It's not every day you get Joanna Lumley in your office.
The Ab Fab actress and campaigner is a larger than life presence, all blonde hair and effusiveness. She's also incredibly glamorous and it's hard not to do a double take as 'Patsy' breezes through the downstairs floor of Stylist and calmly takes a seat in one of our basement meeting rooms.
On surface level, Joanna is remarkably similar to her on-screen alter ego. Her speech is punctuated with ebullient darlings and extremes: people are sweethearts and things are fabulous. "Tragedy, darling!" she proclaims at one point, referring to the meagre contents of her handbag.
The topic of her conversation, however, would send Patsy running for the Vodka cabinet in a cloud of ignorance. Joanna is heavily engaged with a wide range of issues and during the course of our interview jumps with ease from talking about sexism in acting to over-fishing of mackerel and the politics of giving.
It's easy to see why she makes such a good activist: she is passionate, entertaining and unremittingly positive. When we discuss her successful campaign to allow Gurkhas to live and work in the UK, she describes how she invited Phil Woolas, the then immigration minister, back to her house for fish 'n' chips and champagne after publically clashing with him "so there wouldn’t be any sadness there." She also describes a "rippling effect" of generosity with celeb-backed charities.
ABOVE: Joanna at the Oxfam Shwoping distribution centre in Milton Keynes
She's the kind of person you'd want in your corner, so little wonder M&S and Oxfam are thrilled to have her as their ambassador for their first pop-up Shwopping campaign, where shoppers can trade bags of their unwanted items for donated designer bargains.
Alexa Chung, Daisy Lowe, Jo Wood and Zandra Rhodes are among those who have delved into their wardrobe for the initiative, to create a collection that is so covetable even Joanna admits "I'm going to have to Sellotape my fingers together".
The actress will be manning the tills for the two-day event, which opens to the public at M&S flagship store in London's Marble Arch from tomorrow (24 January) with all funds and clothes going to Oxfam to be recycled and re-sold.
"It’s really exciting, it gets the Shwopping message over which is don’t throw it away… whatever you do with it, don’t throw it away," says Joanna. "Even the old grey lingering horror of a bra which you think 'I must throw that in the dustbin,' Shwop it, bring it to us.
"I’m giving a Moschino jacket which I completely adore. Actually the thing is, by giving clothes, I don’t think any of the celebs giving them think, 'This is rubbish, I don’t want it.' They’re thinking, 'This is something fabulous, which will get some money and be quite stylish as a thing to have given.'"
Joanna is very much committed to the double impact of the campaign - reducing landfill and alleviating poverty via the power of recycling. A moment of pure entertainment comes when she recalls how she once fashioned a pair of shoes out of her M&S bra when she was stranded on a desert island for BBC reality show Girl Friday in 1994:
"I folded the bra cup over the in-sole and stitched it to the toe. When I finished, I thought I’m going to faint they’re so beautiful. I’ve still got them. I couldn’t believe they saved my life. "
The star also took time out to answer most, if not all, of our Stylist 16 questions, before being whisked off. See what she had to say on the importance of manners and why she wants Harry Styles to carry her on a Sedan chair, below.
Shwop Shop at Marks & Spencer, 458 Oxford Street, is open from 9am – 9pm on Thursday 24 & Friday 25 January 2013. Click here for more info.
ABOVE: Items donated to the M&S Shwopping event, including print trousers from DJ Gemma Cairney, a jumpsuit from Tali Lennox, a turquoise dress from model Daisy Lowe and a velvet number from presenter Caroline Flack
1. When was the last time you hid?
Probably with my granddaughters in Scotland. I would have hidden an Easter egg – is that the same as hiding myself?
2. What’s in your handbag?
[Grabs silver bag and starts rummaging through it] Tragedy, darling – I mean honestly copies of newspapers, magazines, hand cream, a mobile phone, a make-up bag – I mean, have you seen anything sadder than this. [Gesturing to the make-up artist], I don’t want to show it in front of you. [Holding up a spoon] I’ve got to say actors always stir their teas with pencils because no-one gives them any spoons so I’ve got plastic spoons to give to my actor friends. It [the bag] is a bit baggy and saggy but a friend. You can keep all kinds of things in it.
