HOW WE MET JOANNA LUMLEY AND STEPHEN BARLOW

People often ask what we talk about. As far as an actress is concerned, a musician is considered pretty senior service
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The Independent Culture
The actress Joanna Lumley, 48, was born in Kashmir. In the Seventies, she portrayed Purdey in The New Avengers; today she is best-known as Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous. She has been a Times columnist and she is a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. She has a son, James, aged 27. Stephen Barlow, 40, was an organ scholar at Cambridge and studied conducting at the Guildhall. He has worked with Scottish Opera, ENO and Opera North and is the new Artistic Director of Belfast Opera. He married Joanna Lumley in 1986. The couple live in central London.

JOANNA LUMLEY: I first heard about Stephen Barlow through the Armitages, who were great family friends in Kent. I often stayed with them when I was expecting my son, James, who was born nearby in Canterbury, and I returned after he was born to show the progress of the former bulge. Around the same time - it was in the late Sixties when I was about 21 - it was announced that St Clair Armitage was bringing his friend Stephen to lunch. I was very disappointed when he didn't turn up - which seems strange because these boys were only 13.

Stephen was already something of a legend - an exceptionally gifted and brilliant musician, but I never actually met him until St Clair's wedding in Dawlish about 10 years later. The darling family met me after a long train journey and we rushed to the church and there was Stephen in a tremendous rage because half the music hadn't turned up. He had long black hair, was scowling ferociously and slamming music about. We all humbly helped him, but I felt like I'd had a kind of electric shock; it wasn't a matter of falling instantly in love, it was the impact of a colossal shock, completely memorable.

A few weeks later I was telling the director John Caird how I'd met an incredible person, and it turned out he knew Stephen. He asked him to the opening of the play he was directing. Stephen seemed very glazed and unfocused and I thought how very grand and slightly sardonic he was; I didn't realise it was plain fear, but at the same time I understood that there was something more on the agenda. However, the next news I got was that he had married. I remember shocking the Armitages by saying petulantly: "How stupid, how ridiculous."

Over the years, there were Christmas cards, then he got back in touch when he was rehearsing nearby and we had tea or wine and just talked and talked. I was always terribly pleased to hear his voice on the Ansaphone and to see his writing on a card; he has instantly recognisable writing - it just flows across the page.

Then, in 1985, he asked Jamie and me to Glyndebourne. I was wearing a huge white Mexican dress and Jamie took a picture of us which looked just as if we were getting married, yet we were still only at the having tea stage.

Then Stephen asked me to an Opera 80 production in the Lake District. He was driving me back to a station to come back to work and I was whining on about things and he said something like, "Well, do you want to marry me?" He claims I said yes straight away, but I think I hesitated for a few moments. Then I sat in the train thinking, "Gosh, I'm going to get married to Stephen Barlow." There was a tremendous sense of relief, as if some huge journey had been accomplished. It seemed like one of those children's puzzles when you put shapes in holes, and at long last we'd got it right.

When we had decided to get married we were too squashed in my Holland Park flat, so we took a series of homes while Stephen waited for his divorce to come through. At one point, we practically ended up in debtor's prison, because we took out a bridging loan and then couldn't sell the house - it was a nightmare. My warning to everyone would be: never, ever take out a bridging loan. Now we live in central London. We work in separate areas of the house - Stephen has a music room, although the ceiling fell down on to the piano two weeks ago.

People often ask what we find to talk about, because musicians are considered so highbrow - people assume they can't talk about anything else. As far as an actress is concerned, a musician is certainly considered pretty senior service - they are the lite of the performing arts. However, we don't talk shop endlessly, and I'm glad to say I leave Patsy at the door.

I love going along to rehearsals to watch Stephen working. We hardly saw each other last year because of work. It was horrible. At one point we were on a 19-hour time difference. Thank God for the fax. That won't happen again; I'm about as ambitious as a dish of water, so next time I'll just chuck it all in and go with him.

STEPHEN BARLOW: I'd known about Joanna from the age of 13. My schoolfriend, St Clair Armitage at King's Canterbury, was always going on about this very glamorous friend of the family. As he lived very close to school he used to ask me to his house in Godmersham for Sunday lunch, usually promising that this ravishing creature would turn up. She never did.

I'd forgotten about her until St Clair's wedding in Dawlish. He invited me to play the organ, and I had been conducting The Rake's Progress the night before in Norwich and had to go on to work in Southampton the next day, so I arrived in a highly tired and emotional state. So bad, in fact, that I forgot to bring the music, which was Zadok the Priest and The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.

I walked into the church and went into hysterical apologies and started to rummage through the church music library for the scores. Amidst this flurry was Jo, looking amazing in a turquoise coat. I'd never seen anything so glamorous and statuesque. I asked her to come to my rescue, which she did.

After the ceremony there was a reception followed by an all-night party. I was thinking I should go to bed, because I had a concert the next night, so I was looking rather glum when St Clair's sister told me Jo would like to talk to me. We talked about music and various things. She stood out like a beacon because she was such a beautiful and extraordinary woman, though I think she was feeling slightly out of it because St Clair's friends, including me, were seven or eight years younger than her.

The next time I saw her was at a first-night party for a play starring her friend Jane Carr. Jo turned up in a flashy black Renault 5 and it was very theatrical, and "darling" this and that, and I had grave doubts about whether I could cope. We went out to dinner afterwards, but then didn't see each other for a long time; we were both attached to other people. Then I went and got married to a singer and Jo and I didn't communicate except for Christmas cards.

But one day in about 1984 I was rehearsing with the Chelsea Opera Group in Addison Road and realised it was the street she lived in and left a note saying: "How's life?"

In 1985 I had the good idea of inviting her to Glyndebourne and she came with her son, James. She was wearing this huge, flouncing Mexican dress and Jamie was being very cool and very James Dean. We walked into a nearby pub and it was like being on a film set.

This tortuously long courtship finally got off the ground when I took her to the Lake District where I was conducting Opera 80. As we were driving back across the Pennines, I asked her to marry me. I was still married - although separated - so we had to wait for my divorce to come through and then as soon as possible after that, in October 1986, we got married in Scotland, where I was conducting.

The press had been hounding us and we were married in Fort William by a sweet lady who disguised our names on the list. The newspapers didn't catch up for three hours, by which time we were in Inverlochy Castle having our reception. They hovered over the place in a helicopter.

The press attention Jo has always attracted took of lot of getting used to. When we first met she was still being pursued for never naming Jamie's father. She always dealt with it with great charm but firmness. Jamie went through a tough time as well, but I don't think it harmed him. I'm getting more adept at not glowering in pictures, but some things do set me back. For instance, last year a tabloid paper said it would like to talk to me about Glyndebourne, but ran a piece saying I was fed up with being "Mr Lumley". That really depressed me. !

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