As the actor appears in a new production of Oscar Wilde’s story, she talks about modelling, her anxieties for young people and the ‘Pandora’s box’ of social media
‘I’m anxious about young people’ … Joanna Lumley as Lady Narborough in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Photograph: PR
You’re starring in a digital production of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Has the story been updated?
It’s an extraordinary retake of the Oscar Wilde story, with everything this world knows about: Instagram, Facebook, dating apps. I play Lady Narborough, who is interviewed by Stephen Fry playing someone who is trying to piece together how this sorrowful tale came about. We did it as if I was being interviewed in a Zoom call. I first saw Wilde’s novel done as a play in Greenwich, London, in 1975 with Michael Kitchen as Gray. Obsession with beauty is so relevant to today – when you think of people beautifying their images on their phones, the frantic competition and anxiety about appearance.
How have the demands on actors’ looks and the nature of fame changed over your career?
Hugely. When I started, I wanted to act because I loved acting. It sounds naive but you never think of the fame side. You just hope you might be employed – that you might pay the gas bill, that your name might be mentioned in a review, that you might then get another acting job. That’s about as far as my ideas went. I wasn’t very clued up about billing – if someone said they’d like higher billing than me, I’d say sure. None of those things troubled me.
I’d been a model for three years before I started acting. It became a matter of pride that you never bought the magazines you were in, or followed your own career. You’d just do some stuff for Vogue, you wouldn’t collect a copy of it. So we were the opposite of being fixated on what we looked like. I’m now a grandmother and anxious about young people. Trying to make yourself look like other people, or what would be seen as acceptable, only leads to unhappiness. I’m afraid of social media – it seems like a Pandora’s box has been opened. It’s utterly addictive. Everybody’s face-down looking at a screen. What can they be checking?
Like Dorian Gray, you’ve posed for portraits. What have you learned?
I love portraits. I think they’re fascinating. I’ve also been photographed too many times to mention, whether in character or as myself. Some artists love you to talk. If you’re holding a pose, you just have to sit and put your mind into cruise control, without looking unbelievably glum. I always feel part of the creative process, rather than being “caught”. It’s alchemy. I’ve sat for David Bailey several times over the past few years at his request, which was hugely flattering. David’s gone back to the old ways of capturing things, like plate photography. This might be a reaction to so many people being able to take – and doctor – pictures. People like Bailey, or Annie Leibovitz, or the great action photographers just want to take the picture, not fudge it.
A year into the Covid crisis, what are your fears for theatre?
Theatres need to be at something like 70% capacity to break even. As an actor looking out as an auditorium fills up, if it’s only half full you go: “Oh bloody hell, bad house tonight.” So the idea that we can make plays work when you’ve only got half a house is not really practical. If you’ve got a two-hander you might be able to get by. But if you’re doing something like Les Misérables, you’ve got a massive cast, costumes, all the stage hands, an orchestra. You can’t pay for it. Cramming in an audience is what makes a play, an opera or a musical fly. I’m bingeing on all kinds of TV at the moment but there’s nothing like live performance.
You’ve had a busy few months on TV, especially with Finding Alice, which is coming back for a second series.
That’s gorgeous. It was an odd one because it didn’t really fit easily into a particular category. It wasn’t a crime drama. It wasn’t a comedy. It wasn’t a boo-hoo, look-at-me, we’re-sad thing. I’m thrilled they’ve got the confidence to make a second series. Nigel Havers and I have known each other since time began so it was lovely being with him as a pretty dysfunctional couple. He’s a terrific raconteur, the greatest fun to be with. I’ve been a love interest for him once before, in A Perfect Hero, when he played a second world war flying ace.
What’s your next travel documentary?
We have a big travel show following the spice route which starts off in the Banda Islands and travels across Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Jordan, Egypt. A massive journey. It looks like we’ll be doing it later this year. Enough of the countries are open now. There is this raging debate about vaccination passports. It wouldn’t trouble me a jot. Everyone’s thinking fast about how to do this. Could you have an app on your phone to show that you’ve been inoculated?
Dorian Gray explores hedonism. What’s the most hedonistic thing you’ve done?
In Ab Fab, Patsy had a full face peel and imagines herself being photographed for Hello! magazine looking unbelievably radiant, but her face is red raw. I’ve never longed for spas and cosseting and things like that. I’m an old locked-jaw Spartan: rough blankets, eating outside, that’ll do for me.