Never mind the Bolly: Joanna Lumley on self-preservation, ladettes and playing an ageless icon

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Twenty-four years after Ab Fab’s Patsy Stone first staggered into our lives, Stylist sits down with Joanna Lumley for a no-holds-barred chat about self-preservation, ladettes and playing an ageless icon

Words: Hannah Betts
Illustration: Tony Wilson

Back in 1992, a certain Bill Clinton was about to become president, the world’s first text message was sent, the Queen suffered her famed annus horribilis and Absolutely Fabulous aired for the first time, giving us Brits our very own big-haired, fast-living icon in a time when big-haired and fast-living was only permitted if you were a middle-aged man. Fast forward to today, a different Clinton is hoping to return to the White House and Absolutely Fabulous is preparing its comeback, this time to the big screen, with her majesty Patsy Stone, staggering on, still drinking, swearing, smoking, and unable to remember her real age. It almost makes one wonder if the last quarter of a century actually happened.

Stone’s arrival in the world was a revelation. A hilarious, satirical icon who accurately represented Generation Y. A sexually free, Harvey Nicks-addicted, Stoli-Bolly legend, clutched to the nation’s heart. To get a sense of just how much has happened since Patsy was presented to us, bear in mind that computers were the size of houses, there was no Tinder, email was confined to academics and a woman enjoying a pint was deemed radical enough to earn the nickname “ladette”. If Jennifer Saunders’ Eddie was loved, Pats was adored. No less the woman who embodied her, Joanna Lumley – already a great British acting stalwart.

And, 24 years on, here she is sitting before me in a Soho hotel room in a pair of her granddaughter’s baby-blue Converse. (“They’ve been passed on to me because she’s grown out of them,” confesses Lumley.) The only reason I’m not blown away by her glamour and velvet voice is because both are already so very familiar. For Lumley is a renaissance woman with legions of what she terms “parallel lives”. Her CV encompasses actor, model, Bond girl, TV presenter, journalist, traveller, political campaigner and advocate for over 80 charities. She has become a national treasure here in the UK, where she is currently attempting to change the face of the capital with her controversial pedestrian Garden Bridge across the Thames, and a “daughter of Nepal” after her stalwart championing of Gurkha rights. (Born in Kashmir, her father was a major in the 6th Gurkha Rifles.)

Under normal circumstances, I pride myself on being the voice of objective journalism. However, in this case, I feel honour-bound to report that 70-year-old Ms Lumley kicks ass. There is a Joanna Lumley Research Fellowship at Oxford, while Woman’s Hour named her as one of its 100 most powerful women in Britain. She is basically saving the world, while refusing to make a song and dance about it.

Lumley is, in short, ab fab – which is, of course, why we’re here. Saunders’ hotly awaited Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is released next week. As I write, no-one has seen it, but I suspect it will delight existing fans of the show while also appealing to a new generation of milliennials.

If Ms Clinton needs help taking on Donald Trump, I’m starting to think she could do worse than putting in a call to Ms Lumley…

Everyone idolises Pats. Do you?
I adore Patsy. I think what people, particularly women, see in Ab Fab is that women have friends, they stick with friendships and have the same sort of worries. Eddie worries about whether she’s going to look right, be out of fashion or not be recognised. And women – particularly professional women – have anxieties. Patsy doesn’t have any worries. She doesn’t really care. Most of us mind whether we’ve behaved properly or hurt anybody’s feelings. Patsy never thinks about these things ever, almost like a child. If it doesn’t work, let it go.

Is that liberating?
I like doing her, but I’m really not like her. Well, obviously it’s the same carcass that contains us both. So she’s mine, but I’m not hers, if you know what I mean?

How old is Patsy now?
I just pick ages out because she doesn’t really know how old she is. But Edina is about 65, and I think Patsy is easily 80. She’s pickled, she’s in formaldehyde, and she’s also smoked like a kipper, so she’s kind of undieable.

I hear she was very much your creation.
Well, she didn’t exist. When Jennifer wrote the pilot, she was thinking of maybe a Fleet Street hack, but I didn’t know that. I went along with just lines on the page. I didn’t know Edina’s character. I’d never met Jennifer. So it was suck it and see. We invented a backstory where I could bring in things I knew about, like modelling in the Sixties.

The original series was so much about the Nineties. How did you update it for 2016?
The world has changed and strangely enough caught up with the Ab Fab women because in those days, it was shocking – women drinking too much, staying out, not caring, doing stuff like that. Social media didn’t exist. Hello! had only just started [in 1988]. And now the world is much more sensitive. People take offence at the smallest things, which in those days were just funny. In the future, it’s going to be harder to write anything. And this idea of casting: you’ve got to be the character or you shouldn’t be cast as it. In the old days, we could all dress up and be anybody, but now, you have to be that person, which means a gay person has to be played by a gay actor. You go, “Well, this is the whole point of acting kicked out the window. We all pretend to be other people. We pretend to be older, we pretend to be this or that, we pretend to be different nationalities, we put on accents.”

