by Tony Wardle
There are certain people who unassumingly take on the role of
national treasure – they don’t seek it but
it happens nevertheless. Alistair Simm was one, Margaret Rutherford,
Joyce Grenfell and Frankie Howerd were others. Of the still living,
there is David Jason and, of course, the one and only, the wonderful,
absolutely fabulous Joanna Lumley…
Everyone loves Joanna. It was a love affair which started with
her appearance as the leggy Purdy in The New Avengers TV series,
way back when I wore flares. Men drooled, women envied but everyone
knew she was the type you could take home to mum – and boy,
would they have liked to do just that.
It wasn’t a case of overnight success either, as Joanna
Lumley had been grafting away at her craft for years before that.
advert for Nimble bread (remember that?) provided her first TV
appearance, followed by a one-line part in a film called Some Girls
Do. She then became the voice of Zsa Zsa the Cat in the children’s
series Hector’s House before a string of other smallish TV
But there were some pretty impressive stage performances, including
a national tour of Private Lives with Simon Callow, the star role
in Ibsen’s Hedder Gabler and a West End run as Elvira in
Blithe Spirit. In 1973 she joined another institution – Coronation
Street – where she did eight episodes as headmaster’s
daughter, Elaine Perkins. Ken Barlow was, of course, a teacher
in those days and he inevitably proposed to her. Elaine turned
him down, sensible girl. General Hospital, Steptoe and Son, Are
You Being Served? and The Cuckoo Waltz followed.
Through all these days, Joanna was a vegetarian – in fact
she gave up meat in her pre-acting days when she was a photographic
“You just had to be thin and thinner and the craze diet
at that time was steak and grapefruit. I remember being in a restaurant
and cutting into the steak and for the first time in my stupid
life I realised that I was cutting flesh. I put down my knife and
fork and that was it. I’d loved animals, I’d cared
for animals and I’d given money to animal charities but for
some reason, I hadn’t made the connection between the living
flesh of an animal and meat. Once that connection was made, I could
never get it out of my mind.”
As so often happens, once the decision to become vegetarian is
taken, a questioning process begins and you suddenly become aware
of things which had previously slipped unnoticed over your head.
For Joanna it was factory farming and the discovery was accidental:
“I was driving home to see my parents and took a different
route. Stopping in a village I saw a row of massive, unpleasant-looking,
windlowless sheds and asked what they were. I was told it was a farm.
As a child I’d been a guest on many farms, looking after pigs
and chickens and helping to herd the geese and I had no idea that
farmed animals could be kept under such dreadful conditions.
“Of course, I later discovered precisely what went on inside
those terrible places. So many horrifying images spring to mind – a
sow chewing on a metal bar in her tethered stall, caged chickens
with bent feet and bald skin.” Joanna speaks with quiet intensity,
her hands gesticulating and mimicking the actions she describes.
“To think of those gorgeous, living birds – which
should be in open air – jammed five to a tiny cage for their
entire lives. Beaks painfully clipped off, the tails of little
piglets chopped off and their teeth scissored off. It’s intolerable!
I feel absolutely sick when I think of the things we do to animals.”
I’m not sure that there is an identikit background for campaigning
vegetarians but somehow, Joanna Lumley’s early life didn’t
seem to mark her out for this role. Born in Srinagar, Kashmir,
on the 1st May 1946, she had a very colonial upringing. Her father
was a major in the Gurkha Rifles and she attended military schools
in Malaya and Hong Kong before moving to boarding schools in Kent
and Sussex. Ballet was her first choice but after failing her RADA
audition at the age of 16, she took a modelling course at Lucie
Clayton’s and became a house model for Jean Muir. She also
worked as a photographic model for some pretty impressive names,
including Lord Lichfield.
|Joanna with Viva!’s Director Juliet Gellatley
An actor to her fingertips, there is nevertheless something extraordinarily
warm and genuine about this vibrant champion for the animals. She
has the power to make you feel the special one and her conversation
is inclusive, intimate and personal. Joanna’s natural style
is enthusiastic and humorous, expansive and uninhibited – which
somehow makes it more telling when she talks about cruelty and
her voice drops, becomes intense and she seems to focus her gaze
on some unseen vision in the middle distance, as if she is actually
witnessing the horrors as she describes them. But in reality, Joanna
Lumley is one of nature’s optimists:
“People don’t really know what happens to animals.
They go to the supermarkets and pick up a plastic-covered box containing
a piece of unidentifiable stuff that seems to belong to nothing.
It’s impossible to imagine that only a short time ago it
was living flesh belonging to a creature who had sentiments and
feelings, senses of happiness and sadness and – who knows – perhaps,
aspirations. And we’ve killed it!
