Rob Lowe (AWW November 2016)

Rob Lowe And Chrissy Iley
Rob Lowe And Chrissy Iley

Rob Lowe’s arm is covered in thick, sticky, vivid blood. Shocking. Or it would be if it was real. We are onset with Code Black where he plays Colonel Willis, a soldier doctor. He’s in army fatigues, short back and side’s haircut but with the same glittering cornflower blue eyes that stared out of so many film posters on girl’s bedroom walls in the Brat Pack era. We’re on the Disney lot and we’re taking a break for lunch at Disney’s restaurant where even the salt and pepper pots are covered in mice.

The fake blood was from filming a scene where he was taking out a guy’s clavicle after an explosion. “Just a little medical heroics before lunch. It’s a tough day’s work. Actors are often asked to play heroes and I find this show gratifying and fun because these heroes actually exist rather than a guy who wears a cape and flies around. These guys are saving lives every day.”

He orders a cheeseburger without the bun and a chopped salad. “I like to eat clean.” We share some chargrilled Brussel sprouts because Lowe’s lunch order sounded so boring. “No it’s not. I have so much more energy if I eat clean.  I’m in the middle of 30 consecutive days without a break. I shoot this show weekdays and then travel to Boston to work on a movie at the weekend along with a speaking tour – in the past five years I’ve done everything from talking about cancer research and advocacy, because my family have a history there (his grandmother and great grandmother both battled breast cancer and his father is a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor).  And I also talk about recovery from alcohol and drugs. The movie is the sequel to Supertroopers which was a huge comedy cult film. They have been trying to make it for 15 years.”

Last month Comedy Central screened Rob Lowe’s Roast. Why would anyone put themselves up for humiliation like that? “It was a badge of honour. I’ve grown up with that tradition. I watched Dean Martin Roast when I was a kid. Mohammed Ali and Paul Newman. All the cool people of that era did them. They had asked me to do it a number of times and I’d refused, only to see Justin Bieber and James Franco do it, so I figured if those guys can take it I can take it. I love a good hard joke and I really don’t care whose expense it’s at, including my own. As long as it was smart, funny, it didn’t really matter to me, in fact the better I liked it.”

Peyton Manning, Jimmy Carr and various others took part in the Rob Lowe roast. Nothing was off limits. They mocked his pretty boy looks and constantly brought up his 1988 sex scandal with a 16 year old with lines like ‘Rob defies age…restrictions.’ They said he looked like a Ken doll, plastic and something that’s always close to a teenage girl.

Apparently Gwyneth Paltrow who has been a close friend for years refused to take part. “A lot of my buddies were asked. They didn’t want to be mean to me, right? But I thought it’s fine to be mean to me because I’m going to be mean to you. I ran into Justin Bieber just before I did it and he said ‘it’s way more pressure and way more difficult than you think it’s going to be,’ but I didn’t have that experience. My experience was it was exactly what I thought it would be. Really fun, like hosting Saturday Night Live on steroids. And it’s adrenaline. It’s fight or flight. You sit there and take it all night long and then it’s up to you. You go there and deliver.”

The way the Roast is set up is that various luminaries, friends and frenemies of the ‘roastee’ say terrible things about him and he has to wait till they’re all finished before he gets to fight back and defend himself. “The thing that struck me the worst was waiting for my opportunity to respond. That was hard. After the fourth person I was ready to swing back.” His wife Sheryl and sons Matthew (23) and John Owen (21) were all there. Did they want him to do it?

“This is how the dynamic in my family works. My sons are smart, cool guys. They said, ‘Dad you HAVE to do it.’ And then I asked my wife she said, ‘I don’t think you should do it and then she said how much money are they paying you?” I told her and she said, ‘OK you should definitely do it.’ He grins widely.

He met Sheryl over 26 years ago when she was a make-up artist working with him on set. She now designs high end boho chic jewellery using precious stones and ancient symbols. She’s Nieman Marcus’s best seller.