Patsy seems to have gone transgender…
Yes. In the past, she took the hormones, grew a moustache and had something done in Morocco. A year later, it fell off. She went back to being a woman. Patsy doesn’t mind. I think she’s been a man about twice in her life. Mo Gaffney plays Bo, who’s married to Edina’s second husband, and a loud American woman. This time, she’s decided she’s black. You know that story in America [white woman Rachel Dolezal was accused of pretending to be black]? So Bo suddenly gets an afro and says, “I’m black, I’m black!” I’m already thinking, “Oh God, are people going to get enraged about this?” But it’s a lack of humour that makes people cross about things.

Do you care about the film’s reception?
A lot of people feel they own Ab Fab and know what they want it to be. And so they might say, “What I wanted was…” What I want this film to be is like a glass of champagne on a summer evening. Just go in, laugh, see who’s in it. It’s a fabulous story made by stunning people. It’s funny! It’s divine!

You give the impression of being very upbeat…
I’ve always thought that happiness is a discipline. It’s self-preservation. If you have to do stuff which is horrible and you hate it, that’s going to hurt you and your life, so you change your mindset and love it. And then you’re having a lovely life. Things have to be horrible for me to hate them. I kind of like pretty much everything.

You also appear to feel a responsibility to make the world a better place.
The thing about fame – if that’s the word – is you can use it. If it can be used to draw attention to things, that’s good. My great passion is carers who work 24/7 – nobody recognises them, pays them, helps them. They’re completely overlooked.

You’ve had your Gurkha triumph, and now the Garden Bridge. People seem to feel they know and love you.
I live in the most ordinary way. I go by Tube, I shop in the supermarket, I queue in the post office. What I loved about London was when I first came here at 18, and shared a flat in Earl’s Court and was a house model for Jean Muir at £10 a week. If things changed so much that I lived in a grand estate or something, my life would be very empty. So I’ve always thought, ‘What I’m going to go on doing is being that person I always was – helping old ladies off buses and things like that.’

So you’ll resist calls to run for London mayor or prime minister?
If I wanted to do that, I would have been quite a different animal. It requires such a different stamina. MPs have a bloody awful life. You need mono vision and an absolute determination, skin as thick as a rhino, a belief in yourself and in your party. And I find that – like many people – I have sympathies with all the parties. And to be mayor of London, this colossal city…

What are your Brexit views?
I think, like the rest of the country, I’m completely baffled. I cannot tell how the country will vote, or even how I will vote. I oscillate between two schools. Do you know what I wish? I wish the European Union had shown some solidarity about the refugee crisis – if there’d been one solid proposal. The attitude of the Union towards this enormous problem – not just to the Syrian refugees, but to financial migration and people from war-torn countries, from Pakistan or Libya, Eritrea, Somalia or Nigeria – we haven’t formed a policy about it. We haven’t said where they’ll live, or how it’ll be. We haven’t said what jobs we can offer them, what homes. We haven’t even worked out whether we say all of them go out and stay out. We haven’t worked out whether we’re allowed to move easily within our own regions. We’re in a bit of a blur, and that seems to me one of the most important things. So it’s a bit of a frowny face towards Europe on that.

You have granddaughters, what do you worry about when it comes to them?
At 11 and 13, they’re so much wiser and brighter and cooler than we were. I just adore them, but I think that, when we were young, we were much more childlike. We were juveniles for longer. We stayed in the nest for longer. I never went racketing out with boys when I was 14. There’s a season for these things and I think we ought to be a bit sterner about it. I don’t think we should say, “You can wear nail varnish because you’re five.” You go, “No, that’s an alluring thing you wear when you’re a grown-up person.” You can’t give everything to children all the time, saying, “Be like us.”

And do you enjoy being 70? You certainly seem to be making the most of it.
I love it. When I was 12, I wanted to be 18 – well, that’s obvious. When I was 18, I wanted to be 30. When I was 30, I couldn’t wait to be 50. This time, I’d really jumped ahead and got up to 80, but found I was only 70. I always love the last act of a play, or opera. It’s exciting: something huge, something thrilling – a great coming together of all the plotlines that have been laid, all the great arias and all the great villains. You look forward to how it’s going to play out in the end.

Of course, I don’t want to lose my faculties. But I love the fact that I don’t worry so much about things that aren’t necessarily frightening or bad. That I’ve become more courageous about being a bit bold about things I want to do, or think should be done. You just go, “Do you know, shall we do this?” And you find an enormous squadron of people going, “Yeah, let’s just do it.”

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is in cinemas nationwide from 1 July