Joanna Lumley wants to talk about movies. It is awards season, after all.
But, in 2018, this comes with a greater sense of nervous apprehension than usual. In our post-Weinstein society, it’s more likely that people will tune in to see how the climate of sexual harassment is addressed than to find out who takes home the trophies.
Having watched Golden Globes host Seth Meyers relentlessly flog the elephant in the room in January, is Ms Lumley, who, on Sunday, will become the first woman to host the Baftas (solo), feeling the weight of expectation? Not in the slightest.
“I’m really just literally the host,” she says. “It’s a good word, the host: it means make sure everybody is happy.”
“My thrill of accepting this honour of presenting is because I adore film,” she continues. “The excellence of films is what I adore: the whole of the Bafta film awards is about the brilliance of performances direction, art direction, costumes…”
Her strategy is the polar opposite to Meyers’: an earnest attempt to return the focus towards honouring brilliant achievements in filmmaking. While there is little doubt as to where her allegiances lie – she tells me she will be wearing a black dress in solidarity with the Time’s Up movement – she seems to have little desire to wade into the conversation herself.
“I won’t be making a big statement, but maybe somebody who’s a recipient, or whose giving [out an award] maybe they will and that’s lovely. People can say what they like. People can do a highland fling if they want to.”
So, movies it is.
While she rather diplomatically swerves my attempts to get her to name her picks of the bunch – “it’s like comparing a horse and a cat: you can’t say which is the better animal” – she does have a few choice words on some of the best picture contenders.
“The very very popular ones, which are Shape of Water and Three Billboards, I think that shows the strength of the entrants this year,” she says. “Because they could not be more opposite. One absolute realism, brutal realism, and one complete fantasy, and there they are, both of them, sitting up there. Astonishing.”
And: “When you look at a film on the scale of Dunkirk, and the minute qualities – huge film – but the minute qualities of Phantom Thread: still, small, enclosed. How do you say [which is best], you know?”
It’s a question she will have to have found an answer for, as a voting member of the Academy. She seems to have been particularly affected by Journey’s End, the recently released adaptation of RC Sheriff’s harrowing WWI play of the same name. “You are exactly the age of the boy who would have gone over the top and never come back, but the at the end of this interview instead of talking to me you put on your stuff and you go and you’re just shot,” she says. I wince. “And it brings that really really into your face, and you go, ‘god this is ghastly.’”
Of course, she’s got her own career on the silver screen, too. Fresh from a cameo in Bafta nominated, universally beloved Paddington 2, she will appear alongside fellow British acting royalty Imelda Staunton and Timothy Spall in retirement comedy Finding Your Feet later this month.
That appears to be that for now, as she turns her attention towards TV projects – she has another travelogue series in the works for ITV – and her first one-woman live tour in the autumn. She also reiterated Jennifer Saunders’ assertion that 2016’s Absolutely Fabulous film marks the end of the long-running series.
“It’s entirely up to [Saunders],” she says. In a way I’m not sad, you kind of think well, you know, we got away with it for 25 years, How fabulous? To be connected with that, and it went out on a high. I think thats better than dragging it back again.”
Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley at the Absolutely Fabulous premiere in Melbourne in 2016
100 years after women’s suffrage and at the beginning of an uprising against the male domination of the entertainment industry rumbles on with intent, it seems like a fitting time to have a woman, not least one who has seen the ins and outs of British film and TV across a 50-year career, end Stephen Fry’s 12-year run as host. For her friend and predecessor, she reserves her most brilliant and bonkers turn of phrase of the day: “he’s more charming than a charm school stitched together on ice and then put on a stick”.
Though he was one of the first people she called when she was offered the job, she didn’t need to ask for his advice: “I know what you do, I’ve done awards ceremonies and I’ve been at them so I know what goes on, but I just wanted to talk to him and he was so sweet, he kind of gave me his blessing.”
The ceremony, it would seem, is in capable hands.
The 71ts British Academy Film Awards is live on BBC1 on Sunday 18th February at 9pm