Star interview: Joanna Lumley’s enjoying herself, absolutely

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Joanna Lumley talks to Hannah Stephenson about reprising her role of Bolly-swigging Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous to celebrate the show’s 20th anniversary and why she tried to quit the role when the show was originally piloted, as her pictorial memoir, Absolutely, is published.

Patsy Stone would no doubt be toasting the success of her alter ego Joanna Lumley with a bottle of Bolly in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

The acclaimed actress is once again hitching up her hemline, backcombing her hair into oblivion and smearing on the lipstick to reprise her role as the jealous, sponging magazine editor addicted to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

Three new episodes of Absolutely Fabulous will be shown at Christmas, New Year and just before the Olympics, to celebrate the show’s 20th anniversary.

The elegant actress, who looks much younger than her 65 years, says she couldn’t be happier to be reunited with original cast members Jennifer Saunders, Julia Sawalha, Jane Horrocks and June Whitfield.

“We hadn’t worked together for six years, so it was just uncanny. It was like we’d never been away,” she says.

They recently finished filming in London and are remaining tight-lipped about the plots. But in her latest pictorial memoir, Absolutely, Lumley reveals she actually tried to get out of playing Patsy when the show was first piloted.

When she first met Saunders, she wasn’t sure what to make of her and at the first read-though, Lumley thought she’d blown it.

“I couldn’t seem to make my character Patsy sound like the person Jennifer was hoping for. Jennifer wasn’t very communicative and I thought she didn’t like me.

“To save embarrassment I thought I’d better see if I could back out of it so they weren’t stuck with someone they’d hate. I’ve quite a low opinion of myself in that sense. But that wasn’t the case.

“Jennifer was shy, which is strange when you see people who can be so desperately funny. She’s much less shy now, but in those days she was inscrutable. Someone once said she looked like a sphinx with a headache.”

Lumley’s agent, however, persuaded the actress to stick with it.

“All I can remember is inventing a person, largely based on a cartoon version of me, who had her own life and history, and a way of walking with a hunched back and a sneery voice, and trying it out in scenes with Jennifer.

“Rehearsing for those shows was easily one of the happiest times of my life because we just laughed till we cried, day after day.”

Yet she can’t see any of herself in the hilarious, ghastly character she has created.

“I’m not a party pooper but I can’t bear drunkenness or people being drunk. It’s great to make fun of it through the ghastly way they behave, falling around with their pants coming down.”

She may have blossomed late in the world of comedy, but the actress and former model is now a national treasure, having been on our screens for more than 40 years, appearing in films and TV series, including On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The New Avengers, Sapphire & Steel, Jam & Jerusalem and, of course, Ab Fab. At one point she was even Ken Barlow’s squeeze in Coronation Street.

“I’ve been banging around for centuries,” she laughs. “But I don’t feel old. I don’t exercise at all but I rush up and down stairs and run around a lot. I have been a vegetarian for 40 years and I think that might help. I never get ill and I have a lot of energy.”

She may be older, but Lumley’s still hot property – she’s currently presenting a four-part documentary on Greece entitled Joanna Lumley: A Greek Odyssey, on ITV1, and has just started rehearsals for a West End production of The Lion In Winter, directed by Trevor Nunn.

And there’s another big celebration on the cards, as this year marks her 25th wedding anniversary to acclaimed musician, composer and conductor Stephen Barlow, who is eight years her junior.

“Where has the time gone?” she exclaims, before pondering the question of why their marriage has lasted so long.

“We have worked at it, which means you never take the other person for granted.

“Plus, we’re as soppy as dates really, writing notes and having small secret surprises and presents all the time.”

The daughter of a major in the 6th Gurkha Rifles, Lumley was born in Kashmir and had a peripatetic childhood, living in Malaya and Hong Kong before arriving in England.

In the ’60s, she became a model as well as a single mother at 21, after her relationship with photographer Michael Claydon (her son Jamie’s father) broke down. Her first marriage to the comedy writer Jeremy Lloyd was also short-lived.

Her parents would help look after Jamie while she sought work to keep the wolf from the door.

Today, she has two other enchanting children to dote on: her grand-daughters Alice and Emily, aged eight and seven.

The family ties are strong, but for now she has no thoughts of retirement.

“I’m on a hot schedule at the moment, but it’s bound to cool down. I can’t think of how you retire from something you love so much.”