‘I’m a dame by name but I’m still the same’! Joanna Lumley’s got a grand new title

Dame Joanna Lumley lets rip on modern life and how, after the pandemic, we all need to pull our socks up – starting with the way we treat animals.

She’s long been a national treasure, as cherished for her BAFTA-winning exploits as Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous as for championing the rights of everything from Gurkhas to dolphins and giraffes. 

It was hardly a shock, then, that Joanna Lumley was elevated to damehood in January. Surprisingly though, given her stiff-upper-lip reputation, she shed a tear when she opened the letter because to her it was a bolt from the blue, albeit a nice one. 

Joanna Lumley said that she is still the same person after being named a Dame in January 

When she saw the official-looking letter she assumed it was a response ‘from some govern­ment department because I’m al­ways writing to them. 

But it wasn’t, and I have to say I had a little blub,’ she reveals. Then she had a little fret. ‘I worried people might think I’ve become different, or rich, or pompous. 

‘I haven’t. I say, “By name a dame, but still the same.”’ 

Indeed she is. At 75, she remains defiantly dismissive of new-fangled ways. She is not on social media. 

‘I don’t do it. I know nothing about it. I’ve deliberately kept away from these things,’ she admits. 

She thinks Twitter is the Devil’s work too. ‘Others tell me what so-and-so said, and I say, “Why would you read that? Tweeting is ghastly. It doesn’t seem very good for us. Why would you go there?’ 

Tweeting is ghastly. Why would you go there? 

She does have a mobile phone, but it’s a necessary evil. ‘You can’t park in London without it,’ she says. 

‘And I’ve been filming abroad so I’ve needed to show a Covid passport. But I don’t take calls.’ 

Even those who swear they won’t have smartphones get seduced once they succumb, though, downloading every app under the sun and tweeting about their breakfast. Not Joanna! She has more backbone than to be swayed by anything. 

‘It’s nothing to do with being swayed,’ she chides (there’s something of the headteacher about her). ‘My life is very full and anything like that messes it up. 

‘Everything’s about ticks and likes and emojis now. It’s lazy, but we can’t complain about it too much. Be Kind is better than Be Hateful.’ 

She’ll expand on that sentiment today when she gives the annual Peter Roberts Memorial Lecture at the Oxford Literary Festival, entitled The True Meaning Of Compassion. 

Roberts was the founder of the Compassion In World Farming charity, of which Joanna is a patron. She’s done many things for them over the years, including taking a pig to Parliament.

‘It was a very cute pig,’ she says. ‘It came to stay with me. There was a lot of hoo-ha recently when it was reported pigs could communicate with each other. 

Tweeting is ghastly. Why would you go there?

Why does this surprise us? How stupid and patronising humans are.’ 

The charity’s CEO Philip Lymbery highlights the ‘rose-tinted’ view of, say, dairy farming many of us still have. ‘Everyone has this idea of dairy cows out in the field with their calves, but that’s becoming rarer and rarer with the industrialisation of the dairy industry, to the point where a pint of milk now costs less than a pint of fizzy water. 

‘Cows are increasingly kept indoors and in this perpetual cycle where they’re made pregnant and their calves taken away, usually within the first 24 hours,’ he says. 

He talks of the ‘happy development’ of several calf-at-foot dairy farms, but this is the exception to the rule. 

Joanna cites seeing ‘calf-at-foot’ camel herds on her travels in Ind­ia. ‘The farmers do get milk for themselves, but not enough for huge profits, leaving enough for the calves.’ 

Joanna at home with a pig in 1996. The actor will be speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival, where she will urge more compassion for all living creatures

Joanna at home with a pig in 1996. The actor will be speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival, where she will urge more compassion for all living creatures 

In her speech she’ll urge more compassion for all living creatures. She tells me she was watching the fish in her pond recently, and becoming distressed about what to do about an ailing one. 

She conulted the internet ‘about euthanasia, or killing it, or whatever, to put it out of its misery’ but decided she couldn’t, so let nature take its course. ‘And do you know, the other fish swam down to it and kind of touched it. Fish grieve, I think.’ 

She gets very cross with those who think people like her are soft or sentimental. ‘We have these phrases like “bunny-hugger”, which are used to demean. It’s seen as contemptible and wet, and that idea spreads out. 

You see it in things like factory farming, trophy hunting. The public is taught to be squeamish about certain types of meat provision. 

We say, “How could you?” about killing a wild stag, but we’re happy to eat pigs. We love dogs, but anything we’re going to kill we dismiss as “stupid”.’ 

Her lecture will not just be about compassion to animals though, but in the wider sense, addressing whe­ther we are a compassionate society. She clearly thinks we’re not, regarding humans as lazy, greedy and in need of a good shake. 

‘I think a lot of this is about whether the issue has money attached to it,’ she says. ‘They pretend it’s for different reasons, but there is a base side to human nature that thinks money can overrule human decency. And we applaud it. 

‘We look with such admiration on people who are terribly rich, like Russian oligarchs, then of course we loathe them when it all goes wrong. We’ve got a weird attachment to money. 

So anyone who sees they can make money out of, say, selling little animals to the continent can insist, “It’s business.” Well, I think you can make a living from something that doesn’t cause harm.’ 

Pictured campaigning with fellow celebrities for animal welfare in 1991. Joanna also has opinions about children's education saying that we no longer teach children how to behave

Pictured campaigning with fellow celebrities for animal welfare in 1991. Joanna also has opinions about children’s education saying that we no longer teach children how to behave

So determined is she to just get things done that perhaps we should put Dame Joanna in charge of everything and scrap Parliament and the monarchy. She seems to like the idea of the former, if not the latter, being an ardent loyalist and the Queen’s No 1 fan. 

