Joanna Lumley tells Stephanie Holmes about her latest show, in which she travels from the top to the bottom of Japan.
For decades, Joanna Lumley has been best known – and best loved – for her role as the raucous, hard-drinking, hard-living Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous. But after turning her hand to travel documentaries, she’s finally moving away from the blonde beehive and ever-present cigarette hanging from her lip. She’s now become everyone’s ideal travel companion.
“People are always kind and courteous and say lovely things like ‘oh we loved Ab Fab’, or ‘my best friend is just like Eddy’, but a lot more people are now saying ‘we love your travel programmes’,” Lumley says, on the phone with Sunday Travel from her home in London. “They say ‘we never thought we’d see that place and now we’re going to go and book there’.”
Such are her powers of persuasion.
Lumley has made more than a handful of travel documentaries now – visiting far-flung and off-the-beaten-track places like the Nile, Siberia, Mongolia and the North Pole. In her latest series she takes on Japan.
Travelling from the top of the country to the bottom, across its four main islands, the British actress says she was “awestruck” from start to finish.
“Japan is a first-world country and flourishing and famous – in that we all know Japanese words, we know how to say sayonara and order sushi and buy Toyota cars and so on – but I realised we don’t know much about Japan itself, about its people and its geography and history and how it ticks,” she says.
A common perception for travellers who have never visited Japan is that the entire country is like Tokyo – a bustling metropolis, impossible to navigate if you don’t speak English. But Lumley found it very different.
“So much of Japan is countryside,” she says. “Courteous and immaculate.
“It began, like a fairy story actually, to unfold itself. And we were just dazzled . . . it was incredibly beautiful, courteous and thrilling.”
The three-part series Joanna Lumley’s Japan begins in Hokkaido – Japan’s “wild north”, known for its rugged terrain and home to the country’s most endangered animals. In tonight’s first episode, Lumley gets up pre-dawn in below-freezing temperatures, trudging through thick snow to see red-crowned cranes standing on an icy lake, preening themselves elegantly and looking like origami come to life.
“It was like going to see a unicorn,” she said in an interview with the Radio Times. “They’re only to be found in Hokkaido, and there are so few of them left, that even on this trip I thought we’d be lucky if we glimpsed a couple.”
Later in the series, she moves on to Honshu, the most populous of the nation’s islands, then Shikoku – Japan’s “forgotten island” – and ends on Kohama, one of its smallest and most remote Pacific Islands.
She visits the winter snow festival in Sapporo, where soldiers construct giant sculptures from blocks of snow. She marvels at the organised sprawl of Tokyo, which she describes as “a perpetual Times Square or Piccadilly Circus, multiplied again and again . . . an unfathomable matrix of discombobulation”. And she ticks off an item on many a bucket list – seeing the cherry blossoms bloom in Kyoto.
Along the way she meets – and charms – many locals, such as the sole resident of Fukushima, who has remained living within the exclusion zone since the nuclear reactor meltdown after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. He stayed behind when everyone else fled, and has remained there, by himself, looking after the many abandoned animals whose owners never came back.
“It’s a tough country,” Lumley says. “They’re tough and hardy people.”
But they’re also a people who mostly had no idea who she was. Absolutely Fabulous didn’t screen in Japan so to everyone she met, she was just an interviewer, making a documentary.
“They’re not terrifically interested in the outside world, I found,” she says. “Their aim is to make Japan as perfect as can be and to make themselves a perfect cog in a perfect country. Their expectations of themselves are terribly high.”
Even being tall and blonde and statuesque and looking so different from the locals, Lumley says Japanese people were “far too courteous to stare”, no doubt a refreshing change from her everyday life in London.
“It’s lovely to go to countries where people just look at you for what you are, which for me is now a woman of 71,” she says. “It means I don’t come with any baggage for them. They’re just seeing an interviewer talking to them about what they know best.”
Speaking to Joanna Lumley is everything you hope it will be and more. She uses words such as “ravishing” and “darling” and “terrifically”, and her voice is velvety and husky and, well, fabulous. After just 15 minutes on the phone, she is so warm and charming and generous, you come away feeling like you’ve become dear friends.
It’s this skill that makes her such a great choice as a travel documentary host – people instantly warm to her and reveal genuine emotion when they speak.
This has been an added privilege of the job for Lumley – meeting people from different cultures and forging a deeper understanding about the fundamental similarities we all share.
“The great thing about getting older is that you begin to realise the absolute truth about mankind,” she says. “Under the skin we’re all absolutely the same.
“We may do things differently, we may look different and have different cultural expectations, but actually people want to bring up their children well and eat well and they want to be safe, and be happy and dance, and keep stuff nice. People are pretty much the same.”
Those who love her best as one half of the inimitable Patsy and Eddy duo, will be happy to hear about her next travel project, which has seen her stay a bit closer to home.
“You’ll be pleased to know Jennifer Saunders and I have been in the Champagne region in France, where we were sent to make a little documentary about champagne making,” she says. “Even if it’s a little place close to home, you can make it thrilling. As long as you throw yourself into it and love it.”
And as long as there’s champagne, darling,
Joanna Lumley’s tips for being an expert traveller
On different cultures:
“I always try and find what the local courtesies and customs are. For instance, in some Muslim countries it’s very rude for a woman to extend a hand to a man [to shake his hand], where in other countries it’s very rude not too. Observe the local customs and do that as well as you can.”
On how to dress:
“Always dress modestly. Err on the side of decency.”
On meeting people:
“Listen very carefully, make eye contact and listen with all your heart and soul.”
“I’ve learned how to pack, because we all tend to take far too much. The answer is, if you can forget about your wardrobe, therefore have it as a basic – take a basic wardrobe of all black, all white, all beige, and brighten it up with scarves and things like that – then you’re free.”
On travelling in a modern world full of conflict and terror:
“I don’t let it worry me. I think rather fatalistically, when your time is up, it’s up. It’s just miserable bad luck if you’re caught in some horror and get killed and maimed. But largely we won’t. Statistically, that’s not going to happen to us, I can say that boldly. So don’t be afraid. Just keep an eye on the news. And be brave.”
Joanna Lumley’s Japan premieres on Living Channel tonight at 8.30pm
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