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There’s a bit in Joanna Lumley’s new book about the Queen where the actress quotes Ban Ki-Moon, in a speech he gave when Her Majesty addressed the United Nations in 2010. “In a changing and churning world, you are an anchor for our age,” the then UN Secretary General began. “Your reign spans the decades… from the Beatles to Beckham, from television to Twitter… You have become a living symbol of grace, constancy and dignity.”
In the book, A Queen for All Seasons, Lumley writes that she particularly loves the bit about “grace, constancy and dignity”. I tell her that I, too, loved this, and that I feel it could just as well be said about her. At this, Lumley’s face becomes the picture of amusement. “Oh, stop it, Bryony,” she laughs. “Just stop that!”
But it’s true. From Bond girl to Purdey to Patsy Stone and beyond, Lumley’s presence on our screens – not to mention that purring, husky voice – has become as reassuring as our monarch, and in that way, this pairing in book form, to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee next year, could not be more fitting. So it is surprising to learn that that this gracious, serene 75-year-old once had a nervous breakdown, when she was a single mother in her 20s, raising her only son Jamie, who was then four.
“It was burnout,” she explains to me now, when we meet over Zoom. “It was extraordinary, because I think, Bryony, it must be like deserting soldiers, who suddenly turn their backs and walk away from the battlefield. They were labelled cowards, and I wonder if they didn’t just burn out, if something in their minds didn’t just burn out.
She was long separated from Jamie’s father, photographer Michael Claydon, when it happened. “It was the first play I’d been in; I’d been in it for 10 months. And during that time my son was very small and I was earning very little money, and I had an au pair, and then she went, and when she went, every time I went to the theatre I was anxious about how Jamie would be.”
She is sitting in her study, in her house in south London, speaking very matter-of-factly about this episode. “I’d had an operation for ovarian cysts,” she says, shrugging, “as if that matters! But anyway, I’d come back too soon, because they needed me back in the play, and I think I felt vulnerable because I wasn’t quite strong enough yet to be back. And I can remember one Saturday morning, I became a deserter. There were two shows, a matinee and evening performance, and I sat in the corner of my bedroom, in my flat in London, and just thought: ‘What I shall do is I shall catch a train from Charing Cross and go down and see my parents’, who by that time were looking after Jamie because the au pair thing had happened.
“And I simply went to the station and caught a train, and they [the production staff] went: ‘What are you doing? You’ve got two shows!’ And I just said: ‘No, I’m not going back, and that’s the end of it.’ I had no feelings inside me. I had literally burnt out. There was a mass of other things [going on]. Problemo, problemo!” she says brightly. “We all have different levels and I’m quite tough, I’d like to think. But maybe at the time, the overload was too great, and something inside me just went: ‘I’m not doing it any more.’”
She is telling me a story, as she used to when I was a child, and I would fall asleep listening to her narrate the tales of Rupert the Bear. Her voice is so rich, so lovely, so expressive, that it’s hard not to be lulled into a dreamlike state even when she is talking about such a difficult period of her life.
“After that, I left the play,” she continues. “I can’t apologise enough then, or now, to the other actors. It seems unforgivable. It seems as if one did it because one couldn’t be fagged to go on. It wasn’t that. I was literally incapable of going on. And after that, because I had been burnt to the ground as it were, the climb back was terribly slow and long. It was about six months that I was terrified of everything. I was terrified of crossing the road. I was terrified of going into shops. I was afraid. I was mortally afraid.
“Sometimes with panic attacks, when you have to concentrate on breathing in and breathing out so you don’t die, you try to take your mind off the awful hamster wheel that is going round and round. I didn’t resort to drink or drugs or anything like that. I didn’t take any medication. I didn’t go to see a doctor or have any counselling. This was 50 years ago, when it wasn’t quite as easy to do these things.”
