‘I can’t bear places where you can’t open the windows,” says Joanna Lumley, sitting next to me on a sofa. She has just tried and failed to open the windows of the hotel room in which we meet. “And I can’t bear the thought of a year without a suitcase.”
Lumley has become almost as known for her travel programmes as for her acting roles – though nothing, of course, will ever eclipse her gloriously awful Patsy Stone in the 90s comedy Absolutely Fabulous – and recently has been off again. This time she journeys from Indonesia to Jordan, via India, Zanzibar and Madagascar, for the four-part ITV series Joanna Lumley’s Spice Trail Adventure. As ever, she is a great travel companion – enthusiastic about everything, beautifully polite and kind to everyone she meets – and I suspect you will never view your spice rack in the same blase way again after watching her programme. Hold a nutmeg in your hand and you are holding, according to one version of history, the kernel of the British empire.
We’ll get on to imperialism, but for now, Lumley talks with wonder about all the places she got to go to. “I kept thinking, this is the very tippy-top, then you see something else.” She loved visiting Madagascar. Also, “the Banda islands [in Indonesia] in general, and Hampi [the Unesco world heritage site in India]. It was huge, second to Rome, the richest city 2,000 years ago, with its temples and palaces. That was fascinating. I loved the backwaters of Goa, and all those people who step into a boat as quickly as you would jump on a bike, but you go by river, trading and travelling – the beauty of that.”
The spice trail is the story of colonialism, and the tone of that conversation has changed in the years since Lumley last made a travel programme. It is, of course, covered in this show – to an extent. “Being in this country, and being of this country, we hear about our own colonialism, but what you forget is the European colonialism which went to the far east to get these treasured spices,” says Lumley. The brutalism, she says, shocked her very much.
Lumley was born in Srinagar, India, the daughter of a soldier, in the last days of the British Raj – the partition, in 1947, came the year after she was born – and her family had a history in the country, and therefore the British empire, going back more than 200 years. Did making this show make her think more about that? Her father was in the army, as were others including her great-great-great-grandfather – in the 19th century, he was a major-general in the Bengal army, essentially the armed wing of the East India Company, the corporation described by the historian William Dalrymple in his book The Anarchy as “an aggressive colonial power” with “raving territorial appetites”. Lumley pauses and leans forward. “Did you want to talk about this?”
I was interested in how she felt about that now. “What can I say? These great-great-great-great-people in the distance. I don’t know anything about them except that, as you have kindly pointed out, they were there. As we were all somewhere. My great-great-great uncle built a cathedral in what was then called Calcutta, Kolkata now. I don’t know if that’s an evil thing to do in a Hindu country. Luckily, we now have Hindu temples here, so maybe it’s sort of balanced. I’m not a colonialist.” That is, she says, what she thinks I’m trying to say. “Do you think I’m a Tory toff?”
I don’t, but I also don’t understand how she can make these programmes without personally, if not publicly, considering the involvement of her forebears, or their legacy. I suspect she may think that what is more important now is to be, as she is, a kind and decent person – one who fights for the rights of retired Gurkha soldiers, and who has been an activist for animal welfare for decades, which contributed to her damehood last year – and that whatever horror some distant ancestor oversaw has nothing to do with her. From what little I know of her politics, she supports the Green party when she can. But it is a relevant subject, given her show, I point out. She softens, happier to talk in generalities. “It was this idea of the Europeans that you had to have stuff,” she says. “You couldn’t trade, you had to own these islands. It was a land grab.”
As she will know, the conversation about reparations is becoming louder. “I don’t know where you stop,” she says. “Who are you going to pay? Who are you going to say sorry to? I don’t know who you give the money to now. I believe the reparation we can do is to change the way that we behave. The best thing we can put money into is education. If we taught people better, they’d understand better, but education is very low on everybody’s list.” Education in general is, she says, the main thing she is interested in. “We think that you can get stuff off screens now. That’s not education, that’s getting answers, and you don’t know how you got there. Some schools don’t have libraries! They say you can access it on the web; you can’t. So I’m afraid we’re stalking quite quickly back into the dark ages, but we volunteered to go there.”
Lumley was born, she says, “in a suitcase”. After Indian independence, the family went to Hong Kong, then Malaysia, and when she was eight, Lumley was sent to boarding school in England. She always wanted to be an actor, she says: “I was a clown and a fool and an entertainer.” She was rejected by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (Rada) while she was still at school. “I knew I wouldn’t get in because I could hear people doing [vocal exercising]. I’d never done that, I’d just been in a school play.” Instead, she moved to London and became a model, which became “a back window, as it were, and you climb in”.
Was she aware, as it was unfolding, that London in the 60s was amazing? “Oh God, yes. This was about 1964 and it was miniskirts, and Mary Quant, and the Beatles. If you were lucky enough to be taken to a nightclub, quite often the Beatles and the Rolling Stones would be there. It was normal.” But she wasn’t, she says, “really in with the ‘in crowd’”. She felt slightly outside, with an observer’s view, mentally “recording it, thinking how funny things were. And lots of it, of course, was useful for Patsy – remembering the insanity of those days, when Patsy had been a model and hung out with the rock crowd.”
