British Icon of the Week: Joanna Lumley, the 'Absolutely Fabulous' Actress with a 'Can-Do' Attitude
Joanna Lumley has just signed up to appear in Sharon Horgan's hit sitcom Motherland, setting the stage for more comedy gold. We're celebrating by making the beloved actress and activist our British Icon of the Week. Here are 10 of the many ways in which she's earned our admiration and respect.
1. Before she launched her acting career in the late-'60s, she worked for a few years as a model.
Lumley recalled her modeling days during a 2016 appearance on The Graham Norton Show, and also revealed that she dyed her hair brunette afterward to prove she was a "serious actress." We also love the way she rolls with the friendly punches that fellow guest Rebel Wilson throws at her: Lumley is definitely a "good sport."
2. One of her very first roles was in the 1969 Bond movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
Lumley had a tiny, two-line part as an Angel of Death opposite George Lazenby's 007. It proved to be the launchpad for her seriously impressive career, and Lumley said last year that she is "the only person alive" to have kissed all surviving Bond actors.
She later clarified in an interview with The Times: "I meant I’d pecked on the cheek all James Bonds, including David Niven, when I’ve seen them at an awards ceremony. Not kissing-kissing on the lips!"
3. Jennifer Saunders poured elements of Lumley – including her modeling career – into her iconic Absolutely Fabulous character, Patsy Stone.
Lumley and Saunders explained how the inimitable Patsy took shape during their appearance on The Graham Norton Show. Apparently the characters’ drinking habits were inspired by ‘80s girl-group Bananarama!
4. She's an accomplished activist.
In 2009, Lumley fronted a successful campaign to persuade the U.K. government to allow Gurkhas who served in the British Army before 1997 to settle in Britain. It was most certainly a personal cause for the actress because her father, Major James Rutherford Lumley, had served with the Gurkhas – distinguished soldiers of Nepalese origin – during his military career.
As part of the campaign, she visited the Prime Minister's official residence, 10 Downing Street, with a group of Gurkhas including Tul Bahadur Pun, a World War II veteran who saved her father's life during combat. "Ever since I was a child," Lumley said at the time, "this man has been my hero."
5. Despite her lobbying success, Lumley has repeatedly said she has no desire to launch a political career.
However, she did play a fictional P.M. opposite Richard Madden in this Bodyguard skit for Comic Relief. She definitely has a leader's gravitas, doesn't she?
6. In 2017, she received BAFTA's highest honor: the Fellowship award.
Lumley concluded her super-gracious speech by slipping in a few lines of classic Patsy Stone. What a crowd-pleaser!
7. She has always known her own mind.
During her appearance on BBC chat show Parkinson in 1979 – a time when British social values were much less progressive than today – Lumley is asked about being a lone parent to her son, Jamie. She responds sensibly and articulately, explaining that the only problems she encounters are "practical, not moral," and pointing out that what really is matters whether a child is brought up with love.
8. She's proven herself to be extremely resourceful.
For the 1994 BBC documentary Girl Friday, she spent nine days living on a an uninhabited desert island off the coast of Madagascar with only a basic survival kit. During a panel event at the Edinburgh TV Festival in 2018, Lumley revealed that she had kept several mementos from the documentary because "it was such a colossal part of my life that I knew would change me forever."
"So I kept things like one pound of rice, this is what I survived on, just that for the whole week and there was no food on the island, that’s all," she said. "And to eat that, I had a rusty tin, I had a shell to eat it with, because I didn’t have a spoon, and I had a shell to eat it out of. And I had a ladle, which I made from a coconut shell."
You can see Lumley's desert island mementos in the clip below.
9. She had a supporting role opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in 2013's The Wolf of Wall Street.
Which, as Lumley recalled on The Graham Norton Show, she most definitely enjoyed filming.
10. And she was very briefly a pop star.
Well, kind of. In 1994, she and Saunders teamed up with the Pet Shop Boys for the hilarious charity single "Absolutely Fabulous." It was a big hit, cracking the top ten in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and on the U.S. dance charts.
Do you have a favorite Joanna Lumley role or moment?