Joanna Lumley believes you either get Elvis or you don’t. She still remembers the day that she got him.
“I was 10 and staying with my aunt in Kent when Blue Suede Shoes came out,” she recalls reverently. “We played it on a gramophone and I became besotted!
“I’d never heard anything like that and what a magic voice he had. Back then I hadn’t seen a film of Elvis in action because I didn’t have a television. But I remember seeing a photograph with his slick of hair and just falling in love.”
Elvis is surrounded by fans after a concert in 1958
In Elvis and Me, which is repeated tonight on ITV, Lumley finally went on a pilgrimage – “as if he were a saint” – to Memphis, the Tennessee city where teenage Elvis laid down his first tracks. But unlike the many millions of fans who have gone before, Lumley had Priscilla Presley as her tour guide of the world’s most famous rock’ n’ roll residence, Graceland.
So what did she make of Elvis’s ex-wife? “I just loved her – the lucky lady who’d married Elvis. Think of Linda McCartney and multiply it by a million.
“I was so curious about what she’d be like and she seemed like a porcelain doll: so beautiful and radiant, with her black hair and lovely dress. What focus there was on her must have been intense. [She was] the envy of others, then it all went wrong.”
Priscilla and Elvis Presley on their wedding day in 1967
As Lumley learns, it was a “bizarre” marriage from the off because the young couple were rarely alone together.
“It’s impertinent to guess at anyone’s marriage but it seems he was a very jealous man,” muses Lumley. “She was his treasure. She showed me the place at the dining table where they sat and whoever was in favour next to them. It was like royalty holding court.”
The King would have turned 80 this year had he lived. Lumley’s tribute is clearly a labour of love, focusing on Elvis’ impoverished childhood and meteoric rise to fame rather than his famously troubled latter years.
“I’m not interested in the last two years of his life when he over-ate and was hooked on prescription pills, and he looked ill, sad and revolting. Those times weren’t really Elvis. People didn’t really know what he was going through.”
She recalls learning of Elvis’ death in August 1977, aged just 42, as vividly as that gramophone rendition of Blue Suede Shoes. By that time, she was a successful actress shooting The Avengers in Canada.
“The Canadian press were awful, basically wondering what the fuss was about, seeing it just as a ‘fat singer’ that had died. Where as I and the rest of the world were truly devastated. The Canadians didn’t understand. There was very little respect for Elvis back then and that appalled me – how could he be dissed when he died? But millions of us did respect him and it was heartbreaking – the King was dead and it was awful.”
He lives on thanks to Lumley’s comic alter ego in Absolutely Fabulous: hard-drinking hedonist Patsy.
“Patsy – like me – adores Elvis! He’s always been her man. I observed that Elvis never gave a big smiley grin, just a small one with raised lip on the side, so that’s what I gave Patsy because it was just so cool. Plus, she lowers her voice like Elvis when she’s happy, too. I love it. He had a passion for Palomino horses, with a golden mane… just like Patsy!”
Below, Joanna Lumley takes us on her Elvis tour…
“I didn’t know how poor he was when he was young. You never imagine such poverty in America. But when I saw the place he was born in Tupelo Mississippi… the shack there. Yes, it’s been smartened up but it’s basically a shack. It’s just desperately small. It’s now a kind of shrine.
“You can’t film inside but I went in. There was one room which had an iron bed where Elvis and his parents slept together. There was no heating, no running water, no lighting, no inside lavatory. Just a stove and a desperately little tin table. Elvis’ dad Vernon built it two months before his wife gave birth.”
A tourist sits on the porch of Elvis’ first home in Tupelo
“After the White House, Graceland is probably considered the most important house in America. Going around it with Priscilla and hearing her stories, I really got got a sense of what it must have been like back then. It was quite an open house and many of the so-called ‘Memphis Mafia’ would dine with them. It was bloody weird to see it.
Joanna Lumley visits Graceland
“You’ve got to remember it was the place where he died, so [it was] terribly touching, too. I’d researched Graceland a lot, but there’s nothing like actually being there – like seeing the piano he actually played on it and hearing stories about what happened in each room from someone as close to him as Priscilla.
“Priscilla is absolutely devoted to keeping Graceland exactly as Elvis would have known it and loved it. And the peace garden they’ve made where Elvis and his parents are buried is astonishing and moving.”
Sun Studio, Memphis
Lumley’s favourite place? Sun Studio, where Elvis made his first record, That’s All Right, Mama in 1954. “The thought of him politely going in there and putting down his $4 and saying to the woman at the desk that he didn’t sound like anyone else… And he was right!”
No Elvis pilgrimage would be complete without a suitcase of memorabilia – “every little bit of stuff I could come back with I did, books, matches, clothes, you name it – and a shopping trip to Lansky’s, the stylish Memphis clothes shop he patronised. “I bought a lovely green Elvis jumper for Jamie, my completely grown-up son who’s been well-schooled in Elvis obsession because I’ve trained him.”
Elvis performs in Milwaukee in 1977
“Priscilla apparently suggested those big bling jumpsuits he wore in the 1970s because of all his gyrations. If he’d worn a shirt and trousers they’d have become separated and he’d have looked a mess. We all look back at those suits now and giggle, but in the 1970s it was the height of cool!”