From actress to national institution

Profile: Joanna Lumley; The naming of an Oxford fellowship after her is an apt tribute to the absolutely fabulous British heart-throb, says Liz Hunt
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The Independent Online
There are two blondes who hold a special place in the hearts of thirtysomething British men. One is Alexandra Bastedo, the perfectly-coiffed, perfectly enigmatic star of the late Sixties television series The Champions. She played a woman for whom the word allure was invented, and whose superhuman powers had been conferred upon her by Tibetan monks.

The other was Joanna Lumley, the high-kicking, sexy yet pragmatic Purdey of The New Avengers. A woman whose unique "wash and go" hairstyle launched a thousand look-a-likes in the mid-1970s, and whose special powers were due entirely, one felt, to hours spent on the lacrosse field.

Exposure during their formative years to these televisual ideals of womanhood was crucial to the sexual development of a generation of men. "You have no idea," says a fan, dreamy-eyed with nostalgia. "They were your first encounter with truly glamorous older women. Alexandra pierced your subconscious in a way you didn't understand at the time because you were too young. Then came Joanna, just when you were beginning to understand it all ..."

Perhaps that is why Joanna, 50, who this week had a fellowship christened after her at Oxford University, is the blonde who now occupies pride of place in the thirtysomething male psyche. They were just discovering sex when they discovered Purdey, with her pudding-basin haircut and stockings and suspenders.

In truth, there was never any contest. Alexandra Bastedo, also 50, was always a little bit too exotic, and certainly too humourless for real appreciation from British men. "She was a woman to be put on a pedestal. Joanna you always knew would get the joke," says another long-term fan.

Ms Bastedo, it is true, has fostered a lower profile in the years since her small-screen stardom, and this has not been helpful. Joanna Lumley has grown older with her fans, sharing her successes and failures, and her opinions with them in a very public way. And then, at an age when some actresses are hitting the bottle in despair, she has blossomed as a major comic talent and created a national institution in Patsy, the chain-smoking, coke-sniffing, permanently sozzled super-bitch, the mother- of-all parodies, in Absolutely Fabulous. Patsy is up there in the sit- com hall of fame along with Basil Fawlty, Reginald Perrin, and Victor Meldrew.

They are, of course, all men. Successful funny women are rare, and Lumley's persona of sex-bomb-with-a-sense-of-humour has been her ace. From ambitious young photographic model in the Sixties to fledgling actress - she was Ken Barlow's upper-class girlfriend for a time in Coronation Street - via Bond girl status in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the Avengers, and the dreadful Sapphire and Steel, she played it straight. But the humour was there, lurking beneath the glam surface, as if at any moment she would crack up, with the laughter directed at herself more than any other individual.

It is not only men who regard her with affection. She is popular with women, too, and perhaps it is women who have the greater debt to La Lumley. Over the years her sharp intelligence, her independence - she was a frowned- upon single mother in the Sixties - her talent and glamour, and her outspoken commitment to good causes, and, above all, her triumph over the menopausal years, have shown that it is possible to be all things to all men without alienating them, scaring them off or becoming a joke.

Undoubtedly, she has some advantages. "I met her at a Spectator lunch about nine years ago, when she was first entering intellectual life. She was dazzlingly beautiful. One was just awe-struck: a-b-sol-ute-ly awe- struck," says one jaded connoisseur of both intellect and beauty. But was she interesting, what did she have to say? "Some women are beautiful, most are not. She was," is his final word on the matter.

She is that and more, summed up by some seminal Lumley milestones. She came top of a panel of celebrities asked to sit the public schools Common Entrance exam by a newspaper, scoring just 2 per cent less than AJP Taylor in the history paper; then there was a sponsored strip before a bemused Terry Wogan on Children in Need in the Eighties; she was a columnist on the Times, and a member of the Booker Prize panel in 1984. And since 1980 she has tried hard to honour a commitment she made to do at least one straight stage-play every year, including Hedda Gabler, The Cherry Orchard, and most recently Somerset Maugham's The Letter.

Joanna Lumley's dedication to animal and environmental causes is renowned. In 1994 she emerged in tears from a film on the export of live animals for slaughter, and earlier this year she made headlines again when she took a piglet to Parliament as a member of a delegation from Compassion in World Farming. When the oil tanker the Sea Empress foundered at Milford Haven in February, Ms Lumley sent a personal letter of protest to the Prime Minister.

It actions such as these that have prompted the Friends Provident Financial Group to sponsor a research fellowship at Green College, Oxford, in Joanna Lumley's name. The company specialises in ethical investments, and the fellowship is for post-graduate research into environmental or wildlife issues, particularly in Africa. In PR terms it is an excellent move - the combination of Patsy and Oxford has proved irresistible to journalists. But there is a serious side; Ms Lumley has served on the Reference Committee of Friends Provident for six years, and the fellowship marks her stepping down.

With Patsy and Ab Fab effectively laid to rest - a last special is planned for the autumn - the Green College fellowship would be a fitting epitaph to an extraordinary career. Ms Lumley says she would be happy for it to end, as she wants to spend time with her husband, the opera conductor Stephen Barlow. "I am quite looking forward to not being up there, and if necessary I shall construct my own dismounting process," she has said. But she has also said that "I can't stop taking an interest in the next thing ..." Roll on the next thing.