In her latest television incarnation Joanna Lumley brilliantly portrays a lonely gentlewoman with nothing to do all day but stare at herself in the dressing-table mirror. Nigel Farndale asks her what she sees
AFTER half an hour of desultory conversation, Joanna Lumley lowers her shoulders a notch, takes a thoughtful drag on her Rothmans and says, ‘Maybe one was less adorable than one should have been when you arrived.’ What! Hang on. I thought I’d been getting the full Lumley treatment: the red carpet, gold-star-plus service. I feel so cheated.
She laughs the Lumley laugh: short, low and breathy. ‘We all act all the time and sometimes we could do it better, Nigel, that’s all. I could have done it better when you arrived.’ (Before I arrived, she goes on to explain, she had been ‘rather thrown’ by having her picture taken by our photographer in a public bar. When she saw there were other people drinking in there she thought ‘rats’, a very Lumley word to think.)
Her comments, made across a restaurant table overlooking a wind-raked Hyde Park, are intriguing on two counts. First, she thinks ‘one should’ be adorable, at all times. It is expected of her, as it might be expected of royalty or labrador puppies. Second, if she is acting ‘all the time’ this implies she is being manipulative most of the time. ‘No, no,’ she corrects softly. ‘Though I am prone to exaggerated courtesy, huh huh, a weakness of mine.’
In 1986 she married Stephen Barlow, a conductor and pianist eight years her junior: does she ever catch herself acting with him? ‘He sees through me as though I were a very shallow puddle. I can’t fool him at all.’
Leaving aside for the moment what I can now plainly see was a shameful lack of adorability on Joanna Lumley’s part when I arrived, my first impressions of her were as follows: yes, she looks younger than her 55 years; yes, her cheekbones are like elbows; yes, when she smiles she displays an alarming number of teeth and looks like a friendly barracuda. And yes – of course, yes – that mellow, silken voice with its immaculately rounded Pony Club vowels does leave you with a tingling sensation at the nape of your neck.
But the most striking thing about Joanna Lumley OBE is her deportment: she glides in a straight-spined, square-shouldered way, making herself seem taller than she is (which at 5ft 8in is still pretty tall). Asked to describe herself she shrugs and says, ‘Tall and good-natured.’ Her height contributes that much to her sense of self-identity? ‘Yes. And being tall affects the way other people look at you. They think: aloof, snooty, commanding – all things that aren’t necessarily there at all. That is what “tall woman” means.’
She taps a matchbox against the tablecloth. ‘I have an extra vertebrae, that is why I am tall. It’s probably why I have a bad back, too. But, really, I’m titchy compared to models today.’ Lumley became a model after leaving St Mary’s, an Anglo-Catholic convent in Hastings, with one A-level. (She was, she says, ‘bumptious’ as a schoolgirl, as well as spotty: ‘If you had seen me in my teens, Nigel, you would have bolted for the door without picking up your coat.’)
Having failed to win a place at the Rada she enrolled at the Lucie Clayton Modelling Agency and Training School in London. ‘They trained me how to get out of an E-type Jag without showing my knickers,’ she recalls. ‘That is all young blonde women were supposed to do at the time, get out of E-type jags with their knees together while pipe-smoking men held the door open for them, huh huh.’
She soon became one of the top ten most-booked models in London – and, with her hot pants, mini-skirts and flares, became a symbol of the Swinging Sixties, too. Did her oneness with the spirit of that age extend to drug-taking? ‘I did smoke a bit of dope, but not much, of any of it, because I hadn’t got the money. When I read about young people today getting off their heads every night of the week, I wonder how they afford it. It brings out the Tunbridge Wells woman in me – you know, old tights and a moustache.’ (Although she was born in Kashmir – her father was a major in the 2nd 6th Gurkha Rifles – Joanna Lumley moved to England with her family at the age of eight, and lived in a village not far from Tunbridge Wells.)
She did, though, embrace the counter-culture to the extent that, in 1967, she became a single mother (declining to name the father) and, three years later, after a five-day courtship, agreed to marry the comedy writer Jeremy Lloyd, of Are You Being Served and ‘Allo ‘Allo! The marriage, which marked a splendidly kooky period in Lumley’s life, was characterised by her ‘visions’ and his out-of-body experiences. It lasted four months, after which they both had nervous breakdowns.
Lumley’s came during a long run of a Brian Rix farce. She became so depressed she walked out on the show and lay sobbing on her bedroom floor. ‘Nervous breakdown? Didn’t really know what it was at the time. With hindsight I think it was a bad case of stage fright. Terribly common.’
