LUMLEY, JOANNA

British Actor

Joanna Lumley's lengthy career in television has been marked chiefly by two components--her image as glamorous and refined, and the characters she has played in three popular series, which span three decades. Her work over the years has been varied, encompassing theatre, film, and several major advertising campaigns, as well as television drama, comedy and regular celebrity appearances. Equally, her work has been of widely varying standards, ranging from the flimsy and trite to award-winning performances.

A former model in the "swinging sixties", Lumley landed her first major television role in The New Avengers (1976-77), in which she played special agent Purdey alongside Gareth Hunt (Gambit) and Patrick Macnee (Steed). The show evidently seemed to be more concerned to promote Lumley's legs than her character's crime-fighting skills--not only did her costume consist of a skin-tight trouser suit and kinky high boots, but Purdey's prime weapon was her immobilising karate kick. In spite of this fetishistic fixation, Lumley became most synonymous with the pudding-bowl haircut named after her character, Purdey, and widely imitated by women and small girls alike.

Shortly after The New Avengers came Sapphire and Steel (1979-82), an off-beat science fiction series in which Lumley co-starred with David McCallum. The two played mysterious agents who traveled through time and space, whilst the ethereal Sapphire (Lumley) costumed in a long, floaty dress communed with psychic forces. Although this, along with the previous show, was popular with both children and adults, it is significant to note that Lumley claimed she was becoming frustrated with the parts she was playing, primarily as they did not mimic real women.

For the remainder of the 1980s, Joanna Lumley was involved in less memorable productions, although she remained in the public eye as the face for several advertisements, as a regular guest on TV chat shows, and with certain notable film appearances, particularly as headgirl-turned-prostitute in Shirley Valentine (1989). However, it was her performance with Ruby Wax (on The Full Wax) as a washed-up, drugged-out actress, that initiated the revival of her career. This performance instantly transformed her from an idealised myth of feminine perfection, to reveal a more complex and humorous persona. Shortly after revealing her talent for comedy and self-parody, through a stroke of pertinent casting, Joanna Lumley became Patsy Stone, the aging, neurotic "Fash-Mag-Slag" conceived of by Jennifer Saunders for Absolutely Fabulous (1992-95). This casting was central to the success of Absolutely Fabulous and equally to the renaissance of Lumley's career. Lumley gives an immensely entertaining performance, but also, because of her on and off-screen persona, she creates in Patsy a hilarious and hideous satire around the expectations of glamour and refinement assigned to her. As a character, Patsy has several functions which cover new ground in television culture: she overturned ageist assumptions by opening up a space in television for the representation of women of all ages as humorous; as an "unruly woman" she violated, in a highly entertaining way, the unspoken feminine sanction against making a spectacle of herself; and she confronted and redefined the values of beauty, consumerism and decorum inferred upon women, particularly of a certain age and social class.

Since playing what must surely be her ideal role, and achieving high critical acclaim in the form of several awards including BAFTAs and an Emmy, Joanna Lumley's subsequent work has not been nearly so demanding on her talents. She played a down-at-heel aristocrat in the mediocre A Class Act and in a documentary-drama, Girl Friday, she had to fend for herself on an inhospitable desert island, the emphasis being on how she will cope without couture clothes, haute cuisine and cosmetics. Both of these shows seem to revolve around Lumley's conventional image, but neither seeks to recognise the contradictions apparent since Absolutely Fabulous in Lumley's persona as the epitome of high class. Whilst there may generally be a lack of recognition of Lumley's specific capabilities as an actor, all her major roles share a common interest in casting her as an independent woman--she is nobody's wife or side-kick. However, it seems ironic that Absolutely Fabulous, whilst giving Lumley a new lease of life and promoting her to an international audience, has remained an almost unique forum for her talent as a comedy actor.

-Nicola Foster

 


Joanna Lumley

JOANNA LUMLEY. Born in Srinagar, Kashmir, India, 1 May 1946. Married: 1) Jeremy Lloyd (divorced 1971); 2) Stephen Barlow in 1986; child: James. Established reputation as a top model before starting career as an actress on both stage and screen; co-star in The New Avengers adventure series, and other shows, notably in Absolutely Fabulous. Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Recipient: British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award for Best Light Entertainment Performance, 1993; Emmy Award, 1994. Address: Caroline Renton, 23 Crescent Lane, London SW4 9PT, England.

TELEVISION SERIES

1973 Coronation Street
1976-78 The New Avengers
1979-82 Sapphire and Steel
1986 Mistral's Daughter
1992 Lovejoy
1992-96 Absolutely Fabulous
1993 Cluedo
1993 Class Act

TELEVISION SPECIAL

1994 Girl Friday

FILMS

Some Girls Do, 1968; On Her Majesty's Secret Service, 1969; Tam Lin/The Devil's Widow, 1970; Games That Lovers Play, 1972; Don't Just Lie There, Say Something, 1973; The Satanic Rites of Dracula/Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride, 1973; The Trail of the Pink Panther, 1982; Curse of the Pink Panther, 1983; Shirley Valentine, 1989; James and the Giant Peach, 1996; Cold Comfort Farm, 1996.

RECORDINGS

The Hundred and One Dalmatians, 1984; Invitation to the Waltz, 1985.

STAGE

Don't Just Lie There, Say Something; Othello; Private Lives; Noel and Gertie; Blithe Spirit; Me Old Cigar; Hedda Gabler.

PUBLICATIONS

Stare Back and Smile (autobiography). London; New York: Viking, 1989.

Forces Sweethearts. London: Bloomsbury, 1993.

 

See also Absolutely Fabulous; Avengers; Coronation Street; Saunders, Jennifer