Joanna Lumley enthralled her audience at the Wigtown Book Festival on Saturday.
The TV star held the packed ScottishPower marquee captivated as she discussed her career, personal life and high-profile campaigns, the latest of which is to save Moat Brae House in Dumfries and convert it into a literary centre for children.
It was a candid and passionate presentation leavened with large helpings of levity. The sell-out conversation with Andrew Cassell – Lumley must have been a dream for the interviewer, for whom interventions were almost unnecessary – covered all aspects of Lumley’s life from childhood to the present day.
She also spoke about her long-standing connections to Dumfries and Galloway, and put the case for the Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust campaign with an impassioned appeal to the audience to support the initiative.
“Stephen and I – I’m married to a musician – have a cottage in Dumfriesshire, up near Drumlanrig Castle where the hills just fold over and the glens go to nowhere, and there is peace and quiet and views,” she said in here opening comments. “We found a tumbled-down shepherd’s cottage that had been empty for 50 years. The roof was still just on but there were no windows and no floors. It had never had electricity or running water. But my heart leapt up and I thought, ‘If we could live up in the hills in that little place …
“It now looks exactly like the same as it always did, just quietly sitting like a little grey cat on the hillside. And because we were so close to Dumfries, when I heard about Moat Brae being just minutes from demolition, and they had a campaign to restore the house and to make it into something, of course I jumped on board.
“The special thing about Moat Brae, which is a most beautiful Georgian house, was that the Gordon family had owned it and it was home to the Gordon boys, Stuart and Hal. Living outside Dumfries was J M Barrie and it was arranged for him to stay with the Gordon family. That was where, much later, he said he spent the happiest days of his life. It was there, leaning on the window sill and looking out at the sloping gardens to the great cedar trees down to the Nith and the meadows beyond that he dreamed up the lost boys, where they lived underground, where pirate ship came, where the Indians danced, where Tinkerbell flashed her light, where the dreaded Captain Hook came and the jaws of the crocodile opened and where the Darling children flew with Peter Pan.
“So this place was absolutely central to the whole notion of Peter Pan – and the idea that this house should tumble down was awful.”
Asked by Cassell what she was doing about it, she said: “We’re rebuilding it. We’ve made it safe for the winter so the rain can’t come in and erode it any more. And this year, before Christmas, we’ve got to make it weatherproof by putting all the windows in. There are 39 of them with a beautiful domed window at the top. We want to make them safe to open up, to let in the imagination, for children to lean on and dream. It’s going to become the first Scottish children’s literary centre.”
Cassell put it to Lumley that she had set herself “a huge target”. Her spirited reponse could not have been clearer. “We love huge targets. If you’re going to have a target, make it huge!” she exclaimed. “Always, always punch above your weight because I think in later life, and as you get to be a grandparent, which I am, you suddenly think, ‘Why didn’t we pitch in a bit deeper, why didn’t we try a bit harder?
“The plan is to have it as a literary centre so children always know that books are where you find out pretty much everything.”
Lumley went on to give an insight into her own zeal for the written word. “Books are what I dream of,” she said. “I came from a family of book readers. In my family there is a terror of not having something to read, even if it’s the back of a cornflake packet. There is never a journey without a book.
“If you can afford nothing else, make sure you can afford books, or belong to a library. If ever you give a present to somebody, make it a book. Always make sure that children can read. There is nothing more thrilling than books … except to be in Wigtown!”
On her campaign front, Lumley gave an insight into what drives her to be involved. “My mother used say, ‘Always volunteer, always put your hand up first’. That’s the way that things are thrilling. I come from a fairly steely bunch of people. I’m three-quarters Scottish – need I say more!
“I have a particular softness for people in the world who haven’t got a voice. I’ve had the grim privilege of being in places like Borneo and Sarawak where they are trampling the tribal people. They’ve got no voice. Animals around the world have no voice of their own. Because I am who I am, my head is above the parapet a lot.
“For the Gurkhas, I was called a million bad things. It was quite extraordinary because the whole country was behind the Gurkhas.”
Lumley also held out the tantalising prospect of a return to Absolutely Fabulous, though she admitted it was out her hands, being dependent on her co-star Jennifer Saunders, who wrote the sitcom, becoming inspired to author a new series.