We don’t use the phrase national treasure lightly. However, Joanna Lumley surely is one. With a career spanning more than 50 years and showing no desire to slow down, she’s currently embarking on the UK tour of her one-woman show It’s all About Me
She looks two decades younger than her 72 years, and is charming, self-deprecating and funny.
If the anecdotes she shared with us are anything to go by, anyone who catches her on the 31-date tour is in for a real treat.
Lumley started her career in the 1960s
It’s that willingness to laugh at herself that make fans warm to her. “When the tour was announced, my first concern was that I would have to pay people to come,” Lumley says with a broad grin. Her worries were unfounded – tickets are selling well – but Lumley’s initial fears were based on experience.
“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.”
Starting her career in the 1960s, Lumley modelled and took regular roles in film and TV. Among these were parts in Hammer horror movies, two lines as a Bond Girl in You Only Live Twice, a guest role in Steptoe and Son and a stint as Ken Barlow’s girlfriend in Coronation Street. But it was her role as Purdey in The New Avengers that catapulted her to fame.
The high-kicking crime-fighter
Playing alongside original Avenger Patrick McNee and fellow newbie Gareth Hunt, Lumley was the high-kicking crime-fighter with the iconic bob hairdo. She beat 800 rivals to the part that would see her tackle robots, Nazis and giant rats, among other threats to world peace.
Looking back, she recalls, “There had been no Avengers series for 10 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!”
Following The New Avengers, Lumley went straight to another cult classic, sci-fi oddity Sapphire & Steel, before taking a rather unexpected turn in the early 90s. It proved to be an enormous hit.
A giddy explosion of laughs
As the dazzlingly degenerate magazine editor Patsy Stone in Jennifer Saunders’ brilliant and adored sitcom, Absolutely Fabulous, Lumley was an immense success. A giddy explosion of laughs, fashion gags and affectionate barbs, it took the actor to the top of the pile. She won two BAFTA awards for her performance, but even from the beginning Lumley felt sure that Absolutely Fabulous would be a hit. “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.”
Lumley takes great pleasure from her travel shows
While Purdey and Patsy are both clearly fond TV memories for her, Lumley also takes great pleasure from her travel shows and the public’s response to them. “People love the travel shows,” she says, having been on screen to places as diverse as India, Egypt, Japan, Greece and Siberia. “They come up and tell me that they love the fact that I don’t talk down to the people I meet… 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.”
And there’s the thing about Lumley. She’s infinitely approachable.
“People are constantly talking to me as if I’m their friend”
“I travel around London on the Tube,” she tells us. “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!”
Charity is something close to her heart. Over the years Lumley has worked tirelessly for a number of good causes, including children’s and environmental charities, but perhaps most notably for the Gurkha Justice Campaign. It’s this interest in people perhaps that’s made her so loved.
“When I look back on all the things I’ve done, it’s an absolutely gasp-making list,” she says. “You realise that if you say ‘Yes’ to jobs, you do jobs. If you’re picky, you do more great work. But needs must when the devil drives!”
“It’s great to be able to find fun in things”
Scrolling through her extraordinary career, one of the reasons for its impressive length may well be Lumley’s talent for not taking herself too seriously. “It’s great to be able to find fun in things,” she says, sharing something of her personal philosophy. “The ability to send yourself up helps you survive. If you don’t have that, you can get gloomy.”
There’s little danger of anyone getting gloomy at It’s all About Me. Joanna says she hopes, “Audiences leave the theatre saying, ‘Hurray, that was fun!’ I want them to feel happy and that life is great and that getting old is great and that you can still have a go at anything.”
Joanna’s live show It’s All About Me tours the UK from October 6 to November 11.
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