“I don’t know why but I have a feeling that the world
is going through great changes at the moment and extraordinary
things are happening, some more dreadful and some more wonderful
than we can imagine. I’ve a feeling that people are just
beginning to realise that the world can be turned around – by
us, by people, not governments. We’ve got to have people
representing us who will do as we say and these new people will
respect the earth, respect animals and maybe one day we’ll
be able to say sorry properly to all the animals that have been
But we already have the best animal welfare in the world, I say. “To
anyone who is smug enough to repeat that claim, I would ask ‘who
says so?’ Clearly, Joanna is no more taken in by it than
As we’re talking in the sunshine of a London park, an elderly
woman passes by, recognises Joanna and comes over. “I just
wanted to say that I think you’re wonderful and I love to
see you on the tele!” Joanna responds as though the woman
is a personal friend, obviously making her feel special. It’s
not a ruse but genuine pleasure at being appreciated. As the woman
toddles off down the path, Joanna turns and says: “I always
believe in being polite and nice to people. You just never know!” She
It brings to mind my daughter’s experience of nearly a decade
ago. Working for BBC TV as a production assistant, one of her jobs
was to look after Joanna during a drama shoot. In the mayhem of
filming she dashed over to ask Joanna if she would like a cup of
tea. “Goodness me, Niki, of course not – you’re
rushed off your feet. Sit down and I’ll go and get you one!” To
me it was just a pleasant little anecdote but now that I’ve
met Joanna, it makes me laugh because it seems so in character.
It also gives the lie to the oft-repeated mantra that animal campaigners
don’t care about people. Joanna, it seems, cares about everything,
not least, how we’ve managed to get ourselves into the situation
“A lot of it is to do with an obsession with cheapness.
It has become the ruling mantra in all food production with all
supermarkets saying, ‘we’ll give it to you cheap and
even cheaper. You can buy chicken from us this week at the cheapest
ever’. We don’t always buy the cheapest car, or the
cheapest clothes; we don’t go for the cheapest wine or computer
or anything except food. We’ve become obsessed with getting
the cheapest and I think this has to stop, not only in animal production
but in all agriculture.
“We’ve got to settle back, realise that we’re
creatures of this planet, treat living things with respect and
I think that the earth will show us respect back. I know this sounds
loony but it’s not, it’s sense.” She completes
her analysis with a beaming, conspiratorial smile.
I ask how important is it for people to follow this advice – but
it doesn’t really matter what I ask because Joanna is bubbling
with enthusiasm and she’s off on her own tack, every word
beautifully enunciated but the thoughts jumbling and tumbling over
each other in a stream of consciousness that is eager to make sense
of a rather horrible global issue:
“If animals involved in factory farming could hear me, the
first thing I would say is ‘forgive us, trust in us, because
some of us are out here working for you and things might happen
quicker than you think’. People frequently try to resist
change because they often feel guilty and believe that they are
being attacked personally. I don’t eat meat or fish but I’m
not against meat eaters – I’m against the excuses they
use. They say that vegetarians are going to have babies with rickets
and other silly things and simply don’t understand that society
is going to suffer because of this obsession with meat, which we’re
encouraged to eat at every meal.
“I want to tell them that if they can just alter their lives
a little, do a great right, as Shakespeare said, and only do a
little wrong, the world will change. Factory farming must be stopped
for human welfare as well as animal welfare. We cannot go on force-feeding
animals chemicals and growth stimulants the way we are. Why do
you think cancer is roaring ahead at the moment? You don’t
have to be a rocket scientist to understand that whatever we put
into our food is going to affect our own bodies – it’s
why we’re getting sicker and sicker. We have got to go back
to organic farming and the world will smile on us.
“It isn’t insentient, this globe of ours, it knows
what’s going on and it will help us if we help it. We’ve
got to start with the animals – we’ve got to free them
from their cages and make animal husbandry a proud job instead
of an underpaid one for people who are themselves suffering from
lack of imagination and maybe cruelty in their own lives. We have
to remember what the great French philosopher, LaMartine, said; ‘cruelty
is the same, only the victim is different’.
“To the poorest I’m saying, hang on in there, we’re
gonna get there, we’re gonna help you. To the rich people
I’m saying, stop eating so much protein, calm down, share
the world with everybody and get healthier into the bargain.” Joanna
leans forward and again flashes her conspiracist’s smile,
raising her finger to her lips to indicate silence:
“I have to tell you a secret – I’m always well.
I’m always well! When I go abroad I don’t get a gippy
tummy because I don’t eat meat and I don’t eat fish,
I just eat my lovely vegetables and I feel fine.”
There’s none of the angst and introspection that tortures
so many actors and you know that an evening out with Joanna Lumley
would be absolute fun. Maybe it’s born out of self confidence
and the knowledge that she is a superb actor with an extraordinary
breadth of skill. To have cast her as the permanently inebriated
Patsy Stone in Absolutely Fabulous was a stroke of genius for who
was to know that her comedy timing and delivery were perfection.
At the other end of the scale was her riveting and brilliant 10-minute
TV monologue as Maddie Blakelock in Up in Town. As a middle-aged
gentlewoman, she has nothing to do but talk to herself in her dressing
table mirror. I wanted to applaud when the credits rolled – but
I’m prejudiced! Fortunately, Joanna also appears to be.
“Organisations like Viva! cannot be matched, they bring
to people’s attention the fact that things can be changed,
they show without flinching the horrors of what is going on and
they show a path out of the horror. The name Viva! even has an
exclamation mark after it, which shows a sense of excitement, attack
and challenge. We can make a difference and we can end cruelty
to animals and Viva! is right there, with a V at its front, spear-heading
into the future.
Go Viva!” Phew!