As Joanna Lumley’s one woman show - It’s All About Me - comes to Scotland, she gives a sneak preview and it’s absolutely fabulous, finds Janet Christie
The Edinburgh International Television Festival is heaving, packed with delegates on every level of the conference centre, throngs in the lobby, crowds on the stairs and some kind of speed dating commissioning editors meet pitching wannamakers event going on at the end of the space. Next to it, there’s a gaggle of journalists, with lights, cameras, clipboards, and at its centre is actor, comedian, presenter and activist Joanna Lumley, poised, tall at 5ft 7in plus heels in a long monochrome floaty shirt, luminous with her corona of blonde hair and megawatt smile, and she’s holding forth.
“My number one tip for a career in showbusiness? Everyone has the same tip, which is don’t go there! Particularly on the acting side.”
She pauses for a beat while everyone laughs then continues, sincere, “But if you can’t live without it, then never give up! Take on everything, accept everything, and with good grace. Be punctual, clean and polite, because very often they will take someone who is sweeter natured – you don’t want prima donnas, people who need a quick slap, difficult people we don’t want to work with,” she says inviting us into the experience and sharing a grimace.
“And don’t drag sourness around. Don’t get sad, because everyone has stuff to deal with. Be like you darling,” she says turning the dazzle on a journalist standing in front of her, “huge smile, you’ve learnt it already!” He glows, while everyone else quickly hides any latent sourness they might be dragging around.
Lumley is in town giving a sneak preview of It’s All About Me, her first ever live tour, a 30 date stage show that comes to Edinburgh this week, billed as hilarious, as she shares interesting adventures from her incredible career spanning almost five decades. She is following up a session with delegates with a series of interviews. Gracious, incredibly well-mannered and enthusiastic, she’s the consummate professional, at ease with all of the attention, giving everyone the shots and quotes they need. Then it’s your turn for an interview and what feels more like an audience. It’s easy to be seduced by Lumley’s charm as she gives you her full-on attention and it’s official, Lumley is lovely. Everything about her is lovely.
“Were you out there?” she says, cocking her head Ab Fab Patsy-style at the melee outside, cut glass accent fading to soft and breathy on ‘there’.
“Oh how sweet, how lovely.”
I bask in the glow.
So, anyway, what does she have in store for us with her live show, It’s All About Me?
“It will be largely about people I’ve worked with, because over 50 years I have worked with some of the greatest and grandest and most extraordinary people, even if I was in a tiny, tiny humble part. Whether it’s Ava Gardner or meeting Frank Sinatra, or kissing DiCaprio, being carried in the arms of Dracula to be his bride for ever, nearly marrying Ken Barlow, you know… One’s been like Zelig, in and out of people’s careers and lives, and it’s been thrilling.”
A natural optimist, Lumley comes across like she’s having a ball, and always has done, from being born in India in 1946 to modelling in Swinging Sixties London to becoming a single mother to Jamie when she was 21. Then treading the cobbles in Corrie and almost marrying Ken Barlow, being bitten by Christopher Lee and shaken and stirred as a Bond Girl in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service before landing the breakout role of kick ass crime fighter Purdey in secret agent action series The New Avengers in 1976.
Film, TV and theatre roles followed from the Pink Panther to Shirley Valentine to Sensitive Skin (a role played by Kim Cattrall in the US version) but it was as the glamorously ghastly, chain-smoking, Bolly-swilling fashion director, Patsy Stone, sidekick to Jennifer Saunders’ Edina from 1992-2012 in Absolutely Fabulous, that won her two Baftas.
“I love Absolutely Fabulous. I know it’s disgraceful to sit there laughing at things you’ve been in but that show was such unadulterated fun. I think it’s such a refreshing thing to play somebody who is really ghastly, useless. I can’t help feeling an affection for Patsy and the fact she and Edina are so devoted, two halves of the same shell. I think people liked that extraordinary unbreakable friendship, this lovely, indomitable couple who have no idea how vile they are.”
Lately she’s been playing for laughs as Hugh Grant’s agent Felicity Fanshaw, in Paddington 2, and as a lawyer in Finding Your Feet with Celia Imrie and Timothy Spall.
She’s also been following in the footsteps of merchants and kings by tracing the ancient 7,000 mile trade route from Europe to China in her latest travel outing, Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure. Previously we’ve sat back on the sofa while she led us to Egypt, India, Japan and Armenia. This trip starts in Venice and goes through Albania, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran and on to the Chinese border, realising a long-held ambition.
“It’s been under my skin to do this for years, but we were always turned down by Iran. Then I think Mr Trump did us a favour withdrawing from that nuclear deal because two days later they said you can start filming tomorrow. It literally happened as fast as that and we went. Everything was thrown out of kilter but by God the privilege of being there and meeting the most darling, generous, extraordinary people.
“All I really want to do is show that people are just people around the world. No matter how bloody awful governments and administrations are and how much they war with each other, people are just people and we’re all terribly alike.”
As well as the travel programmes, there have been one-off TV shows such as her hook up with will.i.am for the BBC and this year she hosted the Baftas, taking over from Stephen Fry. Throw in her campaigning work, on behalf of the Gurkhas to have the right to settle in Britain, and her support for animal charities, and it’s no wonder she has enough star-filled stories to fill three memoirs to date – 1989’s Stare and Smile, No Room for Secrets in 2005 and Absolutely in 2011. But she’s never done a live tour up till now.
“It will be fabulous,” she says. “It’s utterly thrilling to plan which stories to use and I may have to be dragged off with a hook at the end of each show.”
If she had to choose one showbiz experience, which is the one that topped them all – working with Ava Gardner, meeting Frank Sinatra or being kissed by DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street?
“Oh, Ava Gardner!” she says without hesitation, of the time they were both in The Ballad of Tam Lin. “We filmed in Peebles, funnily enough, at Traquair House, and it was the year the man walked on the moon, 1969. Ava was a latter day witch with a coven, and Ian McShane was in it too, very young, handsome. She was great, in her forties, and doing a sort of comeback. She was just exceptional.”
Lumley and the other young cast members got to know the Hollywood star who loved to hang around with them after the shoot.
“Even though she was a massive movie star, even then, she loved us and was exceptionally sweet and kind and funny and grand. Frank Sinatra I only ever met one evening, but Ava we got to work with and know and love. And I adored her.”
Gardner is also the source of her biggest regret, something she would go back and change if she could.
“Years later, when I was doing The New Avengers, we were filming in Ennismore Gardens in London, where she lived. The message came down ‘Miss Gardner knows you’re filming, will you go up and see her’ and I raced up. She said ‘hon, it’s so good to see you, you’re doing good stuff, why don’t you come back and see me?’ And I went ‘Oh, sure big A, how lovely.’ And I thought she doesn’t mean that, she’s just being polite. You can’t imagine a giant movie star ever being lonely or meaning it to somebody like me. And… [Lumley’s voice drops to a whisper because she can’t bear to say it out loud] she did mean it! But I never went to see her. That’s burnt a hole in me. Because not terribly long after that she died.”
Lumley then proceeds to explain to me, so I never make the same mistake, the etiquette of handling an invitation from a Hollywood film star who invites you round to their home.
“If you are doubtful you can always couch it by saying ‘your extraordinary courtesy and kindness made you say this and I know you couldn’t possibly have meant it, but would it be possible for me to pop up and see you for ten minutes?’ Then they could say do you know, I really haven’t got the time, or please, I meant it, come and have supper. If people invite you and you want to, do it. The things you regret in life are the things you don’t do, you don’t buy, you don’t dare. Those are the things you remember and regret.”
It’s hard to imagine Lumley being heckled, if today’s anything to go by, she elicits affection everywhere she goes, but isn’t she taking a risk with answering audience questions in her live show? She laughs at the prospect.
“I’m banking on the fact that most people who have coughed up are partly interested, they partly like you. If some are abominably rude, then they’re just funny and lovely…”
Yes even the “abominably rude” can be ‘lovely’ as far as Lumley is concerned, “and the audience will suck their teeth and we can make a joke of it. And I’ve done so much, I’ll put lists of it in the programme, so people go ‘oh my god, oh my gosh, I forgot she stood in for Terry Wogan and interviewed Bette Midler and Mary Tyler Moore and Muhammad Ali.’ One forgets unless you’re nudged, then people will say what was it like meeting the great boxers?”
I oblige, because that’s the effect Lumley has, so what was it like meeting those great boxers?
“Fabulous! But Mr Ali’s Parkinson’s had just begun and he was very frail and Joe Frazier and George Foreman were taking him around and promoting a video of the Rumble in the Jungle fight. I adored Muhammad Ali, and had such a huge respect for him as a man and at the end when they cut the lights I grabbed his hand and kissed it and like lightning, he grabbed my hand and kissed it back, ahhhhhhh! She gasps, holds up a hand and whispers “my hand’s been kissed by Muhammad Ali.”
In the spirit of questions from the audience, I’ve come armed with questions from friends to put to Lumley. So was the Purdey haircut her favourite, or does she prefer Patsy’s beehive?
“They were both my idea so I love them both. For Purdey there was a model at the time, Sandra Soames, who had her hair cut short and I liked it. She told me she went to Leonard’s and to ask for a young cutter called John. So I went and told John ‘I want it short’ and kept saying ‘cut more, cut more, I want it like a boy!’ And there was another sweet boy with red hair holding kirby grips. The boy was John Frieda and the one holding grips was Nicky Clarke, both juniors and now kind of fabulous, multimillionaires through their brilliance, sensational. But Purdey’s short hair was my idea. And Patsy’s beehive.”
OK, another question from a friend, do you think Purdey led the way for stronger female role models?
“Well, I think we’d had Honor Blackman, she was the first, then Diana Rigg was a massive hit. Both top to toe leather and women who fought like men, were equals in The Avengers, so John Steed’s accomplice was the first, and I was the fourth. But I like to think that Purdey’s cropped hair, because the others all had long hair, that her short tomboy hair was good.”
And another, how old is she really?
“I’m 72.” Little point in her not being upfront, it’s all out there, and she isn’t the type.
Age has not dimmed her enthusiasm for her job or travels and she shows no sign of slowing down, despite being a grandmother to her son Jamie’s two daughters, who she is delighted to report live in Scotland.
“I’m three-quarters Scottish and my mother is buried here, my son lives here, and I have a cottage in Dumfries. We’ve all got Scottish blood, Welsh blood, Irish blood, I’ve also got Danish blood and Jewish blood and my husband Italian. We’re all mixed up. My name is in the Museum of Scotland, carved on the stairs because when they re-did the Museum I donated. It’s the only place in Scotland where my name is up, I’m so proud. And it used to have nice little finger marks where people had stroked it... I like that.”
On Yes/No, she’s firmly in the “please don’t leave us Scotland, we adore you” camp, but she has her own suggestion for an amicable settlement.
“I want to have this new thing which is Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Southern Ireland and England. We’d call them The Islands, or The Wild Lands, be autonomous.”
Whatever else, when Lumley says it, The Wild Lands sound fun.
And now she has to go and find Mr Barlow who has been spotted wandering the corridors in search of her.
Not Ken, surely?
“No, Stephen Barlow, my husband. Having not married Ken I married Stephen – the name Barlow is printed on my heart,” she says and laughs.
Married for 32 years, she dispenses a last piece of advice on the subject of relationship success.
“What you do is be away a lot. He’s away a lot and so am I. So never get bored with them, never take them for granted, marry someone you admire, or don’t marry them! You don’t have to marry. And if you do, get your wedding dress second hand or it’s a waste of money…”
Time’s up, she stands, extends a hand and says graciously, “Thank you darling, such a pleasure, thank you very much for taking this time, thank you honey, thank you,” flashes her dazzling smile once more and off she floats. Lovely.
Joanna Lumley, It’s All About Me, Thursday 11 October, SEC Armadillo, Glasgow, and Friday 12 October, EICC, Edinburgh, tickets from joannalumley live.com
Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure,
STV player, player.stv.tv