Photo: Sarah M Lee

Joanna Lumley: ‘The new fashion is to be a victim. We’ve gone mad’

Lumley has played many roles, both on and off the screen. But which one is real?
December 8, 2022

I first meet Joanna Lumley by chance when she emerges from a Scottish stately home. Wearing a colourful designer trouser suit and striking make-up, she jumps into the car in which I’m already sitting. I can’t help but wonder what conversational gambit I could possibly offer this exotic creature, but she pre-empts me, professing, to my surprise, to be as keen to know more about me as I am to understand her. We bond instantly.

Lumley is a fervent admirer of the late Queen, and that day was on her way to the Borders Book Fair in Melrose to promote her book about Elizabeth’s private passions and public interests. But she is so many other things besides.

She is Joanna Lumley: alias Bond Girl, intrepid Purdey, fun-loving Patsy, champion of the Gurkhas, advocate of the failed and costly Thames Garden Bridge. Lumley the indefatigable documentary travel guide, author, journalist and #MeToo doubter (women used to be stronger, she says). Who is this chameleon? Which of the many sides to this instantly recognisable face is the real one?

My short answer is that she is a free spirit and an adventurer; a consummate actress who can slip into multiple identities. She is an optimist; she is no drama queen. The longer answer, however, emerges from a freewheeling conversation that began in Melrose and continued, after doing our bit at the fair, when we regroup in London, in the middle of the August heatwave.

Joanna Lumley is ensconced in my study and seemingly impervious to the overwhelming heat. She has crossed London from her South Bank home in a small eco-friendly electric car—a modern upgrade on a beloved former vehicle, a dangerously dilapidated Rolls-Royce. She is wearing patterned casual slacks and a black t-shirt. Her blondish hair is the result of a self-made concoction—she colours and cuts it herself, but will don any variety of wig when acting requires it.

As we speak, she gestures with expressive hands. The words come pouring out of her, sometimes slowly in carefully considered sentences; more often, to stress a point, in short cascades of phrases. “I really want to interview you,” Lumley says. “But it’s my turn,” I remind her. She decides to obey and for the next hour and more we roam across her life, views, habits and concerns.

The joy of acting is in being able to flick into a new character

Lumley has a colonial background. She was born in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, to one of those British families who made their lives in the Empire. Her father was an officer in the Gurkha Rifles—whose members are mostly Nepali soldiers—but she spent her early years in Hong Kong and in what was then called Malaya (now part of Peninsular Malaysia). Her mother was the daughter of a British diplomat whose postings had always been in what was then called the Far East; though educated in Britain, both her parents were “born and bred in India”. After settling in the UK on retirement, they found that they “really didn’t have a very good grip on life in England,” Lumley says. “My family were fabulously useless about money and didn’t have much anyway. Money never seemed to be the aim of life. But reading and travelling and learning more about the world did matter.”

Lumley never lost her love of Asia, but in her teens was dispatched to boarding school in Britain. She learned to be self-reliant, and craved independence. She had no desire to go to university or face any more exams. “Life was there for the taking. You could do anything you wanted to do,” she says. The young Lumley was unimpressed by the idea that a person should go to university to get a good job, or aspire to own property. “We didn’t want to get onto the property ladder. We didn’t want to own things. I didn’t want to plan for a pension,” she says. Lumley had a vague ambition to be an interpreter, “but it really just meant I wanted to talk with interesting people,” she says, and so the plan was abandoned.

Next on the agenda was her plan to become an actor. Lumley says she had “always loved the idea” that she could “drop being who I appeared to be and instead be someone else.”  

She was, and remains, entirely convinced that acting ability is innate: “You can either act or you can’t.” Drama school was not even considered. “They can only teach you how to refine your acting or learn some tricks.” She recalls that Anthony Hopkins, when once asked what research he did to become Hannibal Lecter, answered that he combed back his hair. “A lot of guff is spoken about how deeply we go into stuff, but largely we change our accent, or raise an eyebrow; we do something with our hair or wear a wig or do something different,” she says. “The joy of acting is in being able to flick into a new character.” 

In her early career, Lumley relied on small-time acting jobs to refine her technique. She had no illusion about the quality of the plays and films where she found work: “Hundreds of films were being made, most of them absolutely dreadful. There were lousy scripts and feeble characters. But we loved it,” she says. 

