Joanna Lumley is no stranger to Ulster - her husband Stephen Barlow was artistic director of Opera Northern Ireland. Still glamorous at 62, she talks to Sarah Caden about dyeing her hair and her smoking habit
About 20 minutes into our time together, Joanna Lumley drops her unmistakable voice into a dramatic whisper and asks, “Do you think I'd get away with having a cigarette?”
It's not really a question to which she wants or needs an answer, because she's already up and about the hotel room, opening the huge sash window, asking me to swap seats so she can be closer to the window and filling a glass with water. “Apparently, if you quickly tip your ash into the water, it doesn't leave a smell,” she says, about as convincingly as a teenager telling you there's a buzz to be had from smoking banana skins and nutmeg.
“God, no!” Lumley cries when asked if she's ever tried or considered giving up cigarettes. “Give up smoking? No! One of my few ambitions in life was to become a smoker. I got the idea when I was about seven. I was in Malaya as a child and I saw this wonderful picture of a woman in a magazine, with a cigarette like this.” She pauses, leans back in a languid, dancer-like pose, hand on one hip, the cigarette in the other hand — though you actually imagine she's got one of those tortoiseshell holders at the end of it. “Beyond her was Manhattan and all those lights and she had a cocktail in the other hand, and I thought, ‘Yes, that'll do.'”
It's a little bit Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous and one of those moments when a person shows you a flash of their magic. Up to this point, Lumley has been extremely nice, very friendly, chatty and warm, but this is different. She's performing, not just as she strikes a pose absolutely evocative of the 1950s and something out of Mad Men, but in the theatrical voice she assumes, the sense she's flicked a switch for your entertainment. It's a reminder that some people have charisma and it's an interesting thing that she feels the need to display it, to go beyond being just well brought up and likeable. In a flash, she reminds you that she's Joanna Lumley, enduring icon.
Lumley is promoting Nivea's Visage Expert Lift range of skincare, aimed at women over 50. It's a fitting gig for Lumley, always frank and open through the years about her aversion to cosmetic surgery and to overpriced skin care.
Further, unlike some women, she has no problem promoting something specifically for older women, for fear that it would age her. She mentions her age — 62 — several times in conversation and she's happy to talk ageing and mixed feelings on the process. But then, all that must be a little easier to address when you look as fabulous as Lumley, willowy in her knee-length dress, her hair cleverly framing her face, which is flawless and blessedly without the lines that often radiate from the lips after decades of smoking.
“I've never minded getting older,” says Lumley, who first came to fame in the Seventies as the sexy, sassy Purdey in The New Avengers. “When I was 12, I wanted to be 18. When I was 18, I wanted to be 30, and when I was 30, I wanted to be 60. OK, maybe not 60, but I've never minded getting old.
“When I was young, women of my age — which is 62 — were real grandmothers,” she explains. “They had permed grey hair, they didn't wear high heels anymore and they got fat. Grannies were people whose laps you sat on. They were darlings, but they went into ageing the way nobody does now. We are expected to go on working. We lie — for example, I dye my hair — to look younger. I've considered letting my hair go grey, but in my business, that's like signing your own death warrant.”
There's no question of Lumley coming across as in any way granny-ish, in the most dismissive sense of the word. In fact, this grandmother of two has never been offered a granny role, and reckons that if you're tall and “relatively thin” you get the mean and bitter characters, adding with a laugh that maybe people think that if you keep yourself slim in your 60s you must be hungry and bad-tempered. Lumley is not bad-tempered today, but positively charming, though all offers of food — either now or later in the day — are emphatically declined. “Don't bring it!” she cries. “It won't be eaten.
“If you do something that you can't stop, then you should get out of it, I say,” she explains. “If you drink too much and take drugs like a mad thing, maybe, but I've got brakes, I can do without food for three days. I don't faint or cry. I don't feel I need anything terribly badly, but I do like smoking.” Her clipped accent speaks of the colonies and boarding school, but she's not at all stiff though she has the good manners you don't meet often in an interviewee. She's here, so she's glad to be here, and if she doesn't want to talk about something — say the decades-long speculation about the identity of her son's father — she doesn't get huffy and puff on about media intrusion, but laughs it off.
