In the study of her London abode, Joanna Lumley, 75, looks very much at home surrounded by paintings and wall to wall books. Even on Zoom, the room emits a warm, fascinating and inviting atmosphere – much like its owner. “I’m just thrilled to be with you,” she grins. Glancing around her, she smiles and shrugs apologetically, “It’s a rather chaotic room.”
This accomplished actress and former model, a ‘Dame’ no less (she received an OBE in 1995 and a DBE this year) is synonymous with her role as the Bolly-swigging Patsy Stone from the hit sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, which ran from 1992 to 2012. Other notable roles include performances in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Coronation Street, Shirley Valentine, James and the Giant Peach, Ella Enchanted, Corpse Bride, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Are You Being Served? She most recently starred in Falling for Figaro with Australia’s Danielle MacDonald. She also hosts a travel program, Joanna Lumley’s Great Cities of the World.
A human rights activist, Lumley also supports animal welfare groups and has been a vegetarian for 40 years. In her personal life, she has been married to conductor Stephen Barlow since 1986, with whom she spends her time between their London and Scotland homes. She raised a son, Jamie, now 55, as a single parent after she split with then partner, photographer Michael Claydon.
Promoting her latest book, A Queen for All Seasons: A Celebration of Queen Elizabeth II on her Platinum Jubilee, Lumley, never disappointing is chatty and full of wisdom and humour.
You’ve published several books and memoirs – did you ever consider writing a book like A Queen for All Seasons?
Never in a million years! For starters, I am not a biographer and I am not a historian. So, it didn’t cross my mind that I would be a suitable writer, a suitable author for such a book. And remember, the books about the Queen, well, they would fill this entire library.
So, how did you get you get your head around such a daunting task?
Well, as one gets older, it’s rather like an old tree, you get more apps, you get more rings, and you become more confident. And once I settled down to do it, like everything, if you just put your mind to it, stop flapping about and start working, start doing it, stop running away from it, I found it was unbelievably enjoyable.
What was the goal?
I wanted it to be that if she would ever read the book, and I know she doesn’t read books about herself, but if the family read it, they would say that this is lovely. I wanted it to be like a bouquet of things and all the different encounters across the world, some she would remember and some she would never have known about, some like the great Russian visitor Kristof coming and staying at Windsor, she would have remembered this clearly. But little girls waving a flag in the street and thinking the Queen had looked at them, she would never have known about this. And I wanted it to be just an array of gorgeous things so that now at her great age, and after a lifetime of service, it would be like a kind of glass of champagne.
Speaking of champagne, Patsy from Abfab was rarely seen without one in hand while a cigarette usually dangled from her lips. How do you look back on that chapter of your life?
Funnily enough because I do quite a lot of travel programs now, a lot of people who might in the past have said, ‘Hi Patsy!’ in the street or, ‘Cheers sweetie,’ (laughs) now they say, ‘Hi Joanna. What was it like in Mongolia?’ quite normally as a friend. Because I am now so old and I have been around for so long, some of the earlier questioners remembers me from The New Avengers, and then other things I’ve done, even Wolf of Wall Street kissing Leonardo DiCaprio. So, I have done lots and lots of different things and I have written about six books about life and I have done radio plays, television series, films, theatre, you name it, I’ve done it. So, I’ve been around for so long that actually Patsy, who I adore, is like an avatar, she’s like somebody on my shoulder. And people adore Patsy. And so sometimes it’s quite nice to put your hair up and just say, ‘Hi sweetie!’ and have a cigarette. She’s still around. And next week I am having dinner again with Jennifer Saunders and whenever the two of us are together, we just sit and laugh until we cry about what Patsy and Eddie would be doing.
Was Patsy based on anyone?
Patsy came out of my head. Patsy was an invention, Jennifer Saunders wrote her and with Jennifer we then developed Patsy. She was gender fluid, she had organs taken out because she had abused everything, she had a rough childhood, she was a sort of useless creature but brilliant in many ways. She was the most complicated ridiculous character and I adored her.
Some of us remember you from The New Avengers, back in the 70s. Are you nostalgic for that time in your life? And the way in which we would watch our favourite shows?
I think that a lot has changed since then. I think the whole social media thing has changed life for all of us forever. And I think people are more cynical, more critical. In those days there were just very few television channels and very few shows to choose from. America always had more, but here in the UK we’d have maybe three or four channels, finished. And so, you’d look and go, ‘Oh, we can watch that tonight.’ So, I am nostalgic for those things where the next day everybody would have watched a show, seventy, eighty million people would watch an episode in this country. It was a different time, when everybody knew a show and you’d have that water cooler moment of standing and talking about it. That doesn’t happen so often now, particularly as we can watch programs at any time we want, so you don’t have that wonderful thing of everybody watching at the same time. I miss that.
Through your research on the Queen I was wondering what was the biggest surprise about her?
A lot of people commented on the Queen’s sixth sense. And I thought, I wonder if this is something she’s got or this is something she’s developed, an acute sensitivity to people and to animals, horses, and dogs, but also people who are maybe shy or in distress or stumbling.
