Why Joanna Lumley believes older people should be dancing to a new tune
Joanna Lumley has swapped glam for grey in a new film and tells Julia Molony how she has discovered the delights of tea dances
In a beautiful old church in east London, a group of pension-aged men and women are coupled up and getting their Strictly on - tentatively puzzling out the steps to a ballroom dance. Look more closely and it becomes clear some of them are very familiar faces - there's Timothy Spall spinning around with an uncomfortable looking Imelda Staunton.
The ever-effervescent Celia Imrie is there, stealing the show, and doesn't that statuesque lady with the salt and pepper grey hair look familiar? It takes a minute for it to sink in that it's actually Joanna Lumley in grey-brigade mode, almost unrecognisable without her signature bright blonde locks.
This isn't any dance troupe, but the cast of a new movie, Finding Your Feet, on set filming a scene. The film is a gently comic and heart-warming tale about an uptight, snooty woman named Sandra (Staunton) whose marriage collapses along with her identity, just at the moment her husband retires. Cue an emotional unravelling, followed by reinvention which begins when she is persuaded by her bohemian sister (Imrie) to join a local dance class.
The movie is part of a growing genre of films that are made expressly to appeal to an older cinema-going demographic - a phenomenon launched by the success of 2011's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. And the UK film industry, with its rich seam of celebrated acting talent among the over-60s, has cornered the market.
Later, on a break between scenes, Lumley sits down for a coffee and the chance for a closer gawk at that rich silver mane she's sporting. Turns out she hasn't given up the peroxide. It's a wig. But she seems delighted with the look and it's easy to see why.
Rather than making her look older, it has the opposite effect - the soft silver strands that fall around her face are luminously flattering, softening her features and making her skin look lit from within. "When you see yourself you go, 'Oh my God, that's me! Oh my God'," she says.
Still a pin-up at 71, in person Lumley is exactly as you would expect. Plummy, witty, that twinkle that made her famous as a young woman in The New Avengers still undimmed. She's an unreconstructed luvvie still after all these years - given to calling everyone "darling" and everything "adorable" or "sweet".
Born in Kashmir where her father was a major in a Gurkha regiment, Lumley had a military-classes type childhood; boarding school, finishing school and lots of foreign travel. She didn't go to drama school but worked as a model and appeared briefly on Coronation Street before her breakthrough role as Purdey in The New Avengers. She had her only son, Jamie, when she was 21, following a brief relationship with photographer Michael Claydon, and has been married to conductor Stephen Barlow for more than 30 years.
Jackie, her character in Finding Your Feet, has been married five times, is a strong, complicated, driven woman and Lumley seems to approve of her. "It's not a huge part, but like all the parts you do it doesn't matter," she says. "In life there is no such thing as a small part, we're all stars in our own lives.
"She's smart as a whip. She's been married five times. So I think she could be a bit of a handful. Probably very exacting," she says. Despite being rather the high-flyer, "she's joined this dance group because she's not a snob. When you work at the bar you meet all kinds of people. She liked the idea of it, she wants to keep going. She's amused by the company here, and quite enjoys the dancing".
Lumley admits that for a role this size, there's no point killing yourself with research. "There's a limit to how much research you have to do for things, if it's not there. If it's not on the film. But I imagine she's quite a lively character," she says.
Lumley is all for the film's message too, such as it is. "I think we should get our oldies up. Not sit them in television rooms," she says. "Dance, dance, dance."
She's not just paying lip-service to the themes of the film - it is an issue close to her heart. One of her favourite extracurricular activities is the work that she does for Age UK.
"There's a thing that goes on every year called Silver Sunday - I think it's the last Sunday in October every year. And it's for old people. Rather than Mother's Day or Father's Fay, this is just for anyone who is old. Give them a card, make them a cake.
"I've attended some of the dances which we threw for them. It was all set up by a wonderful councillor from Westminster and I went to these tea dances. Well!" she says with a flourish. "I don't know, I'm just hooked on tea dances. You can have champagne if you like. But you can just have tea and cakes and things. And a band plays, and you get up and dance with total strangers. It's safe, it's in the afternoon. Everybody dresses up a bit. They're lonely people in their old people's homes."
Admittedly, she says, the characters in the film are not quite at that point yet - "not quite old people's homes. They're just... it's better than bingo for them. And I love the idea. Because dancing is good for you anyway. Much better than sitting."
She's an advocate too of the therapeutic effects of "the human touch - this is old-fashioned dancing where you are with somebody. That's good for us. Because we've been so guided away from ever touching anybody unless it's a kind of sexual embrace. In school now you're not allowed hug. We've got so sort of 'eeeeuggh' about everything. So I think this is rather sweet."
Given her temperament and lively physicality one suspects she's probably a bit of a mover on the dance floor herself. Indeed, it's playing having two left feet that's more of a challenge, she says. "The difficulty is that we've kind of got to be not very good dancers, to begin with. So even though we've been at this club for maybe five years, we still haven't got any better. We're still struggling - getting it wrong a thousand times."
Her own favourite is "rock and roll, I think that's good fun to do", she says. But much of the dancing she's learned for the part is entirely new to her. "I never really went to dances. I'm too old to be disco. Nightclubs existed and at school you would learn how to do the waltz, the quickstep, maybe the foxtrot. But you'd do things like the Sir Roger de Coverley and Strip the Willow and really country dances, and Scottish reels."
She's past retirement age, but Lumley shows no sign of slowing down. She shot four movies in 2017, albeit with small roles in each. And one senses she is motivated more by the sheer pleasure of the job than anything else. A few years ago, she admitted that when she was still in her 20s and making her name as a theatre actress and single mother, the crushing anxieties she felt about making ends meet pushed her into burn-out and a nervous breakdown. So it must be rather satisfying, at this stage in her life, to find herself very much in demand.
Finding Your Feet, with its all-star cast, was a joy. "I hate the star system," she says. "Where some people are different and shepherded away to different bits and have different clothes, different lighting, different everything. It kind of divides it up. You don't really see it on film, but I can smell it now. I can see it. And I love this because it's not that, it's completely ensemble playing."
Outside acting, she has plenty going on as well. She recently followed in the footsteps of Stephen Fry as she hosted the Baftas. And she keeps herself busy in resting times filming documentaries.
"Ian Fleming, will.i.am, Elvis," she says, listing off some of the subjects she's covered. "I've done giraffes in Africa, I've done orang-utans. I've done the northern lights. I've done all Africa. Searching for Noah's ark," she says. "They rack up."
She has built up quite a portfolio of those now, over 25 years.
"I adore doing them, because I'm just so interested in the world and it gives you a chance to travel. It gives people who can never travel a chance to see, not just touristy things but maybe get around the side of it. When we do these documentaries we go to places tourists couldn't really get to. Find interesting people. Learn about the culture. Tuck in a bit of history, in the commentary, so it's not too leaden.
"But by the end of it, people know. And people stop me in the supermarket and go 'what I loved was that bit when...' or, 'I never knew that...' because we've discovered the world, and that's good."
Finding Your Feet is in cinemas now