So what did she do? “I built myself back up again. I thought: ‘I’ve got to make myself strong enough, so that this doesn’t happen again. First of all, I’m a mother. Secondly, I’ve got to earn my living, and I can’t afford to break like this, to snap. I’ve got to become stronger. How do I do it? What do I do when fear overwhelms me like this?’”
Lumley performed on herself a sort of DIY CBT, though of course she had no idea that was what she was doing. “I would set up scenarios in my mind, some of the most ridiculous scenarios, where I’d go into a shop, and there’s a pile of bottles stacked up, and I’d stumble and knock all the bottles over and you’ve broken hundreds of pounds of bottles. And the glass had cut you, and now you’re bleeding, and you can’t get up. What do you do? And always, in my mind, came the answer: ‘Kind people will help you’. And then no matter what scenario I put up, the most humiliating and frightening things, always the same thing came: kind people will help you, kind people will help you, kind people will help you… And with that at my side, I managed.”
She seems to me like a very positive, glass half full kind of person now. “You know, Bryony, I quite like stoicism. I quite like not collapsing and screaming and crying. Because I think that if the ship was going down, I would be terrified if the captain said: ‘This is the most awful thing.’ Because, the thing is, you have to keep your spirits up. You have to keep your spirits up. I think you have to discipline yourself, it’s a kind of self discipline, to try to be strong, to look on the bright side. Sometimes you have to make yourself optimistic. Sometimes you have to find a way out of the dark corners and, believe me, we all have dark corners. All of us have dark, gloomy days where we think: ‘This is bloody wretched.’ It can be about anything, and it can be sparked by nothing. And then people say ‘count your blessings’. When you feel like that, you don’t have any blessings. You don’t recognise a blessing.”
Today, she likes to count her blessings – her garden, which she loves pottering in, her teenage granddaughters, her life with her husband of almost 40 years, conductor Stephen Barlow. “I’m married to an artiste,” she laughs, “so the idea of either of us giving up what we do… well, our lives would be pretty thin.”
She has been busy throughout the pandemic, filming documentaries and dramas and writing this book, of course. She has always loved the Queen, and remembers, as a seven-year-old growing up in Kuala Lumpur (her father was an officer in the British Army), watching footage of the Coronation. “She [the Queen] moved easily to the front of the pantheon of Marvellous Ones I kept in my heart,” writes Lumley in the book, which is a collection of memories from people who have met and worked with the monarch during her almost 70-year reign.
It’s a lovely little tome that delivers the warmest of glows. There are a few never-told-before stories about Her Majesty, the most gorgeous of which comes from John Swannell, a photographer and good friend of Lumley’s. Swannell had been tasked with photographing the Queen for her Diamond Jubilee, and was allowed two set-ups for the pictures. The first, featuring the Queen in front of a portrait of her father, King George VI, was Swannell’s favourite, but it was rejected in favour of the set-up without the king. Swannell was saddened, but reassured when he was later told that “far from disliking the photograph with the King’s portrait, the Queen had loved it so much that she had it framed and hung it in her bedroom”.
Lumley has met the Queen a few times, and received her OBE from Her Majesty. “You don’t remember much except for the beating heart when you walk up and step forward and step back and you’re trying to get all that right,” she says now. She was invited for lunch to Buckingham Palace, an intimate affair with only eight guests. “And all I can remember was being in the drawing room beforehand. It’s pretty and friendly and not frightening, but it’s always scary to meet the Queen, funnily enough. The Queen is the Queen. And you can’t believe it, you get so taken aback by seeing someone who’s so frantically familiar.”
She was with a Scottish policewoman and a judge when she was introduced to the Queen. “We’d got onto the subject of drugs, and I said that I thought if drugs were made legal – for instance, if cocaine came between cough mixture and corn plasters – that it would knock out all the drug barons and all the world’s villainy. I mean, what made me suddenly rant off like that? Afterwards I thought: ‘You fool, Joanna, you FOOL!’ The Queen didn’t want to hear your opinions about drugs!’”
