Even her fellow national treasures are rarely as universally adored as Joanna Lumley. A model, actress, television presenter, and activist, she has managed to carve out a long career with little to no flops. Here’s how Joanna Lumley worked her way onto our TV screens and into our hearts.
A star is born in Srinagar
Joanna with her mother Beatrice and sister in Kuala Lumpur. Image via Absolutely: A Memoir
Joanna Lumley was born on 1 May, 1946, in Srinagar, the largest city in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Her father was a Major in the 6th Gurkha Rifles, a regiment of the British Indian Army.
Lumley landed her first acting role aged just six when she was cast as the Queen in an A. A. Milne poem. Her mother made her a blue satin dress and a golden cardboard crown. She now recognises this memory as the moment she knew she wanted to be an actress.
“I was tall, with frizzy hair, spots, unfashionably
broad shoulders and was a bit of a lout in retrospect.”
Although the family travelled during her youth, spending extensive time in Hong Kong and Malaysia, Lumley was raised largely in Kent and was schooled in a Hastings convent. Aged 16 she was turned down by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, a decision they surely now regret.
Looking back on her teenage years in her memoirs, Lumley recalls, “I was tall, with frizzy hair, spots, unfashionably broad shoulders and was a bit of a lout in retrospect. I don’t remember us grieving very much about the way we looked, however; food was poor and so was our skin, but we laughed all the time and slept like the dead and dreamed of becoming gorgeous later.”
A model citizen
Having failed the RADA entry examinations, Lumley undertook a modelling course in London in 1966. She became the house model for fashion legend, Jean Muir shortly after. Just a year later she gave birth to her son, James, fathered out of wedlock by the photographer Michael Claydon. She was just 21, and unmarried mothers were still a social taboo.
Speaking to The Express, she explained how “It was abnormal not to be married then… However, I had a tremendously supportive family and the world I lived and worked in was non-judgmental. Like any working parent, the difficulty is in both working and being a parent. It was a bloody juggle but everyone has that, not just single parents.”
“My son is the light of my life. I’ve never had any regrets about becoming an unmarried mother.”
Her first marriage, to comedy writer Jeremy Lloyd, followed in 1970. Looking back on the marriage, which lasted just a year, Lumley explained, “He was witty, tall and charming—we should have just had a raging affair.”
The avengers assemble
By 1975, Lumley had proved herself in fashion and become one of the 10 most-booked models of the 1960s. Hoping to break into acting, she had auditioned for a role in Avengers after queuing with over 800 other young women who were also hoping to land the part. Against all odds, she was offered the role of the young spy, then named Charlie.
Uninspired by a name she associated with a fragrance, Lumley requested the writer change it, and so Purdey was born.
“I returned in the nick of time, with a revolver
tucked into my stocking-top”
In her memoirs, she recalls the moment when she landed the job. “It felt as if vast tectonic plates had suddenly slipped sideways and I knew my life was going to change forever. I stepped into a different way of being; where I would be paid regularly, where I would work with the cream of British actors, where I would make the equivalent of 13 feature films a year and become as fit as a flea… where I would become ‘famous’.”
Lumley experienced something of a press baptism by fire when she discovered that no photos would be printed from the show’s press launch unless she flashed the tops of her stockings.
She remembers how, “I was wearing tights, and the shops weren’t open yet. We walked into The Dorchester, found a middle-aged woman, frogmarched her to the ladies’ room, tore off her stockings and suspenders and probably gave her a fiver for her trouble (and trauma).”
“I returned in the nick of time, with a revolver tucked into my stocking-top; the Press sighed with relief.”
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