Friday 23 February 2018

Review: Biography: Absolutely by Joanna Lumley

Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £20

Eilis O'Hanlon

If anything cemented Joanna Lumley's reputation as an all-round good egg, it was spearheading the campaign to grant UK citizenship to old soldiers from Nepal's legendary Gurkha regiment; but anyone familiar with her background wouldn't have been surprised at Lumley's involvement.

Her own father was a major in the 6th Gurkha Rifles in Kashmir, and what he loved about his comrades, he always told her, was "their bravery and honour, their modesty and wicked sense of fun".

Those are qualities which Lumley herself exhibits in spades in this new book. She comes from one of those archetypal British families, long extinct now as a type, who fanned out across the Empire, doing what they saw as their duty to a homeland which they rarely ever saw.

Her mother was sent to school in England, "a cold country unknown to her, where she was not allowed to see other children in the holidays" and dreamed in Urdu.

As a child, her father didn't see his own parents for four years. It made them tough as old boots. Years later, whenever she suggested some "ludicrous adventure" to them, her mother and aunt would always say "oh, do!" so she learned not to be afraid.

Like them, Lumley takes life's knocks without complaint, always looking back on her life with amused detachment, whether it's in the 1960s living on bread and cheese with three other girls in a small flat in London ("we aimed to look like doped existentialists" she observes memorably), or scratching a living as a model in bri nylon catalogues and knitting patterns, many of them reproduced here in garish detail, confirming that fashion's past is another country, they do things differently there.

Within a few years, she'd blagged her way to an Equity card with a bit part in a long-forgotten film called Some Girls Do in which she played a robot whose only line was "yes, Mr Robinson" before being blown up before the credits.

So began a long, semi-accidental career as an actress, drifting from role to role without any apparent grand plan.

The "unwavering loyalty" which her father admired so much in the Gurkhas is in abundance in his daughter too. Kissing and telling isn't her style. She refuses to be unkind to anyone. Her first husband, with whom she had a son, Jamie, is referred to throughout in glowing terms.

Her second husband, comedy writer Jeremy Lloyd of 'Allo 'Allo fame, whom she married and divorced within a year, likewise.

"We have stayed close as the days and decades race by, through remarriages, illness and success."

Those in search of celebrity dirt will have to look elsewhere. She's discreet, dignified, classy.

To be honest, that doesn't always make for a riveting read. There are too many saccharine bon mots which should be best filed away under the heading 'Pass The Sick Bag'.

"Each time a child is born a bit of extra magic comes your way," for example. Yeurch. You can't help thinking that no one could possibly be this saintly. But maybe that's expecting too much.

Absolutely is subtitled A Memoir, but it's more of a photobook with extended captions than an autobiography. She mentions in passing working on a film with David Niven, but she's no match for the master when it comes to spinning a good yarn.

There are some nice stories -- Anthony Perkins measuring Rod Steiger's caravan to see if it was longer than his own on one film set; or Ava Gardner turning up at her flat with a basket of booze, which she proceeded to drink straight from the bottle -- but it only whets the appetite for more of the same.

C hapters devoted to her time on The New Avengers and the fondly remembered Sapphire And Steel, or her travels in search of the northern lights and the source of the Nile, are never quite detailed enough to satisfy a casual reader's curiosity, much less a devoted fan's.

The haphazard nature of the book probably reflects her life, which does seem to have gone by in an amiable hippyish daze. Even the part for which she's now doomed to be best remembered -- that of chain smoking, alcoholic nymphomaniac Patsy in Jennifer Saunders' iconic sitcom Absolutely Fabulous -- seems to have fallen into her lap and she only took it, typically, because she was once more running out of money.

Lumley says she has no fear of being "papped" (photographed by paparazzi) because she knows she can never look as bad as that "man-eating ashtray".

It's this lack of pretension which makes her so appealing. She's the sort of woman that men adore, but of whom other women don't feel in the slightest bit resentful.

Her only fault, whisper it, is that she's a little dull, but there are far worse crimes than being too nice.

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