She says this neutrally, talking in clipped sentences. ‘Came from boredom. The repetition. You go mad. I’d been in that play for ten months, eight shows a week. I’ve been in many plays since and it has been fine but I’ve made sure I’ve never done long runs again. I like new things. Which is why I like filming. I only started in acting because I was interested in film. I like the lie.’ She shakes her matches. ‘The fibs the camera tells.’
Her first big film role came in 1971 in a soft porn movie, Games That Lovers Play (she bitterly regrets her early screen nudity now, dismissing it as prurient and exploitative). The film was made around the same time that she had a two-month fling with Rod Stewart (she left him after he failed to turn up on a date, having, as he put it, ‘got caught up with some tart’).
Her first big role in television came in 1973, on Coronation Street. She played Ken Barlow’s girlfriend. But it wasn’t until she played the karate-chopping Purdey in The New Avengers three years later that she became a household name. Fashion-conscious women everywhere would turn up at their hairdressers clutching a picture of Lumley’s pageboy haircut and ask for ‘a Purdey.’
A starring role in the sci-fi series Sapphire and Steel (1979-1982) followed, as well as odd cameos in films such as Shirley Valentine (1989), but it wasn’t until 1993 that Joanna Lumley again found superstardom, this time as Patsy Stone, the beehive-wearing, chain-smoking, self-centred alcoholic she played in Absolutely Fabulous.
The character – right up there with Captain Mainwaring and Basil Fawlty in the pantheon of great British comedy archetypes – was invented after Ruby Wax pretended to break into Joanna Lumley’s home to do a ‘surprise’ interview. Wax found the seemingly demure and fragrant actress surrounded by – Lumley’s idea this – empty whisky bottles and dirty laundry and on the point of a nervous breakdown.
Wax, who was to become the script editor on Absolutely Fabulous, suggested Lumley should get in touch with Jennifer Saunders, who was to be the writer, and sitcom history was made.
Lumley’s work since Absolutely Fabulous has been mixed. She acquitted herself well enough in Cold Comfort Farm (1995) and A Rather English Marriage (1998) but Dr Willoughby (1999), a comedy series in which she was the star, proved to be a turkey. Critics panned it as ‘unfunny, badly written and hammily overacted.’
Now, however, Joanna Lumley seems to have found the role she was born to play, that of Madison Blakelock. Up in Town, a six-part series of ten-minute dramas to be shown on BBC2 in the spring, has been written especially for her by Hugo Blick, who wrote Marion and Geoff. Madison, who lives in genteel poverty in a one-room flat in a converted mansion, has nothing to do all day except sit at her dressing-table doing her make-up, staring into the mirror (the viewpoint of the audience), waiting for her rich husband to leave his mistress and come back to her.
Two things struck me when watching a preview. First, it is very good indeed, the stuff of Bafta awards, with a tragi-comic ‘talking head’ style script worthy of Alan Bennett. Second, the dignified and whimsical character Lumley plays seems to be eerily similar to her own. All makes sense when Lumley explains the writing process: ‘We had weekly meetings to invent the character because that is how Hugo works. He sits there with his Mekon-sized brain and talks to you and the character changes shape. The script isn’t even like a script – I wish I’d brought a page along to show you – there is just one thin strip of dialogue. Occasionally Hugo would say, “I would like this sentence to be exactly as written.” The rest is assimilated and delivered. A fantastically freeing way of working.’
Madison copes, she soldiers on, she doesn’t do things which might appear unseemly or immodest. That is what Joanna Lumley is like, is it not? ‘Yes, she has no self-pity. But in a strange way there has been arrested development with Maddie.’ Was Lumley drawing upon her own rituals for applying make-up when she played this character?
‘Maddie loved the full laborious make-up process, what women’s magazines call one’s “beauty regime”. I’m not like that at all. My regime is to saw off the bits of nail I’ve broken in the garden.’ Oh come now. Modesty. ‘Well, I do try to look nice for things where people expect me to look nice. For you, Nigel, I cut my hair this morning. I did it with a mirror and scissors behind my head. And I dye my own hair.’ She leans forward and lowers her voice. ‘I met a woman the other day at a rather grand lunch and she said something spiteful about another woman: “She looks like the sort of woman who washes her own hair.” Isn’t that awful? I’ve never heard that before! Huh huh. Are you sure you don’t mind me smoking? I don’t smoke very many.’