For years people have been commenting on Lowe’s perfect skin. So dewy, so fresh. He’s 52 but could pass for 32.  He’s now bottled his secrets and has his own skincare range.  “I’ve been working on it a long time. It’s a scrappy little company but it’s my own. I’m not a spokesperson and I didn’t license my name. I built it myself so it makes me really proud and gives me a sense of accomplishment but it’s also tremendous hard work because I’ve never done anything like that before. I researched the best labs and the best people who really know the business but what I do know is what kind of products have worked for me over the duration of my career as an actor.  I’ve had the best and brightest people taking care of my skin so here I’m 52 and you see the results.”

What a lovely opportunity to study his gorgeous, chiselled face. Its perfect jaw line. There are no jowly bits and he’s almost unlined, no bags, no puffiness.  “A lot of it’s genetics. A lot of it’s taking care of myself and discipline.” Lowe always lights up when he uses the word discipline. He thrives on hard work and mental clarity. “At the end of the day it’s an inside job – meaning I’ve met people in their eighties but their spirit is young and it makes them look young. I’ve met people I their 30s whose spirits are so old they seem old before their time. A huge part of it is your outlook on life.”

So he has the wisdom and experience of a 52 year old and the face and body of a 32 year old. “I feel that your whole life builds to this moment. You have the experience of getting to this point. You’re in your full power and able to enjoy it. Be able to prioritise and not be confused about what’s important. That’s a big thing.” Does he mean having a clear mind that’s not befuddled with alcohol or drugs? “That for me has been so long I can barely remember NOT having a clear mind and it’s about having a very clear sense about what you want that makes life so much easier.” Has he always had that? “No, no no. at different phrases. But I always knew I wanted to be an actor when I was a kid. I never had that thing that people don’t know what to do with their lives.

The food arrives and he tucks in. He disentangles a microphone from his khakis.  “My character is a military medic, a trauma doctor. Everybody else works for the Los Angeles County Hospital. In this particular episode I’m back in the field, hence I’m in my fatigues.”

When he had to play the part of the Pope in You Me & the Apocalypse (filmed in London) he read the Bible from cover to cover. What research did he do to play a trauma doctor? “Oh, we have one on the show who is advising us but I researched it as well. There’s a lot of reading about medicine. I have a lot of friends who are in service and you can go to a medical bootcamp. They have that here. After lunch I have a fake torso in my dressing room that I can practise on. I’ll be doing sutures (stitching it up) on that.”

Did his friends in the military come back from tours with horrific stories? “We don’t really talk about the bad stuff.  We’ve just revealed in this story that my character was court marshalled in Iraq and found innocent.  We know he was on trial for his life. That’s what I love about this show. It feels real. When they asked me to come on for this season I was struck with its authenticity. Nurses and doctors around the country will tell you that Code Black is their favourite show because it’s real.  It’s not BS you know. These people aren’t banging in the closet of the hospital every day.”

He doesn’t get to bang anybody? “Not yet but there’s time…” he jokes.  “It’s the authenticity of the detailing that I love so much. And I’m working with Marcia Gay Harding. She’s got an Oscar at home so the calibre of acting is high.”

Lowe does not have an Oscar at home even though in my head he got one for playing Doctor Jack (surname) in Liberace. He was Liberace (Michael Douglas’s) cosmetic surgeon. The prosthetics he wore for the pulled-too-tight face lift were in themselves a work of art. “He was my first doctor.” Perhaps he was the inspiration for a skincare regime because his face alone would put anyone off attempted surgery. “That’s for sure.”  He was nominated for a Golden Globe but lost to Jon Voight. He’s completely gracious about that of course. “I’ve never done anything that got more reaction from my peers than that.”

Doctor Jack Startz was part of the reinvention of Rob Lowe in a way. It showcased his talent as a comedic actor, a talent which he honed so brilliantly for Parks and Rec (with Amy Poehler) and The Grinder (add description?). For Lowe, Dr Jack Startz was a stand-out moment. “I would proudly put it up with The West Wing in terms of my work.” The West Wing. What can we say about The West Wing? A landmark television series set in The White House. Some critics say that it, along with The Sopranos reinvented television as an art form. It was the start of television being cooler than movies. And Lowe was right there as press Secretary Sam Seaborn.  Without The West Wing there would have been no House of Cards.  Without Sam Seaborn there would have been no Frank Underwood.  Imagine Aaron Sorkin’s words coming out of Rob Lowe’s mouth. Brilliance. There are always rumours of a revival. “I’ve heard that people want it but I’ve not heard that it’s a viable thing. Until Aaron Sorkin decides to do it, we don’t know.  The West Wing was all about him.”

