Joanna Lumley remembers the Sixties when everyone was skinny and only the rich could afford to get drunk or stoned.
Words by Jonathan Whiley
It’s the mid Sixties and sexual revolution scents the air.
Joanna Lumley – who else, sweetie? – is sweeping me through the streets of London.
She is recalling the modelling days that would later inform her Bafta-winning Ab Fab creation, Patsy.
“It was very exciting but it was also scary,” says Joanna.
She arrived in the capital in 1964 and encountered an intoxicating palette of short skirts and thick eyeliner.
“I don’t think we were as rich as we are now,” she says.
“You see in the pictures just how skinny everybody was; not just the girls, but the boys.
“We didn’t eat between meals. We didn’t stuff ourselves with food like we do now.”
“There wasn’t this fantastic obsession with food, where every newspaper and every magazine has a massive amount of pages entirely devoted to food.
“And we wonder why our nation gets fatter and fatter,” she says.
“We didn’t have very much money and so you never got drunk. There weren’t drunkards around like there are now because we couldn’t afford drink.
“Unless you were very rich you couldn’t afford dope even.
“A joint would go round six people at a party and you would go, ‘Woo!’ but only the rich got really stoned.
“Heroin didn’t really exist, smack and crack and all those things didn’t exist,” she remembers.
Born in Kashmir a year after the Second World War, she lived in Malaysia and Hong Kong before moving to Kent to attend boarding school aged eight.
“The school was tiny; 60 or 70 children and only about 11 or 12 were boarders.
“It was completely different from every single thing I had known.
“But I’ve always been quite a cheerful creature and you go, ‘Oh this is new, I’ll do this’.
“I had been moving a bit and so I had got used to saying goodbye to school friends and moving on to the next place,” she says.
Did travelling teach her to be stoic?
“I was never brought up with luxuries and at boarding school you [had] strip washes. This idea of hot showers every day is rubbish.
“You stand by a basin or if you’re in a tent with a lamp or a candle, you stand by a bucket of water and wash yourself.
“I don’t find that shocking or frightening or odd. My mother was very good at teaching us how to have respect for the natural world.
“I’m never afraid and I don’t think, ‘Ooh there might be a snake here’, because we were taught to handle snakes,” she says.
Fearless by nature
Joanna has never shied away from a battle.
During the Gurkha Justice Campaign she fought tooth and nail for the soldiers to be given the same rights as their British and Commonwealth counterparts.
“Being different isn’t horrible,” she says.
“I’m not afraid of staying in a stately home or meeting royal people. I’m not afraid of sitting down in the gutter with people who haven’t washed for seven years and haven’t got any teeth.
“These things don’t frighten me.
“What I hate most is indifference. If people don’t care, that is the hardest one to fight.”
“People who are fiercely pro cruelty are easy to put your fists up to and fight, but people who don’t bother to vote or turn off lights, there is something terrifying.
“It’s like punching a cloud,” she says.
Helping children in Sudan
Among her many charitable ventures is Kids for Kids, a British charity founded to help children in Darfur, Sudan.
This year Joanna, who is a patron, will host its annual Candelit Christmas Concert at St Peter’s in Eaton Square.
The project gives the poorest 15 per cent of village families a “goat loan”.
This is six animals that can provide milk for starving babies and life-saving nutrition. In turn, the flock grows and mothers earn an income from selling milk and yoghurt.
Joanna adds: “We don’t ever feel the age we are. I’m 73 but I still feel about 32 or 27 or 15. I don’t feel like an old woman, which I am now.
“But then if I was brought up now, I would be quite a different child and I would be quite disgusting. I would probably be on Made in Chelsea”.