Joanna Lumley talks to Saga Magazine

Nina Myskow / 23 September 2014

From the shocking Rotherham scandal to the scourge of loneliness, Joanna Lumley, Britain’s most elegant campaigner, just wants us to get a grip.

There’s no one quite like Joanna Lumley when she gets her teeth into something. From the shocking Rotherham scandal to the scourge of loneliness, Britain’s most elegant campaigner just wants us to get a grip.

We’ve been talking for an hour about her life and times: this month’s Silver Sunday campaign that she is supporting, about loneliness, and mobile phones, and good manners, and making a will. About playing Patsy again, about her imminent journey to Asia to make another TV travel series, her plans for a cardboard coffin, even. And as she’s getting up from the sofa, in a rush for another meeting, I ask her what she wants from the future.

‘More of this,’ she says, gesturing airily, meaning the way her life is, as we’ve talked about it, and she grins. That lovely wide-as-a-mile smile. She’s apologetic but she has to go. Can’t be late, and off to China on Monday, so much to do. She’s been charming, funny, warm and wise. Lovely company. She hugs me goodbye, tells me she loves the perfume I’m wearing. (‘Angel? It’s divine on you, darling. Everything changes on my skin, so I stick with Rive Gauche.’) And then all at once she stops, her face changes, and there’s a different answer.

‘I want people to be involved. Now! What the hell is happening with these children? What the hell is happening?’ It’s Rotherham and the child sex-abuse scandal. She looks distraught: ‘It’s not the place to discuss this,’ she says, then can’t contain herself. ‘But do people not know? Why don’t they go and kick the bloody door down?’ She shakes her head, her voice rises: ‘Fourteen hundred girls?

‘Raped, staying out, coming back crying their eyes out. What the f***?’ The words are coming out like machine-gun fire now. ‘Then they go, “It’s the social services, it’s the police”. Sure, absolutely the worst, I’d kick them into dust, but what’s happened? What the hell is going on?’

So what’s to be done? ‘I don’t really know, but just get involved – get involved is what I think. Be nosy. I step in if I see someone shouting in the street.’ Here she turns into a headmistress and clips with authority: ‘“Sorry, everything OK?” Nosy.’

When she’s going for it, there’s nobody quite like her. ‘I’ve always been interested in poking my nose into things and finding out about them,’ she’s admitted, and between that and her unwavering moral compass, her quest for answers has led her to front innumerable campaigns, most famously five years ago when she triumphed in the campaign for justice for Gurkhas, thereby achieving National Heroine status. ‘One of the things I’m proudest of having been involved in.’

We have been meeting to discuss Silver Sunday, a national day aimed at combating the scourge of loneliness among older people, which she has supported since its inception in 2012. ‘I think it’s a darling idea,’ she told me. ‘I love it! I’m certainly on the list of silver people, being a pensioner and a grandmother myself.’

15 ways to combat loneliness

A less likely-looking candidate I have yet to see. Joanna, in a black jacket with an artfully draped orange scarf printed with fox heads, hair pulled up in casual mode, looked gorgeous. The sort of Silver Siren that Leonardo DiCaprio found so kissable in The Wolf of Wall Street, released last year. (‘I lied when I said we did 27 takes,’ she admitted, grinning. ‘But he is a honey, and I loved him to bits.’)

‘It’s not just about age, but for people who’ve been left on their own, for lonely people who haven’t got anybody ever to say, “You’re fabulous, you’re marvellous, come and do this.” Or, “Shall we?” or “Can I drop in for a cup of tea?” or “Shall I come over and cook and we’ll eat together and watch a TV programme?” It can be the smallest thing.

‘Loneliness is shocking. When you read how many people in this country are lonely it just breaks your heart.’ A recent survey found that a third of people over the age of 65 admit to being lonely. ‘As people get older and do less, the spectre of things becomes much greater. Maybe you’re a widow and you always did everything together. How do you suddenly start again? And the way people live now, if you’re in a block of flats, you might never know your neighbours. All sorts of things can conspire to make a life diminished.

‘Older people have become marginalised. They’re seen as a drag, a storm anchor – what you throw out of the back of a ship. It doesn’t sink to the bottom, it sits under the water with enough resistance to slow you down. People think old people are a nuisance, cramp their style. They should be celebrated instead.’ Again, the message is clear: get involved.

This year Silver Sunday is on October 5, with an array of nationwide events to bring lonely older people out and about, ranging from concerts and museum tours to cycle rides and chocolate tastings. ‘I love the idea of tea dances,’ Joanna grinned. ‘I think they’re the best fun, and you don’t have to dance, you can watch and be in a companionable group. Have a laugh without venturing too much, and everyone likes a cup of tea, or a glass of champagne perhaps!’

Joanna has recorded a letter to her old schoolteacher Miss Gibson, to be broadcast on Classic FM. Beautifully written and delivered quietly in those distinctive breathy cut-crystal tones, it expresses her regrets at how little she has seen of her, and she vows to change. It’s so moving that it is impossible to hear it without having to blink very fast.

‘I’ve always loved old people,’ she continued. ‘Loved hearing their stories. If they don’t tell us their stories of how it used to be, it’s gone for ever. And so modest! It’s the polar opposite today, with everybody tweeting every last moan – me, me, me! It’s the Me Generation.’ She wrinkled her nose when I asked if she tweets. ‘I don’t do anything like that. And I’ve nothing to tweet about.’ As if!

She looked a bit sheepish. ‘I didn’t want a laptop for ages, and my husband said, “You’re mad, you’ve got to do this”.’ Joanna and the musician and conductor Stephen Barlow have been married for 28 years. ‘He bought me a laptop. Moan, groan, moan, groan. And now I’m on it four hours a day, of course.’ She took for ever to get a mobile (‘didn’t want to be contacted’), and confessed, ‘I didn’t know how to answer mine. I used to say when it rang, “I won’t answer that”. Then one day I asked a friend and she said, “You just slide that”.’ She rolled her eyes and laughed.

