Watching Joanna Lumley light up the screen, whether it’s as tipsy ex-model Patsy in classic sitcom Absolutely Fabulous or as kooky friend Jackie in the hit new film Finding Your Feet, it’s easy to imagine she’s never been out of the spotlight.
But the 71-year-old had a long period where she was far from the celebrated actress she is today.
In her 20s and early 30s, she struggled to make ends meet as a single mother, and had to overcome a nervous breakdown. And although 1976 series The New Avengers turned her into a pin-up, the actress spent most of the 80s out of public gaze, grafting away in worthy but low-key theatre roles and far-from-serious movies such as Curse of the Pink Panther.
It wasn’t until 1992, when she was 46, that she got the role that would make her name all over again, but in a completely different professional direction to any she had taken before – outrageous situation comedy.
Now, of course, no one can picture anyone other than Lumley as Patsy Stone, her Bolly-guzzling, beehive-wearing Ab Fab character. But at the time, as the Guardian notes, the world hadn’t yet recognised her comic gifts. The role was a risk for her and the show – a risk that paid off hugely with critical and commercial acclaim for Ab Fab and its stars.
Perhaps even more risky is her willingness to breaking with the past, even when that past brought amazing success. She’s just told the Radio Times that another Ab Fab reunion is off the cards.
“You kind of think well, you know, we got away with it for 25 years, how fabulous?” Lumley explains. “To be connected with that, and it went out on a high. I think that’s better than dragging it back again.”
Instead, the actress is taking another new direction, this time as the surprise host of the prestigious British Academy Film Awards, which involved stepping into the big shoes of long-time host Stephen Fry for the gala film event on February 18.
Lumley admits it was an unexpected offer that she accepted with indecent haste. “Honestly, how exciting is this? It’s just so unbelievably thrilling,” she said after her appointment was announced in January.
New beginnings and unexpected opportunities are also the theme of Lumley’s new film Finding Your Feet, which stars award-winning actress Imelda Staunton as Sandra Abbott, a wealthy, somewhat uptight 60-something who discovers her husband of 40 years has been having an affair.
The shocking discovery sets in motion a series of life-changing events for Sandra, as she moves in with her free-spirited sister Bif, played by another veteran actress, Celia Imrie, and meets a group of defiant, energetic Baby Boomers who teach Sandra that life’s later years can be the beginning of a wonderful new existence.
Lumley’s supporting turn as Bif’s friend Jackie is a key one, because she gives the audience a prototype of who Sandra could become if she just accepts that divorcing her cheating spouse could be the start of something good.
It’s a message that’s not lost on some viewers who’ve also undergone big life changes or explored new directions and emerged triumphant from difficult circumstances.
Starts at 60 community member Judy Potts says she was miserable after her husband died and her children left home.
“I went from being in a caring situation, looking after someone else, to suddenly being totally on my own,” she recalls. “What next? No one’s going to do it for you or tell you what to do, you have to find your own thing, and get out and do it.”
Judy’s unexpected answer was to fill her home with international students that she cares for as they learn to live independently – something she never expected to do but has filled the gap for her. She gives Finding Your Feet “4.5 stars out of 5” for its very real, and funny, depiction of her life stage.
“It’s a terrific movie,” she says. “Anyone of a certain generation will identify with it.”
Margaret Kemmery completely agrees. The Starts at 60 community member went through a marriage break-up at the age of 58.
“I walked out of my husband’s life and my beautiful home, and after a really bad start I ended up living in someone else’s home as a lodger, but that doesn’t stop any of the loneliness that you feel,” she says.
Margaret was determined to make friends, so went to a photography club for the first time, and has since gone on to photography tours throughout Asia, even travelling alone to remote locations in her search for snaps.
“It’s another source of really beautiful stuff in my life,” she says. “And I’m back off to Vietnam in March!”
Their ability to make lemonade from some of the biggest lemons life can deal out – death, divorce and serious illness – is something Joanna Lumley would probably celebrate. After all, she says that even now she’s still always on the lookout for that “next great script” to challenge her.
“Seventy-one isn’t what it used to be,” she reckoned in a recent interview with the Daily Mail. “When I was young, 71 meant permed grey hair and rickety legs and a dowager hump [but] ageing has changed.”
The likeable characters of Finding Your Feet would no doubt drink, and dance, to that!