People we love: Joanna Lumley

Simon Hemelryk / 01 November 2017

The Absolutely Fabulous star, 71, provides the voice of the colt Joey, in a new concert recording of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse.

What appealed to you about the War Horse project?

There’s always a dark strand to Mike’s books, which I love. And telling the story from the animal’s point of view makes it absolutely compelling. He and I narrated the story live at a packed Royal Albert Hall last year, with the Royal Philharmonic orchestra and a choir behind us [the recording is a studio version]. The music is so interpretive of the story: the fear, the tragedy…

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How does it feel to play a horse?

Unbelievably easy, because I used to be one. My friend Felicity and I would gallop about being both rider and animal. You’d buck and kick, tie yourself up at railings and eat from your own hand.

I’ve always thought of animals as completely sentient and being quite like us, but thinking slightly differently. Maybe not having a dread of the future. Mike Morpurgo doesn’t have his horse thinking far ahead. It lives very much in the moment. I don’t think animals fear things happening in two weeks time in the way that human beings can.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve played?

I was Ermintrude the singing cow in The Magic Roundabout film. I’ve also been things like carrots, cauliflowers and a tiger lily in the film Alice Through the Looking Glass. Even if you’re playing a table, if you don’t find it absurd, no one else will.

Read our round-up of kids' TV from the 60s and 70s

You’re often cast as a posh woman. Do you like roles that are completely different? 

I grab at parts with an accent. Be it a Dutch hotelier [Joanna slips into a perfect Netherlands lilt], or playing Irma Brunt [Blofeld’s henchwoman] in a radio version of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I channelled this wonderful, grand German actress Ilse Steppat who played Irma in the film. No one knew it was me. Thrilling.

Are there any parts you’d love to play that are the opposite of the well-spoken lady you often portray?

I love playing anybody, actually. Whatever comes along, you adapt and see how it is. If you look at Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter, even the Cockney characters spoke in a slightly different way, all a bit posher than now. The Essex thing has crept in nowadays, which wasn’t the old Cockney way of speaking. I find accents fascinating.

You’ve been involved in a lot of campaigns, such as helping veteran Gurkhas remain in the UK. What’s your latest cause?

One of them is getting wider recognition of the Chinese Labour Corps. They were basically slave labourers brought over to do things like clear airstrips behind the front line in the First World War. About 2,000 died. Fingers crossed, there’ll be a plaque put up in Chinatown to honour them soon.

Why do you get so passionate about so many things?

People come up and say, ‘It would be marvellous if you could help with this’. And if you’ve got a heart – as we all do  – you go, ‘Oh, that’s fantastic (or heartbreaking), I’d love to’.  I’m also very feeble at saying no.

On the surface you usually appear calm and polite, but what irritates you?

Bullying, discrimination, unkindness… The price of property is wonked severely. Couples having to work flat-out just to pay the rent. Where I live in south London, there’s the most colossal building programme going on. New flats flying up all round Nine Elms, Battersea, Vauxhall Cross. But as far as I can see, a one-bedroom flat starts at £690k. Who’s that for?

Oh, and my own stupidity and haste irritate me. I’ll send emails out without re-reading them. I signed one off the other day with ‘Lobe and higs’, instead of ‘Love and hugs’. Disgraceful.

I have milk delivered, which I love…and I have my pile of little notes saying ‘One pint today’, ‘One pint and juice today’, ‘No juice today’... I put one out the other day saying ‘One pint, but no juice’ but I’d obviously left it the wrong way up, so it said ‘Just juice’. Things like that drive me mad.

Is it true that in the 1970s there were plans to make you the first female Dr Who?

I think it was mooted, but they never mentioned it to me, because I would have said, ‘You bet’. I suspect someone finally said, ‘Hum-hah, no, it should be a man’. But wasn’t that exciting? I mean, nearly. What a different life I’d have had.

Does it feel like a victory that there’s finally going to be a woman in the role?

Adorable. But remember, I was in a [1999] Comic Relief sketch where I was the first female Doctor. Hugh Grant regenerated into me – which was pretty challenging.

You’ve spoken about suffering from anxiety in the early 1970s. Are we dealing with mental illness better now?

Saying you had an issue was seen as an admission of failure until brave people such as Stephen Fry stepped up about their experiences. I can’t really count myself as one of them, though. I had a dreadful kind of breakdown when I was in a play, because I’d burnt out. But I’m pleased it’s all being taken more seriously. We used to refer to someone as ‘dotty old Aunt Marge’, when the poor thing might have had dementia.

I think a lot of problems – and this is Madame Luddite talking – come from social media, particularly with young ones. They see that a classmate thinks they’re fat, or that everybody hates them, and the anxiety that can heap on is unbearable. That didn’t happen when I was young. We were just blithe schoolgirls. Ridiculous, slightly spotty, always dreaming of lovely men or how we’d get into films or something. It was not photographing how thin our legs were.

What’s the most Patsy-like thing you’ve done recently?

Patsy is a cloak I put on – she’s not me. However, Jennifer [Saunders] and I have just been filming a programme for Boxing Day in France’s Champagne district. Our Ab Fab characters crept in occasionally. Like having champagne at breakfast  – but we were made to.

Do you know what you’ll be doing for Christmas? 

I think we’re having the kitchen and dining room knocked into one. I may well be eating baked beans off a Primus stove.

War Horse: The Story in Concert will be available to buy from 24 November
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