Once a day, Joanna Lumley and her husband, conductor Stephen Barlow, leave their home and take a walk around the back streets of south London. Along the way, they stop, keeping the required two-metre distance, wave at strangers, smile and ask them how they are doing.
“We’re like Darby and Joan,” Lumley tells me with a small laugh over the telephone. She’s pleased that the parks near her home in Lambeth haven’t been closed because they don’t have the big gates others have, observing happily that people have been keeping to the new social contract.
Seeing people walking “miles apart”, dogs running around and children kicking a ball has, she says, lifted her spirits. As has the unfurling of spring, the blooming of buds and the clear blue skies.
“You must have a heart filled with hope to get through this, and one of the ways is looking out at nature and seeing how beautiful it is,” says the 73-year-old actress. “People do need solace for the soul as much as safety.”
She’s not thinking of her own need for green space so much, saying with tart honesty: “I’m lucky that we’re rich. We live in a lovely house, we’ve got food, I’ve got a garden. I’m thinking of people who live on the 14th floor with three children. What are they going to do? It’s extraordinarily difficult.”
Everybody she meets without fail wishes they could somehow be helping more, but don’t know how.
The current lockdown might have drawn comparisons to the Blitz, but for Lumley, it’s nothing like it. “During the Blitz, everybody crowded together to help each other, took in each other’s children, gave shelter and cooked for one another, and had that human contact. This is the exact opposite of that, where you can’t do anything, so we’re all stuck at home wondering what we can do to help people.”
As soon as she heard about the Telegraph Coronavirus Appeal raising money for the national poverty charity Turn2us, Lumley was in touch to lend her support in any way she can.
It’s a brave move for a celebrity to stick their head above the parapet this week. The coronavirus pandemic has become the crisis where nobody wants to hear from the famous as they isolate in their ivory towers. Already, actress Gal Gadot, musician Pharrell Williams and billionaire David Geffen – and many others – have been rebuked for their vapid social media posts about how we’re “all in this together”.
With Lumley, it’s a little different, as the actress’s national-treasure status was achieved largely through her work championing the needs of others. Who can forget her tireless campaigning for the rights of retired British Army Gurkhas to settle in the UK?
Over the years, she has supported Turn2us as a donor and unofficial ambassador, saying: “I’ve never done enough for them, but I have always loved what they do and their constancy for people who are in real trouble.”
Lumley made a donation as soon as the pandemic’s toll on ordinary families started to become apparent. And she is now urging those of us at home, who are lucky enough to be financially stable and eager to support those who are not, to make a donation to the Telegraph’s appeal.
While she applauds the provisions being made by the Treasury, calling them “wonderfully and unexpectedly generous”, she fears for those who are going to slip through the net.
“Lots of us have unorthodox ways of working and being paid, and there are many who might not quite fit into the rules and tick-box applications you have to make. That is where Turn2us will be able to help,” she says.
Last year, the charity gave over £4m in cash grants to those in need. And although Lumley calls the 14 million people in the UK already living in poverty “a horrifying statistic”, it is, of course, one that is set to get much worse.
The coronavirus crisis is disproportionately affecting those who ordinarily would go out to work and now can’t. Trapped at home, they can feel like there is nowhere to turn. “It really is as tough as it can get,” Lumley says. “You can’t even hitchhike down to Spain and get a job working in a bar. None of the old ways of running away to seek greener grass can happen right now.”
She urges people in financial difficulties to contact Turn2us for help. Their online benefits calculator will pinpoint what entitlements are available. Money raised by our appeal is helping the charity not only provide more emergency grants but also to staff the switchboards of its increasingly busy helpline.
While she acknowledges there is a great sense of uncertainty right now for many, “Turn2us can help clear these muddied waters for people who are on this white-knuckle ride and don’t know how they’re going to get through.”
She has been devastated to read the heartbreaking stories of people dying of the virus at home because they haven’t wanted to trouble their doctor; of the funerals that haven’t been able to take place, and of loved ones being unable to hold the hands of those who are ill.
“There is a lot of deep tragedy going on at the moment, and giving to Turn2us is one small way of being able to alleviate that. It may feel like all hope is cut off, but it hasn’t been because there are people to help.”
Lumley was in the middle of working on a new drama for ITV when the crisis took hold, and that had to stop filming halfway through; she says masses of people will be impacted financially in her industry, besides the on-screen stars, from cameramen to carpenters.
“People all over the place are affected by it,” she says. “You can go mad trying to think of all the people you ought to be helping.”
Like so many whose lives have been turned upside down, Lumley is finding ways to fill the days. She and Barlow had planned to go up to their remote cottage in Scotland, but then the lockdown happened. Lumley says she knew if a police officer stopped her and said it was an inessential journey, it would have been a case of “Fair cop, guv”.
“Turning around and driving all the way back again would have depressed the hell out of me,” she admits.
Somewhat ironically, instead, she’s finding time to sort out her affairs, and urges others “who are over the yard arm” to do the same and write a will.
“It’s not a gloomy thing to do, it’s a thrilling thing to do,” she insists. “It’s thinking about how whatever assets you have to leave can benefit and delight somebody in the future. A niece, or even a neighbour down the road who has always admired something when they’ve come round. Stick their names on the back of things or make a list in a notepad.”
With thoughts of mortality clearly on her mind, does she fear catching the virus herself?
“I think I may have had it,” she states plainly. “I felt quite lousy for quite a long time. And when you look at the symptoms, you think: ‘Oh, yep, I’ve had that – and that…’”
While for many who catch the virus and are already vulnerable it can be a killer, she thinks there are lots of people who have probably had it or who have got it right now and are, she says, “maybe stronger than they thought”.
She hopes wider testing will reveal whether we are developing some kind of immunity to the virus, but regardless of whether lockdown and social distancing ceases in a few months, or longer, she doubts things can ever return to normal.
“I think we’re going to see a new world order,” she says. “Suddenly, we’re thinking of others who don’t earn much. We are acknowledging that there are people who go out to work, pay their childminder a great amount of their salary and are trapped in an impossible way of living. I think there will be a great reckoning about how we rebuild.”
Today, though, there are people right now in their homes who need all our support. Lumley believes supporting Turn2us and the Telegraph Coronavirus Appeal can make a real difference.
“The money that we are hoping to raise is going to go directly towards funding Turn2us and their response in supporting those who are affected by COVID-19. Turn2us will always be there, but this appeal is for now.”
To make a donation to the Telegraph Coronavirus Appeal please visit telegraph.co.uk/appeal or call 0151 284 1927 (Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm)