Joanna Lumley: 'Britain is not awful. We are good people'

Joanna Lumley: ‘Britain is not awful. We are good people’

Tough times call for a pep talk. And who better to do it than our most trusted national treasure? From resilience to everyday heroism, she tells Cole Moreton what makes her proud to be British – and what makes her see red

We trust Joanna Lumley’s lovely, silken voice more than that of any other woman, according to a recent poll, and right now she wants to give us all a bit of a pep talk. ‘Think how valiant people have been during this pandemic, how brave the carers and people who look after our health have been,’ says the actor, presenter and national treasure. Joanna has been making us laugh, gasp and cry for more than half a century, from being a Bond girl in the 1960s to the chaotic Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous and more recently the mother of Keeley Hawes in Finding Alice.

‘Think of the people who have gone on working doggedly, the people who have volunteered or who have made food and distributed to those who are poorer. All those great efforts.’ She’s feeling this way after somehow managing to cover the length and breadth of the British Isles in the brief lull between lockdowns last summer, for a new series called Home Sweet Home. ‘I know the fingers always point and say: “Oh, these people broke bounds” or “That person drove two miles too far.” B******s!’

I laugh out loud to hear that word from the woman with the plummiest tones on the planet, but Joanna is in her stride now. ‘Forget all that. Look at the people who are really doing their level best to make it easier for their neighbours, safer for the world and not go completely mad.’ Britain is not as bad as some people make out, she insists. ‘We’re going through a mea culpa thing in this country right now that says everything we do is ghastly and we are the sickest nation. Everything is our fault: it’s our fault the pandemic has run on, it’s our fault we left Europe, it’s our fault for being awful. But I think we are not awful. We are good people.’

All this is prompted by the new series, which has the unwieldy title Joanna Lumley’s Home Sweet Home – Travels In My Own Land. She skips around the country ‘like a skimming stone’, going to places with a connection to her own life and meeting remarkable folk – there’s a glorious moment when Joanna runs across the Scottish heather after spotting a couple of fitness instructors who work out with bare chests and in kilts. She looks just like Patsy but insists: ‘I’m only me in this.’

There is also one very moving story from the past that speaks to the moment we are in now. Standing in the village of Eyam in the Peak District, Joanna learned about how the plague arrived in 1665 and felt the years roll away. ‘I thought of a woman who had to dig graves for her husband and her little children, two of whom died on the same day. That really touched me,’ she says gently. ‘You feel so close to those people, because you see the actual house where they lived. You can imagine the weight of a child being carried. And a woman, probably not well herself, digging graves.’

But Eyam is remembered because the vicar realised what was happening soon after the outbreak began and shut the village down: nobody was allowed in or out. The plague was stopped in its tracks. ‘Not one of them broke bounds. Even though hundreds of people died in the village, they never let it out. Therefore none of the neighbouring villages were contaminated. That’s heroism.’ And that’s the kind of people we still are, she insists. ‘The parallels with now are extraordinary.’

Joanna, 74, is speaking from her home in Lambeth, South London, where she lives with her husband, the conductor and composer Stephen Barlow. ‘The thing that broke my heart during the first lockdown was that they locked all the children’s playgrounds around here,’ she says.

The room behind her on Zoom looks exactly as you would expect, with a high ceiling and period colours on the walls and a decent bookshelf with ornaments from around the world. Normally they would both be on the road a lot of the time: Stephen conducting orchestras and Joanna making travelogues or dramas like Finding Alice, the dark comedy about grief for which she has been getting rave reviews. Isn’t it a bit much being together all day, every day? ‘Yeah, but we’ve got a big house, we’ve got a garden. I’ve been working hard anyway, writing and reviewing books and doing voiceovers and commercials. We’ve read lots of books, we’ve tidied rooms and gone through files, chucked stuff out and got things in order. I’m a Bafta judge, so I can say with hand on heart: “I have to watch a film all afternoon!”’

Left: Joanna aged 23. Middle: In Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969. Right: Playing the hilariously louche Patsy with Jennifer Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous, 1992

Her neighbours include people of wealth and people with very little. ‘I know how lucky we are. We’re not ill and we’re fine. I know the gnawing horror of not being able to pay rent, because that’s all around us here. But at the same time, people who are in a position to be fine just go on being fine. Just keep on. It’ll go soon.’ She doesn’t hold with comparisons to wartime. ‘When Mrs Philips three doors down had her roof blown off in wartime, the neighbours went round with soup, looked after the children, took them in and hugged them. We can’t do anything like that now. All our human instincts are being curtailed. I think that has created a great anxiety and questioning about what it means to be human.’

Still, there have been moments of comfort during the lockdowns. ‘Walking in the streets and hearing music coming from windows – people determined to play lovely records. Sometimes there were street concerts. Somebody would drag an upright piano out into the road, a singer would come and we’d all stand miles away to listen with our masks on, taking them down only to sip from a glass of wine we’d got in a pocket in our coats.’

Even listening to her describe that scene is soothing, but performers of all kinds are finding it hard. ‘I’m all right, but plenty of people in my profession are up against the wall, on skid row.’ Joanna joined the Prince of Wales and fellow actors including Tom Hardy and Dame Maggie Smith at Clarence House, under Covid conditions, to record a reading of the poem A Visit from St Nicholas (AKA ’Twas the night before Christmas) in aid of the Actors’ Benevolent Fund. ‘Theatres won’t fall down but the people who work in the theatres – not just actors, but stage crews, wig makers, dressers, front of house – haven’t got jobs now. They’ll lose their homes because they can’t pay the mortgages, because they’re not getting furloughed. It’s tough.’

She described Clarence House as ‘just like a darling home’, but her new series includes a trip to 14th-century Lumley Castle in County Durham, where she delights that ‘commoners’ like herself can stay now that it’s a hotel. So is this elegant woman in a simple but classy blue sweater not as posh as she looks or sounds? ‘No, I don’t think so. I’m completely middle class, like most of the country. Class is b******s anyway.’

There’s that word again, delicious on her tongue. ‘I have to say I hate class as much as anything… I hate class and snobbery and I hate bullying as much as I hate anything on the planet.’

Home Sweet Home reminds us that Joanna is a child of empire, born in India to a military family. The series starts with her arrival as a very young girl for her first visit to England on board a ship that would become famous for other reasons. ‘The Empire Windrush would take troops to the Far East and bring army families back. It would go to Jamaica and bring back the people who wanted to come to England.’ She travelled back and forth with her family.

Six months before Joanna first sailed on the Windrush in 1948, the ship had brought the first Caribbean settlers to Britain, answering a call to help the country get back on its feet after the war. Joanna meets a 95-year-old member of the Windrush generation who turns out to live just three miles from her in South London. ‘Alan is a tremendously distinguished man who had such a tough time. We were pretty bloody to people who came to our country in those days and it makes me feel so ashamed.’

The Windrush scandal is on her mind. After living and working here for decades, many of those Commonwealth immigrants were told in 2018 that they were here illegally because of missing documents. Some were sent back to countries they barely knew. The government has tried to make amends but Joanna is not impressed. ‘I think they’ve upped the compensation from some derisory amount to £10,000 or something. Not enough, but better than before.’

She’s known as a campaigner, having helped the Gurkhas – with whom her father served – win the right to settle in Britain. ‘I was born in India and my father was born in India, which made us outsiders,’ she says. So where is home? ‘Having been born and brought up in the Far East and travelled so much, you’re a proud onlooker. I don’t feel like I’m from any particular country, but this is my home.

Of course I belong here. This is where I pitch my tent.’ She’s well aware of having had advantages in life compared to some of her fellow passengers. ‘I’ve always been lucky. I’ve always been fit. I didn’t have to wear glasses or braces on my teeth when I was young, so I wasn’t teased. I was good enough at games, so I wasn’t mocked for being weak. I wasn’t discriminated against.

So I’ve always been conscious of people who are made to feel different and like outsiders. I can’t stand it. This new series is trying to show how important everyone is in making this country great.’

Joanna was educated by nuns, then went to the Lucie Clayton Charm Academy – a modelling agency and school that aimed to teach young women how to speak and behave in upper-class society – before becoming a model. Her acting break came as an uncredited Bond girl in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In Home Sweet Home she turns up at the Aston Martin factory and gets to drive a replica of the Bond Aston Martin worth nearly £3 million. ‘Going back to being a Bond girl was just gorgeous. A lovely indulgence.’

Is it true she claims to have kissed every actor who’s played James Bond? She laughs. ‘People have slightly misread that, as if I was in a steamy relationship with them all and absolutely giving them each a major snog. What I’m saying is I have given all of them a mwah-mwah,’ she says, miming the sort of peck on both cheeks you might get at a movie premiere. ‘But yes, I am old enough to have kissed all the Bonds, from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig.’

She also played the high-kicking Purdey in The New Avengers, as close to a female 007 as anyone got in the 70s. So what does she think of the idea that a woman should play Bond when Daniel Craig goes? ‘I don’t know about that,’ she says sceptically. ‘Ian Fleming took such care to describe Bond that if you want to use a woman, you might just write a different story. I can’t see the point in hanging on to the Bond-ness of it [in those circumstances]. I don’t think she should be called Joanna Bond. Bond was a man.’

Her own films include the Pink Panther series, a Dracula movie with Christopher Lee, Shirley Valentine, The Wolf of Wall Street (in which she kissed Leonardo DiCaprio) and the second Paddington. Sapphire and Steel followed The New Avengers on television and then came Patsy, the drunken foil to Jennifer Saunders’s Edina in the long-running Absolutely Fabulous series and movie. ‘Quite often the incarnations I’ve had have been good people. Patsy was not good, she was a bad person… but she was a funny person so that was OK because the British love to laugh at people.’

Over the past ten years Joanna has also used her fame to make ambitious and impressive travel documentary series, including the Nile, Siberia, Haiti and Japan, although that market has got crowded. ‘Michael Palin kicked it off but now everybody’s doing it: Stephen Fry, Sue Perkins. You name it, somebody’s been there before you. The world has become very small in terms of what has not been done.’

They even ran into a rival crew in the Outer Hebrides. ‘We were filming on Uist and Jeremy Clarkson’s show The Grand Tour was up there, too. They had 45 people all dressed in Grand Tour uniforms. We felt very small.’ There were only six people on Joanna’s crew, hastily assembled when a planned series on the ancient spice route became impossible. ‘We were very flexible, being that number. We were scrupulous about Covid. We had to take lots of separate vehicles. We were all tested again and again. We all wore masks.’

Joanna bristles a little when I mention reports that people of an age similar to her own are more vulnerable to feeling overwhelmed by the constant bad news about Covid.

  Left: With her husband Stephen Barlow. Right: Extolling Britain’s virtues – and standout sights – in her new TV series Home Sweet Home

‘Some people of a certain age are more afraid of all kinds of things than others. Some people are afraid that maybe if they go round to the corner shop they will catch it.’ She thinks a moment and softens. ‘Fear is awful. It’s so sad. I hate the way that every day on the news they tell you how many people have died. They don’t say how many babies have been born or how many people have been tested positive but haven’t got the symptoms. They only tell us bad news to scare us. A lot of people have become very afraid. I hate that.’ I remember hearing Joanna once say that she thought about death every day. Is that still true? ‘Yes, I do. I take a lot of wisdom from the natural world. There’s a pattern to our days and nights and to our seasons. There’s a pattern to living and dying. We go to sleep and we haven’t the smallest idea how it’s going to be. We are not ourselves until we wake up again.’ So what does she take from that? ‘Don’t be afraid of being asleep and don’t be afraid of dying, because it’s just going to happen. It’ll be like going to bed at night-time. Everything is completely normal. Just do your best, all will be well. That’s what I believe, anyway.’

Having travelled so much and met so many people of different faiths and traditions, what does she believe happens next? ‘My faith is in the natural world, which will gather me back into its lovely, earthy bosom. Doesn’t matter who you are, how grand or how humble you were in life, nothing’s left. We go to ash, we’re buried in the earth, we evaporate and we’re gone, turned back into something else. A kind of reincarnation, if you’d like to call it that. We are all reused and recycled. That’s going to happen.’

She still has room for a comforting vision of heaven, though. ‘I like to think that Beethoven and Elvis will be waiting at the Pearly Gates to welcome me in. And then, because I’m English, Shakespeare will be just behind them.’

And Joanna Lumley sighs happily, trying to keep her own spirits up as well as yours and mine. ‘It’s a kind of self-discipline, isn’t it? You just jolly well go on.’

Joanna Lumley’s Home Sweet Home – Travels In My Own Land is on ITV, Tuesdays at 8pm

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