Joanna Lumley | Viva!

Joanna Lumley

Absolutely Fabulous!

by Tony Wardle

There are certain people who unassumingly take on the role of national treasure – they don’t seek it but it happens nevertheless. Alistair Simm was one, Margaret Rutherford, Joyce Grenfell and Frankie Howerd were others. Of the still living, there is David Jason and, of course, the one and only, the wonderful, absolutely fabulous Joanna Lumley…

Everyone loves Joanna. It was a love affair which started with her appearance as the leggy Purdy in The New Avengers TV series, way back when I wore flares. Men drooled, women envied but everyone knew she was the type you could take home to mum – and boy, would they have liked to do just that.

It wasn’t a case of overnight success either, as Joanna Lumley had been grafting away at her craft for years before that. A TV advert for Nimble bread (remember that?) provided her first TV appearance, followed by a one-line part in a film called Some Girls Do. She then became the voice of Zsa Zsa the Cat in the children’s series Hector’s House before a string of other smallish TV parts.

But there were some pretty impressive stage performances, including a national tour of Private Lives with Simon Callow, the star role in Ibsen’s Hedder Gabler and a West End run as Elvira in Blithe Spirit. In 1973 she joined another institution – Coronation Street – where she did eight episodes as headmaster’s daughter, Elaine Perkins. Ken Barlow was, of course, a teacher in those days and he inevitably proposed to her. Elaine turned him down, sensible girl. General Hospital, Steptoe and Son, Are You Being Served? and The Cuckoo Waltz followed.

Through all these days, Joanna was a vegetarian – in fact she gave up meat in her pre-acting days when she was a photographic model:

“You just had to be thin and thinner and the craze diet at that time was steak and grapefruit. I remember being in a restaurant and cutting into the steak and for the first time in my stupid life I realised that I was cutting flesh. I put down my knife and fork and that was it. I’d loved animals, I’d cared for animals and I’d given money to animal charities but for some reason, I hadn’t made the connection between the living flesh of an animal and meat. Once that connection was made, I could never get it out of my mind.”

As so often happens, once the decision to become vegetarian is taken, a questioning process begins and you suddenly become aware of things which had previously slipped unnoticed over your head. For Joanna it was factory farming and the discovery was accidental:

“I was driving home to see my parents and took a different route. Stopping in a village I saw a row of massive, unpleasant-looking, windlowless sheds and asked what they were. I was told it was a farm. As a child I’d been a guest on many farms, looking after pigs and chickens and helping to herd the geese and I had no idea that farmed animals could be kept under such dreadful conditions.

“Of course, I later discovered precisely what went on inside those terrible places. So many horrifying images spring to mind – a sow chewing on a metal bar in her tethered stall, caged chickens with bent feet and bald skin.” Joanna speaks with quiet intensity, her hands gesticulating and mimicking the actions she describes.

“To think of those gorgeous, living birds – which should be in open air – jammed five to a tiny cage for their entire lives. Beaks painfully clipped off, the tails of little piglets chopped off and their teeth scissored off. It’s intolerable! I feel absolutely sick when I think of the things we do to animals.”

I’m not sure that there is an identikit background for campaigning vegetarians but somehow, Joanna Lumley’s early life didn’t seem to mark her out for this role. Born in Srinagar, Kashmir, on the 1st May 1946, she had a very colonial upringing. Her father was a major in the Gurkha Rifles and she attended military schools in Malaya and Hong Kong before moving to boarding schools in Kent and Sussex. Ballet was her first choice but after failing her RADA audition at the age of 16, she took a modelling course at Lucie Clayton’s and became a house model for Jean Muir. She also worked as a photographic model for some pretty impressive names, including Lord Lichfield.

  Joanna with Viva!’s Director Juliet Gellatley  

An actor to her fingertips, there is nevertheless something extraordinarily warm and genuine about this vibrant champion for the animals. She has the power to make you feel the special one and her conversation is inclusive, intimate and personal. Joanna’s natural style is enthusiastic and humorous, expansive and uninhibited – which somehow makes it more telling when she talks about cruelty and her voice drops, becomes intense and she seems to focus her gaze on some unseen vision in the middle distance, as if she is actually witnessing the horrors as she describes them. But in reality, Joanna Lumley is one of nature’s optimists:

“People don’t really know what happens to animals. They go to the supermarkets and pick up a plastic-covered box containing a piece of unidentifiable stuff that seems to belong to nothing. It’s impossible to imagine that only a short time ago it was living flesh belonging to a creature who had sentiments and feelings, senses of happiness and sadness and – who knows – perhaps, aspirations. And we’ve killed it!

“I don’t know why but I have a feeling that the world is going through great changes at the moment and extraordinary things are happening, some more dreadful and some more wonderful than we can imagine. I’ve a feeling that people are just beginning to realise that the world can be turned around – by us, by people, not governments. We’ve got to have people representing us who will do as we say and these new people will respect the earth, respect animals and maybe one day we’ll be able to say sorry properly to all the animals that have been abused.”