She strikes a match. ‘This is only my second today.’ Does Joanna Lumley wear make-up as a form of mask, a way of stepping into character whenever she goes out in public? ‘No, no. I don’t think about it at all. I don’t think I look very different without make-up. I realised long ago that if my life was so hedged about that I didn’t dare go out without make-up, it would be miserable. What’s the worst that can happen? A photographer from a magazine might catch me out buying my groceries, big deal.’
Can she identify a moment of invention when Joanna Lumley became ‘Joanna Lumley’ the answer to quiz questions, the actress who has Oxbridge Junior Common Rooms named after her, the gay icon who inspired a float of transvestite lookalikes at a Sydney carnival? ‘l think if you have an acting strain in you, if you enjoy being other people, then inventing yourself comes naturally.’
What about her voice? After she appeared on In the Psychiatrist’s Chair in 1994 Lumley asked Dr Anthony Clare if he would see her sister Aelene (older by two years) for a private consultation. Aelene was furious and, in a newspaper interview, she claimed this was the latest in a series of humiliating digs Joanna had had at her over the years. She even accused Joanna of talking to her family in a stage voice, as though they were fans. Does Lumley think her voice evolved? ‘You don’t hear yourself.’ But if her 15-year-old self heard her now would she think her voice was affected? ‘I’m sure it must have been higher. Because the 15-year-old didn’t smoke. Smoking fattened my voice. A lot of voice actors smoke and very few sopranos do.’ Does that apply to musicians too? What about her husband? ‘Yes, he smokes, huh huh. We live in a nice yellowing house.’
Joanna Lumley seems a controlled person, seems to have what a psychiatrist would call a well-defended personality. ‘Only in public. I unburden myself to my friends. I have very understanding friends. I’ve never talked to a psychiatrist, other than Professor Anthony Clare. I used to confide in journalists, really open my heart to them. But I learnt not to.’ Damn. ‘Huh huh.’
She must have very trustworthy friends. Her son Jamie was born when she was 21 – she didn’t realise she was pregnant for six months, having been told by doctors she was infertile – and she and her friends managed to keep the secret of who the father was for 30 years. Press speculation was fevered, with Lord Lichfield being odds on favourite at one point.
In her 1989 memoirs Stare Back and Smile, Lumley described the secret as becoming ‘like one of Aesop’s fables – with an impenetrable moral.’ She eventually revealed – in a newspaper announcement at the time of her son’s engagement in 1997 – that the father was a photographer, Michael Claydon.
Was it a strain keeping schtum? ‘Well this is so long ago, Jamie is 34 now. It was a different world then. My small boy growing up was no one else’s business. I really thought and I still think now that my family is nothing to do with my job as an actress. I really don’t feel the need to herd my family in and have them speculated upon and photographed and named and paraded, I don’t think that’s right. I really don’t think that is right. The only reason anyone is interested in me is I appear on television. It’s not because I’m doing a good job – you are not interviewing a nurse here.’
Modesty again. Much of Lumley’s time is devoted to her charity work – she is a patron, trustee or director of 44 charities – that and Compassion in World Farming, the pressure group against factory farming. She first took on a high-profile campaigning role for this cause in 1994 when she broke down in tears while launching a video about live animal transport.
Last year she let it be known that she was ‘furious’ with Tony Blair when he failed to reply to her letter calling for vaccination against foot-and-mouth in livestock. Is there an element of her making amends for her lightweight day job by embracing so publicly this heavyweight cause? ‘Acting is a bit too fey, you mean? I see. Mm. Possibly. I did worry about that. As an actress you are often seen as a lightweight. Journalists use this phrase luvvie to describe people who simper about comparing costumes, kissing each other and carping about lack of money.’
But actors do do that. ‘True, but it’s exaggerated to the point where people are almost affronted if actors have any interest other than acting. How could Joanna Lumley be interested in farming? Doesn’t she live in London?’ AN Wilson once wrote: ‘Joanna Lumley’s air of complete seriousness, her self-righteousness in the name of a cause, makes me giggle.’
Does she worry that people might think she is self-righteous? ‘People have said that, yes. Like most people in my profession we are approached because of our links with television. People might think you are doing it for publicity but I’ve become used to that because I started doing it when I was 19, for children’s charities, and I knew that for the rest of my life that accusation would follow me. But I just think, so what? Let it go.’
When she goes on to talk of the ‘burden of scrutiny’, I point out that at least she is used to it, having lived with it since she was 19. Being married to someone who is constantly scrutinised must be altogether harder. Stephen Barlow once said how depressed he felt when a tabloid asked to interview him about Glyndebourne only to find the article was about his being fed up with everyone thinking of him as Mr Lumley. ‘I have to say, um…’ Long pause. ‘I’ve never known him identified as Mr Lumley. I don’t think anyone has ever called him Mr Lumley. But what does happen is the other way round. Always when we are going somewhere I book us in as Mr and Mrs Barlow, which is our name, and people go into a back flip and feel I’ve cheated them in some way, that I ought to have signed in as Miss Lumley.’
