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Joanna Lumley: 'I loved the way Elvis looked, the way he sang, the way he dressed... I even borrowed his grin'

Published 04/11/2015

Young one: Elvis in his heart-throb heyday
Young one: Elvis in his heart-throb heyday
Film fever: Joanna in Absolutely outside Graceland for Elvis and Me
Film fever: Joanna in Absolutely Fabulous with Jennifer Saunders
Personal journey: Joanna Lumley outside Graceland with Elvis' ex-wife Priscilla Presley

In what would have been his 80th year, Joanna Lumley is moved to discover the legacy of her idol in her latest documentary, Elvis and Me, writes Gemma Dunn.

It's official sweetie, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is due for release next year, and the mere thought of Patsy's iconic beehive on the big screen has us all in a flurry.

But we're not the only ones.

"I'm plenty excited," gushes Joanna Lumley when talk turns to the hotly anticipated adaptation of the hit BBC sitcom.

"I'm telling you, this film is very funny."

Having played the chain-smoking, Champagne-chugging companion to Jennifer Saunders' Edina Monsoon for over two decades, Lumley is well within her rights to admit her veteran character, Patsy Stone, is now "losing it". But the ever-elegant actress reveals it doesn't take much to fall back into old habits.

"I just have to remember Patsy's body language as she's had all of her organs taken out. Oh, and that she wears hard, red lips," winks the 69-year-old, who's currently shooting the movie.

As for her "special grin", that's a quirk Lumley attributes to the late Sir Elvis Presley - her idol and the subject of her new ITV travelogue, Elvis and Me.

"The thing about being a fan of Elvis is that you love everything about him. I loved the way he looked, the way he sang, the way he dressed, the photographs of him, the way he performed on stage, his smile and sense of humour. I love the fact that he never grinned huge cheesy grins; he had a special Elvis grin, and I borrowed that ... a little tribute."

Acquiring a copy of Blue Suede Shoes when she was just 10 years old, the national treasure pinpoints this as the start of her "unwavering" admiration.

Elvis and Me follows Lumley as she embarks on a personal journey to Graceland in search of the man behind the myth.

Marking what would have been the late US singer's 80th birthday year and the release of new album, If I Can Dream, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, this intimate insight delves into the lives of Elvis' closest surviving friends and family, including ex-wife Priscilla Presley.

"My Elvis was this young one, before the jumpsuits and the big lifestyle. But what was he really like? If my dream had come true and he'd come over to England and I'd met him, I wonder, would I have liked the boy buried underneath the myth? I went in search of the youth catapulted to fame and fortune," explains Lumley.

Despite being happily married to second husband, conductor Stephen Barlow, the Indian-born entertainer (her father served in the 6th Gurkha Rifles, a regiment of the British Indian Army), is convinced "if I'd met him, I'd have married him".

"The fact that Priscilla was gorgeous when she was 14, and I was a spotty nerd, is beside the point. Everybody in the world felt, 'If I'd met Elvis, I would have been his best friend and girlfriend'," laughs the grandmother-of-two. "I'm a stalker," she continues. "I respect and love people, which is why I always want to understand a bit more about people who are out of reach."

And it seems the mild "stalking" pays off, as she credits the documentary with allowing her to get "a bit closer to him", despite the idea he remains "partly unknowable".

Impressed by Graceland, the world's most famous rock 'n' roll residence, Lumley beams when she reminisces over her time there, with its "beautiful, Deep South feel".

"There was something about Tupelo too (the small town in Mississippi where Elvis grew up). I felt him, sitting in the little cinema exactly where he would sit with Sam, his childhood friend. It was incredible. There was something about young Elvis that caught me more than the glamour of Elvis. Being there made it all seem normal."

Perhaps most telling is the warm interaction with The King's former love, Priscilla.

Married to the Hound Dog star for six years, the Brooklyn-born actress, now 70, welcomed Lumley with open arms as "she knew I would do it lovingly, rather than trying to trash it".

"She liked the fact we wanted to celebrate him and not muck-rake. She was extraordinarily generous and very open. It's been 38 years since Elvis died, and she's had to endure good and bad press, plus ensure she's strong enough to cope with it. She, in her own right, is a terrific person, but, of course, we tend to see her as part of Elvis, as opposed to separately.

"After she saw the film, she wrote a sweet letter that read: 'It was such a pleasure to show Joanna around Graceland; the house which ought to have been hers' (with a smiley face)."

When asked why the documentary steered away from the icon's untimely death at 42, Lumley maintains it was a conscious decision.

"I didn't want to get into 'that', because it's not the Elvis the world loves. The world loves the boy who sang Jailhouse Rock, who hung around with his great big gang, who was very polite and called interviewers 'Sir'.

"He was a giant - and you can't be that big without being that beautiful, talented, dedicated and otherworldly. There's so much more to learn about his legacy."

Elvis and Me, ITV,tonight, 9pm

Belfast Telegraph

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