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I dream of being a Frenchwoman

Absolutely Fabulous star and former Bond Girl Joanna Lumley on her ambitions to improve her linguistic skills.

23 July 2008

A HOUSEHOLD name for being a staggering drunk as Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous, Joanna Lumley is a much-loved star of the British stage and screen.

With her plummy tones and elegant dress sense she is far from the image of arguably her most famous character and a more typically "British" actress you could not hope to meet.

With a successful modelling and acting career under her belt and the recipient of an OBE, it is hard to believe there is much more that Joanna Lumley could aspire to achieve.

However, according to the former Bond-girl who appeared in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the English actress's next burning ambition is to learn to speak French fluently and pass herself off as “one of them.” She said: “I have 'ambitious' French - I can make myself understood.

“I went to boarding school and there met French for the first time. In my family we have always loved languages so French was the first European language I studied then followed it with German, Italian and Latin.

“My dream when I was at school was to be mistaken for a French woman. I still think there is something unbelievably chic about French women and it did happen once in Paris - until I opened my mouth.”

The actress has travelled to France many times both for work and pleasure and associates some of her most treasured memories with the country. “I can't count how many times I have been to France. When I was a model, although the swinging sixties were happening in Britain with Mary Quant and Biba, France and Italy were still the most important fashion countries in the world and every year we would come over for the French collections and do photographs.

“The clothes would be taken off the catwalk models and we would do photoshoots throughout the night in studios in Paris so they could be in the newspapers the next day in England.

“It was very glamourous and thrilling.”

Her acting career also led her to stay several times in the country, notably with her role as Purdey in The New Avengers in the 1970s and for filming an episode of Absolutely Fabulous in the 1990s.

“I have travelled all over France. When we did The Avengers we made three episodes in France because the company that funded The New Avengers was French. We came over and lived in a heatwave in Paris one summer and had the most fabulous time, staying in a hotel near the Eiffel Tower and filming in the surrounding countryside.”

However whereas Ms Lumley manages to get by with her “ambitious French” it was not quite the same story for her character Patsy when they filmed an episode in Montpellier.

“Eddy and Patsy came to France. They had rented some kind of luxurious chateau, however they managed to stumble across a spider-filled cottage which they thought was their accommodation because they were too stupid and vain to ask.

“We had a wonderful scene where we had to go to a tasting at a vineyard.

“We had to go to a real one and act getting more and more grotesquely drunk. Of course they didn't just take a sip of wine and put it down again they drank the entire bottle and got through about 14 bottles of wine. We crawled back to the car with wine all over our clothes and staggering about.

“The owner of the vineyard was shocked and shaken. We were trying to explain about the film, that it was only acting and that we weren't drunk and we adored his wine.

“It was very sweet.”

The French also took the characters of Eddy and Patsy to heart and a feature film of the series proved a success - although the initial TV series was not as popular.

Ms Lumley said: “The French have done Eddy and Patsy and made a fantastic film called Absolument Fabuleux and they brought it over to show us in England.

“A wonderful actress called Nathalie Baye played me. It was uncanny. We sat there watching at a kind of Edina and kind of Patsy and they had taken six or six or seven episodes, cherry picked incidents and made it into a feature film. They also showed the series in France.

“First of all they dubbed it and it didn't work, so then they subtitled it - I should think with lots of stars for choice language - and with our voices, and it was well received.”

Despite enjoying a varied career, Absolutely Fabulous remains one of the actress's favourite casting jobs to date. She said: “You always tend to be in love with what you are doing at the moment but Absolutely Fabulous was 'absolutely fabulous'. They were two absolutely ghastly women and it was such fun.

“So many women in England come up and say 'my mum's Patsy'. It really struck a chord with people.

"I think it was something to do with Patsy not giving a hang about anything. I think that got onto the TV screens at a time when we were caring about things and suddenly for someone who didn’t care about what she said, where she smoked or where she slept or what she drank was quite refreshing.”

“Although Ms Lumley says there are elements of Patsy's character which she identifies with, basing her character on an exaggerated version of her experiences as a model during the 1960s, she also feels she couldn't be further removed.

Being a vegetarian and a campaigner on environmental issues are just some of the ways that she does not match Patsy's ‘couldn't give a damn’ persona.

She applauds the efforts being made by France following the Grenelle environment summit and said that, although vegetarians traditionally still raise an eyebrow among the French, she has noticed a shift in attitude.

She said: “Everybody loves their meat. What I really object to is cruelly produced meat. I find it much easier now to find food in France that I enjoy.

“In the old days they literally thought you should be taken to a lunatic asylum if you didn't eat meat. Now I think they are getting better and I think they tolerate people like me more.”

For now it is onwards and upwards for the actress with the ambition to speak fluent French. She said: “I would like to speak French like a French woman and break that lock, get time to come over for at least three months and take time to actually study.

“You have to take that massive leap and hear it and talk it all the time. That would make me a very happy person.”

Photo: Ed Wright/Azur Productions

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