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"I've been banging around for centuries" COVER STORY.

Byline: Hannah Stephenson

Joanna Lumley opens up to Hannah Stephenson about trying to get out of Ab Fab, the secret to her limitless energy and why 25 years of marriage have flown by * ATSY Stone would no doubt be toasting the success of her alter ego Joanna Lumley with a bottle of Bolly in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

The acclaimed actress is once again hitching up her hemline, backcombing her hair into oblivion and smearing on the lipstick to reprise her role as the jealous, sponging magazine editor addicted to sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

Three new episodes of Absolutely Fabulous will be shown at Christmas, New Year and just before the Olympics, to celebrate the show's 20th anniversary.

The elegant actress, who looks much younger than her 65 years - and who recently urged older women to go for the 'mutton-dressed-as-lamb' look - says she couldn't be happier to be reunited with original cast members Jennifer Saunders, Julia Sawalha, Jane Horrocks and June Whitfield.

"We hadn't worked together for six years, so it was just uncanny. It was like we'd never been away," she says.

They recently finished filming in London and are remaining tight-lipped about the plots. But in her latest pictorial memoir, Absolutely, Lumley reveals she actually tried to get out of playing Patsy when the show was first piloted.

When she first met Saunders, she wasn't sure what to make of her and at the first read-though, Lumley thought she'd blown it.

"I couldn't seem to make my character Patsy sound like the person Jennifer was hoping for.

Jennifer wasn't very communicative and I thought she didn't like me.

"To save embarrassment I thought I'd better see if I could back out of it so they weren't stuck with someone they'd hate. I've quite a low opinion of myself in that sense. But that wasn't the case.

"Jennifer was shy, which is strange when you see people who can be so desperately funny.

She's much less shy now, but in those days she was inscrutable. Someone once said she looked like a sphinx with a headache."

Lumley's agent, however, persuaded the actress to stick with it.

"All I can remember is inventing a person, largely based on a cartoon version of me, who had her own life and history, and a way of walking with a hunched back and a sneery voice, and trying it out in scenes with Jennifer.

"Rehearsing for those shows was easily one of the happiest times of my life because we just laughed till we cried, day after day."

Yet she can't see any of herself in the hilarious, ghastly character she has created. "I'm not a party pooper but I can't bear drunkenness or people being drunk. It's great to make fun of it through the ghastly way they behave, falling around with their pants coming down."

She may have blossomed late in the world of comedy, but the actress and former model is now a national treasure, having been on our screens for more than 40 years, appearing in films and TV series, including On Her Majesty's Secret Service, The New Avengers, Sapphire & Steel, Jam & Jerusalem and, of course, Ab Fab. At one point, she was even Ken Barlow's squeeze in Coronation Street.

"I've been banging around for centuries," she laughs. "But I don't feel old. I don't exercise at all but I rush up and down stairs and run around a lot. I have been a vegetarian for 40 years and I think that might help. I never get ill and I have a lot of energy."

She may be older, but Lumley's still hot property - she's currently presenting a four-part documentary on Greece entitled Joanna Lumley: A Greek Odyssey, on ITV1, and has just started rehearsals for a West End production of The Lion In Winter, directed by Trevor Nunn.

And there's another big celebration on the cards, as this year marks her 25th wedding anniversary to acclaimed musician, composer and conductor Stephen Barlow, who is eight years her junior.

"Where has the time gone?" she exclaims, before pondering the question of why their marriage has lasted so long.

"We have worked at it, which means you never take the other person for granted.

"Plus, we're as soppy as dates really, writing notes and remembering things and having small secret surprises and presents all the time."

They live in London but also have a cottage in Scotland, which they won't be escaping to until next year, because of the play.

In recent years, Lumley became the high-profile figurehead in a campaign to force the Labour government into a rethink on allowing Gurkhas to settle in Britain.

She's aware that she is now the target of an angry Facebook campaign, 'Lumley's Legacy', launched by residents of Aldershot and Farnborough who blame her for affecting their towns by paving the way for a 'massive influx' of Gurkhas.

But Lumley is unrepentant. "It always makes my heart hurt when people are discriminated against because of their race.

"It is now English law that Gurkhas are welcomed and allowed here. If there are problems in Aldershot, we must ask the Government to step up and see what they can do. What we mustn't do is talk about the men who have been prepared to lay down their lives for this country for 200 years as asylum seekers. They have paid their stamps all their careers."

The daughter of a major in the 6th Gurkha Rifles, Lumley was born in Kashmir and had a peripatetic childhood, living in Malaya and Hong Kong before settling in Kent.

In the '60s, she became a model (most notably for the fashion designer Jean Muir) as well as a single mother at 21, after her relationship with photographer Michael Claydon (her son Jamie's father) broke down. Her first marriage to the comedy writer Jeremy Lloyd was also short-lived.

Her parents would help look after Jamie while she sought work to keep the wolf from the door and she admits that during her early career she took on jobs that, had she been in a more secure position, she otherwise might have turned down.

"There's nothing like the clomp of bills on your doormat to make you sit up and smell the coffee.

"I was lucky to have a lot of energy and determination, and an enchanting child to look after."

Today, she has two other enchanting children to dote on: her granddaughters, Alice and Emily, aged eight and seven.

"When Alice was tiny, she tried to call me 'Granny Jo' and it came out as 'Daddy Doe', and that's stuck." The family ties are strong, but for now she has no thoughts of retirement.

"I'm on a hot schedule at the moment, but it's bound to cool down.

I can't think of how you retire from something you love so much."

* Absolutely by Joanna Lumley is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced pounds 20. Available now.

Joanna Lumley: A Greek Odyssey begins on ITV1 on Thursday at 9pm


Far left, Joanna's days as a model and, above, as Purdey From top, with Jennifer Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous, launching her Debt of Honour campaign to raise money for elderly Gurkha veterans and with husband Stephen Barlow
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Oct 16, 2011
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