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MY NAKED AMBITION; Her latest TV role reveals that Joanna Lumley is just as good at tackling drama as she is doing light comedy. But it's taken her years to be seen as a serious actress, she tells Hilary Kingsley.

Her hilarious role as the Bolly-swigging Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous revived her career and established Joanna Lumley as a great comedienne. Now she's about to prove that she's a superb serious actress too.

In A Rather English Marriage, to be shown over Christmas, Joanna plays Liz, a gold-digging divorcee.

As soon as she read the script Joanna knew she had to have the part - even though it involved nudity, which she'd vowed never to do again.

"Nudity isn't daunting if it's right," insists the 52-year-old. "What is nerve-wracking when you do nude scenes is when there's some element of prurience about it and you have to try to look attractive. That's the bad bit when you know people in the audience are saying, 'She's looks a dog!'

"In this case, it's my character Liz with a frightened old man who has just admitted that he killed his child - his baby died, he's shocked, and she has just said she's going to marry him. So it's a different thing. It's a love scene. She loves him."

The nicotine-cracked voice with its gymkhana vowels is unmistakable. Sitting in The Ivy, a London restaurant fittingly "old school", Joanna is dressed simply and exquisitely in a black trouser suit with only a coloured hair-slide for jewellery.

"It's always strange kissing somebody passionately who's not your husband," she adds, lighting a cigarette. "But if you are acting somebody it isn't strange because you jump into different people who do these things - it's not embarrassing."

Joanna still cringes at the recollection of stripping off for The Games That Lovers Play while in her twenties, yet ironically baring her all in A Rather English Marriage should finally bring her recognition as a serious actress.

And that recognition has been a long time coming. She may have launched a pudding-basin haircut as Purdey in The New Avengers in 1975, then made us scream with laughter at Patsy 20 years on. But Joanna's screen appearances between and since - in tepid dramas such as Class Act and Coming Home - were hardly in the same league as Dame Judi Dench.

Now her touching portrayal of boutique owner Liz, who seduces Reggie (Albert Finney) for her own ends is up there with the best performances of her peers.

Shot over summer in a large house near Guildford, in Surrey, the drama gave Joanna the opportunity to work with a top cast, including Tom Courtenay. And the Finney factor was vital to her taking the part.

"Albert is one of the funniest men. Truly, everyone was sobbing with laughter all the time. He was adored by the crew - he's a company leader. And because he was completely normal about taking his clothes off, so was I," she says.

"When you play tennis with Tim Henman your game goes up, and if you're working with Finney and Courtenay, the same things happen. I did say I'd only do it if they were in it because they are sensational. They were almost the reason I went into the business. You watch Albert in Tom Jones or Tom in The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner and think, 'If only'. You never think you'll meet, let alone work with these people!"

Joanna grew up as an "army brat" with her elder sister in the Far East, where their father was a major in the Gurkha Rifles.

A bright but occasionally naughty girl - her prefect's badge was confiscated for smoking at boarding school in Hastings - she failed to get into RADA and became a model instead, first for Debenhams then for designer Jean Muir.

That led to several blink-and-you-miss-'em film and TV parts, including a brief stint as Ken Barlow's upmarket girlfriend in Coronation Street. There was also a minor part in the Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service - she remembers crocheting a blanket for her son Jamie, now 30 and a teacher, on the set.

While her career has been well-documented, Joanna has always maintained a dignified silence about her private life.

Her most closely-guarded secret was the identity of Jamie's father, which was only revealed to be '60s photographer Michael Claydon when Jamie married Louise Griffin last year. So it's a further irony that the role which relaunched her career and earned her a 1993 Bafta for Best Light Entertainment Performance, was that of Patsy - upper class trash from her Ivana Trump beehive to her designer-shod toes.

"Patsy was so fabulously vile that there was something relaxing about doing her," smiles Joanna. "She freed me completely. I didn't have to be what people expect of me, you know - lovely, desirable. That 'trying to be pretty' thing is a noose. You always fear you won't be pretty enough."

Unlike bed-hopping Patsy, a part she is reprising in next year's Absolutely Fabulous - The Movie, Joanna is strong on fidelity. She has been married for 12 years to conductor Stephen Barlow, 45.

"Two-timing makes me sick," she says. "All loving relationships must be based on trust, don't you think?"

It was the nature of the love between Reggie and Liz in A Rather English Marriage that drew her to the part.

"It's not an unusual situation," she says. "Liz is called a gold-digger but everyone's an opportunist at some stage. She's got problems - the children haven't left home and are bleeding her dry, the shop's not going down a treat, and out of the blue comes Reggie - magic!

"She reasons, 'Well, I could get to like him. He's a sweet man. I could make him a happy man, make myself a happy woman'. It's not really gold- digging.

"I particularly liked the way Liz wore the clothes from her shop, then afterwards hung them up and put the label back on - I imagine that goes on all the time in those sort of boutiques, everything's a little bit shop-soiled."

This year Joanna has worked on the film Mad Cow with Anna Friel, on a second series of Coming Home to be shown at Easter, and she appears in the French And Saunders Christmas Show.

"It's going to be a tribute to Titanic. Goodness knows what I'll be doing in it but I won't be embarrassed - all actors have to be unembarrassable."

A Rather English Marriage will be shown on Wednesday, December 30, on BBC2 at 10.15pm
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Kingsley, Hilary
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Dec 12, 1998
Words:1050
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