It could be set in the Clinton or Trump administration. “Let’s hope it’s the Seaborn administration,” he says excitedly. Trump or Clinton? “Well…I’ve met them both and I like both of them personally. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Clinton’s.  They were so supportive of The West Wing.”

At one point there was talk of Lowe’s life imitating art and taking on a political career. Would he ever consider running for office? “Not in this climate. It’s so unnecessarily bruising.” He was very vocal to his 1.2 million Twitter followers about Brexit. “I think now is our (America’s) Brexit moment. It feels as if there is a bit undercurrent of change that people want and dissatisfaction. The question is what are they really going to do? I’ve followed Brexit really closely. Watched it unfold as the vote came in and it’s a sort of similar situation here where a whole group of people think it could never happen and a whole group who want it to.”

After a lengthy decision we summarise Brexit as people who want to be European first and English second and people who want to be English first. “You’re either one or the other, there’s no in between and that’s what’s happening here. I hate election season. I used to love them. They’re so divisive, unnecessarily so on both sides and it grosses me out.  I believe no matter how diametrically opposed people are politically, if you sat them at a table you could think of a couple of things they could agree on. I would say let’s just focus on those things and get moving but everything is predicated on division and differences.”

I had read that he was supporting Donald Trump. “I’m not endorsing Donald Trump, I’m not endorsing anybody.”  He has a keen political eye and is super articulate but he’s less enthralled with politics than he used to be, just because they seem a little sour. “You make a difference when you do things that are still valued as art. Entertainment that is valued. Trying to get stories that aren’t debasing and are smart.”

Lowe has grown in to the smart scripts. Of course it didn’t start off that way. He started off struggling to find meaningful roles because his face was so beautiful.  He emerged in the eighties in the Brat Pack scene with The Outsiders, St Elmo’s Fire and About Last night. Does he ever see his old brat packers Sean Penn, Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Robert Downey Jr? “I really don’t.  I live in Santa Barbara and work so hard and so often. If I’m not on set I’m at home with my family resting and living life. I’m never out on the scene. “

Do his boys still live at home?” They really don’t. My youngest Johnny is in his third year at Stanford and he ow wants to be an actor. He had a role in the Grinder and also he worked in the writer’s room on the Grinder and he’s working on something that’s coming out called The Nick.  And my other son Matthew just started at law school. He’s Sam Seaborn, The Grinder and his grandfather rolled into one.” (The Grinder is a show about an actor playing a lawyer. His role gets cancelled and instead of finding work as an actor he decides he can work in a law firm.)

Do his boys keep him in touch with current younger thinking? “Yes without a doubt. They are very much my sounding board for so much. I’m not interested in what’s hip and happening. I don’t care anymore as I shouldn’t. I love new music, new artists, new adventures but the score of keeping up popularity is something that everyone should leave behind in their twenties.”

Sitting with Lowe you can’t help but feel high on his energy, his clarity, his drive. He’s been 26 years sober and he takes on his sobriety the way other people might take on a party – with relish.  He’s excited too when he speaks about his wife Sheryl. Proud when he talks about her jewellery range, rare in a 25 year marriage.

He doesn’t know anything about Brangelina or pontificate on what might have gone wrong.  “I’ve known Brad forever but not well. He’s a Midwestern boy like me from Missouri. He’s a sweetheart as is she. But you never know what’s on the inside. You know one of the things I always say is never compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.

I can only speak from my experience. Sheryl and I have been married for 25 and been together for 28 years and it comes down to picking the right partner. Most people don’t pick the right one. It’s really that simple. Because as the years go on you had better be simpatico, whether it’s about your beliefs on travel or child raising. Then you had better be legitimately attracted to them. There’s a lot of boxes to tick and it’s hard to find someone that ticks all those boxes.” Did he know that in the beginning? “A little bit. I knew she was my best friend and if I had one seat on a plane going into space I would want her to be on it with me. I didn’t know how we’d feel about raising kids together but we were always on the same page. Little things can be huge.  I didn’t want my kids to go to a school where you could skateboard in the hallways, wear shorts and call the teachers by their first names. I wanted uniforms.”

