This Christmas, Joanna Lumley returns as Patsy in a revival of Absolutely Fabulous. Donal O’Donoghue spoke to her about two decades of her monstrous creation and about her recent memoir
“I’m going to live to be 110”, says Joanna Lumley. You don’t doubt her. With that distinctive plummy voice and irrepressible spirit, the actress has already lived many lives, both on and off screen. She was Purdey, who high-kicked her way into adolescent fantasies in the ’70s, she was the iconic Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous and she was the campaigner who gave former British PM, Gordon Brown, a bloody nose on the Gurkha resettlement issue.
Now 65 and a grandmother to Alice and Emily, Lumley remains an unstoppable force of nature – a woman whose passion for ‘doing the right thing’ has involved many causes and campaigns. And this Christmas she returns in all her ragged glory as the monstrous Patsy in Ab Fab.
We speak in the dying days of November. Later that evening, Lumley will take to the West End stage as Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter. “Oooh, we’re having a fabulous time”, she says of the show. “It’s rattling along with lovely packed houses who roar with laughter.” Lumley’s accent and vocabulary evokes another time and place. She admires people ‘terribly’, talks of things that are ‘positively’ dreadful (the drought in Somalia for example) and wraps up one anecdote with ‘holy smoke!’ Every so often she drops your name into her bubbling conversation and who else could begin an interview with “so lovely to hear from you” (“Is it?” is the best I can muster).
This sense of jollity permeates her latest book, Absolutely, which is as much a scrapbook as a memoir: dancing with images from a peripatetic life and career. Hair is big in Absolutely – from the pudding-bowl haircut of Joanna during her Malay childhood to the Grand Guignol backcomb of Patsy in Ab Fab – but there are also memories amidst the make-up. We meet her exotic family (her father was a major in the 6th Gurkha Rifles), we relive jolly hockeysticks schooldays in England and are put in the frame for her early modelling days.
“It was like opening a door in your own house to visit a room that you haven’t visited in a long time”, she says of compiling the book. At St Mary’s school the wilful student was given the duty of prefect. Or “set a thief to catch a thief” as Lumley recalls Sister Jesse’s words. “She didn’t actually mean thieving”, Lumley says and laughs. “It was because I was a bit of a rebellious child and she thought that if she made me a prefect I’d have to toe the line.”
Unsurprisingly, Absolutely devotes a Technicolor chapter to Ab Fab. “I didn’t know Jennifer Saunders so when I was sent the script it was a great shock”, says Lumley of the show’s absolute beginnings. “But I just thought this is fantastic. Then I wondered, ‘can we get away with this?’ Back then, Jennifer was quite shy and reclusive and it was quite difficult to get out of her what she wanted this Patsy character to be like. I began to add some things with Jennifer’s help and also brought a lot to the table myself. I based Patsy on what I had done, like being a model and thinking one was gorgeous when one was clearly hopeless. Then once we knew who Patsy was, off she took like some vile vampire.”
Earlier this summer, Lumley was reunited with Ab Fab’s original cast – or the Five Js as she puts it of herself Julia, Jennifer, Jane and June – for three special episodes to mark the show’s 20th anniversary. “Lord that was funny”, she says, “Of course everybody had moved on. In fact, the only one who hasn’t changed is June Whitfield who is just phenomenal: she’s in her 80s, sharp as a tack and absolutely beautiful. We got a lot of people who had been in it before, like the ex-husbands and that.”
Afterwards, Saunders let the cat out of the bag by saying that she was now planning to write 'Ab Fab: The Movie'. Has she spoken to Lumley about it? “Oooh yah”, she purrs. And will it happen? “Ooh yah”, she says. “Now that Jennifer has said it, she has to do it.”
Lumley lives in Stockwell, South London with her husband of 25 years, the composer Stephen Barlow. She was married once before – briefly to the actor Jeremy Lloyd in 1970 – but in a nomadic life the two constants have been her son, James, and her husband. That wanderlust still devils her.
“I feel that I was born on the move and although we’re settled in London there are always different worlds to see”, she says. “The sound of a ship horn or a train’s whistle is a thrilling sound. I love the notion of travelling and moving. It’s a restless feeling. So don’t settle down until you feel you’ve really had a good look at this world because you won’t come to this party again.”
Absolutely by Joanna Lumley is published by Orion