Joanna Lumley profile: She's nobody's Patsy

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IF ACTORS shouldn't work with children or animals then after the events of last week, when Joanna Lumley ambushed the immigration minister on behalf of the Gurkhas, it's true to say the politicians shouldn't work with actors. Thespians are better orators and their foreheads don't gleam with quite so much sweat. Phil Woolas knows this now.

Woolas behaved like all short, bespectacled men when confronted by Lumley's glamour and conviction. He pushed his glasses up his nose and tried to look debonair. He wasn't fooling us and he wasn't fooling this committed campaigner on many issues, most notably the rights of Gurkhas to live in Britain.

Westminster was his theatre, but Lumley had stormed the stage. As the photographers swarmed, waiting for the picture which would accompany the already written headlines of "Absolutely Farcical", she took up position one step above Woolas, all the better to look down on him through her blonde fringe with those inkwell eyes. Standing slightly behind the minister, she seemed to be working him from the back, or perhaps tweaking his bottom to ensure he said the right things. Already it's one of the snaps of the year.

Of course, not all thespians are as formidable as Joanna Lumley, an actress whose finest performances may well be as Joanna Lumley. At no time in her career has her CV been jam-packed with great roles. At two junctures, she's played iconic ones, and the second of them – everyone's favourite coke-snorting alcoholic, Patsy Stone in Absolutely Fabulous – confirmed her as a national treasure. National treasures don't have to work all the time. We're content having them around.

Last year she was involved in a project which was very Joanna Lumley: identifying iconic images of Britishness (herself not included, presumably). Discussing her preferences, she said: "I was brought up in the Far East. When I got off the troop ship the first things I saw and smelled were wild roses so they would have to be in there. I'm terribly taken by the countryside... shadows cast by deep woods. I love the autumn. I love Soho. I love villages and crowded corners of Edinburgh. I love markets, jumble, jumbly people, not frightening, horrible people pouring out of football matches, but darling jumble, you know?"

Darling jumble – isn't that Lumley? A passionate champion of the Gurkhas, Tibet, Burma, mental health, Comic Relief and cuddly animals everywhere but who retains the faint air of a flibbertigibbet. A St Trinians' old girl – the blonde sexpot troublemaker, a trailblazer in her experiments with boys and eyeliner – but who, more and more, sounds like the eccentric headmistress.

"The young ones don't do anything nowadays... it's pretty shaming if you can't sew," she remarked after being impressed by Norway's youth during another of last year's very-Joanna-Lumley projects, a TV travelogue on the Northern Lights. "Why can't our children sit round fires learning how to use knives to cut firewood rather than killing each other with them?"

Lumley, who has just turned 63, was born in Kashmir where her father was a major in the 6th Gurkha Rifles. Among the veterans she led to Westminster last week was 86-year-old Tul Bahadur Pun, who won the Victoria Cross in an action against Japanese machine-gunners in Burma which saved her dad's life. It was her mother who taught her how to make a good fire, and how to wash all over with a tin mug of water, and to love travel and throw herself into each new situation.

Her father's postings made her a child of the Orient. Aged nine she pitched up in "strange, cold, pale, misty" England and at boarding school kept mice in her knickers drawer. At 16 she failed the audition for RADA and went instead to a finishing school. Women adore Lumley and men are quite partial to her, too: for the hair and the legs, of course, but also that impossibly posh voice.

In the Swinging Sixties she was a model, and dangled from a balloon in ads for Nimble bread. She was a Bond girl, but her 007 was George Lazenby. She was a soap dolly bird, but her suitor was Coronation Street's Ken Barlow. Then she became Purdy in The New Avengers and suddenly all men fancied her, and every woman wanted her haircut.

In the Sixties she had a son (her only child) by photographer Michael Claydon but didn't marry him. In the Seventies she and her first husband, comedy writer Jeremy Lloyd, were together for only a year. The Eighties produced the marriage that has lasted – with conductor Stephen Barlow – but professionally those were her wilderness years until Ab Fab and Patsy, the preposterous, beehived, ageing, immature, nymphomaniacal fashionista with which Jennifer Saunders activated her dormant talent for outrageous comedy.

More recently, in dramas like Up In Town and Sensitive Skin, Lumley has enjoyed the kind of classy parts playing women of a certain age reflecting on life and loss that only come the way of national treasures. "I'm an old actress, I've been around for so long," she said last year – but might there be one more great role for her?

"Joanna Lumley for Prime Minister." It started as a joke, spread to Twitter and the blogs, and after her encounter with Phil Woolas, hardly seemed like the silliest idea there's ever been.

So what kind of PM would she be? Well, we'd be probably all be washing out of tin mugs and saving on other natural resources. There would be National Service ("I love the idea") and part of each day would be set aside for talking. She hates iPods – hates that no one listens to birdsong. She also loathes celebrity magazines so would close them down, along with all plastic surgery clinics.

There doesn't seem to be much room for Patsy-style decadence but if anyone could flog this manifesto it would be Lumley. Last Thursday the Government didn't actually change their position on the Gurkhas, but as Woolas stared at his feet he resembled the errant pupil about to be on the receiving end of the six of the best from the headmistress.

He should be so lucky.

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&#149 At the Lucy Clayton Finishing School she was taught that nice girls cross their legs at the ankle.

&#149 Some Girls Do, in 1969, was her first film. Other movie roles have included The House That Dripped Blood, The Satanic Rights Of Dracula and two Pink Panthers.

&#149 Nicky Clarke, who still cuts her hair and was an assistant to John Frieda who created the Purdy look, was by 1977 turning out at least 10 copies of the famous bob every day.

&#149 In Coronation Street she played Elaine Perkins for 102 episodes, eventually turning down Ken Barlow's proposal of marriage.

&149 In Shirley Valentine she uttered the immortal line: "Darling, I'm a hooker; I'm a whore."

&#149 On his final chat show, Michael Parkinson watched her slink down the stairs and remarked: "What I'll miss as much as anything when I leave this job is the sight of you walking towards me."

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