3. Do you have any tattoos, if so what?
No I don’t. They came in too late, otherwise I would have been a tattooed lady. If they’d have come in when I was 18, I would have been tattooed.
I quite like it when in parts you have to have a tattoo and you have to put on a transfer and you kind of look a bit cool for a few days. And you can take them off as well. Because you always grow out of your tattoos, you always think 'God I wish I hadn’t had that done.' I can’t imagine anyone thinks 'I love this' 10 years on.
I’d like to have two gorgeous men carrying my Sedan chair
4. Sedan chair: good idea or a bad idea?
A very good idea. Possibly for me, as I’m approaching that time. And I’d like to have two gorgeous men carrying it – possibly Harry Styles.
5. What are you most ashamed of?
Lots. I think sometimes not being as darling as one could be. Forgetting to say thank you properly to people. People are always doing kind things. Sometimes saying something funny because it is funny, but at the same time sometimes it’s hurtful. I think those sort of things make me ashamed.
And I try really hard every day, because it’s more fun to live like this, to do really fabulous stuff and do good things. It’s completely selfish because at the end of the day you sleep better, because you’ve done something really nice.
Sometimes I think I could have been a bit nicer and more thoughtful – and actually coughed up a bit more. I love writing cheques. Don’t hoard money, money is disgusting when hoarded. Don’t have money: use it, spend it, give it.
ABOVE: Joanna with the Stylist.co.uk team
6. Is the world getting better, or worse?
Both at the same time. The worst bit is what lovely David Attenborough said, which is that if we go on multiplying at this speed we can’t cope. The world cannot cope. We’ve got seven billion people already which is too many, it’s due to go up to nine billion in another 25 years.
It’s too many and it will kill people, it will find ways of getting rid of people because it cannot sustain them. At which time, sadly, we will have trampled on a lot of beauties in the world, we will have crushed a lot of the great animals which will never come back again because they’ll be extinct and only exist in zoos.
The downside is that there are too many of us eating too much so the good message is, more people are beginning to see the benefits of a non or a less meat diet, a less fish diet – which is vegetarianism. It’s just not necessary to eat meat.
7. Cheese or chocolate?
Cheeeeeese. Cheese. With salt and peanuts. And Marmite.
8. What was your finest hour?
My proudest hour was being tied up in the Gurkha justice campaign when we stood outside in Parliament Square and the news came through in the House of Commons that the Government had conceded all our requests for Gurkhas; that they would be treated the same as other Commonwealth troops. That they would be allowed to remain and work in this country after having served as soldiers for this country for 200 years.
We fought and fought and fought and fought and fought. There’s a saying by someone called Margaret Mead, it’s one of the adages of my life: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
So never think, 'Oh no that’ll never work.' There were five of us [on the Gurkha campaign]: three lawyers, me, an actress, and a man who was a councillor from Folkestone. And the five of us took on the Government and we won.
Sometimes I think I could have been a bit nicer and more thoughtful
9. What does feminism means to you?
There cannot be a person in the world who doesn’t think women aren’t equal to men. Different but equal. So I am a feminist, if that’s what feminism is.
I've always been interested in studying the idea of someone saying, 'You must have 50% of women on the Board.' Positive discrimination, I just wonder if that’s a good thing. I can see the way they’re going but I’m not sure that’s the way to do it.
10. What’s guaranteed to make you cry?
Not people trying to make me cry. So anything that gears me up and says, 'You’re really going to cry about this.' I think people being incredibly kind and incredibly brave make me cry. The bravery of the people caught up in the Japanese tsunami, that made me cry. The people who just bravely got up and got on and who went back into these shocking nuclear places knowing that their lives were going to be shortened. Courage, bravery and kindness – sobbing, darling, sobbing.
11. What do you dream about at night?
Mad. Everything. I dream about books that have never been written that I read aloud, I dream about being aboard a ship for two years going across the ocean. In your dreams, a nanosecond can bring such detail. It fascinates me.
12. Are you a lover or a fighter?
I think both. In love affairs, a lover. I don’t fight. For causes, fighter. With love.
Picture credit: Rex Features, Interview: Anna Brech