But we already have the best animal welfare in the world, I say. “To anyone who is smug enough to repeat that claim, I would ask ‘who says so?’ Clearly, Joanna is no more taken in by it than I am.

As we’re talking in the sunshine of a London park, an elderly woman passes by, recognises Joanna and comes over. “I just wanted to say that I think you’re wonderful and I love to see you on the tele!” Joanna responds as though the woman is a personal friend, obviously making her feel special. It’s not a ruse but genuine pleasure at being appreciated. As the woman toddles off down the path, Joanna turns and says: “I always believe in being polite and nice to people. You just never know!” She doesn’t elucidate.

It brings to mind my daughter’s experience of nearly a decade ago. Working for BBC TV as a production assistant, one of her jobs was to look after Joanna during a drama shoot. In the mayhem of filming she dashed over to ask Joanna if she would like a cup of tea. “Goodness me, Niki, of course not – you’re rushed off your feet. Sit down and I’ll go and get you one!” To me it was just a pleasant little anecdote but now that I’ve met Joanna, it makes me laugh because it seems so in character.

It also gives the lie to the oft-repeated mantra that animal campaigners don’t care about people. Joanna, it seems, cares about everything, not least, how we’ve managed to get ourselves into the situation we have:

“A lot of it is to do with an obsession with cheapness. It has become the ruling mantra in all food production with all supermarkets saying, ‘we’ll give it to you cheap and even cheaper. You can buy chicken from us this week at the cheapest ever’. We don’t always buy the cheapest car, or the cheapest clothes; we don’t go for the cheapest wine or computer or anything except food. We’ve become obsessed with getting the cheapest and I think this has to stop, not only in animal production but in all agriculture.

“We’ve got to settle back, realise that we’re creatures of this planet, treat living things with respect and I think that the earth will show us respect back. I know this sounds loony but it’s not, it’s sense.” She completes her analysis with a beaming, conspiratorial smile.

I ask how important is it for people to follow this advice – but it doesn’t really matter what I ask because Joanna is bubbling with enthusiasm and she’s off on her own tack, every word beautifully enunciated but the thoughts jumbling and tumbling over each other in a stream of consciousness that is eager to make sense of a rather horrible global issue:

“If animals involved in factory farming could hear me, the first thing I would say is ‘forgive us, trust in us, because some of us are out here working for you and things might happen quicker than you think’. People frequently try to resist change because they often feel guilty and believe that they are being attacked personally. I don’t eat meat or fish but I’m not against meat eaters – I’m against the excuses they use. They say that vegetarians are going to have babies with rickets and other silly things and simply don’t understand that society is going to suffer because of this obsession with meat, which we’re encouraged to eat at every meal.

“I want to tell them that if they can just alter their lives a little, do a great right, as Shakespeare said, and only do a little wrong, the world will change. Factory farming must be stopped for human welfare as well as animal welfare. We cannot go on force-feeding animals chemicals and growth stimulants the way we are. Why do you think cancer is roaring ahead at the moment? You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that whatever we put into our food is going to affect our own bodies – it’s why we’re getting sicker and sicker. We have got to go back to organic farming and the world will smile on us.

“It isn’t insentient, this globe of ours, it knows what’s going on and it will help us if we help it. We’ve got to start with the animals – we’ve got to free them from their cages and make animal husbandry a proud job instead of an underpaid one for people who are themselves suffering from lack of imagination and maybe cruelty in their own lives. We have to remember what the great French philosopher, LaMartine, said; ‘cruelty is the same, only the victim is different’.

“To the poorest I’m saying, hang on in there, we’re gonna get there, we’re gonna help you. To the rich people I’m saying, stop eating so much protein, calm down, share the world with everybody and get healthier into the bargain.” Joanna leans forward and again flashes her conspiracist’s smile, raising her finger to her lips to indicate silence:

“I have to tell you a secret – I’m always well. I’m always well! When I go abroad I don’t get a gippy tummy because I don’t eat meat and I don’t eat fish, I just eat my lovely vegetables and I feel fine.”

There’s none of the angst and introspection that tortures so many actors and you know that an evening out with Joanna Lumley would be absolute fun. Maybe it’s born out of self confidence and the knowledge that she is a superb actor with an extraordinary breadth of skill. To have cast her as the permanently inebriated Patsy Stone in Absolutely Fabulous was a stroke of genius for who was to know that her comedy timing and delivery were perfection.

At the other end of the scale was her riveting and brilliant 10-minute TV monologue as Maddie Blakelock in Up in Town. As a middle-aged gentlewoman, she has nothing to do but talk to herself in her dressing table mirror. I wanted to applaud when the credits rolled – but I’m prejudiced! Fortunately, Joanna also appears to be.

“Organisations like Viva! cannot be matched, they bring to people’s attention the fact that things can be changed, they show without flinching the horrors of what is going on and they show a path out of the horror. The name Viva! even has an exclamation mark after it, which shows a sense of excitement, attack and challenge. We can make a difference and we can end cruelty to animals and Viva! is right there, with a V at its front, spear-heading into the future. Go Viva!” Phew!

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