Joanna was born on 1st May 1946 in Srinagar, Kashmir, India. She is the second and youngest child of Major James Rutherford Lumley, of the Gurkha Rifles and Beatrice Rose Lumley neé Weir. Her sister Aelene was born two years earlier. Joanna says that she had always thought she was a Monday’s child. Thinking, what a truly lucky beginning in life; born on May Day, a Himalayan background, a ready made family and a Monday’s fair of face gift—then to her horror she found out she’d been born on a Wednesday—full of woe day! She was so shocked to discover this, and says that it’s set her back. All her life she thought of herself as a painted clown and an optimist whose duty it was to be ever cheerful.
Joanna and her family left India for good when she was a year old; it was the time when the partition of India was taking place. In those days journeys were mostly undertaken by ship, which could take weeks, so it wasn’t uncommon for children to be sent back to school in England and for them not to see their parents for years. This is how Joanna’s parents were bought up and this is the reason they decided their children should not have the same fractured up-bringing as they’d endured. It didn’t mean that the families who sent their children away to school, didn’t love or care for their children, it was just the way it was—tradition. So when the marching orders came they packed up and moved on. Joanna’s mother always made their new home familiar and Joanna’s bedroom would be adorned with Beatrix Potter books and pictures, her toy basket and a Chinese rug. She says she can never remember feeling sad about leaving – the future and the unknown were always more alluring.
Before Joanna and her family returned to England in May 1954 she’d spent three years attending the HQ Malaya School, in Kuala Lumpur and received top marks in all subjects apart from maths. She says that she must have been really clever when she was six, but she doesn’t think she was ever that clever again. Early every morning she would walk to school – dressed in a blue and white cotton dress made by her mother on her Singer sewing machine – and be in assembly by 8 a.m, because the school day was over by lunch time, since it was far too hot to study after midday. The school wasn’t far from the bungalow where she and her family lived at the time. Back in England she and her sister Aelene, were sent to a boarding school in Kent called Mickledene. It wasn’t a large school; there were only about 70 pupils in all and only 15 were boarders. Her school reports at the time say she had difficulty interacting with others, she seemed to be self-absorbed and lacking in confidence. But at age nine it says ‘Joanna acted extremely well in her school play.’ This pleased her tremendously, because she dreamt of becoming an actress. Joanna puts the lack of confidence down to feeling homesick but thinks learning to cope because you just had to get on with things has made her the person she is today. She remembers when her parents were sent to boarding schools in England from India, they didn’t see their parents sometimes for more than a year.
The Ab-Fab star has fond memories of her old boarding school, which no longer exists, the smell of roses, dark polished floorboards; it used to be a Georgian Farmhouse – there was a tennis court and some wild land where lupins and buttercups grew. Everything you used to say to your parents now had to be written down. On Sundays before they went on their weekly walk they had to sit down and write, with fountain pens and Basildon Bond writing paper, desperately trying to think of things to write. It had to be at least two pages.
From the age of eleven, Joanna attended St Mary’s. Her sister was already there because she was two years older. Life at the Catholic school was very contained; chapel was attended three times a day and chapel veils were mandatory. Parents were only seen on two Saturdays in term time and on a short, half term holiday. It was as if the outside world ceased to exist; life had its own rhythm within the stone-built school walls. As many as seventy girls between the ages of eleven to eighteen living as a community, sometimes sleeping with up to seven in a small room; Joanna said that Big Brother would hold no fears or appeal for a boarding school girl. Although it was a religious upbringing Joanna likes to stress they were all very normal girls that often used to get a fit of the giggles in chapel, in lessons, or at mealtimes – anywhere, really.
St Mary’s sadly suffered the same fate as Mickledene. The chapel and the nuns’ side has been demolished, but the house and school have been redeveloped into new homes. The nuns moved out to an abbey in West Malling. Joanna does not like change, although she realises that some change is sometimes needed but not all change is for the better.
