Interview: Joanna Lumley
From The New Avengers’ Purdey through various incarnations including the fashion editor party animal that is Patsy Stone, Joanna Lumley is respected as an actor, an activist, a documentary maker, and more. She speaks now ahead of embarking on her first ever live tour.
One of the many reasons why Joanna Lumley is so popular is that she exhibits the quality we Brits prize perhaps above all others: self-deprecation.
Take her initial reaction to the decision to embark on her first ever nationwide live tour, entitled It’s All About Me. With a self-effacing grin, Joanna reveals that, “When the tour was announced, my first concern was that I would have to pay people to come. I thought, ‘We will have to close the dress circle and pay people to sit in the stalls.’
“I once played a theatre on the south coast when we were doing a tour of Private Lives. The theatre shut the circle and the two side aisles of the stalls, so just the middle section was open. But there were still only two men, a dog and a mongoose. So I’m used to playing to sadly small audiences!”
Fortunately, that will certainly not be the case on this 31-date tour; Joanna will be performing to packed houses. The actress continues that, “It’s utterly thrilling that on the first day, the show was selling out across the country. At first, I thought I was scared about this tour. But now I’m so excited. I think, ‘Yeah, how lovely!’”
It’s All About Me will play to her undoubted strength: her tremendous rapport with her legions of fans. The performer, who lives in London with her husband, the conductor Stephen Barlow, says she is really looking forward to connecting with audiences up and down the country. “The great thing about performing live is the audience.
“I travel around London on the Tube, and people are constantly talking to me as if I’m their friend. They’ll say to me, ‘What we really liked about India was this…’ Every theatre on this tour will be a room full of friends. Chatting to people is pretty much what I do anyway – I’m forever doing this at charity dos. I can’t wait!”
In It’s All About Me, Joanna will recount stories from every stage of her career, including such classic TV shows as Absolutely Fabulous and The New Avengers and her award-winning travel programmes. Many of these anecdotes will not have been heard in public before.
In addition, the live show will feature a section where she is joined on stage by friend and producer Clive Tulloh. He will pose her questions from the audience.
Joanna, who has over the years worked tirelessly for a number of very worthy causes, notably the Gurkha Justice Campaign, will have absolutely no shortage of material for the live show.
The actress, who in 2013 was rated one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the UK by Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio Four, reflects that, “When I look back on all the things I’ve done, it’s an absolutely gasp-making list!
“You realise that if you say ‘yes’ to jobs, you do jobs.” With characteristic modesty, Joanna adds that, “If you’re picky, you do more great work, but needs must when the devil drives!”
Joanna will be focusing on a few key roles in It’s All About Me. She will recollect that, after some years modelling and appearing in Hammer and Bond movies, her big breakthrough came in 1976.
In that year, she was cast alongside Patrick McNee and Gareth Hunt as Purdey, the kick-boxing crimefighter with the iconic bob hairdo, in The New Avengers. She beat 800 other actresses to the part, and it proved a major game changer for Joanna.
When I look back on all the things I’ve done, it’s an absolutely gasp-making list!
The actress recalls that, “There had been no Avengers series for ten years. Our version just caught people’s imagination. Maybe it was time for that kind of adventure story again. But it was also ludicrous. In one episode, a rat ate some nuclear waste and became the size of a double-decker bus. You want that kind of stuff!”
After The New Avengers, she made a career move that took everyone by surprise, but proved an enormous hit. The actress enjoyed immense success playing the dazzlingly degenerate fashion magazine editor Patsy Stone in Jennifer Saunders’ brilliant and still widely-adored sitcom, Absolutely Fabulous.
From the very beginning, Joanna, who was handed two very BAFTA Awards for her performance as Patsy, felt sure that Absolutely Fabulous would strike a chord with viewers. “I didn’t know Jennifer at the time, but when her script was sent to me, it was the funniest thing I’d ever read. I had
no doubts about it.”
In the live show, the performer will also talk about her acclaimed TV travel programmes. “People love the travel shows,” observes Joanna, who has travelled to places as diverse as India, Egypt, Greece and The Northern Lights.
“They come up and tell me that they love the fact that I don’t talk down to the people I meet on my travels. I don’t find food revolting or customs silly just because they’re from other countries. People tell me they love being with me on these journeys and say they learn things they didn’t know beforehand. That’s very flattering.”
Scrolling back through this extraordinary career, one of the reasons for its incredible longevity may well be Joanna’s very appealing ability not to take herself too seriously. According to the actress, “It’s great to be able to find fun in things. The ability to send yourself up helps you survive. If you don’t have that, you can get gloomy.”
Joanna Lumley: It’s All About Me, Brighton Dome, Thursday 8 November, 7.30pm, £61/41/31, brightondome.org