‘But parking places in London you can only operate with a mobile, so…’ She knows all the rat runs. ‘I drive like a Buddhist in my Smart car, because people treat them like filth!’ She shrugs. ‘So you get used to being carved up. I’m terribly tranquil, I don’t have a bad bone in my body as a driver. I let people in, say, “Fine,” when they cut me up. I open the window and say, “What a beautiful car,” to them. Because I always love people who say thank you. I don’t see why we can’t be polite; it doesn’t cost anything. Good manners can make up for all kinds of other shortcomings.’ And as if on cue, to the nice young waitress pouring our tea: ‘Thanks so much, dear one’.

The travel programme she’s off to make is a three-part documentary on the Trans-Siberian Railway, starting in Hong Kong, where she lived as a child, and then on to Beijing, Mongolia, Siberia, taking in Ekaterinburg where the Romanovs were detained and assassinated (‘Gosh, those poor little princesses!’) and ending up in Moscow.

‘Fabulous!’ she said, her eyes shining. ‘When I think about the places I’ve been: the northern lights, following cats around the world, trans-locating a giraffe in Kenya, trying to rescue orang-utans in Indonesia, following in my grandfather’s footsteps in Bhutan… and then the Nile, Greece and Noah’s Ark. See, I’ve been lucky, lucky, lucky. It’s terrific. And all this fitted in around my day job.’

She’s thrilled that she’ll direct her first feature film next year, the screen version of a novel, and will be re-creating Patsy in the film version of Ab Fab: ‘Jennifer [Saunders] is writing it at the moment, so when she’s ready, I’ll do that.’ I said I’d heard Jennifer was a bit of a procrastinator. ‘That could be the understatement of the century,’ she hooted, ‘but geniuses are allowed to procrastinate. It’s always fantastic fun and I adore Patsy. It’s a hoot.’

Read David Gritten's review of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

Joanna is always on call for Compassion in World Farming, travelling to Brussels to talk to the European Parliament, to fight the corner for pigs, for instance (‘such intelligent creatures’). There’s Tibet too: ‘The beating heart of it will have been stilled in our lifetime and we will have watched it happen. Things rock up all the time. I’m embroiled in the beautiful Garden Bridge project in London, on the board of Grange Park Opera. But my beloved son, Jamie, and Tessa, his wife, and Alice and Emily, my granddaughters, live in Scotland now, and it’s far north, Inverness.

‘It’s heaven, but Stephen and I have a cottage in the Borders, and it’s a four-and-a-half-hour drive, even from there. So I don’t want to get so filled up that I can’t ever go up and just be there with my beloveds. So you have to be careful; the more you do, the more comes onto your plate.’

She seems to thrive on this hectic schedule, slender and zippy, her face still luminous and lovely. She is happy, things are good: ‘I’m fit as a flea, don’t do any exercise, b******* to that! I run up and down the stairs, help where I can, pick things up, carry stuff, garden, keep busy.’ She paused to think for a moment.

‘A good tip is sometimes to stand up when you’re eating – good when you’re on your own. Stand when you can, walk around, don’t get set in your ways. Boredom? There’s no excuse for it.

‘Look,’ she said, ‘when you’re young you think life is for ever, but it’s finite. I’m 68, so even by the maddest measurements, I’m in the last bit of life.

‘Well, you’re a fool if you pretend it’s never going to come, so get your house in order. That’s what I want to do before I’m too gaga to do it. Which means if you want to leave this teapot to your niece Emma, put a little thing on the bottom, which says, “For Emma”. Or write in a book. It’s good fun to do.

‘A will? Oh God, yes! When I was 21 and had Jamie I knew that it was just stupid not to. I don’t know why people don’t. I haven’t got any patience with the ones who go, “It’s ghoulish”. Just get a tight grip!’

How to make a will

Then, getting into her stride: ‘If you haven’t understood that if you are born you die, you scarcely deserve to be able to be alive. All the trouble you will cause by not leaving a will! All the heartache! Family feuds are going to happen anyway, so be as clear as you can. And even if it’s only to leave it to the cats’ home, make a will.’

I told her I’ve specified a wicker coffin. Her eyebrows shot up. ‘I love a cardboard coffin – I’m going a bit humbler than you. Both Mummy and Daddy went off in cardboard coffins, painted – Daddy’s was rifle green. Beautifully made, just beautiful. I’m going to have put in all kinds of things for the journey. I think we could jam a bit more in our coffins than we do.

Learn more about 'green' funerals

‘When I was out in Sarawak staying in a long house, one of the old grannies died, and she was buried in lovely bamboo-y leaves, and inside they put a bit of food, money for the journey, cigarettes because I think old granny smoked a bit. I’m going to have some books, some I haven’t finished or haven’t read, some feathers and nice bits and pieces, the odd note. Just on the journey for the next bit. Over the River Styx or whatever.

‘Because nobody knows what happens after that. Doesn’t matter what religion, or what you devoutly believe, nobody’s got the smallest idea. So believe what you want, whatever makes you happy. If you want to think of harps and twanging things, or nothing, zero, or becoming a star… Doesn’t matter. But learn from nature. Stuff lives and stuff dies all the time, you know. Animals and birds and flowers. Trees come and go, and we come and go. That’s it.

‘So we should all seize life and make the most of what we have, while we can. You can’t just expect life to do it for you. You have to do life. You’ve just got to keep doing it up till the last minute.’

This article was first published in the October 2014 issue of Saga Magazine. For great articles like this, subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition today.

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