The actress, who won two Baftas for playing Patsy Stone in the TV sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, was honoured for her services to entertainment and charity. The 75-year-old initially thought her damehood was a “mistake” when she opened the letter offering her an honour. “It was an extraordinary shock,” she told BBC News. “I put my head in my hands and sobbed like a baby. Then I thought, ‘how has this happened? Is it a mistake?’ I truly was completely thrown by it, and thrilled to bits, and so touched.”
Lumley, who has been praised for fighting for the rights of Gurkhas to settle in the UK and her animal rights campaigns, was born in India and later stationed in Kuala Lumpur for three years while her father’s regiment, the 6th Gurkha Rifles, tackled the communist insurgency in Malaya. The family returned to England in 1954, and at the age of 11 she went to St Mary’s, a convent outside Hastings run by Anglo-Catholic nuns. “I felt at home at once and loved my six years there,” she wrote in her autobiography Absolutely: A Memoir. “Of around 200 girls about 70 boarded, and because my parents had to go back to Malaya...I spent holidays with friends and relations.”
She added: “We used to go to chapel three times a day, sometimes more, and wore chapel veils, like large handkerchiefs tied over our hair with ribbons, which we were supposed to keep neatly folded so that they could be accessed at a moment’s notice, probably for emergency praying.
“I was tall with frizzy hair, spots, unfashionably broad shoulders and was a bit of a lout in retrospect. I don’t remember us grieving very much about the way we looked, however: food was poor and so was our skin but we laughed all the time and slept like the dead and dreamed of becoming gorgeous later.”
She said her bad behaviour at the Hastings school attracted punishments - some of which were learning poems - and she was eventually made a prefect. “’Set a thief to catch a thief,’ said Sister Jesse succinctly. At no stage of my grown-up life have I wielded the power we had as prefects, swishing about in pleated skirts and twinsets demanding respect and subservience,” she wrote.
Novelist and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz - whose work includes the Hastings-based TV series Foyle’s War - was made a CBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours list.