Joanna Lumley (May, 2016)
It’s almost like a scene from AbFab. As I enter the Soho Hotel room where I am to interview Joanna Lumley I see her precariously hanging out – whole torso out – of the second storey window. Her hand wafting a cigarette into the crisp London air. “Darling you don’t mind, do you?” She’s smoking in a no smoking zone. But she has to, she just has to.
Then it’s a warm cashmerey hug hello. She looks ravishingly good. The big expressive eyes, the trademark platinum blonde hair although it’s not in a Patsy beehive. The beehive for the upcoming AbFab movie was in fact a wig. “Darling, my hair wouldn’t have been able to take it.” She’s wearing a pale grey wrap, dark trousers, trainers.
The real life Lumley is understated and effortless but the lines between the actress and the character of Patsy do blur. Lumley likes to drink Bolly, just not quite as much as Patsy. The cigarette is never far away. “I know, it’s ghastly isn’t it?” she says in that distinctive velvet purr. Are they the same person? She laughs her deep chortle. “Well, not quite but I own her; she’s mine. I’m not her but she’s mine,” she says with immense pride. Does she give her the excuse never to give up smoking? “I don’t need one,” she says drily. It’s getting harder and harder to get the whole torso out of the window and try to smoke secretly. “It feels like I’m back at school. Why did you give up,” she says accusingly. I tell her I was coughing all the time and people said ‘you should give up’. She nods. “How unpleasant. I’m married to a smoker and that helps. Because if you smoke at home and your other half smokes, you’re as happy as hell smoking. I don’t think I’d smoke if Stevie didn’t smoke.” Stephen Barlow is her conductor husband of 30 years. They smoke in the house? “Oh sure darling, it’s compulsory.”
Just sitting with her for a few minutes makes me feel I can’t wait for AbFab The Movie. “Working on it was terrific. People say to me ‘will it be the same? Will it have lost its AbFab flavour?’ I don’t think so. The five of us are all in the centre of it. Jennifer Saunders, Julia Sawhla, Jane Horrocks, Julia Whitfield.” The five Js – that’s what she likes to call them. “And the old favourites who pitched in over the years like former Spice Girl Emma Bunton and Lulu are in it again.” Lulu is usually mocked. “Very much so, absolutely. She’s one of the Edina’s clients – and she does nothing for them – so she and Emma Bunton are pretty resentful. It’s really quite good. Instead of getting a half hour episode you just get it much bigger.” Her eyes seem to pop with excitement, not much else moves in her face. I’d been given a gift from a beauty PR liquid botox that you don’t have to inject called Fillerina, I wondered if she’d be a bit embarrassed to receive it. “Darling, bring it on! Where is it?” she says.
AbFab The Movie has been in the works for years. What does she think made it suddenly go ahead? “Dawn French made a deal that if she [Jennifer Saunders] hadn’t done it by Christmas, she’d have to pay her £10,000, so she wrote a treatment and the film was green lit in the spring of last year and we were filming it in October in London and the south of France.” I’ve heard that Edina and Patsy disgrace themselves at a party and have to leave the country they are being pursued by the police and run to the South of France. She nods. They have run to the South of France because they’re being pursued by the police. “They’re also completely skint as Edina’s client list has certainly not been expanding.” She’s only left with Emma Bunton and Lulu? She nods. “They’re divine. The reason they are such stalwarts is that both of them have appeared in many episodes and always in the humiliating position of being treated badly or being forgotten about. We’ve also got the glorious Kate Moss in the movie. She was divine and charming and very good.
“A bit of a smoker It’s so funny to be in a film where you smoke and nobody is saying ‘actually, I’m not sure the character should be smoking’. They smoke and that’s all there is to it.” I’d heard that Patsy had modernised to an ecigarette. “No. The talk of vaping comes into it at some stage. Patsy doesn’t vape, obviously. Nor does Kate Moss.” What about drinking? “Plenty of that darling. They basically have drunk the place dry. They’ve run out of Bolly. Do you remember where Edina had a little kind of bowling alley where the champagne bottles were just drop back and it was always full. Well, it’s all gone. So times are very tight when you get to that. I adore Bolly. I think a glass of champagne is hard to resist. And a cocktail is always nice. Martini or margarita – always exciting.”
I don’t think I’ve ever seen Patsy eating. “She had a crisp once and jolly well nearly choked. And one Christmas episode she decided to have a bit of turkey and was taken off in an ambulance because she’s had most of her organs removed so eating is not an option. She gets all her sustenance from the drugs and the drinks she consumes. She is a cartoon character. She would be long dead if she were alive.”
I think one of the reasons we love Patsy is because we all know someone who she could have been based on. Did she base her on anyone in particular? “No, I made her up or rather she was a character waiting to be uncovered. So many people say ‘my mother is Patsy’, ‘I’m Patsy’, ‘my aunt is Patsy’. To a certain extent maybe there is Patsy in all of us but hopefully not too much because she’s pretty ruthless.”