After leaving St Mary’s Joanna attended the Lucie Clayton Finishing School because she failed to get into RADA even though all she’d ever wanted to do from an early age was act. Now, years later, she regrets never going to drama school, but as she says, at that time you couldn’t get work as an actor unless you’d been to RADA. But it seems to be different nowadays; casting directors often prefer to audition people who haven’t been to stage school. From there Joanna drifted into modelling, and she really enjoyed the work, sometimes earning £100 a week, which in the 1960s was a lot of money. She rose to fame and was photographed by some of the best, such as the late Patrick Litchfield. She was house model for the famous designer Jean Muir. Joanna says modelling gave her nail varnish, travelling, good money and looking grown-up. But in those days young people didn’t worry about pensions and buying houses; you earned money to spend and have a good time. If you lived in the city you nearly always lived in a rented flat or rooms, you crashed with friends, or you squatted. Joanna said she learned everything she needed to know about lenses, lights and composition from modelling and it stood her in good stead for her film career later. Her first part in a film came from the actor Richard Johnson; she met him at a drinks party, and asked him how she could get into films. He said he could get her something in the film he was acting in. It was called Some Girls Do. He was staring in it with the actress Daliah Lavi. Joanna only had to speak three words, “Yes Mr Robinson” and she became a bona-fide actress with an Equity card and an agent – Terence Plunket-Greene. After that she had a small part in Coronation Street - where she turned down an offer of marriage from Ken Barlow - another in General Hospital and even a Dracula film. Not forgetting, a part in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service - she played the English girl among Blofeld’s “Angels of Death” and had two lines to say. But Joanna says her best break was in the 1970s when she became Purdy in The New Avengers. She’d gone back to modelling because she’d now got a son to care for and at that time pay wasn’t very good for small acting parts. She was in Italy doing a photo shoot for a catalogue when the call came that she’d got the part in The New Avengers. The hairstyle, (neat glossy bob with a heavy fringe) which was Purdy’s trademark, was copied from her modelling friend Sandra Soames. When asked who’d done it; she said it was a young hairdresser called John Frieda. The job lasted for 26 episodes and put Joanna firmly on the road to a successful acting career. One year later she was back on TV again, this time it was on a little-known show called Sapphire and Steel. David McCallum played the part of Steel. It is known as the forerunner to The X-Files.
In the 1980s Joanna returned to the theatre,and played ‘Hedda Gabler’ and ‘Elvira’ in Blyth Spirit but she also had parts in several films such as Trail of The Pink Panther and Curse of the Pink Panther in 1982 and 1983. She also played Marjorie Majors in Shirley Valentine in 1989.
She shot to international acclaim and reinvented herself as a comedienne in 1992 as Patsy Stone in the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. It is rated as one of the greatest female comic performances ever; it’s earned Joanna lots of awards, not least a BAFTA for her role as Patsy. The TV series is set to return later in the year with the first of three specials celebrating its twentieth anniversary, and with all the original cast members.
Joanna is also well remembered for her tireless campaigning to help the Gurkhas to provide all Gurkha veterans who served in the regiment before 1997 the right to settle in Britain. On 20th November 2008, Joanna led an all party-group which also included Gurkhas from Parliament Square to 10 Downing Street with a petition signed by 250,000 people. On the 29th April 2009 their voices were finally heard and a motion was passed in parliament. She has been hailed ‘Daughter of Nepal’ by the people of Nepal for all of her support. In August 2010 Joanna teamed up with Sharwood’s to develop a limited edition Mango Chutney with Kashmiri Chilli, an ingredient from her birthplace, Sharwood’s will donate 10p from every jar sold to the Gurkha Welfare Trust. She also campaigns tirelessly for Survival International, a group that aims to help indigenous tribes live the life they want, mainly the Dongria Kondha tribe in India, where if the building of a mine goes through it will destroy not just the homes but a complete way of life for the tribe and wipe them out.
Not only that, but she’s a member of many charities including, the Born Free Foundation, Kids for Kids, and Mind. She is also patron of Tree Aid that helps communities in Africa fight poverty.
She received an OBE in 1995.
Since 1989 Joanna has written several books, including three memoirs: Stare Back and Smile: Memoirs, No Room For Secrets and Absolutely. She’s also written three novels, provided the voice for several audiobooks and written forewords for other authors, too.
In 2010 she turned her hand to documentaries and produced and presented Joanna Lumley’s Nile where she followed the river from source to sea. This was shown on ITV in four parts, beginning on 12th April 2010. She then set off on her travels again almost a year later and this time she visited Greece, for Joanna Lumley’s Greek Odyssey, which was also a four part series airing on ITV on 13th October 2011.
Joanna is the voice of AOL’s “you have email” notification in the UK. Her latest endeavour is Marks and Spencer’s “Shwopping”, where each time you buy a new item of clothing, you can donate an old one into their “Shwop Drop”, and they’ll work with Oxfam to “resell, reuse or recycle” it.
In my eyes she is an icon and another of the women I look up to who doesn’t let age get in the way of what she wants to do. She is also a very funny lady. She may have been born on a Wednesday but I would say she’s far from being full of woe.
Woman and Home