Has Mrs Barlow become an expert on classical music since marrying Mr Barlow? ‘I’ve always loved it. Expert, absolutely not. I don’t play. At the moment Stephen is playing a lot of harpsichord and organ and piano, but when he is studying an opera the house has to be silent. You are allowed talking, Radio 4, but not music because that would interfere with the score he is running through in his head.’ And is she easily moved by music? She takes a sip of coffee and stares wanly out of the window. ‘I cannot get through The Marriage of Figaro, the part where the countess sings, “Where is my happy life?”, without weeping.’ She turns back to me and smiles. ‘I always cry when I watch ET, too.’
Though she has a terror of going mad and thinks about death in a calm, almost abstract way, every day, she is content, she says. Marriage especially has made her happier and more confident than she ever imagined she would be. She sleeps well – and always tries to have a 20-minute nap after lunch – but she has a recurring anxiety dream that she is about to go on stage and she doesn’t know what play it is she is performing in. ‘And no one will tell me, and I get locked out of my dressing-room, and there is no possible way of finding out who I am supposed to be playing. It’s about a fear of letting people down, I guess. Awful anxiety. Most of us are afraid of being found out. That we’re not really up to it. That some awful, godlike voice will pick us out.’
Given her early experience of stage fright, acting does seem to have been a rather masochistic choice of profession for her. Did she consider any other careers? ‘I’ve always thought how interesting it would be to be a teacher. To influence lives. That Jesuitical thing. Everything I’ve learnt I learnt before I was 12. Everything. I’ve learnt nothing since. Nothing that’s stuck anyway.’
Is that why she was so good at the Common Entrance Examination (she along with a number of other celebrities was asked by a newspaper to take the Common Entrance in 1984 – only the historian AJP Taylor came out with higher marks)? ‘Yes, huh huh. Because it was only for 13-year-olds.’ More modesty: Joanna Lumley has been a Booker Prize judge, she wrote a column for The Times in the 1980s and she has a photographic memory. ‘My memory is much worse now. I used to have a photographic one, yes. It was horrific.’ Why horrific? ‘Because one couldn’t forget stuff. It was like imprinting it on Plasticene.’
She mimes an imprint on the palm of her hand. ‘So I almost didn’t have to take things in because I knew it would be imprinted and I could look at it later. Isn’t that odd? I could read it.’ She stubs her cigarette out. ‘A question would come up about, say, the population of Abyssinia and I would think, ah yes, and flick to the page in my head. It would stick for about five days, as long as I needed it before a test. Not forever.’ While her modesty and droll self-mockery are sympathetic traits, there is something remote and – pace her character Maddie – almost arrested about Joanna Lumley.
She has a very low blood pressure, she says, and is ‘placatory and nice’ because she hates competing and fears confrontation – but she also says that she is afraid of losing her temper because she would be ‘so hugely unpleasant’ and say things she regretted.
Evelyn Waugh’s phrase about ‘creamy English charm playing tigers’ comes to mind when she says this. But it is also, I think, a matter of her hiding behind make-up, smoke and mirrors. ‘When I’m with someone I am trying to get on with I catch myself mirroring their movements,’ she says as we are about to leave. ‘I lean forward when they lean forward, fold my arms when they fold theirs. Human empathy. If I was talking to you like this,’ she turns her shoulder to me, three-quarter profile, ‘you would know there was something wrong. But I hope you’ve noticed, Nigel, I’ve been sitting face on.’
Her car is waiting outside. Hugging her coat to her, sheltered by a tall doorman with an umbrella, she looks smaller and more fragile than she did when I arrived. As we live about a mile away from each other in south London, she offers me a lift home. When we reach Vauxhall the roads narrow, cordoned off with bollards. ‘This makes me so angry,’ she says, tapping the window. ‘Heart attacks are caused by narrowing of the arteries and that is what is happening here. They keep narrowing the roads, narrower and narrower, and one day this whole area will just stop moving. Dead. It fills me with so much rage I fear that one day I will have a heart attack myself just thinking about it. If I die suddenly in a car you, Nigel, will be the only one who knows the real cause.’
We pull up outside her ‘nice yellowing house’ – which turns out to be a rather grand white stucco villa in a square – she says goodbye, the driver opens her door and, knees together, she gets out of the car.