BYLINE: Laura Burgoine
Standing on the balcony of the National Theatre, a silk scarf protecting her trademark white blonde locks from the rain, and a cigarette perched between her perfectly painted plum-coloured lips, Joanna Lumley exudes enthusiasm for the city that stands before her.
“When I first came to London I fell in love with it,” the 67-year-old recalls. “I came here to do a ballet exam when I was nine-years-old and I thought I’d never seen anywhere more colossal or modern. I thought then in my nine-year-old head that one day I will know this city, I’ll live here and I’ll know it.” Now having lived in the capital for 45 years, the actress says she’s still constantly discovering new corners and hidden gems.
Best known for her iconic role as chain-smoking booze-hound and fashion editor Patsy Stone in Brit sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, Joanna isn’t just a passive Londoner. When we meet we’re at a press conference for the proposed Garden Bridge, a design concept inspired by Joanna that would create both a new green space and also a link between the Southbank and Covent Garden and Soho. “This garden will be sensational in every way; a place with no noise or traffic where the only sounds will be birdsong and bees buzzing and the wind in the trees, and below the steady rush of water,” Joanna reveals excitedly in that ever-recognisable husky, low voice.
The actress dreamed up the idea for the bridge –which if approved would be ready for 2017- while walking through London. “I walked along like an old hippy, taking photos and drawing sketches of how this bridge would look; it would adorn the city,” she tells, quickly adding “it’s going to happen and it needs to happen fast.”
“People are predisposed to love gardens, trees, plants and nature. We have some of the best parks in the world; to have a garden floating through the air is so exciting,” she enthuses.
Having grown up in India and Malaysia, the globe-trotter still calls England and Scotland home. After marrying her husband -conductor Stephen Barlow- she lived in Wimbledon for a year and then the country for three years, but has been a proud Stockwell resident for 22 years now. “You have to live in London,” she explains. “My husband is a musician and everything we do is kind of around here even though we work all over the world. Stockwell is just fabulous.”
The actress insists Stockwell is one of London’s best kept secrets. “We almost don’t want to talk about it because it’s so fabulous,” she reveals. “If you don’t know south London you can be overwhelmed by it. Where we are, off South Lambeth Road, we can hear Big Ben –that’s how close in you are- but we’ve also got foxes, pear trees, figs, lemons, apples dropping off the trees.”
“It’s little Portugal around there, there’s lots of Portuguese people. We’ve got every nation under the sun, which I adore, and then we’re also on the edges of Brixton. It’s just what I love about London; it makes its own corners, its own shapes and sizes.”
Ab Fab fans might recall one of Patsy’s most iconic lines where Jennifer Saunders’ Edina enquires “have you eaten something?” and Patsy responds “no, not since 1973.” Fortunately the same is not true of Joanna; she reveals her favourite local haunt is the Canton Arms on South Lambeth Road. “I’m crazy about the Canton, it’s fantastic though I should be very quiet about that because you don’t have to book, you can just walk in, and it’s like a French bistro, it’s beautiful.”
Before leafy Stockwell, an 18-year-old Joanna started London life in a share flat in Earl’s Court. “In those days it was very shambolic and they called it Kangaroo Valley because it was full of Australians; it was darling, I just adored it.”
She’s equally enthusiastic about the new developments south of the river, particularly Nine Elms and the Albert Embankment. “Now you’ve got these developments and towers around Vauxhall, the new tube line coming in; I go by tube a lot, I adore it. I also have a Smart car that goes everywhere,” she tells.
“You get terribly involved about people pulling things down, but I love the new buildings in the city; I adore the Shard,” she says, skewing her head in a Patsy-esque manner and gesturing with a lit cigarette towards St Paul’s Cathedral. “Where is it? Can you see it from here? Is it hidden?” she asks comically, before calling over a PR officer over to tell us where the Shard –blocked from our view-stands. “It’s a beautiful building,” she states, in a matter of fact tone.
Having produced and starred in a number of travel documentaries for ITV including Joanna Lumley’s Nile, Joanna Lumley’s Greek Odyssey, and Joanna Lumley’s Ark, and also a role in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film The Wolf of Wall St, the actress doesn’t have much spare time on her hands; when I ask where her favourite theatres are, she responds, after a slow exhale of smoke: “darling, in my life at the moment I practically do nothing because I work so late in the night.”
I ask if this busy schedule would allow the actress to reprise her role as Patsy if there’s any truth to the rumours of an Ab Fab movie. “It’s up to Jennifer whether there’ll be a film but there are some of us who are giving her a nudge,” Joanna answers, winking at me, curling her lips and instantly transforming into character. “Doing the show was just magic, we were all such close friends; we were like a family. Jennifer is just sensational; the stuff she wrote for me was unbelievable,” Joanna smiles.
So was Patsy written that way or was she a creation of Joanna’s imagination? “Most of Patsy was invented; that’s how real things happen, you grow them,” Joanna tells.
“She was so good and so revolting and so ghastly. In every part you play you pick bits out of the past. Poor old Patsy had a pretty lousy upbringing, she wasn’t wanted by her mother and was dragged up on the continent making her way like an alley cat and fastening onto Edina,” the actress explains. “She kind of arrived almost as if she was a real character. I feel I’m not her, but she is mine. I’m sure there’s tonnes of me in her, more than I would care to say,” she laughs.
I’ve been saving my most crucial question until the end; does Joanna actually drink Bolli Stolis in real life? Joanna breaks into a smile, butts out her cigarette and answers “oh, whenever I can darling!”