She did have one special advantage, though. Until her mid-thirties, she had a photographic memory and could instantly remember her scripts. Then she caught meningitis, she remarks casually, and the skill disappeared. 

Of course, Lumley still had the advantage of her good looks; she has always been attractive, with a slim figure and an adaptable face. In the late 1960s, while waiting for acting jobs, she worked as a model wherever she could pick up a job. She was earning £8 a week as a house model for the former Mayfair department store Debenham & Freebody when she was spotted “by a wonderful Frenchman, who said I was too good to work for that place.” He recommended her to one of Britain’s best designers, Jean Muir, who hired Lumley, aged 17, on the spot. Although she only worked as Muir’s model for a short period before she jumped off to focus on her acting, Muir remained a friend, and Lumley had the enviable good fortune to acquire many of Muir’s classics. She held onto them until recently, when she decided to auction the collection off for charity. “To my dismay, it fetched very little money.”

In 1967, in between building a career, Lumley managed to have a child—her son Jamie. Two years later she had her first taste of real prominence when she was cast as a Bond Girl in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. “I made a big thing of it because it suited me to say I was a Bond Girl. But really I was just a speck of dust, and if you blinked you would miss me!”

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“I just adored the idea of making people laugh”: Lumley with Pick in August 2022. Photo: Sarah M Lee

Lumley seems fond of self-deprecation; in spite of her great success in creating a series of memorable characters, she repeatedly plays down the quality of her acting. “There are hardly any things I have done in my acting life where I could humbly say that this really worked,” she says. 

The big break came in 1976, when she was cast in The New Avengers television series. Lumley played Purdey, a former trainee ballet dancer who had become a secret agent, fighting sinister plots alongside Patrick Macnee and Gareth Hunt. “For two years I was on television all the time. People could remember my name. And that’s one of the greatest things as an actor, to be remembered—for good or bad!” The pay was terrible, “but name recognition changed my life,” she says. “When people started to stop me in the street, I suddenly realised that I had stopped being a private person. At the time I thought I would for ever be known as the Avengers girl; even when I was old and grey.” 

She need not have feared: in 1979 came a lead part in the science fiction series Sapphire & Steel, where Lumley played an extraterrestrial agent tasked with fighting the forces of evil. Then, with the arrival of Absolutely Fabulous in 1992, Lumley found herself with another iconic role in the form of high-living Patsy Stone. She was exaggerated and ridiculous, but impossibly likeable: an LGBT heroine for years before Lumley revealed in 2016 that Patsy was transgender. It’s plain that Lumley loved Absolutely Fabulous and playing Patsy because “it made people laugh.” Pause for a cascade of enthusiasm: “Having been born a bit of a clown, I just adored the idea of making people laugh. I loved it…” 

She was 45 when the show was launched in 1992—by then she had acted in a number of well-regarded films and plays, earned good reviews, published a couple of books and worked as a columnist, writing “Joanna Lumley’s Diary”, first for the Times and later for the Telegraph. But the fame Ab Fab brought was a mixed blessing. 

Name recognition may be a certificate of success, but in a torrent of words she describes how she came to realise that being a public face “could also be hell.” Being approached by people in the street, signing autographs, sitting with heaps of fan mail—“most of which isn’t even stamped”—and having to pay for it herself. There was—she felt—only one approach to such a life: “Rather than be sad about it, try to pretend you love it.” She would tell herself, “I am not going to be cross.” She still does. “Now with selfies I pretend to absolutely love it. Because otherwise you would go mad. But hell—you do go mad. They are so intrusive,” she says. Lumley doesn’t do any social media, perhaps as part of an attempt to escape the constant intrusion of modern public life. She casually adds that “I don’t even take calls on my mobile.”

She is, however, driven by the desire to connect with people. Travel has been a crucial part of Lumley’s identity for her whole life. “I was virtually born in a suitcase, leaving India because of partition before I was one year old,” she says. “I can’t bear not travelling. I knew from the beginning that you can’t get to know the world just by reading… you have to go there. You have got to lie on this floor or take that boat, or eat that food, look those people in the eye.” She is never half-hearted: “I fall in love with countries all the time,” she says. Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and central Asia generally are her favourite stomping grounds. But new loves, most recently Georgia, have also entered Lumley’s life.

I pretend to absolutely love selfies. But they’re so intrusive

For the past 20 years, on and off, Lumley has turned this passion to making TV travel programmes, based on trips to India and along the Silk Road, and an adventure on the Trans-Siberian Railway. When this interview is published, she will likely be in the Banda Islands off New Guinea, or in Zanzibar or Madagascar, for a four-part series on “spice islands”, which grow nutmeg, mace and cloves.

