One of the less common answers to the question, “Who’s your favorite actress?” is probably “Joanna Lumley.” In fact, in the U.S., the follow-up question is likely to be, “Who?”
She’s one of those actresses you know you’ve seen in something. She impressed me when I first saw her as Patsy Stone in the British comedy Absolutely Fabulous. Patsy’s a walking drug-habit of an ex-model who’s attached to her best friend from childhood like a parasite. She’s a disgusting amoral creature who’s completely uninhibited in what she’ll do to get her way. Aggressive, creepy – funny as anything. It’s not an easy role to play – “semi-consciousness” only goes so far in explaining character motivation, after all.
Last year, a friend introduced me to Sapphire & Steel, a British sci-fi show from the very early 80’s, starring Lumley and David McCallum. It’s a really strange show that people tend to love or hate – I loved it. And I loved something in particular about Lumley’s character, Sapphire: she was utterly feminine and utterly strong. She wore pretty dresses, fabulous makeup, perfect hair. For the most part she was gentle and empathetic, and occasionally needed a rescue. But she radiated the serenity of absolute confidence, never even acknowledging the non-existent but much-vaunted dichotomy between being soft and strong. As the series progressed, she did more than her share of rescuing, and proved to be coldly terrifying when crossed.
I was captivated. Without apology or explanation, without borrowing an iota from masculine stereotypes of strength or capability, she simply played a supremely power character who happened to be a woman. I was surprised to realize such a role had been portrayed back when kids my age in the U.S. had to chosoe among Erin Gray’s character from Buck Rodgers, Daisy Duke, or Charlie’s Angels for female TV role models. Well, there was always Princess Leia – but even at the age of seven, I knew the instant she and Han Solo kissed, we could kiss the princess we knew goodbye. (Scary to think I’d already internalized that hooking up with a man rendered a woman soft, vulnerable and emotional.)
So I went back a couple more years to the mid-seventies and watched Lumley as Purdey in The New Avengers. Let’s examine a few things about this role. The pun – Purdey as a mispronunciation of “pretty” – is intentional. Purdey wears tight, and occasionally skimpy, clothes. And there’s no shortage of dialog references to her being particularly beautiful (same is true in Sapphire & Steel, actually). Sounds like your basic cheesecake setup, doesn’t it?
But put on your magic satire detector – Purdey was written to do fight scenes, to get the job done and rarely make mistakes, and to have a sort of innocence that might or might not have been intended as coy. What Lumley did with the role was nothing short of amazing. She played the innocence so straightforwardly that it was enchanting instead of coy. She was so damn good at the fight scenes, the running in high heels scenes (continuous shots, no cuts), the climbing over fifteen-foot chainlink fence scenes, that you forgot you were watching an actress. (Seriously, I have rarely seen an actor do better fight scenes than these). She didn’t even pause to see herself as a woman in a man’s world – the classic line came when another character asked her why she hadn’t burned her bra along with the other feminists. Purdey’s reply: “I didn’t have to. I already knew I was liberated.”
Now, that’s how I’ve always felt. Sometimes I run into someone else who doesn’t understand I’m liberated, but I’ve never questioned it. And yet – did I miss some bastion of American shows that gave us female characters with that perspective? Or am I right in thinking we still haven’t cracked that code, and Britain’s 30 years ahead of us, and counting?