away.” It must have seemed surreal. “Well, the world was rather surreal. We’d just voted to leave the European Union – so everybody was a little shell-shocked and thinking, ‘Crikey, the world is going very strange at the moment.’”

But she doesn’t want to jump on the bandwagon and say “‘Oh, Trump’s frightful’. I don’t know Trump. I don’t know what he’s like. Lots of people who have met him say he’s very charming. I think he probably wants to make a huge impression as a very good president – as an ambitious man that’s probably what he’d like to be seen as – a very good president. Or a very ‘something’ president!” She breaks into a laugh as she struggles to say something positive. “I always try to look for the good in things!”

I’m sensing a certain Pollyanna aspect here… “I am Pollyanna.”

Moving from the ridiculous to the sublime – Idris Elba. Back in the day (1969), Lumley was not a Bond girl, exactly, but a girl in a Bond film, at least, one of the villain Blofeld’s 12 Angels of Death. “That was the kind of character one was. A sort of starlet,” she says, hammering the end of the word.

So let’s play Fantasy Bond. If she were a Bond girl now who would she rather as her Bond: Daniel Craig or Idris Elba? She roars with laughter. “Hahahahaha – that’s so funny because the cast I’m working with now were talking about exactly that yesterday. Idris Elba is STUNNING – and was, incidentally, in Absolutely Fabulous– but I don’t think is right for Bond, who is quite clearly described in the book. I’m colour blind when it comes to acting but Idris Elba is just a ZONKING great star anyway and I think ‘Idris Elba for fab new fabness’ is what I would say.”

We talk a bit about the grim racist inci-dents post-Brexit, many of which have been captured in all their horror on YouTube. Surely even Pollyanna would struggle to find a positive response, but Lumley does: “We have to remember that most people in this country have good hearts and a sense of justice and generosity. What is highlighted are the b******s who say and do cruel and wicked things but we must remember the majority aren’t those people.”

It was her 71st birthday, incredibly, on 1 May, and at this age “it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans – it’s just numbers”. When she’s not working (rarely), Lumley potters around the garden of the house in Stockwell, south London, that she shares with her composer-conductor husband of 30 years, Stephen Barlow – with its trees and a pond with fish, the woodpeckers and the foxes. Or goes on walks from their cottage in Scotland, or visits her son and his family, who live in the Highlands.

Every day, she says, she thinks about death – and is determined to relish every moment she is alive: “You’re only here for a short time and then we’re going to die, so what you want to do is make sure that you don’t waste life.”

Have you decided whether you will be cremated or buried? “I haven’t actually because I’ve got one of those donor forms that says ‘Take anything you want.’ So I’m not sure what they do with you. I hope they bundle you out to feed you to the foxes – after they’ve plundered all the nice bits you’ve got left, if there are any nice bits after I’ve DRAINED so much champagne!”

What could be a more Patsy sign-off?

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The British Academy Television Awards is on Sunday at 8pm on BBC1