Born in Kashmir just after the end of the Second World War, the younger of two daughters, her father was with the British Army's Gurkha Brigade and the family moved around through Lumley's childhood, from India to Malaysia and back to England in her teens.
She loved moving, and her parents were skilled in creating a sense of continuity and security for their daughters, having both been colony children themselves. As parents trying to have a private conversation in front of the children, Lumley recalls her father spoke Gurkali to her mother, while she answered him in Urdu. At the age of eight, Lumley was sent to boarding school in England, which she hated for several years, though she later sent her son to Harrow when she was a working single mother.
First a model, Lumley began acting in her early 20s and had her first hit of success, with The New Avengers, when she was 30, by which time she was mother to Jamie, her only child. For years, particularly when she was one of the decade's sex symbols as pudding-bowl-haired Purdey, there was intense speculation about Jamie's father and it was only in recent years he was named as photographer Michael Claydon.
“It wasn't a secret to us,” Lumley laughs, “but I could never get to grips with why other people wanted to know, it just wasn't their business. Also, though, it was very different then to be a mother and not to be married. Everyone now is born out of wedlock, it seems, but 40 years ago it was different.”
Since the mid-Eighties, Lumley has been married to composer Stephen Barlow, whom she knew through family friends from when they were very young.
Curiously, Lumley explains, she first heard Barlow's name when she was 21 and immediately felt he was someone she should know, despite the fact that he was only 13 at the time.
“That's strange, isn't it?” she asks, “that a name should ring a bell like that and 10 years later when I heard he got married, I was quite put out. Most curious.”
She and Barlow never met properly until Lumley was 39, and were married in a matter of months but she is too practical to ascribe any notions of destiny to their union.
“Well,” she says, “it only seems that way because we married and are together still. If it hadn't worked out, I might not even remember those other things.”
As an actress, Lumley's appeal has been enduring, with steady work, a place in people's hearts as an approachable beauty and occasional highs of success, such as her turn as Patsy to Jennifer Saunders' Edina in Absolutely Fabulous. Along the way, there were TV series such as Sapphire and Steel and a show-stealing turn in Shirley Valentine. The pace at which she worked and the degree of success she enjoyed were on a scale Lumley was happy with.
“Oh, no,” she quickly answers when asked if Hollywood ever appealed to her. “I knew I wouldn't fit in there. I wasn't ambitious enough. I wasn't beautiful enough.” Though stunningly beautiful, now and then, even scant time spent with Lumley allows you to understand what she means. She's too English to do LA and, she says, returning to the question of ageing, she's put off by the degree of perfection an American actress must achieve.
“Some of my beloved young actresses have gone over to America and been terribly successful,” she explains, “and I look at them and I wonder, ‘What have you done? Is that you? You didn't look like that when I worked with you when you were 17.' And what they have done is become utterly beautiful, with any imperfection or peculiarity removed. And they have become beautiful, but they are not who they were before.
“There is a middle line,” she adds, after some discussion of cosmetic surgery makeover shows and the horror of chin implants. “My job is to be in front of cameras and to look healthy and supple and keep a middling weight. But within reason: not trying to look like Demi Moore. She has the body of an athlete, but that's what she does. I believe in doing stuff with vigour, doing your housework and gardening and going up the stairs two at a time.”
And such solid pragmatism is obviously doing Joanna Lumley the power of good. So she won't be offered a granny role any time soon, but she doesn't seem to be overly worried. “The elegant, well-brought-up young mistress of older man has given way to older mistress of older man,” she laughs, standing by the ajar window for a second cigarette, and you believe Lumley's 60s just might be going as well as she anticipated three decades ago.