I’ve also read that the real Lumley rarely eats meals and prefers a crisp or a nut. “No. I didn’t actually say that. I said at cocktails parties I like to eat the crisps and nuts because I don’t eat the smoked salmon because I am a vegetarian. It was all taken out of context and it went pretty crazy. I had to fight a rear-guard action from people saying ‘what a criminal thing to say to young people “live off crisps”.’” She shakes her head gravely. “I can’t imagine Patsy cooking but I can cook. I was never taught to bake and I have a savoury rather than a sweet palate but I would like to learn how to make cheese straws. I could live off cheese straws along with the margaritas and the champagne,” she jokes. “I don’t follow recipes very closely but I can cook. I’m a rather basic cook, not a chef.” She may say she’s basic at cooking but her achievements are actually extraordinary.
Lumley is known as a woman who gets things done whether it’s aid, to her beloved Gurkhas or building a garden bridge across the Thames and, of late, she’s made many documentaries with diverse subjects such as Elvis, the Trans-Siberian Express and Catwoman (The History of the Cat) and Saving Orangutans. “I don’t think I always get things done. I think I always fight to get things done, they don’t always end up happening.” Now she’s doing that very British thing of downplaying her achievements.
“To put a soberer spin on it I am fighting for things like compassionate world farming, fighting for a better life for farm animals. You don’t get it done easily, you do it inch by inch. You get their cages made a little bit bigger. It’s never accomplished but you keep on fighting and the Gurkhas was something I was proud to be involved in but it wasn’t really me, it was a team of us. My father was a Gurkha (she was born in Kashmir, British India) and my whole young life was,” she searches for the word, “Gurkharised.” They were a family and the idea of your family being so badly treated by a government, successive governments, was something I had to fight for. A wrong was righted.” She fought for the British government to pay their “debt of honour” to Gurkhas who had fought for Britain. Those who had retired before 1997 were awarded the right of settlement in the UK.
I like the campaigning Lumley, she underplays it. There’s no fuss, no extravagance but a very solid core of a woman who does indeed get things done. And just when I am thinking how very unPatsy she is she says, “Darling this present sounds extraordinary. You put this stuff on your lips and it makes them plump? What a kind person. It’s not a needle? It’s like squeezing an icing tube. Oh my darling, it’s going to be my next Christmas present to everybody. Fillerina, oh!”
Whatever she’s had done or will have done to her face, there is no way she will ever look 70 (in May). “How did it happen? 70? Life just gets quicker and quicker. The other day I wrote a cheque and I put 06. That was not a slip of the pen but a slip of the brain. I skipped a whole decade. The word 70 on paper looks so not what I feel I am. Although there’s something rather thrilling. We don’t any of us know what 70 is anymore.” Is 70 the new 50? “I think everything now is the ‘new something’ compared to our grandmothers. At school I thought teachers who were 42 had to be helped onto a bus. Patsy stopped ageing at 39, that’s what she admits to but she’s clearly more like 93. But I have always longed to be older than I am. I don’t know why.”
When she was 18 she wanted to be 30, when she was 10 she wanted to be 18. And now? “I always felt that there is a goal that I am getting towards. An Olympic flame would be there. I always thought that it would gradually get better and I would get nearer to the heat, as it were. And to a certain extent that’s proven to be true. I mean, I’ve never worked as much and as hard as I am now on so many projects.” She has made over a dozen documentaries and is involved with 70 charities. And she’s directing a short film.
“I’m interested in poetry and the film is going to be called Poetry Off The Page. If you think how things like War and Peace which was a book made into a film, this is a film made from a poem. I want to do it in a kind of way where you learn a bit about the poet and understand where it would be set. The actor I’m working with is Dominic West. Not too bad, eh? His gorgeous velvety brown voice is reading the poems. Mesmeric. So a lot of stuff is happening.
This was not always the case. “In the early days where I would think ‘I can’t get a job’ – that was difficult. Those days ended with The Avengers.” The Avengers were in the mid- to late-Seventies, the era defined by a haircut called the Purdy named after her character in the show. A generation of woman tried to emulate this sculpted bob. “The two characters for which people kindly remember me have both had distinctive hairstyles which defined them.” She is indeed remembered for the Purdy and the Patsy.
The Avengers did indeed change everything. Pre-Avengers were panicky times. She was a model/actress and a single mum of son Jamie. The relationship with his father had ended. She married the writer Jeremy Lloyd in 1970, it lasted only a few months. “I was pretty strapped for cash. Counting the pennies before I would go to the supermarket. I knew I was rich when I could afford to buy cheese and didn’t look at how much it would cost, I’d just take it and put it in the basket. I love cheese and when I could only buy a small piece of the most basic cheddar and suddenly I could buy any cheese I wanted, I felt rich.”
