Joanna Lumley

Joanna Lumley’s father, an officer in the British Indian Army, once gave his daughter some valuable advice.

‘He said, “Always present a moving target”’ Lumley tells Weekend in those famously breathy tones. ‘I thought that was quite good. Don’t get pigeon-holed into something – be prepared to move on and change completely.’

It’s a philosophy that’s served the 72-year-old well during a long career in which she has successfully reinvented herself several times over. A national treasure since before the term was invented (‘I think it’s just because I’ve been around so long,’ she demurs. ‘People have known me all their lives'), this autumn will find her casting back over the decades in her first one-woman live show, It’s All About Me.

Naturally, she is throwing herself into the 30-date tour with her usual zest. ‘It’s nerve-wracking, but it’s gorgeous as well,’ she enthuses, ‘because I always feel that audiences are sort of friends I haven’t met yet. It won’t be scripted – I’m going to fly at will.’

From her early days as a 60s cover girl, via James Bond and The New Avengers to her mid-career relaunch as chaotic boozehound Patsy in Ab Fab and, more recently, criss-crossing the globe for a series of TV travelogues, there’ll be no shortage of material. 

‘The funny thing is it all seems perfectly normal to me,’ she reflects. ‘My life seems calm and sensible and always has done. And then you look back at it on paper and you go, oh golly. I have met some of the most famous and fabulous people on the planet.’

She tells a story about an intimate audience with Frank Sinatra in an Italian restaurant off Curzon Street. ‘My heart was beating fast, because he had a reputation for walking on the wrong side of the wind, sometimes. But he was charming. We sat on the floor and listened to him singing with a piano, just as if it was a private show. I shall pinch myself forever.’

Despite the jazz hands title, the show will also touch on the parts of her life that haven’t been quite so… well, fabulous. 

‘It’s foolish to pretend it’s all been easy-peasy and a piece of cake, because it hasn’t,’ she says. ‘But often the things that are pretty shabby are where you find yourself making huge friends, or laughing your heart out in the wings. Life is life,’ she adds, quoting Longfellow (via Ella Fitzgerald): ‘Into each life, some rain must fall.’

Lumley is a daughter of Empire. Born in Srinigar, British India, where her father was serving in the 6th Queen’s Own Gurkha Rifles, she spent time in Hong Kong and Malaya, as well as Kent and a convent school in Sussex. 

At 16, having tried and failed to get into RADA, she turned to modelling, just as the likes of Mary Quant and David Bailey were establishing London as the world’s fashion capital. ‘It was pretty exciting,’ she recalls. ‘Dragging your great bag of accessories and your photograph around on the Tube, trying to get a job. The buzzy feeling of being sent off to Paris and Spain and Portugal and Italy and Austria. I travelled a lot – even to Russia, in the grip of the Cold War.’

But just as London was reaching the height of its 60s swing, she became pregnant with James, her son by photographer Michael Claydon. ‘I’d never really intended to be a model – I sort of fell into it as a way of earning money – so it seemed a perfect time to draw a line under it and try my hand at acting. Even though I’d done nothing remotely like that, except for being in school plays, where I mostly played men with beards, because I was tall.’

An actor friend, Richard Johnson, arranged for her to say a line in a film he was making, so she could get her Equity card. ‘I had to say, “Yes, Mr Robinson”. So that’s how I sort of jumped in through the back window. I got into films before I got into television, then worked my way round to theatre, all the time slightly fibbing, pretending I’d done things I hadn’t.’

One of her first roles (in which she doubled her dialogue to two lines) was as the brainwashed ‘English Girl’ in the Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

‘Being in a Bond film, especially in those days, was just exceptional – there was something quite wild about it,’ she says. ‘We arrived in Switzerland and took over a whole village – locked it down. We lived there for two months – just the Bond girls, up there with Telly Savalas and Diana Rigg and George Lazenby. It was just thrilling, and I got something like £100 a week, which seemed to me beyond riches.’

More screen work followed, including a short stint on Coronation Street (where she rejected Ken Barlow’s proposal of marriage) but, as a former model, the future BAFTA winner and Tony nominee struggled to be taken seriously. ‘Nowadays, people can’t wait to put Lily Cole into a play, or Cara Delevingne into a film, and be proud of them. But in those days we were treated so disdainfully. So I thought, the only thing to do is not to moan and groan: just keep your head down, pick up all the jobs you can – because I was trying to bring up my small boy – and keep smiling.’

A game-changing role came in The New Avengers, the mid-70s reboot of the stylish 60s spy caper, in which she beat 800 applicants to bag the part of Purdey – a martial arts expert and former Royal Ballet dancer whose distinctive short bob haircut became a global sensation; what ‘the Rachel’ was to the 90s, ‘the Purdey’ was to the 70s.

