Monday, February 13, 2017

Joanna Lumley: The BiographyJoanna Lumley: The Biography by Tim Ewbank
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"It's called colonic irrigation, darling, and it's not to be sniffed at."

The other day I happened to watch Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, which reminded me of the original British TV show that aired in the 1990s on Comedy Central. I liked the show a lot because of its sharp, over-the-top, politically incorrect humor. The best thing about the show and the movie is the character of Patsy Stone played to the outrageous hilt by Joanna Lumley. Since I also liked Ms. Lumley playing Purdey in the 1970s cult classic The New Avengers I reached for the book Joanna Lumley: The Biography (1999) by Tim Ewbank & Stafford Hildred. By the way, I have already reviewed biographies of Patrick Macnee ( Blind in One Ear ) and Diana Rigg ( Diana Rigg: The Biography ) so this book completes the trilogy about the principal actors of Avengers, British TV series from the 1960s and 1970s.

The biography chronicles Ms. Lumley's life and career from her childhood to the times of her international fame, the times when, as the authors say, "Joanna knew perfectly well she was becoming famous for being famous." Alas all this is told in a way that is dangerously close to the fluff and tabloid gossip columns style. For instance, I do not think the readers gain much by learning rather intimate details of Ms. Lumley irregular physiology. Also, the style is inadvertently funny in many passages as illustrated by the phrase that the actress was "impecunious for so long," a particularly stilted circumlocution. Even the passage where Ms. Lumley talks about her desire to downsize her consumption and "just want[s] to have less of everything," perhaps intended to be touching, sounds too much like tabloid fodder. On the other hand, I enjoyed the account of the Summer of Love 1967 and the London scene at that time.

Finally, we get to the early 1990s and the making of the memorable Ab Fab show (almost on the same level of comedic excellence as John Cleese's Fawlty Towers, if grounded in a completely different style, but directed by the very same Bob Spiers). The show's protagonists are self-obsessed Edina, a fashion PR agent, played by the writer of the show, Jennifer Saunders, and the "chain-smoking, hard-drinking, drug-taking, sexually aggressive ex-model", and currently a fashion magazine editor, Patsy, played by Ms. Lumley. Ms. Saunders' writing is absolutely fabulous as evidenced by the immortal quote about colonic irrigation as well as hundreds of other equally funny lines. But I am afraid Ms. Saunders' splendid writing would not account for much if not for Joanna Lumley's inspired, no-holds-barred, delightfully overacted and absolutely fabulous performance as Patsy.

The sheer irreverence of the show's outrageous humor, totally "unfettered by considerations of taste," made Ab Fab a great hit in the UK. Yet the humor proved unacceptable for the US: "The political incorrectness which is at the very heart of the comedy's appeal frightened the networks to their core [...]" The biography will likely be a good read for people interested in minute details of stars' lives and the part of the book about the modern-day U.S. censorship has some sociological value. I love Joanna Lumley's acting, I respect Ms. Saunders' writing, but I am afraid this biography is not far enough from something to be sniffed at.

Two and a half stars.

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