Single motherhood and a six-month breakdown: Inside the extraordinary life of Joanna Lumley.


Joanna Lumley didn’t get her big break in acting until she was 29 years old.

She queued alongside thousands of others to audition for the role of Purdey in The New Avengers. Winning the part set her on the path to becoming Britain’s national treasure.

In her memoir, Absolutely, she recalls the moment: “It felt as if vast tectonic plates had suddenly slipped sideways and I knew my life was going to change forever. I stepped into a different way of being; where I would be paid regularly, where I would work with the cream of British actors, where I would make the equivalent of 13 feature films a year and become as fit as a flea… where I would become ‘famous’.”

Before that, life had its ups and downs for Lumley.

She was born in Kashmir in 1946 where her father was a Major in the 6th Gurkha Rifles, a regiment of the British Indian Army. She spent much of her childhood in Hong Kong and Malaysia, before the family returned to Kent in the UK, where Lumley was sent to boarding school.

After failing her Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts audition, she began working as a model for Jean Muir.

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Life had its ups and downs for Joanna Lumley. Image: Getty.

The work was steady. But then, after a brief relationship with photographer Michael Claydon, Lumley fell pregnant at 21. To be an unmarried mother was still a social taboo at the time, but she refused to be deterred.

Speaking to The Express, she said: "It was abnormal not to be married then. However, I had a tremendously supportive family and the world I lived and worked in was non-judgmental. Like any working parent, the difficulty is in both working and being a parent. It was a bloody juggle but everyone has that, not just single parents."

"My son is the light of my life. I've never had any regrets about becoming an unmarried mother."

Lumley has spoken openly about how she struggled financially during her son Jamie's early years, which lead to a six-month breakdown.

"I was pretty strapped for cash. Counting the pennies before I could go to the supermarket," she told the Australia Women's Weekly.

"It was Marmite on toast for breakfast, lunch, tea and supper,” she said. "There was nothing else to eat, we were so poor. I chopped up towel rails to burn on the fire. I was happy and it didn’t matter but we were skint and I couldn’t see how I would manage to be a good enough parent to my darling boy and how I would actually get through life."


She said that the pressures of parenthood affected her so much that she had a panic attack while on stage at the Garrick Theatre in 1971 – and she was too terrified to return.

"I couldn’t cross the road, I didn’t dare go into shops."

"I couldn’t cross the road, I didn’t dare go into shops, I had to concentrate on breathing in and breathing out. It’s panic attacks and you are on the brink of utter insanity," she told the Express. 


"When you’re young and you’re having a tough time, you’re struggling with: ‘Will I ever be able to feed my boy enough food?' All those anxieties about being a parent," she said.

"These anxieties are often about logistics, if you’re kept late at rehearsal, who’ll pick him up from school? You can feel like you’re failing them."

Lumley ended up moving in with her parents for six months because she was 'so badly shaken up' by how she was feeling.

She eventually returned to the stage after undergoing hypnotherapy for her panic attacks.

In 1970, Lumley met and married comedy writer, Jeremy Lloyd, but the union lasted less than a year.

"He was witty, tall and charming – we should have just had a raging affair," she wrote in her memoir.

She recently told The Guardian:"We met and married within two-and-a-half weeks. I rest my case. I mean, it's as mad as a box of frogs."

It wasn't long after, that Lumley landed the part of Purdey, making her a household name.

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Joanna Lumley with her husband Stephen Barlow. Image: Getty.

The most crucial role of Lumley's career, however, came in 1992 when comedian Jennifer Saunders cast her as the champagne-swilling socialite Patsy Stone in Absolutely Fabulous.

From there, her fame sky-rocketed.

In the meantime, Lumley found love again, this time with conductor Stephen Barlow. The couple has now been married for 33 years.

"We are both independent. I love being on my own," she told the Express. "When I’m away, I don't even phone home. Incidentally I come from a different generation where we couldn’t usually afford to phone home, so I’ve never been used to it. I like to write a postcard. I won’t phone, that takes your travelling head away from you… You don't want people keep phoning. If you're on the other side of the world it’s always the wrong time."

Lumley, now 73, is also known for her humanitarian work and charity work across the world; her name is associated with over 80 charities, including PETA and the Elton John AIDS foundation.