Did he have a uniform growing up? “I did not and they did skateboard in the hallways. I wanted old fashioned academics for my kids and they turned out well from it. They did well by the discipline. My kids get enough exposure to the arts at home. At school I’m not interested in that for them.”

Discipline is a passion in Lowe’s life. I’m reminded of that as he tucks into his bunless hamburger.  That wasn’t always the case? “It still isn’t you have to let your id out. You have to.” He comes to the party after all? “No, no, no. mine comes out in adrenaline sports.”  He does a lot of surfing. “Bigger and bigger waves each year. If I had it my way I would really train and do some legitimate big wave surfing. Sheryl doesn’t like me doing it very much. I try to be as careful as I can but you know it’s one of those things like motorcycles which I also have.” The blue glittering eyes go extra glittery. I look with concern or disdain, I’m not sure which. “I got one when I was 48. Total midlife crisis moment.” Couldn’t he just have a glass of wine? “That’s the one thing I can’t do. The only thing I can’t do.” I know the old saying one’s too many and a thousand’s not enough, but big wave surfing and motorbikes seem to be more dangerous. “The irony is you might be right,” he nods.

He’s written – with graphic and hilarious detail all about his alcohol and drug addiction in his memoirs Stories I Only Tell My Friends and Love Life.   It was cathartic. “I meet people every day who have read the books and it always moves me. I didn’t know that people would care or what they would think of it.  I was just doing it. It has to be something really personal and then the rest of it is up to the Universe. That people responded was an amazing experience.” He has amazing recall for someone who was out of it all the time. “I wasn’t out of it all the time.” What about a trip to Sydney – where on a radio show he said the only thing he remembered was going to Sydney zoo.  “Here’s what I remember. I remember meeting Michael Hutchence and the guys from INXS on the first night. That’s sort of writes its own narrative, doesn’t it? Then there was the zoo and a tattoo parlour.”

I lift up the sleeve of his khaki tee to see the bicep tattoo. “It was a little koi fish. Really tiny. I would be like here is my tattoo and there was this dainty little thing. When I got sober I needed my own wildness so I got a bigger tattoo because I’m gonna show them I’m still a badass.”  If you peer closely you see a tiny fish in what appears to be green swirling waves. Is he sure that in the teeny tattoo he didn’t have some other girls name in it and had to have the waves scrolled over it so Sheryl wouldn’t see? “No, she was with me. That was at the beginning of our courtship. I do remember what’s worth remembering.”

He remembers only vaguely visits to the Playboy mansion. “But I haven’t been there in so many years.”

I order expresso after my lunch. Lowe declines. “I have about 12 a day. Coffee is the last man standing for me. I’ve gotta have something right?”

He tells me, “There was a great white shark attack on my surf beach a few weeks ago where a guy got eaten. It’s on You Tube. Santa Barbara shark attack. I worry about sharks when I go spear fishing with my son. You go in the ocean with a weight belt to keep you down, fins and a snorkel. You hold your breath. You are not scuba diving. You are breath holding. You dive down with a spear gun and you shoot whatever there is to shoot. Sea bass, whatever. I love it. My son had a tiger shark charge at him at 90 feet in Hawaii at Christmas. He was lucky.”

Doesn’t that scare him? “I respect it.” Seriously he is a fear junkie. Perhaps fear has replaced alcohol as a vehicle to an altered state.

If he could edit your own life what would he change? “Nothing and that’s the best you could hope for.” He’s an emotional man, sentimental even. Can he remember the last time he cried? “Oh yes, three weeks ago. My favourite dog, one that I wrote about in the book Buster, the Jack Russell, we had to have him put down. He was sixteen. My oldest son Matthew is very stoic. The younger is very emotional. I went into Matthew’s bedroom and he was crying.  I got into his bed to hold him. He’s 23 years old. He’s a man. It was a sad beautiful moment. I was happy that I had raised a young man who could still cry over his dog.” Tears start to appear in both of our eyes.

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.

Click here to read Chrissy’s interview with Jennifer Saunders