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Joanna Lumley: “I have always loved getting older, so being 70 is fabulous”

Absolutely Fabulous star Joanna Lumley on boarding school, her friendship with Jennifer Saunders, and the tyranny of social media

I was born in India, raised in Hong Kong and Malaysia, and went to my first boarding school at eight, which now seems paralysingly young. It seemed par for the course as my parents were brought up abroad and sent home to school. I especially loved my second boarding school, an Anglo-Catholic convent in the hills behind Hastings. The nuns wore blue stockings and were brainy and lovely. There were 70 boarders and I was happy as a clam.

We were very innocent teenagers. By 16, we may have kissed a boy on the cheek. One day a girl was rumoured to have “done it” and we were awestruck. I was a bit spotty and had problem hair. The music was fabulous. It was the beginning of The Beatles, the Everly Brothers, there was still a bit of Elvis going on – all listened to on Radio Luxemburg on borrowed transistor radios underneath the bedclothes. It was pretty darned thrilling! On Saturday nights, we would dance to 45s on a Dansette in the school gym.

If we could, we would have all looked like Brigitte Bardot or Claudia Cardinale with their tiny waists, stiff petticoats, cute expressions and pink lipstick. There was a lipstick called Pink Capri and even the word Capri seemed too exotic to speak. We were besotted with the idea of riding on a Vespa wearing silk scarves like Sophia Loren. Being mistaken for a French-woman was the height of my ambition.

I never wanted to go to university. I couldn’t wait to get out into the world

I would tell my younger self to concentrate. I was a show-off, a comedian, a clown. We were so vague and dim about the future. When people were revising, I drew pictures in my rough book. The idea of actually studying filled me with horror. I never wanted to go to university. I couldn’t wait to get out into the world. I was already mad keen on acting but usually had to play the men’s parts because I was tall. So when Patsy started wearing moustaches in Absolutely Fabulous, it was already second nature. I loved making people laugh.

I am pleased the lazy, lively little girl was a teenager then. If little Jo was 16 now, it would be a different story. There would be the tyranny of social media. Girls are worried about their weight, what people think of them, what they should be wearing, and that is horrifying. Those things didn’t matter to us a jot. Dipping our petticoats in sugar water so they went stiff was the nearest we got to trying to look nice.

In those days virtually anybody could be a model. London was swinging, and suddenly one was in the middle of it all. We did our own make-up and hair and went everywhere by Tube. We were in control of our lives. There were not many rules – when I got a Mini, I would drive where I needed to be and just leave it in the middle of the road! Our flat in Earls Court seemed like paradise, even though we shared rooms. We were poor as rats but happy if we could scrape the £9 rent between four of us. There was an extraordinary, slightly hippy-ish feeling that money was not the object. And I think today, money is the object. That has turned the world into a different place, quite sour, hard-nosed and harder-hearted.

I was 21 when I had my son. Having someone in your life that is so much more important than yourself changes things hugely. I had just started acting and suddenly had to pay the bills, put food on the table, buy baby clothes. That sobers you up. Before, one was quite dizzy. There were times I was absolutely skint, particularly before The New Avengers, which came when I was 30. Trying to get work is the hardest thing in the bloody world. When you are an unemployed actor, people see the desperation in your eyes. But playing Purdey, I worked solidly for two years with the best directors and actors. It was sensational.

My husband, Stephen, and I look at each other and wonder how it happened

Jennifer Saunders and I are as close as can be. In Ab Fab, Edina and Patsy are inseparable, and in real life, although we are grown-up women with husbands, children and are both now grandmothers, you can’t put a cigarette paper between us. Playing Patsy, spanning 25 years, has been the best fun in the world. We all love each other so much. We were so thrilled we were all still here to do the film. We have to cherish the people who bring us joy. We have to remember to say, ‘By the way, I love you’ and tell strangers who have been kind, ‘God, you are a nice person.’ When a huge talent, quite apart from a darling girl, is taken away like Victoria Wood was, it reminds us. It is so sad to think that we will have no more of her incredible work. She had the most extraordinary skill.

I have always loved getting older, so being 70 is fabulous. I have always just felt like me, the numbers are incidental. You never lose the little you who is within you. We are like trees, we grow more and more circles, more layers as we grow older but inside us is always the person you were when you were tiny. To be 70 and still working, I have been very lucky. Mind you, I have also worked jolly hard.

Joanna Lumley as Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous, with Jennifer Saunders as Eddie.

This year is our 30th wedding anniversary. My husband, Stephen, and I look at each other and wonder how it happened. I am hoping we will be together on our anniversary for a change because often I’ll be filming or he is off doing an opera. But this year is huge, 30 years is wonderful.

I would tell my younger self that one is powerless until one decides to be powerful – all of us can put on a Batman cape. I am not a lawyer, nurse, teacher or any of the things that are really useful. But when you are an unskilled person like me but have a kind of fame, you can use that to attract the oxygen of publicity towards something that will make other people’s lives better. That is a great privilege I try to use responsibly. It is never for political reasons, it is for the good of the planet and everything it contains.

My happiest day was probably my 12th birthday. It was a lovely spring day in the beautiful hills near Hastings, my parents gave me the pair of flat, cream-coloured sneakers I had always longed to have, I was in a beautiful dormitory with lots of funny people. I remember thinking, I will remember being 12 because this is the best birthday ever. And I feel like I am 12 every day. It is quite wonderful.

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