‘I remember the call sheet one day had me doing scenes from five different shows on the same day,’ she recalls. ‘So I had this cunning ruse that if I could keep my hair roughly the same, and wear the same gold earrings, I wouldn’t get caught out on continuity things, and I would be able to duck and dive a bit.’ In other words: always present a moving target.

Another iconic role was Sapphire, the enigmatic ‘time agent’ in ITV’s brilliantly spooky teatime chiller Sapphire & Steel. 'The writing was quite exceptional,' says Lumley. 'It was a sort of forerunner of The X-Files; quite dark. I thought it was just wonderful, and [David] McCallum and I got on terribly well together. People still send me, to this day, 10x8 photographs of Sapphire and Steel to sign, and I think, oh my gosh, it’s so long ago, and yet they still remember.'

Much of the 80s was spent either in the theatre, or appearing as herself on TV (including stints filling in for Terry Wogan on his chat show). Then, in 1992, along came Ab Fab’s Patsy, the permanently sloshed BFF to Jennifer Saunders’ narcissistic fashionista Edina. Lumley, who 20 years earlier had starred in a short-lived Jilly Cooper sitcom (‘It was terribly funny but directed, sadly, by somebody with no sense of humour at al all, who pretty much killed it stone dead’) seized the chance to shed her demure, sophisticated image in favour of the faded, failed It girl tottering chaotically about beneath a towering beehive 'do.

‘I just adored it,’ she says of the character she played, on and off, for 25 years. ‘Jennifer is the most generous writer and gave Patsy the most absurd things to do. She just got weirder and weirder. It was heaven, really. Just divine.’

Patsy was also responsible for one of Lumley’s more bizarre celebrity encounters. ‘A friend of mine who organises parties said, “Donald Trump is coming over”. And we’d quoted Ivana Trump in Ab Fab – Patsy was very much a fan. So she said, “I want you to pitch up dressed a bit like Patsy, and I’ll introduce you.” Even though by this time he was married to that sweet girl, Marla. Anyway, I was brought up to Trump, who looked astonished – not a flicker of recognition that I looked like Ivana, or anyone he’d ever seen.’

Lumley, who has been married to the classical music conductor Stephen Barlow since 1986, and has two granddaughters, is an energetic patron for a range of charitable causes, from Survival International to Tree Aid. More famously, she threw herself into a successful campaign to grant British Army Gurkha veterans the right to settle in the UK – including forcing concessions from home office minister Phil Woolas during an extraordinary confrontation on live television.

‘I think that’s what fame is for – because it’s not for much else,’ she muses. ‘People often say you get the best table. Well you don’t, actually, and that’s a pretty feeble thing to want fame for. But if in some way your name can draw attention to a cause, be it huge or tiny, that’s wonderful.’

Weekend asks what, if any, experience Lumley has of the predatory behaviour that appears to have been endemic in her industry for so long. ‘I’m quite a bold girl, quite tall and strong, so people didn’t usually pursue it, because I think they thought I’d have given them a bit of a smack,’ she says. ‘I’m an Avenger, I’ve trained. In general, I’ve never minded wolf whistles, because it’s usually somebody saying, “Gosh, you look nice” and you go, “Thanks chaps”, and leave it at that. But it can get viler than that, and I know people who have been mortified by the things said to them in the street, when it was widely held that women were just a bit of skirt.’

She doesn’t have much time for shouty social media. ‘People get quite cross about things,’ she says, citing a recent row that followed her comments about Idris Elba not being her preferred candidate for James Bond. ‘We’ve got to sort of man up a bit. People seem to be longing to find insult in things.’

Recent years have seen her hitting the road for a series of ITV travel documentaries that have taken her from the Arctic Circle to her birthplace of India. ‘The suitcase is always propped half open,’ she says and, the day after we speak, she’s heading off to hang out with shepherds in the hills of Georgia.

She greets every new face in every new country with the same jolly, head girl enthusiasm. But she’s not always so ‘up’, she reveals. ‘Occasionally I get eclipsed by sadness or depression – the black dog on your shoulder. Everybody gets that – those times where you feel lousy for two or three months. You go on and hope nobody notices. And then, suddenly, one morning you wake up and you’re back again, and everything’s thrilling.’

For someone with such a thirst for life, Lumley also admits to a surprising fixation with death. ‘It’s such a natural part of what happens to us,’ she explains. ‘We’re all born completely alone and naked, and we all die alone. Death is coming for us all, and we’ve got to try to make it a good death – which means you’ve got to have lived life to the full, and been grateful. You’ve got to have made friends and told them you love them, and put your affairs in order. 

‘I’m a great “affairs in order” person,’ she adds. ‘I don’t want to leave chaos behind. I’d hate for them to have to dig me up again!’

Published in Waitrose Weekend, August 30, 2018

(c) Waitrose Weekend