Can you think of an example?
There was one story which touched me terribly. It was about a doctor who had been working on a leper and had seen the most awful things: tragedies, war and children, limbs and blood and death and horrors. And he was invited to a private lunch at Buckingham Palace. And the Queen said, ‘How are you, where have you been and what was it like?’ And he found his throat closed and suddenly his eyes began to brim with tears and his mouth shook. He couldn’t enter that dark place in his memory. The Queen picked up on it at once and she took some of her little biscuits and said, ‘Let’s feed the dogs!’ The corgis were always under the dining room table. And they just fed the dogs and she talked about them and just completely calmed him down. I thought that was something that we don’t often see, because we are only watching the Queen, so we see her, we never think of her thinking of us, if you know what I mean.
With all your knowledge of the Queen, are you a fan of The Crown?
I watched some of the earlier episodes of The Crown which were when the Queen came to the throne when she was very young and their early life, because I didn’t know anything about it. And suddenly it began to get closer and closer and they had people acting as Prince Charles, as Camilla Parker Bowles, as Princess Anne. Well, I know them all and I know that’s not how they speak or what they said or did. And people say, ‘Oh well. Everybody knows that it’s made up.’ But people don’t; people think it’s the truth. So, it’s very difficult and I decided not to watch it anymore because I have some loyalty, as one would to anybody they know and like, and am lucky enough to be sort of friendly with. It’s rather ghastly. I mean think of somebody imagining what you say in your own life and then it becoming something that’s spread around the world and people believing it’s the gospel truth. It must be agonising. So, I thought I should step away from that. I know they’ve got marvellous actors and I believe it’s beautifully done and so on, but I just couldn’t bring myself to watch it because it’s made up.
You’ve met the Queen many times. What was it like when you received your first title?
The Queen gave it to me at Buckingham Palace and actually she says something kind to you, like, ‘I do hope that you are going to continue filming,’ or she makes some remark as the lovely medal is put on you and you curtsy again and you go away. So, you don’t really talk to her. But you have a feeling that she knows who you are and she’s recognised you at that point. I have been invited to a private lunch at Buckingham Palace, and that really is something because you are in the Queen’s private quarters and you go into a sitting room with other people and it’s just charming and kind of a friendly household. And then the Queen comes in, she’s got her little dogs running at her feet, and she’s so friendly and lively and has a drink and talks to people. And she said to me, ‘Shall we go into lunch?’ (laughs) And she followed along behind me, it was so surreal really, so surreal. Utterly charming, absolutely lovely. She has these kind, wise, blue eyes that stare back at you, quite friendly but they look into your soul a bit. And you always talk rubbish, I don’t know why, you just start talking rubbish. I think you are anxious about it because people have said, ‘First you must say Her Majesty and Your Majesty and then you must say ma’am, you mustn’t say mahm, you say ma’am, to rhyme with ham.’ And then you’re told that you must do this and you must do that, like you never start the conversation, so you are so tied up with the things you might do wrong and insult her that you usually just go mad a bit. (laughs)
You also met Princess Margaret?
Yes. I absolutely loved her. She was very vivacious. She had, it seemed, quite a naughty streak in her. She was funny and lively and I think a bit disobedient. And she loved theatre, she loved the arts, she could apparently sing like a dream, she could play a piano. She was just a lively and a gorgeous person.
You referred to your age earlier. You seem very fit – how do you keep up your energy?
I put a lot of it down to, funnily enough, being a vegetarian. Since 40 odd years ago I gave up eating meat and fish and I’m full of energy, I am fine. But as one gets damned old and I am miles older than you (laughs) I think that if you can, I am very good at doing what Churchill used to do, which is have a nap for 20 minutes or for 10 minutes, power naps. I can just put my head back in a car or lie down and when I am filming on set, rather than have a lunch I just put my head down and sleep for 20, 25 minutes and the energy comes back. I think that it also comes with, and we all know this, if you are feeling good, you have got energy, if you are feeling a little bit down, it’s hard to drag your limbs about. So overall, I think I’m lucky.
What led you to becoming a vegetarian?
I became a vegetarian because I suddenly thought, ‘I don’t want any animals to be killed for me to live, because I know I can live perfectly well without meat or chicken or fish.’
So, I decided not to even to eat oysters or shellfish or little shrimps or anything and just cut it out and live off eggs and cheese and butter and all those things. My husband, funnily enough, this weekend is leaving for a month. He is a conductor and he is conducting overseas. And I am going to go into a vegan diet, I want to see if I can do it. Because with all the things that you can eat, vegetables and seeds and nuts and mushrooms and sauces and things, spices, you can make wonderful food. But it’s very difficult for your friends. People who cook for you or when you go out with them, they have a blue fit. They can manage vegetarianism, but veganism they can’t stand (laughs). So, I think I am wavering a bit between the two. One day I will manage to be vegan, but not just now.