May 1, 1946– Joanna Lumley:
“I’ve never felt the constraints of social acceptability.”
As if the month isn’t already promising to be brimming with emotion, with the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, plus the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and the Democrats having their big shindig in Philadelphia the following week, is it all just too heady? Plus, aren’t you kids just a tiny bit excited about the upcoming Absolutely Fabulous feature film set to open in July?
Of course I am simply mad for the television series Absolutely Fabulous (1992-2002). I am, after all, a modern homosexual gentleman of excellent breeding and discerning good taste. The tales of Edina Monsoon and her BFF, Patsy Stone, forever boozing, smoking, sexing, and taking drugs; the two girlfriends spending their free time taking pot shots at celebrities while abusing Edina’s straight-laced daughter Saffron was a favorite at this house for a decade, with frequent visits to the re-runs. These pair of outrageous broads brought to life the funniest television characters conceived in a long time. Lucy and Ethel they’re not. Ever since the ten years spent watching this series, I really like it when anyone calls me “sweetie darling”!
Ab Fab, as we fans are driven to call it, was written by and starring the delectable Jennifer Saunders and it showcases Lumley as her enabler, whose drug use, alcohol consumption, and promiscuity far eclipse her pal’s comparatively benign self-destructive behavior. In our current climate of political correctness, there is something very liberating about watching these characters do all the things society tells us are wrong without any sort of regret. It is made even more powerful by having the characters be a couple of middle-aged, upper-class women who should know better.
Saunders has stated that she was really surprised by her show being so loved by the gay audience in the USA. In the UK, Absolutely Fabulous was a more mainstream sort of hit. But here, it has sort of become thought of as a “gay” show, even though it’s really not about gay people (except for Serge, Edina’s gay son who makes a single hysterical appearance in the special episode when the girls travel to NYC).
What I didn’t understand when I first began watching Ab Fab was that Lumley is one of Britain’s most cherished and accomplished actors, with plenty of stage and film credits.
She was born in Kashmir, India, the daughter of a military officer. She attended a convent school in England.
She began her career as a model in the 1960s, and first gained attention as a Bond Girl in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). That’s the single Bond flick with model, George Lazenby playing the role of James Bond.
On Britain’s favorite soap opera, Coronation Street (1960-2016) Lumley had her first steady gig as an actor.
Her real life in the 1960s was far more interesting than most of the characters she has played. She had a child, but refused to name the father, and she resolutely refused to apologize for being a single mother.
Lumley’s first iconic role was as Purdey in the BBC series The New Avengers, (1976-77) with the original series Patrick Macnee as Mr. Steed and Lumley replacing Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel. The show was sort-lived, and like Jennifer Aniston on Friends, her haircut received as much attention as her acting.
She also found work on stage, in plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov and Ibsen like Desdemona in Othello in 1975, Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard in 2007, Hedda Gabler in 1984, plus The Lion In Winter on the West End in 2011. She starred on Broadway in David Hirson‘s La Bête with David Hyde Pierce and this year’s Oscar winner, Mark Rylance, and was nominated for the Tony Award for her performance.
She has produced and hosted a series of in depth travel documentaries for television: Joanna Lumley In The Land of the Northern Lights, about her search to see the Northern Lights in Norway; Joanna Lumley’s Nile, where she journeys up the Nile from the Mediterranean Sea to its source in Rwanda; Joanna Lumley’s Greek Odyssey; Joanna Lumley’s Ark, where she searches of Noah’s Ark on three continents; and Joanna Lumley’s Trans-Siberian Adventure, where Lumley traveled 6400 miles from Hong Kong to Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Lumley is also a busy social activist. She is a foremost champion of the Gurkhas, the exiled Tibetan people and government, and the Kondha indigenous people of India. So skilled are her impassioned speeches that there were calls for Lumley to run for Parliament.
Like me, she is a longtime vegetarian who has campaigned for animal rights organizations. And also like me, Lumley is a member of The Green Party. Unlike me, she is a close confidante of the British Royal Family, and I am hoping that she might introduce me to a certain Ginger Prince.
Besides Absolutely Fabulous, which really is an absolute favorite show, I especially like her performance in one of my favorite films, John Schlesinger’s Cold Comfort Farm (1995) as Mrs. Mary Smiling. She has worked with director Tim Burton on two projects: James And The Giant Peach (1996) and Corpse Bride (2005). She appeared in the Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013), where she gets to make-out with Leonardo DiCaprio.
Ab Fab: The Movie finds the ever glamorous and self-indulgent Patsy and Edina at the center of a media frenzy when they accidentally kill Kate Moss. It is only three months away from opening in theatres!
Lumley has been married to orchestra conductor Stephen Barlow for the past 30 years. They live in London and Scotland. She is twice a grandmother. She published an autobiography, Absolutely: A Memoir (2011) that reveals just how absolutely fabulous her life has been, including this tid-bit: she was AOL’s “You’ve Got Mail” notification voice.
“When I look in the mirror I see a tired, familiar, friendly old woman. Once I was on a desert island and didn’t see my face for nine days. When I looked in a mirror, it was the biggest shock of my life. I saw a total stranger. Terrifying.”