This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.


If there’s such a thing as on-screen chemistry, can there not also be such a thing as on-radio chemistry? If we’d only ever heard Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart and never seen them, what would have been the effect? The answer might be something very like Joanna Lumley and Roger Allam in Conversations from a Long Marriage, the hit comedy two-hander that captures the essence of a relationship that’s been through its ups and downs but has endured over many years. Every episode is half an hour of pure chemistry.

"Maybe our voices match," Lumley says. "I’ve always believed that when you see a couple, somehow they have to look right together. But they also have to sound right together." Allam agrees. He says that radio producers have said to him that "radio drama is more like cinema than theatre, that a mic is the equivalent of a camera".

Lumley and Allam are at a studio in west London, taking a break during the recording of series four of Conversations, alongside the show’s creator/writer Jan Etherington. This family has been together since the show began in 2020, whereupon it quickly turned into one of Radio 4’s most popular comedies of recent years.

As well as the series starting this week, Etherington has been commissioned to write a fifth, an almost unheard-of level of commitment on Radio 4’s part, and an endorsement of her conviction that older people and their still very much alive marriages were an under-explored area in radio drama, with rich comic potential.

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She wrote the show with Joanna Lumley in mind. "I wanted to write about the type of older woman I know," she says. "The older women’s parts I came across were all tetchy divorcees, bossy managers or wet grandmothers in their pinnies. Where were all the women who went to Glastonbury? Where was the humour?"

Lumley says that when she read the script, "it was like someone had been listening at my window". When Allam was sent it, he thought it was lovely. "And it was working with Joanna. What’s not to like?" Lumley returns the compliment. "Roger’s done everything – Shakespeare, singing, shows. He’s in a different class."

"Joanna does herself down somewhat," says Allam. "Not only has she been a wonderful beauty and a sexy icon, she’s also been incredibly funny. Absolutely Fabulous was a glorious comedy series, and Jo was brilliant in it. And also funny about getting older, I think, as well, about not being the beautiful young sex icon any more, but trying to be."

"If you admire the way people work, you know you’re going to get on well with them," says Lumley. "We all have to bring an artifice to the work we do. We have to admire the scripts we actually think are pathetic, and work with actors whose eyes we can see glaze over as they reach their next line. But that could never be the case with Roger. He’s top-notch. He’s a legend."

It was a surprise to both of them to realise that, in spite of a combined acting experience of many decades – Lumley is 76, Allam 69 – they had never previously worked together. "There are masses of people we’ve both worked with, but no, our paths had never crossed," Lumley says. She turns to Allam. "I’ve admired you from afar!"

And what of their own long marriages? What’s the secret? Lumley has been married to musician Stephen Barlow for more than 30 years, and says that what’s important to her is that she feels thrilled to be with him. "I admire my husband. I admire him because he’s brilliant. I think he's fantastic. I feel lucky to be married to such a brilliant and amazing person. It’s important that you don’t look down on your partner."

Allam, long married to actor and writer Rebecca Saire, thinks laughing is the secret. "My wife makes me laugh so much, I sometimes think I’m going to die laughing. I love that. Laughing, liking, loving, and giving each other room to not have to do everything together all the time." Surely, Roger, it works the other way round, and you also make your wife laugh? "Oh, yes, I make her laugh. We make each other laugh. But honestly, sometimes marriage is just about the silliness, the freedom with each other to be silly and ridiculous. And then also serious about things that are more serious, and also just about practical things that have to be done."

Allam’s grown-up sons still live at the family home in south-west London. Lumley, whose home is in south London, has grand-daughters who visit. So the two stars are at different marital stages in their private lives, and neither of their situations bears comparison to "Joanna and Roger" in Conversations. Their characters, who never use each other’s names, are childless.

Nonetheless, real-life experiences do find their way into the scripts. Lumley, Allam and Etherington collapse with laughter recalling an episode inspired by the arrival of a trampoline in the back garden of Allam’s next-door neighbours.

Could Conversations perhaps be accused of idealising long marriages? That in truth, most aren’t like that? "No, no!" they chime. "It’s amazingly truthful," Lumley says. "Jan has a very good ear and a very good perception of the tiny, tedious things that make up marriage – the niggles people sometimes get into, the fantastically petty things. And they usually get over them. And that happens in real life."

"In fact, I’d say Conversations is radical, because of this older couple having a very passionate life and love for each other. I think that’s often patronised. But it’s radical."

Conversations from a Long Marriage returns to BBC Radio 4 today (Wednesday 15th February) at 6:30pm. Series 1-3 are available now on Audible – sign up now for a free trial.

Conversations from a Long Marriage, the book of Jan Etheringto's scripts, is available to buy now.


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