Joanna Lumley in Nepal: Championing The Gurkha Cause

Features Issue 96 Jul, 2010

The first thing you notice about Joanna Lumley these days is the way she pronounces Nepal. She is delighted to be in Nep-hal, she tells us, in her incredibly posh, unmistakeably upper-class voice. It’s neither Ne-paul, nor Ne-pall, but an entirely different sound, a whisper almost; never before has this country’s name sounded so glamorous.

There is much more, of course, to the actress-turned campaigner than a mesmerising voice. There is a pretty face to go with it, the tall, lean body, the blonde bob and impeccable manners. But above all there is passion. It is this, more than anything else, that has made her so successful in championing the Gurkha cause.

Since joining the Gurkha Justice Campaign in 2007, she has shed tears outside the British Parliament, she has rejoiced at partial victories along the way with cries of “Ayo Gorkhali” (the Nepalese warriors’ battle cry), and she has tirelessly pursued ministers, MPs and even the Prime Minister himself, Gordon Brown. She charmed her way to the very top of the British establishment, and played a pivotal role in bringing about a government U-turn, to ensure that all Gurkha veterans are now entitled to settle in the UK.

To her critics, this is an unacceptable way of influencing policy in a modern parliamentary democracy. But surely this says more about the policy-makers, than about the woman herself. Ms Lumley, for one, had no idea that the campaign would be so successful, and that Gurkha settlement rights would be obtained in such a dramatic way. Back in February she booked a family holiday to Nepal so that, together with her husband and son, she could visit the land of the Gurkhas and see for herself the conditions under which these British Army veterans are living.

Little did she know that come July she would be meeting the Prime Minister, having tea with the President and laying a wreath at a war memorial in the presence of the British Ambassador to Nepal, Dr Andrew Hall. But despite all this, she refused to be side-tracked. She wanted to meet the veterans, of whom her father, James Lumley, a Major in the Brigade of Gurkhas, had told her so much.

“The stories that my father has told me of Gurkha courage, honour, good humour, grace and friendliness are legendary, and something he treasured all his life” she told the packed auditorium at Rastriya Sabhagriha, Kathmandu City Hall. Not least, one suspects, was the story about how Major Lumley’s life was once saved by Tul Bahadur Pun, who went on to receive a Victoria Cross, the British Army’s highest military award. Without Tul Bahadur’s bravery it is likely that Joanna Lumley would never have been born, and Britain would have been deprived not merely of a much-loved actress, but also of a “national treasure” as many are now referring to her.

There was another close call to her country’s claim over her, when she threatened to cut up her British passport, and renounce her nationality in disgust at what she saw as unacceptable treatment of brave men who were prepared to die for Britain, but not allowed to live there. In the event, this was not necessary, much to the relief of everyone involved, and she did not have to seek a passport from India, her country of birth. In typical Lumley blend of grace and self-deprecation, she later commented: “I’m terribly glad really; I had this nightmare that India would turn me down flat, and that would just have been so embarrassing.”

There’s no telling what the Indian government would actually have done, but in Nepal there is no doubt that she enjoys a huge following, made all the more remarkable by the fact that few had ever known her in the roles of Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous, Purdey in the New Avengers, or the Bond Girl in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. “They don’t have our television shows and didn’t see me as an actress,” she explains. “They saw me as the person from the campaign and the daughter of a Regiment. It’s always rather lovely when people see you in a different light, not as old Patsy.” It seems that her most influential role might well be as Joanna Lumley herself.

Freelance writer Chryssa Kanellakis-Reimer can be contacted at