When Lumley was 21, she gave birth to her son, Jamie (she had separated from his father, the photographer Michael Claydon; later, in 1986, Lumley married the conductor Stephen Barlow). There was a lot of stigma around being a single mother then, but less so for Lumley, she thinks. “I came from a loving family, was in the arts world where people aren’t quite so picky about things like that, and everybody couldn’t have been sweeter to me. But I’m terribly aware … how cruel the world was.” She did get, she says, “the odd horrible remark, but not a lot. I was lucky.” But life as a single mother, and trying to work, was tough in other ways and Lumley burnt out in her 20s, a period followed by a six-month recovery.
She was 30 when she got her role as Purdey in The New Avengers, the ITV action series; before that, she’d had small parts in shows including Coronation Street and Steptoe and Son, and appeared briefly in the 1969 Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The New Avengers changed her life, she says. “It was a proper big part in a series, made over the course of two years, so you have a real chance to get into a character and work all the time.”
Until that point, she had also battled the prejudice that she wasn’t a proper actor because she had been a model. “It’s the worst thing you could have been. They thought models couldn’t speak, couldn’t learn anything. So all that longing to do Shakespeare, it evaporates.” She smiles. “But listen, either you can be mopey and sad about it, or you just go: ‘I’ll do whatever comes.’” She doesn’t, she says later, hold on to bitterness or resentment about anything.
In her 2004 memoir, she wrote about the expectation for actresses to strip. “Oh, everybody stripped,” she says now. “Everybody had to, from Diana Rigg to Julie Christie, we all had to take at least our tops off in something. It was standard and it was this, ‘You’re not a real actress unless you take your top off.’ Nobody liked it, like nobody likes intimate kissing or sex scenes. All this ghastly stuff we have to pretend to do. Everybody knows it’s pretending and it’s kind of soft porn, and now we’ve got coaches to teach us how to do it. Thank God I’m beyond it now.”
Intimacy coordinators, she thinks, are “probably a nice thing” but she’d prefer sex scenes to be cut altogether. “I find them intolerable! I think they’re revolting, I don’t know why people write them and I don’t know why we watch them.” She laughs. “We wouldn’t have films of people sitting on the loo. There are some things which are private.”
How did she feel about being made to feel she had to go topless? “You do it with hatred. Not hatred, but sort of sullenly.” Did it feel exploitative? “Oh, it always is,” she says breezily. “But there are lots of other things you have to do in life which are horrible, and you never wanted to do them, and you find yourself caught up with them. Also remember, the world …” She pauses. “We [had been] four girls sharing a flat but we weren’t allowed to sign the lease – a man had to. Men were always paid more, always top dog, and you could be sacked from a film if you didn’t take your top off. So then a lot of people go, ‘Shall I just take my top off and remain in the film?’ It was a different world.”
She says she didn’t feel vulnerable to the casting couch, as many other actresses did at that time, though there was sexual harassment everywhere. “At the tube, in the pub, in the shops, there was always whistling, bottom pinching, overfamiliar hand on shoulder, it happened all the time. You get used to it, you know how to do that.” She pretends to slap a hand away. “Or move away. You deal with it.”
Lumley seems resolutely resistant to complaining about any of it. In her early career, she often played, “a ‘pretty girl’ or a secretary”. She mentions her role as an attractive lab assistant in a 1987 episode of The Two Ronnies, “with a very stuffed-up-with-cushions chest. It’s not funny now; now people say, ‘How could you have done that?’ You say, ‘It was the Two Ronnies, and it was funny.’ But lots of things aren’t funny at all now, or not even tolerated.” She has no time for the box-ticking style of inclusion. “I don’t think of Porridge and think, ‘There should have been some women in that.’ You go, ‘No, it’s about a men’s jail.’ We’ve got to keep some part of our brain still active.” I get the sense that she feels some aspects of political correctness have got in the way of human relationships, and that in Lumley’s world, kindness and good intentions are paramount. “I just think we’ve made everybody uneasy,” she had said earlier. “Whereas we used to just be kind and friendly and helpful, we’re afraid now about a lot of things that we’re somehow crossing a line.”
Lumley and Absolutely Fabulous creator Jennifer Saunders have previously said the sitcom – which began more than 30 years ago – could not be made today because people are too quick to take offence. Maybe the drinking and smoking, casual approach to sexual assault and fat-shaming would get it cancelled now. In other ways, it still feels ahead of its time, not least in the sheer delight it took in its monstrous and unrepentant female characters. “They are women without brakes. It doesn’t matter what they do, they don’t care,” Lumley says. “I think people found that refreshing because women were usually anxious about things.” Although she is quick to praise Saunders, and others on the show – “You’re working with gold dust” – Lumley was so perfect as Patsy that it’s impossible to imagine anyone playing her better. It took her closer to who she wanted to be as a child. “It was back to clowning again,” she says, “back to making people laugh.”