In the event of a constitutional crisis, Joanna Lumley OBE could, you feel, step up without fuss to the throne. She’s got the looks and the voice for the job and could be relied upon not to fidget while wearing a crown. She also has the useful experience of being regarded as a national treasure here in Britain and as a goddess in Nepal. So it rather takes you aback when Her Serene Lumleyness reveals the secret of her success.
“I work my b******s off,” she says. “Anything I do, I give it flat out, 110 per cent, and I love it. I can’t do things I don’t love any more. I can’t see the point at this stage in my life.”
For Lumley, at 66, there’s no shortage of congenial work. She recently directed her first film (for Sky1’s Little Crackers series) and has two projects in ITV1’s Christmas line-up – she stars in the period drama The Making of a Lady on Sunday, and later this month she presents a documentary about Noah’s Ark.
The Quest for the Ark is the culmination of a lifetime’s fascination with the story of Noah and the Flood. “It’s a story that appears in three great world faiths – Chistianity, Islam and Judaism. There’s a version in Hindu literature and it even appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh [a poem thought to be written around 2,000BC in Meso- potamia]. What is it about this story that keeps it humming round the world? Is the Ark a myth? A parable? Or did it really exist?”
The hunt for archaeological evidence of Noah’s Ark dates in the main to the 19th century, when Darwinism forced the Church and science into opposing corners. Since then, expedition after expedition has been launched, largely by Creationist scholars hoping to confirm the events of the Book of Genesis.
Lumley’s investigation focuses on “the Ararat anomaly”, a boat-shaped formation on the upper slopes of Mount Ararat, where, according to Scripture, the Ark came to rest.
“It’s in Turkey, on the borders of Armenia and Iran,” explains Lumley. “We went to see it and it has the exact dimensions of the Ark as described in The Bible: 300 cubits long by 50 cubits wide and there’s a kind of lump which could have been the three-storey building in the middle. And further down the mountain we were shown this huge stone which they say was used to slow the Ark in its course. So there are Creationists who say, ‘This is the Ark. This is where it was and this is where it happened.’ ”
Academic opinion has dismissed such claims as “pseudo-archaeology”, but Lumley understands “the human urge” to believe. “We went to see a geologist in Ankara who said ‘this is absolute baloney. It’s a piece of the mountain that got itself free in a landslip’. So, no, I don’t believe it is the Ark. But when I was up there on the mountain I was completely hooked in the way that we all can’t wait to believe something exciting. I’m not a Creationist, I’m a Darwinist. But part of me, at least, wants to go with everything.”
“So we haven’t, in the documentary, landed on any side of the argument; we have just gone along, uncovering evidence.”
Bringing together expert opinion from religious leaders, historians, boat-builders and palaeontologists, Lumley’s research into the origins of the flood story took her from Turkey to India and the Persian Gulf. Her original intention to visit Iran and Syria was stymied not by insurgents, but by insurance brokers.
“They wouldn’t insure our cameras,” she explains. “They couldn’t give a jot about us, the crew. But camera equipment is expensive!”
What became clear is that the notion of a great flood covering the earth extends well beyond Noah and his animal conservation scheme.
“I have an idea that when a notion persists throughout the ages and across the globe, it probably contains some fundamental truth. It’s not as simple as ‘no smoke without fire’. But on the other hand there’s something about the timing of this.”
“There have been horrifying floods, some extraordinary climate changes, so now seemed as good a time as any to address the notion of a cataclysmic event. Everything points to the fact that there was a flood alarming enough to be recorded in Sumerian history, which predates the main world religions. So I think that human beings – who are responsible for pretty much everything we know in the way of alteration to the earth – probably made some sense, to their own ends, of a flood that really happened.”
And if her research doesn’t support specific religious interpretation, it informs and enlarges Lumley’s own, broad spiritual sense. “I think most of us are curious. Which is why religion is so important to people. We all want to find out ‘What’s it all about, Alfie?’ before we book out completely. I was brought up as a Christian – first in India, in a house which had all these masses of Buddhist images, in a country where Hinduism reigned – and then in the Far East where the call of the muezzin [the Islamic call to prayer] was heard every morning. I’m a fellow traveller with all these faiths, but I haven’t got a personal tradition.
“The message I would take from the story of the flood as God’s punishment is that we are all responsible for behaving properly on the planet. Look after it, because it could go badly wrong.”
“I think” she says, anxious to be clear, “I’m a pagan, but a believer in all. I kind of believe in the trees. Do you know?”
It says something for the force of Lumley’s charm that you find yourself earnestly agreeing that trees are the Only Way. You can see why government ministers were no match for her campaign for the rights of Ghurkas in 2008. And while there’s no reason to doubt her work ethic, you suspect that part of the reason she’s so much in demand is that her emphatically positive outlook makes her damned good company. She is, for example, delighted with her part in The Making of a Lady, a romantic melodrama adapted from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel, The Making of a Marchioness.
“It’s a darling thing. Bodices and gorgeousness and handsome baddies and well-meaning goodies. I play Lady Maria Byrne, who’s just a ghastly old toff. It couldn’t be better! I’ve done loads of these old badgers before. When you get to my age, you are aunties or mothers or grandmothers.”
When we meet she is about to fly over to New York to play Leo DiCaprio’s aunt in The Wolf of Wall Street, directed by Martin Scorcese. “I’ve got a scene with him next Monday where I have to kiss him. A bit of an auntly kiss, but it does say in the script ‘on the mouth’. I may have to practise. It may have to go Take 23.” Lumley’s own Christmas will be less “bodices and gorgeousness” than wellies and woolly hats. “I love the Christmas-ness of Christmas,” she chirps. “I love writing cards, I love wrapping presents. We’ve got a little cottage in Scotland and my husband and I [conductor Stephen Barlow] are going up there for Christmas. Then we’ll be joined on Boxing Day by my son and his wife and my two granddaughters. Alice and Emily are nine and eight and I couldn’t adore them more. When I had my son, there was always the pressure of work. The new pressure that comes with grandchildren is that they’re so busy. You have to put yourself in their diaries.”
For all her protestations, it’s hard to imagine Lumley creaking out her acting days in whale-bone and frizzy wigs. Surely there are new tricks for Patsy, the atrocious old dog of Ab Fab? You’d never guess it from the perfect manners, but Patsy is the role nearest Lumley’s own heart.
“Parts of me have to own up to Patsy. But only the parts you wouldn’t believe. She was pathetic as a model. She slept with everybody and was found in gutters. I wasn’t. But I could inform her past because I was a model in the 60s and I met a lot of those kind of girls. They looked fabulous, but you would think ‘But, where do they sleep?’”
There’s faint nostalgia for the old days. Lumley recalls her practice of washing false eyelashes with soap and curling them round a pencil because she couldn’t afford a new pair. “We were paid a fraction of what models are paid today. But I think our life was better. It was certainly more fun.”
And the future is full of plans. “If I’m lucky enough, I would like to do as much drama as I do comedy. If I’m lucky enough, I’d like to do as much directing as presenting. But this is a big ask. So all you can do is to say, ‘I’m available!’”
The Making of a Lady is on tonight at 8:00pm on ITV1
Joanna Lumley: The Quest for the Ark is on 23 December at 9:00pm on ITV1