At the point that she was buying the very small piece of cheddar, did she ever starve herself to get jobs? “No, but you had to watch what you ate. I worked a lot as a model. I wasn’t a top model but I was in the top 10 and used all the time and in that time I only knew one anorexic girl who recovered because a man said ‘I love you but I can’t marry you if you’re as thin as this, if you get a little fatter, I’ll marry you’, isn’t that divine? When you look back at pictures of those days, most of us were long and slender but not very very thin. There’s an effort to be much thinner now and the girls are miles taller.”
She doesn’t complain about any of it but in her twenties there was a point where she had a panic attack. She was acting in a play and couldn’t go on stage. “It was pre-Purdy and it was very hard times. The stress of everything got to me. I was double, treble anxious about everything and that little thin wire which you always think you can keep going just snapped. It was awful.” It never happened again? “No, but it made me realise we all have frailties in us. It helped me get to know when such things might happen again. That way I could prevent them or evade them rather than march into them. It’s what comes from being older now. When you’re young and you’re having a tough time, you’re struggling with ‘will I make it as an actress? Will I ever be able to feed my boy enough food? Will I get enough money to buy him more shoes?’ and all those anxieties about being a parent. These anxieties are quite often about logistics, if you’re kept late at rehearsal who’ll pick him up from school? Or who will feed the cats? If you feel you are failing them or that you are forever on edge about how you will accomplish what has to be done, it can gnaw away at you. But it all came good.”
Jamie Lumley is a photographer living in Scotland, married to a writer and they have two daughters. “He’s at the very top of Scotland and I adore going there. Even if you are walking across a moor, you never feel alone and I love the Scottish people. I am three quarters Scottish, one eighth English and one eighth Danish.” People seem to respond to the Viking in her – her blonde charisma and the force in which she gets things done.
She also used hypnosis to get over the feeling that she couldn’t go on stage. “I wanted to feel like Judi Dench when she stands in the wings every night and says she can’t wait to get on the stage rather than ‘bloody hell, we’ve got two today’. I thought I want to be able to love it so I went to a hypnotist and asked can you change my mind and make me long to do the show. Eight shows a week, week after week. He didn’t put me out but he altered my mindset. I can’t remember him doing anything except talk to me and now, I love it. You’ve still got to learn your lines and all that business but now I think ‘oh, I’m going to have a really good crack at it.’. I wonder why people don’t use hypnotherapy for everything actually.” ‘I’m afraid of the dark, get hypnotised’; ‘I’m afraid of flying, get hypnotised’.
“Maybe you can be hypnotised about losing your temper. I try not to and I don’t quite often but if I do lose my temper now either my head would come off or I may kill something.” You get the sense that underneath the glorious manners and charm Lumley is very contained. It’s all on the inside. “In Japan politeness is everything, I realised that I find it incredibly courteous and sweet. Manners maketh the man.”
She’s shortly off to Japan for a documentary. “It’ll be a three-parter all about Japan. I love making them. I love travelling and exploring. And it’s such a pleasure to bring it back to people who then stop you on the Tube and say ‘I loved that’.” Does her husband ever join her? “No. These things are done on small budgets. There are six of us, we all travel light with a particular job and I never trail around after him when he’s rehearsing his operas. I adore opera and when he’s finished I go when he’s ready to show me. If we’ve got time, by which I mean more than a few hours together, we’ve got a cottage in Scotland and that’s our bolthole where we can race up to and we just walk about in the hills, talk to each other and laze around. Sit by a fire, read books. If we don’t have time, we’re at home and we talk all the time. And we catch up on things like The Night Manager on television.
“I first heard his name when he was 13 and I was 21 and I remembered that name. There were various places where I almost met him. I nearly met him when he was 13. It was such an odd thing to remember. It’s a perfectly ordinary name. I met him ten years later when he was playing the organ at a friend’s wedding. We were both doing different things: I was with somebody else and he was just leaving university. Then we met again eight years after that and then it was the right time. With hindsight he was always the right person, otherwise why did I remember his name.”
Have all her husbands been charming? “I love the way you say ‘all’. There was one previous one and he was Jeremy Lloyd – immensely charming. Writer of Are You Being Served and ‘Allo Allo but I was married to him for about 20 minutes. I loved him and he loved me but we shouldn’t have got married. We remained close up until the time he died, which was over a year ago. I’m sad that he’s gone but his charm was wonderful.
Lumley and Patsy both inhabit a charmed world. Patsy, of course, has no charm whatsoever, her charmlessness helps to make her the hilarious cartoon she is and distances her from Lumley who is quite possibly the most charming person ever. “I’m so excited about going to Australia. I’ve only been to Perth and that was years ago. I was thrilled to learn we’re doing a premier in Sydney and will get to go to Melbourne as well. Darling, how lovely will that be!” And the thing is, she really means it.