Arts & Culture

21st February 2021

‘I was born grinning’: Gyles Brandreth Meets Joanna Lumley | Review

Eternal optimist Joanna Lumley talks life, love… and bubblegum

Roses are red,

Violets are blue;

When you can’t go out for Valentine’s (see: Lockdown 3)

What can you do?

Well, how about staying in to watch the legend that is Joanna Lumley spill all to Gyles Brandreth? Yes, for one night, and one night only (actually, it was broadcast at three in the afternoon, but you get the point), the duo came together (while remaining safely apart) at Crazy Coq’s cabaret, in a livestreamed interview hosted by Fane Online. Conducted to the rumble of trains from nearby Piccadilly station, the hour-long session took place in a venue in the centre of London’s West End-turned-tumbleweed-town, one unopened since the pandemic forced the first lockdown last spring. Unsurprisingly, then- as Joanna acknowledged- it was a little chilly.

All Smiles For Gyles: The duo have known each other since 1969.

That’s Joanna Lumley, OBE FRGS, to give her her proper title. (You just know a life’s been lived to the full when the number of letters following a name exceed those in said person’s forename.) As of 2021 (who knows what will stop her post-lockdown?), Ms. Lumley’s been an actress, an activist, an author (and thats just the as), as well as a presenter, producer, model, national treasure, and my fantasy grandma. Handily enough for this particular format, she’s also an unbridled chatterbox, too.

‘I was the show off-y, stylish-y type’ at school, she reveals.

Fast-forward a few years, and little has changed!

It’s with these salad days that she starts her reminiscences, prompted by an excellent introductory question by Brandreth: what is her earliest memory? A suitably extravagant anecdote about being forcefed bubblegum ensues, enacted in inimitable Joanna-style: she feigns a toddler’s sensory overload, all sticky-lipped pout and bulging blue eyes. The tale has a suitably exotic background, too: the side streets of Hong Kong, for a child, as the lady herself so readily puts it, raised out of a trunk whilst being shuttled between various far-flung locales. Think Malaya, Srinagar, Kashmir… via Kent.

This frenetic paciness has translated itself to her childhood stories somewhat, so it’s best to always listen attentively, or risk being left behind on one continent as her recollections hurtle relentlessly onwards. The speed is all pretty much excused, though, by the substance of what she has to say; when it is, for instance, the Empire Windrush ferrying her between continents. Plus, she seems to have met everyone there is to meet, from the Duke of Edinburgh to Roald Dahl to the Dalai Lama. Granted, a couple of her reminiscences in this interview with Gyles failed to dazzle with their star quota, but there were many others supplied to outshine them.

Drama, Lama: Joanna with His Holiness, in Derry, Ireland.

‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?’ and ‘Why is former President Bill Clinton like a lighthouse?’ are two big existential questions of the modern era, and Joanna has the definitive answer to one of them. Judging from her mug, propped on the nearby coffee table throughout and proudly proclaiming ‘We’re all mad here’ in a nod to Alice in Wonderland, she’s got a vested interest in working out the answer to the other question, too.

Another reason Joanna Lumley can be excused essentially any sin is the sense of breathless fascination with which she talks about everything. And I mean any sin. Have you ever wondered why Glenn Close’s Cruella de Vil is so perversely likeable, despite her penchant for skinning puppies? Clue: it’s perhaps something to do with her plummy tones, modelled on Joanna’s own.

Puppy Love: Close channels Lumley’s vocals in the 1996 remake of 101 Dalmatians.

The interview also gifts its audience life lessons, Lumley-style. She conceptualises happiness as something to be consciously, and constantly, worked at. Nonetheless, she acknowledges: ‘I was born grinning from ear to ear.’ It was a tendency that soon had her nicknamed ‘Hammerhead Shark.’ Hammering home this positivity as enduring to this day is the fact that every second utterance describes something or someone as ‘thrilling’, or even ‘absolutely fabulous, dahling.’

Fittingly, then, her favourite colour is apparently yellow; ‘Kodak yellow’, actually, to match a sunny disposition rejecting negatives. The chromatic precision of this answer hints at decades donning couture for glossy mag shoots (or possibly it’s just the ghost of Ab Fab’s Patsy come a-haunting). It’s an insight from a clever ‘Quick-Fire Questions’ round, courtesy of Brandreth, a means by which he can shoehorn as much material into the 60-minute session as possible. Undeniably, though, Lumley would have had more of the allotted time for her own anecdotes had Brandreth not hijacked the mic at several opportune moments. At times it felt that, sitting tuxed-and-tied on a bona fide West End stage, he had forgotten his role.

There was a sense to it all, too, of the Part One: I half expected the caption ‘To be continued…’ to scrawl itself at the bottom of the screen as the livestream ended. The chronological trajectory of Lumley’s reminiscences reached the ’Nineties (with a brief leapfrog to screen-smooching di Caprio, a presumed career highlight). There was nothing of her recent prolific presenting, no mention of her Gurkha work, not even a plug of her Twitter handle (it’s @JoannaLumleyUK, btw; she’s also an Insta-gran).

Lumley Jubbly: The star fronting her most recent documentary, Joanna Lumley: Travels in my own Land.

There was, though, just enough time to round off her recollections with a poem. Perusing the collection 100 Poems to Read on the Underground, she plumps for a paean to love by Edna St. Vincent Millay. It’s a fitting choice to mark Valentine’s Day, and to be read by a national treasure it’s almost impossible not to love, dahling.

A recording of the livestreamed Gyles Brandreth Meets Joanna Lumley interview is currently available to view via Here, you can also find a catalogue of upcoming livestreamed sessions with a variety of celebrities, including ex-Bake Off compere Mel Giedroyc.