'Chin up, dear' - chatting with Joanna Lumley on her birthday

It's Joanna Lumley's birthday.  I've sent her a card, though I think she's away (on the Silk Road) filming one of her wonderful travel documentary series.  (I've loved them all, but the one when she went to Japan was my favourite.)  I've known her for nearly fifty years and I like to think I have seen everything she's done on television, on film, on stage (her Madame Ranevsky in The Cherry Orchard was one of the best things ever), but she's done so much I probably haven't.  This autumn she's doing a solo theatre and arena tour and I know it will be a life-enhancing evening of laughter and surprises.  Book now to avoid disappointment.  I told her I hoped to catch it at the Palladium.  She said, 'The Palladium's sold out, I'm afraid.  I'll see if we can squeeze you in at the Royal Albert Hall.'  Years ago, in a radio sitcom she played my wife.  Years before that, she interviewed me on TV when she was sitting in for Terry Wogan.  I've interviewed her off and on over the years.  What follows is the interview I did with her back in 2001 - in a car park, in Hammersmith.

My long relationship with the actress Joanna Lumley has been curiously uncomplicated by lust.  On her part, this is hardly surprising, but on mine it is extraordinary when you consider that she has long been regarded as one of the most fanciable women in the kingdom and that when I first set eyes on her – at 6.15 pm on Thursday 6 November 1969 – she was 23 and wearing nothing but a bra and knickers.

Since that day when, entirely by chance, I stumbled into her room at the Randolph Hotel, Oxford, made my excuses and stayed, we have been friends.  She makes me laugh.  Indeed, she is, by a long way, the funniest woman I know.   When I last interviewed her, for a radio programme, we were at home, with a glass of wine in our hands, and juvenile giggling repeatedly brought the recording to a halt.  Today we are taking no risks.   We are meeting on neutral territory, in a car park under Hammersmith fly-over adjacent to the Absolutely Fabulous rehearsal room.  It is 9.00 am: we are sitting in the sun, by her car (an unspectacular green Nissan), drinking take-away cappuccino from paper cups: Jo does not eat breakfast; she barely eats lunch; in the evening she toys with a lettuce leaf.  (She is a committed vegetarian, with a soft spot for cigarettes and fine wine.)  Despite a late night, dining with the Andrew Lloyd Webbers (Jo knows everybody: everybody wants to know Jo), she is looking bright-eyed, peachy-skinned, glossy.   We have allocated ourselves ninety minutes for a sensible interview, to be conducted professionally, without giggling.

I cut to the chase.  She is beautiful.  She has energy, style, class.  For many she is a fantasy woman.  What is her fantasy of herself?

She throws back her head and laughs.  ‘It changes all the time.  At the moment I’m going through a Doris Day period.  I want to wear perky, gingham dresses.  Actually, I don’t want to look like Doris Day.  I’d like to look more like Brigitte Bardot, with cute little dark glasses.  I’d either be cycling with a puppy in the front basket on my bicycle, or I’d be driven in a sports car, or possibly I’d be sitting sideways, without a helmet, on a Lambretta, whipping through Rome.’

Does she have a fantasy man?  (Her real men have been varied: actors, photographers, aristocrats, rock stars.  For fifteen years she has been married to conductor Stephen Barlow, eight years her junior.)

‘The chaps in my ideal world?   They’re pretty suave, Gylesy: Cary Grant and Co.  They’re good-looking, well-dressed.  Occasionally they loosen their ties, roguishly, and,’ – she is giggling now – ‘quite early on in the relationship, they pick up a racquet and, by a few deft swings, make you realise they could play bloody good tennis.’

While we are playing games (she likes games), and because the election is just behind us, I ask her about her Fantasy Cabinet.  Who would be in it?

‘Can I take several posts myself?   I want Transport.  I want to go straight back to the pre-Beeching days.  I want to reopen every single goddam railway station, halt and stop that there ever was in Britain.   That’d put the steelworks back into business laying the tracks and then we’d have the best train service in the world.  I would also remove all the bumps from the roads in London.  They’re ridiculous.  I want to be Education Secretary as well, please, so that I can make every state school in the country, primary and secondary, as good and Eton – whatever it costs.  Once you’ve educated people they can look after themselves.   And I want to be minister for rural affairs, too, so I can put an immediate ban on factory farming.  People are eating creatures brought up in contemptible conditions, pumped full of drugs, and then everybody wonders why they are sick all the time.  Free range animals, eat less meat, happiness all round.’

‘Don’t you want to be prime minister?’ I ask.

‘No.’  Her brow furrows.  ‘I think we need a bloke.  Women are quite used to being led by men.  That’s part of our job.  Men don’t really like to be led by women.  They don’t mind being spanked by them, but they don’t want to be led by them.’  She hoots with delight.  ‘Actually, what we really want is a bloke on a horse – someone like the Duke of Wellington.   Or Chalky from the Giles cartoons.  People quite like a headmaster as a figurehead.  I think we want a bit of respect for our leader.’

She is warming to her theme.  She leans forward and gently smacks her lips.  ‘I like old men.’  More squeals of laughter.  ‘I mean I like wise old codgers, like Tony Benn and Peter Carrington.  And people who have walked to the ends of the earth.  Eddie Shackleton [explorer, MP, Labour minister who died in 1994] was one of the greatest and grandest and cleverest of men.’