Perhaps she did, I say, before wondering out loud if our monarch had any contributions to this conversation. “She’s got this clever way of saying ‘How interesting, do tell me more, do go on’, which just makes you ramble on.”
She tells me that the Queen is actually quite shy. “I think that she probably decided long ago that she would sort of stand back, that she wouldn’t suddenly dance madly or do something strange or odd.” I say that she is the only human in the modern world that we allow to maintain such a dignified silence. “Well, yes, it’s such a rarity, because we’re always encouraged to have our voice heard, to let the people know who we truly are. And this hasn’t seemed to be part of the Queen’s remit at all. She’s just never, ever done that.
“But people who know her well always say she has a lovely sense of humour and such warmth. So many people, Bryony, talked about her sixth sense, her extra sensitivity to people. And that astonished me. Because when you think about what she’s had to do in her long life and reign, when you think how many thousands, maybe even millions of people she’s come across, she’s become terribly wise. And part of the great things of wisdom is to remain quiet, is to remain still and listen.”
Which brings us, of course, to the Queen’s children and grandchildren, and some of the current problems in the Royal family, which are not quite as dignified. “Well, to be fair, I think it’s quite hard to find anyone who’s as dignified as the Queen,” she says, very diplomatically. “Never make the mistake of thinking that the Royal family are just like us, because they’re not. Every one of them has a detective just out of sight; everything they do is monitored. They don’t suddenly go: ‘Oh, I wonder if Sainsbury’s has shut yet, and if I can rush down and get something.’
“And it’s been more different for the Queen than the younger ones, because, remember, she never went to school. So while we have this completely ordinary – in a way – woman, whose main passion is the countryside and horses and dogs, she has also had to be this extremely Royal, dignified symbol for the whole of her life. That makes me admire her much more, knowing that she’d rather be on the back of a horse or with a mass of dogs and just striding out across the hills.”
The Queen rarely stops, with reports this week that she feels it is her “religious duty not to step back”, despite having to spend a night in hospital this week after having to cancel a visit to Northern Ireland. Lumley is most interested in how much the Queen’s faith sustains her, and so I ask the actress if she, too, believes. “I’ve got a tremendous faith,” she beams. “I believe in virtually everything, Bryony!
“I love the sense that mankind isn’t the greatest thing there is, so I love the idea of the Earth being Gaia, having its own recognition, its own sense of purpose. I love the idea of all the different religions and all their different prophets and leaders, all trying to keep their tribes in order. I don’t believe that there’s nothing except mankind. I do believe we’re the most powerful and certainly the most destructive and often the most extraordinarily kind and self-sacrificing, but often perfectly bloody. It’s interesting, it’s just so interesting!”
We are coming to the end of our time. “Sorry, honey!” she says, brightly, promising me that the next time we meet, it will be in person, and she would like to give me a hug. I ask her what she likes to do when she’s not working – if she still loves her activism. She tells me she is working on a campaign for Nepal, home of her beloved Gurkhas, to get the Covid vaccine out there. And then there’s her interest in the environment. “My new passion is small nuclear farms.” She rolls her eyes to the heavens. “Look, we’re not going to get into this. I’ll get a mass of people going: ‘You murdering bastard!’”
We finish talking about the privilege of getting older. “I was thinking back to when I was a Bond girl, those innocent days, and how fit we were and how young we were. And the great thing about getting older is that you stop minding about things. You cared so desperately about what people would think about you, whether your clothes were right or what you would say. And so what you lose in the way of flexibility or energy, you gain in what I like to call wisdom. We get wiser, whether we know it or not. Dealing with things, managing life, we get wiser and wiser. Which is why the very last word I want to say to you is about the Queen being a very wise woman. I think she’s become an extraordinary, an extra ordinary person.”
I want to say the same to Joanna Lumley, but I know she won’t hear of it, so instead I will have to put it here.
A Queen for All Seasons by Joanna Lumley is published by Hodder & Stoughton on October 28. Preorder for £20 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514