She insists that the producers allow her to speak unscripted and says she is up to any adventure, sometimes staying in an Indian palace, at other times in a tent in some remote location. “It’s rather nice as long as you have a candle, a book, an alarm clock by your bed and a bucket of water in a corner,” she says. But as a vegetarian, she “won’t have anything to do with fishing or hunting or butchery.” 

Such travel gives Lumley a special freedom. In countries where they haven’t watched her on TV, people “just see me as a sort of average oldish woman. They don’t know who I am and it’s lovely,” she says. She is well aware, though, that being a celebrity opens doors, and readily lends her name and time to charitable causes. 

One such cause cropped up in 2008: the campaign to secure for all Gurkha veterans who had been in the British Army the right to live in Britain. Given that her father had served with the Gurkhas, she volunteered to join the campaign. “I have got a very close bond with the Gurkhas. I love them and they love me,” she says.

The campaign team, which included four human rights lawyers, “fought tooth and nail, on and on. But it was important to have a well-known figurehead,” Lumley says. Her popularity helped the Gurkhas catapult their cause from obscurity into a major political issue; they won the right to remain in Britain. 

Other projects have been more divisive. Lumley was one of the main advocates of the Thames Garden Bridge—the plan for a green walkway across the London river between Temple and the South Bank. The idea initially came to Lumley as a memorial to Princess Diana. From the start it had the support of Terence Conran. Lumley set up the Diana Bridge Foundation to fund and promote the project, and along the way secured the support of London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, “who thought it a harmless, spiffing idea.” The architect Thomas Heatherwick, who had worked with the mayor’s office on London’s New Routemaster buses and knew Lumley well, was tasked with designing it.

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Photo: Sarah M Lee

Johnson’s successor as mayor, Sadiq Khan, thought otherwise; as did prime minister Theresa May. She mentions that a last-minute offer of many millions of pounds from businessman and former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg was rejected. After years of arguments, the bridge was eventually scrapped at a cost of £53m, £47m of which came from the public purse. Lumley is fiercely bitter about its failure. “Our country hates new ideas. It really hates them.”

As Lumley tells me the history of her endeavours, it is obvious how passionate she was about the bridge and how angry she is about the politicians who eventually killed the project; she fails to mention the extent of public opposition to the bridge. “Suddenly it was seen as a fatuous and ridiculous idea. But imagine if it had been there during lockdown. The quietness and peace of a lovely river walk and the solace of the trees and plants given to people as they walk across the great river. It would have been magic. And we had support from all over the world.”

Self-sufficiency is clearly part of Lumley’s credo but, I wonder, does she consider herself a role model and feminist? She skirts the answer but does make it plain that she has little sympathy for the #MeToo movement. In the years when she was modelling, women “were a lot tougher,” she says. “If someone whistled at you in the street, it didn’t matter. If someone was groping, we slapped their hands. We were quite tough and looked after ourselves… The new fashion is to be a victim, a victim of something. It’s pathetic. We have gone mad.”

Over the course of our conversation, Lumley and I have been flitting around the jigsaw canvas of her life, but barely touched on her happy 37-year marriage to the conductor Stephen Barlow. It is revealing that he first comes up in our conversation when I ask Lumley to define her true self: “We are as close as you can possibly be, and yet I have often thought I don’t know anything about my husband at all. I realise that you can’t know a single thing about somebody else’s head,” she says.

The marriage has worked so well, though, because both of them travel a great deal. For Lumley, the fact that they are apart for much of the time gives them space to pursue their separate careers. Yet she also treasures the memories of lockdown, “when we spent more time together at home and talked about everything more than we had ever before. I adored it,” she says. Now they are talking even more, working on a series of podcasts, Joanna and the Maestro, in which she asks the layperson’s questions about music and Stephen provides the expert answers. “I am the person on the Clapham omnibus and he is the maestro. You will love it,” she assures me.

So what is her true self—who is the real Joanna Lumley? She insists she is an open book: “I can’t think what I am, except literally what I am sitting here in front of you. There is nothing secret. I don’t have any secrets. But having said that, we are completely gnarled with secrets like old trees.” To understand that conundrum, I’ll have to wait for Lumley’s return from her spice island adventures.