Because of her brains and beauty, because of her sustained celebrity – Coronation Street, The New Avengers, Sapphire and Steel, Absolutely Fabulous, travel documentaries, chat shows, newspaper columns - and the bewildering range of good causes she espouses, she has met everyone who is anyone, from the Dalai Lama to the Prince of Wales.  (She has been a house guest of Charles and Camilla, and the Duke of Edinburgh thinks she is the best dinner companion imaginable.  What these people love is her bounce, her intelligence, the way she talks about them and not herself, her old-fashioned manners, her larkyness when she’s with them, her discretion when she’s not.)  

‘Do you ever wonder,’ I ask ‘”How has it fallen to me?  Why am I sitting here on the right hand of the heir to the throne?”’

‘Yes, I do sometimes, but I don’t know the answer.  No disrespect to the monarchy, but I wonder it too when I am swimming across a river in Borneo surrounded by piglets.  You’ve just got to grab the moment, whatever it is.  Look, here we are sitting in St Augustine’s church car park with our coffee perched on my scratched car bonnet and we’re as happy as kings.  Rabindranath Tagore: “Nothing lasts forever, brother, nothing lasts for long.  Bear that in mind and be joyful.”’

 Why is she an actress?

‘I left school in 1963, aged 17.  It sounds unbelievable, but in those days nothing much was expected of you.  I came from a middle-class Army family.   We girls were expected to read and be clever and paint and know history and Latin and things – but actually to get a job …   I don’t think my father knew anything about how to get a job for a girl.  My mother had been a nurse during the war, but she hadn’t got a job.  You didn’t think about that.  You just left school and eventually you got married.

‘So I went to the Lucie Clayton School of Modelling, a month’s worth of mornings only, 12 guineas for the entire course.  I became a model because I couldn’t think what else to do.  Then I wanted to be an actress and, when I was about 22, I got my first part in a film, Bulldog Drummond, with Richard Johnson.  I met him at a party and he got me the part.  In those days, if you spoke a line in a film you got an Equity card, so I said “Yes, Mr Robinson”, the only line in my whole career I can remember, and became an actress.  By then I’d had my son, Jamie, so I couldn’t go off to be in Rep in Dundee, even if they’d have had me.’

Having observed Jo and her son over thirty years, I can report that she has managed the balancing act of juggling career and single-parenthood pretty flawlessly. ‘But in 1967,’ I remind her, ‘it was really quite scandalous for a nice middle-class girl to have an illegitimate baby.’

‘Yes, the world has changed completely.  That’s good, of course, that’s very good, but now there’s a dangerous swing the other way, so that people think that with children, so long as they’ve got some food, they’ll  be fine.’

What are her weaknesses?  ‘I’m terribly vain.  Terribly afraid of not being liked.  Unable to follow anything through to the end.  My bedside table has got something like fourteen unfinished books on it.  I crave change.  I have a terror of things being too much the same.’  Her latest project [in 2001], The Cazalets, a lush, period mini-series, is a new departure.

‘I’m not in it.  I’m the co-producer.  I read The Cazalet Chronicles, the novels by Elizabeth Jane Howard, and loved them and tried to acquire the rights and found they’d already been taken up by Verity Lambert.  Verity said why don’t you come on board and we’ll do it together.  So we have.   The story starts in 1937 and it’s really about the coming of age of three girls, taking them from their teens to their twenties.  What appealed to me was that it is at once a very accurate description of an upper middle class English family of the period – with the idyllic house in the Sussex countryside, the ponies, the dogs, going up to London to buy clothes at Daniel Neal’s, catching trains which always stop at Battle – everything you think of us as security - and, at the same time, below the surface, everything is riddled with secrets and lies, flaws and anomalies.’

I sense she has a hankering for some of the attitudes of the pre-war period.  Am I right?

‘In one respect, certainly.  In those days you jolly well buttoned your lip, you didn’t say the things that were troubling you.  Everyone kept their own little griefs and worries to themselves.  That was perceived as the British strength, not showing the cracks.  Now we’re encouraged to show everything, to let it all hang out.  If you ask me to come down either on the side of absolute candour or on the side of deliberately blurring the tracks, I think I prefer to blur the tracks.  I don’t want someone to walk across the room and say, “I don’t like your dress”.  I don’t find that’s a way forward.’  She bursts out laughing and then stops abruptly.

‘Funnily enough, what Patsy [the gloriously louche, champagne-swilling character she plays in Absolutely Fabulous] has in common with the Cazalets is that Patsy doesn’t say much about her own rotten life.  She keeps it fairly closed up.’ 

This is true of Jo.  She has led a high profile life, the cuttings files on her are inches thick, she has been photographed week in week out over three decades: she is apparently open, but fundamentally private.  If her heart were cracking, her best friends might be the last to know.

‘What has been the most hurtful moment in your life?’

There is a long pause.  ‘It might have been when I wasn’t chosen to be Queen of the May when I was ten in the school gala.  Nicky Barker, who was one of my best friends, was chosen because she had a lovely smile.  They said to me, “You haven’t got a lovely smile.”   I was a horrible, fat, furious pudding, with a face like a thunderclap – but that cut me to the quick.’  And, in public at least, Joanna Lumley has been smiling ever since. 

Has there been much sadness in her life?

‘Not an enduring, melancholy sadness, no.  Somebody said, it is our duty to be happy.  “Don’t worry, be happy,” sings Bob Marley.  I do believe that.    So you have to dash sadness away.  I did a book for the Imperial War Museum called Forces’ Sweethearts.  It was a collection of letters between wives and sweethearts and their boys at the front.  Sometimes I was the only person to have read those letters apart from the writer and the recipient.  And in the direst circumstances, in the darkest days of war, people were saying to one another, “Chin up, dear”.   I found all that rather moving.   Gylesy, I think I’m with the “Chin up, dear” brigade.’

Gyles Brandreth