Sunday, July 24, 2016

Joanna Lumley and the New Ab Fab

[ed. I went to a conference once where Joanna Lumley was the keynote speaker (an Oil Industry and Science conference no less!). She was/is an ardent and articulate advocate for the environment. Who'd have known? I've been (even more of) a fan ever since.]

Back in 1992, a certain Bill Clinton was about to become president, the world’s first text message was sent, the Queen suffered her famed annus horribilis and Absolutely Fabulous aired for the first time, giving us Brits our very own big-haired, fast-living icon in a time when big-haired and fast-living was only permitted if you were a middle-aged man. Fast forward to today, a different Clinton is hoping to return to the White House and Absolutely Fabulous is preparing its comeback, this time to the big screen, with her majesty Patsy Stone, staggering on, still drinking, swearing, smoking, and unable to remember her real age. It almost makes one wonder if the last quarter of a century actually happened.

Stone’s arrival in the world was a revelation. A hilarious, satirical icon who accurately represented Generation Y. A sexually free, Harvey Nicks-addicted, Stoli-Bolly legend, clutched to the nation’s heart. To get a sense of just how much has happened since Patsy was presented to us, bear in mind that computers were the size of houses, there was no Tinder, email was confined to academics and a woman enjoying a pint was deemed radical enough to earn the nickname “ladette”. If Jennifer Saunders’ Eddie was loved, Pats was adored. No less the woman who embodied her, Joanna Lumley – already a great British acting stalwart.

And, 24 years on, here she is sitting before me in a Soho hotel room in a pair of her granddaughter’s baby-blue Converse. (“They’ve been passed on to me because she’s grown out of them,” confesses Lumley.) The only reason I’m not blown away by her glamour and velvet voice is because both are already so very familiar. For Lumley is a renaissance woman with legions of what she terms “parallel lives”. Her CV encompasses actor, model, Bond girl, TV presenter, journalist, traveller, political campaigner and advocate for over 80 charities. She has become a national treasure here in the UK, where she is currently attempting to change the face of the capital with her controversial pedestrian Garden Bridge across the Thames, and a “daughter of Nepal” after her stalwart championing of Gurkha rights. (Born in Kashmir, her father was a major in the 6th Gurkha Rifles.)

Under normal circumstances, I pride myself on being the voice of objective journalism. However, in this case, I feel honour-bound to report that 70-year-old Ms Lumley kicks ass. There is a Joanna Lumley Research Fellowship at Oxford, while Woman’s Hour named her as one of its 100 most powerful women in Britain. She is basically saving the world, while refusing to make a song and dance about it.

Lumley is, in short, ab fab – which is, of course, why we’re here. Saunders’ hotly awaited Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is released next week. As I write, no-one has seen it, but I suspect it will delight existing fans of the show while also appealing to a new generation of milliennials.

If Ms Clinton needs help taking on Donald Trump, I’m starting to think she could do worse than putting in a call to Ms Lumley…

Everyone idolises Pats. Do you?

I adore Patsy. I think what people, particularly women, see in Ab Fab is that women have friends, they stick with friendships and have the same sort of worries. Eddie worries about whether she’s going to look right, be out of fashion or not be recognised. And women – particularly professional women – have anxieties. Patsy doesn’t have any worries. She doesn’t really care. Most of us mind whether we’ve behaved properly or hurt anybody’s feelings. Patsy never thinks about these things ever, almost like a child. If it doesn’t work, let it go.

Is that liberating?

I like doing her, but I’m really not like her. Well, obviously it’s the same carcass that contains us both. So she’s mine, but I’m not hers, if you know what I mean?

How old is Patsy now?

I just pick ages out because she doesn’t really know how old she is. But Edina is about 65, and I think Patsy is easily 80. She’s pickled, she’s in formaldehyde, and she’s also smoked like a kipper, so she’s kind of undieable.

I hear she was very much your creation.

Well, she didn’t exist. When Jennifer wrote the pilot, she was thinking of maybe a Fleet Street hack, but I didn’t know that. I went along with just lines on the page. I didn’t know Edina’s character. I’d never met Jennifer. So it was suck it and see. We invented a backstory where I could bring in things I knew about, like modelling in the Sixties.

The original series was so much about the Nineties. How did you update it for 2016?

The world has changed and strangely enough caught up with the Ab Fab women because in those days, it was shocking – women drinking too much, staying out, not caring, doing stuff like that. Social media didn’t exist. Hello! had only just started [in 1988]. And now the world is much more sensitive. People take offence at the smallest things, which in those days were just funny. In the future, it’s going to be harder to write anything. And this idea of casting: you’ve got to be the character or you shouldn’t be cast as it. In the old days, we could all dress up and be anybody, but now, you have to be that person, which means a gay person has to be played by a gay actor. You go, “Well, this is the whole point of acting kicked out the window. We all pretend to be other people. We pretend to be older, we pretend to be this or that, we pretend to be different nationalities, we put on accents.” (...)

Do you care about the film’s reception?

A lot of people feel they own Ab Fab and know what they want it to be. And so they might say, “What I wanted was…” What I want this film to be is like a glass of champagne on a summer evening. Just go in, laugh, see who’s in it. It’s a fabulous story made by stunning people. It’s funny! It’s divine!

by Hannah Betts, The Stylist | Read more:
Image: Tony Wilson