'Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II' by Andy Warhol, May 16, 2012. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
A Queen For All Seasons
British actress Joanna Lumley is a big fan of Queen Elizabeth II, and her book pays homage to the monarch in her Platinum Jubilee year / BY Rosemary Counter / April 26th, 2022
Dame Joanna Lumley is known all over the globe as the ballerina-turned-spy Purdey on The New Avengers, the “Angel of Death” Bond girl in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and – this journalist’s personal favourite – the cocaine-fuelled fashionista Patsy Stone on the long-running British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. Real-life Lumley is nothing like any of these characters, as a devoted human rights and animal welfare activist, travel documentarian and … giddy Queen Elizabeth II fan girl? It’s true: Among countless books by historians and biographers celebrating Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee – marking the 70th anniversary of the British monarch’s reign – is Lumley’s A Queen for All Seasons. On a Zoom call to London, we asked her for her earliest memories of the Monarch, what Camilla is like in real life and how to (try to) keep your cool if you meet the Queen.
Rosemary Counter: You were seven when Elizabeth II was coronated in 1953 – the first major world event to be broadcast on TV. Is this when your love of the monarchy began?
Joanna Lumley: I lived all the way in Malaysia, which was called Malaya then, and we were so young that we didn’t know anything about the monarchy or Buckingham Palace or golden coaches. They were as remote as a Disney film, of which we saw one a year in the cinema. So it was like a fairy tale, but real.
RC: I understand that completely, because that was Diana when I was that age: A real-life princess.
JL: But then you get older, and you realize that even though their situations are exceptional, all human beings are human beings. The Queen has, through duty and obligation and sheer willpower, made herself extraordinary. Can you imagine being 10 years old and knowing that you’ll be queen one day? Most of us, I think, would duck away from the overwhelming responsibility.
RC: Which is exactly what her uncle, a grown man and also the king, did when he abdicated the throne.
JL: Things have changed so much in a relatively short period of time. Today, three of the Queen’s four children are divorced. King Charles III will be a divorced man married to a divorced woman who, as of the announcement [Feb. 6], will be known as Queen Consort. The country has so warmed to Camilla, despite a barrage of hatefulness once. I’m lucky enough to know her and can tell you she’s very funny, kind and modest. If you’re ever so lucky to meet a royal, they’re often nothing like you might think.
RC: These interactions are the foundation of your whole book. How did you decide whose “I met the Queen” story to include?
JL: I tried to balance those of dignitaries and politicians with ordinary people who met her under strange circumstances, and even children in crowds. I used famous people and people from far away lands. Most all are good stories though, full of love and praise, and I say right at the front of the book, “I am a fan!”
RC: But unlike most fans, you have indeed met the Queen. And it didn’t go great.
JL: I meet a lot of famous people, but no one is as spectacularly famous as the Queen. There are rules – call her “Your Majesty,” not “Your Royal Highness,” which is wrong – so naturally you’re terrified already and most people start talking nervous rubbish. For me, it was as if my brain were literally removed. For some reason I started talking about the legalization of drugs. She nodded and let me ramble on for a bit. I think the whole family is very used to mumbling, stumbling idiots.
RC: That would be me, I just know it. Any advice?
JL: The Queen has met millions of people in endless lineups, so she has a few key greetings. Quite often she says something like “Have you come far?” or even “Where did you get that marvelous coat?” They’re trained to get you talking, otherwise you’ll just stare. You’ll notice how blue her eyes are and her flawless, flawless skin. Blimey!
RC: It’s happening to you again! I wonder if these stories, from her side, are hilarious. As a comedian, tell me, is the Queen funny?
JL: In public, she will always behave with the utmost decorum, because she takes her job very seriously. People who really know her, or get to spend any amount of time with her, say that she is very funny. We know for sure that Princess Margaret was very, very funny, and they were so close.
RC: Princess Margaret is the absolute coolest. Can you tell me about meeting her?
JL: I met Princess Margaret at the big royal Avengers premiere. We were all in a lineup, and she finally came to Gareth Hunt, the film’s star, and himself wildly famous, and she said, “What are you in?” He looked around and answered, “The New Avengers, Ma’am.” To which she says, “We don’t watch television,” and then walks away. She was wonderfully funny.
RC: I think everyone watches TV, even royalty. Do you think the Queen has watched Ab Fab?
JL: Oh, I wonder! I know my parents hated it, until I said, “Daddy, it’s high satire.” Then he loved it. I’ve heard that the Queen doesn’t watch or read anything about herself, ever, although I did ask if it would be acceptable for me to send a copy [of A Queen For All Seasons] to Her Majesty. They said yes and they’d be sure to place it before her. So I have imagined it might have found her and she might have flicked though it and said, “how lovely.”