‘Though I adore democracy, sometimes I’d like to be an autocrat,’ she says. ‘If I ruled the world, I’d get all these rules that are preventing normal, compassionate life changed like this.’ She clicks her fingers. 

She’d start with the animal welfare laws of course, which were in place pre-Brexit but now need updating. In the 90s, she campaigned for recognition that animals are sentient beings – able to experience joy, pain and suffering – and this was enshrined in European Law. 

Since the UK’s departure from the EU, however, this ‘vital protection’ has been lost. A bill is going through Parliament at the moment – but not quickly enough for Joanna. 

‘We had that law, and lost it. We’re getting it back – hurrah! – and I hope we’ll get the trophy hunting ban back too. It’s indefensible why it’s been delayed.’ 

Parliament, I shrug. Paperwork. Officialdom. ‘It doesn’t have to take this long,’ she complains. 

‘It’s not as if this is new legislation that needs to be debated. You just think, “This is lazy!”’ 

And don’t get her started on children today, with their noses in their devices. ‘You know some people don’t realise blossom on trees turns into fruit? I can’t believe that. 

We’re very clever at giving children phones and laptops and saying, “We can monitor you while you’re looking at it,” but I think that’s indefensible. Children have been burned at the roots. 

‘We don’t teach children how to behave. Most other species do. 

We don’t teach our children how to behave.

‘I’ve watched the vixens in our garden teaching their babies. The cub always does what the mother says. 

‘Humans seem to have stepped away from this and thought, “It’ll be fine. It’s not our responsibility. Children must have freedom of mind.” Well, I believe children must be taught.’ 

I wonder if Joanna is in danger of being ‘cancelled’, as her views are as old school as she is. She’s gone on record previously saying she thinks people jump on the mental health bandwa­gon too quickly, and that she was terrified all men would be seen as bad in the wake of the #MeToo movement. 

She always veers towards the ‘for-goodness-sake-pull-your-socks-up’ end of the self-help spectrum, which she says may be connected to the fact that ‘I went to boarding school and am quite self-sufficient.’ 

Mid-rant about Russian oligarchs and nuclear weapons, she stops herself. ‘I know nothing about these things so don’t quote me on them, because these days, if you say something out of your pay grade, someone will kill you.’ 

I’m not sure even Putin would dare try to take Joanna Lumley down. She’s one of those rare creatures who seems more in demand now than she was in the 70s when she landed the role of karate-kicking Purdey in The New Avengers. 

Most recently she’s popped up in hit sitcom Motherland and the Keeley Hawes thriller Finding Alice, and is making travel shows all over the globe, most recently one on ITV where she visited Paris, Rome and Berlin. ‘We don’t retire in this business,’ she admits. 

She says she was ‘rattled’ by lockdown, but also that she was ‘lucky enough to be busy, busy, busy’. When I ask if she thinks the pandemic is over, she says, ‘I’m sure it is, but I think it’s taking its toll on a lot of people. 


On paper Joanna can sound very earnest, but she’s also a hoot. At one point I say that, what with her penchant for charging up mountains, she doesn’t seem like a very vain person. ‘Oh, I’m very vain,’ she counters. ‘Look at me! I got up early to put make-up on.’ 

Yet she’s irrefutably low-maintenance, by retired model standards. She cuts her own hair, for goodness sake, and was doing so decades before lockdown. ‘That’s because I’m lazy and because I watched hairdressers do it for years. It’s quicker to do it yourself. 

Like home cooks. They think they can’t make a pizza or bread themselves, and they realise they can. Just try it. Don’t be timid. Also, with hair, the thrill is not knowing what colour it will come out. You might go pink!’ 

Some people who are very nervous and some people who are very lazy. But I think we have to go on now. 

We’ve been told we don’t have to wear masks, so don’t wear them, unless you’re panic-stric­ken. I think we’ve just got to be bold.’ 

We return to the subject of greed. In the dietary sense it’s a huge issue. 

‘A roast chicken used to be a huge treat. I think we’ve got a kind of glut mentality now.

‘It’s a disgrace. You’ve got to teach your little creatures enough is enough. “I’ve got a table, a chair, books, something to eat today. I don’t need more.”’ 

Hold on, Dame Joanna. The walls behind you there don’t look particularly sparse. 

You live in a lovely house in London. Your son Jamie (born when she was just 21), grew up in a very different world. 

‘Ah yes, don’t judge me on my paintings, which are all around,’ she admits, saying she’s aware she didn’t go through lockdown ‘in a tower block, without a garden and with five children’. 

Although she says she adores people, Joanna says, ‘I just wish we’d behave better. I wish we weren’t a plague on the Earth. 

‘There seems to be a human tendency to think up things to be unbearably cruel to each other. Death Row. Heat-seeking missiles. Nuclear bombs. 

‘Mankind has a streak of unforgivable cruelty.’ It’s interesting that one of her last projects was to write a book about the Queen, whom she’s met several times. 

I think the Queen might be one of the few humans on the pla­net who hasn’t disappointed her. ‘She’s got compassion, modesty, humility.’ 

And she loves animals, which sends her to the top of the tree with Joanna. ‘A lot of people talk about her sixth sense, particularly with horses and dogs. 

‘The animals know that in her,’ she says. ‘Animals just know.’

  • For info on Joanna’s lecture today visit oxfordliteraryfestival.org. To find out more about Philip Lymbery visit philiplymbery.com. Compassion in World Farming: ciwf.org.uk.

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