British actress runs absolutely fabulous Gurkha campaign

LONDON: British actress Joanna Lumley's best-known role used to be as a boozy fashionista in hit comedy "Absolutely Fabulous", but now she is dominating TV screens as a formidable campaigner for Gurkha soldiers.

Lumley -- leading a campaign for all Nepalese fighters in Britain's army to be allowed to settle here permanently -- has become a national treasure with her well-spoken but devastating critiques of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's unpopular government.

"Joanna Lumley for Prime Minister" was the headline in Friday's Daily Express, while a string of groups with titles like "Joanna Lumley Is My Hero" have sprung up on online social networking site Facebook.

Lumley, who was born in British-ruled Kashmir in 1946, is supporting the Gurkhas because her father was a British major in the 6th Gurkha Rifles during World War II. The 63-year-old actress has said he would have been "overwhelmed with shame and fury" at Britain's treatment of them.

Her new role is a long way from her career as one of Britain's best-loved actresses of the last 25 years, though.

After starting out as a model, one of Lumley's earliest appearances was a bit part in the 1969 James Bond film "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" with George Lazenby.

She then won a regular part in long-running soap opera "Coronation Street" in the early 1970s before her first lead television role in "The New Avengers" in 1976 and 1977.

As Purdey, the high-kicking secret agent's accomplice, Lumley won the admiration of a whole generation of men -- and prompted many women to copy her blonde bowl haircut.

Lumley's star waned in the 1980s but against the odds, she won her biggest part in her late 40s as champagne-swilling, cocaine-snorting fashion director Patsy in the long-running BBC comedy "Absolutely Fabulous" from 1992.

She won rave reviews by poking fun at the celebrity world within which she had thrived -- and despite playing against her English Rose type.

Lumley, who was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II in 1995 and is married to conductor Stephen Barlow, has been involved in campaigns for causes including animal rights and Tibet.

But her Gurkha advocacy has proved astonishingly successful, partly because, unlike some celebrities involved in charitable works, she clearly feels passionate about the subject.

"I can't remember a time when I did not support their cause -- I have always felt like a child of the regiment," she has said.

Its success also seems to be down to Lumley's extraordinary ability to outmanoeuvre politicians deftly.

Friday's newspaper front pages were dominated by pictures of her glaring at Immigration Minister Phil Woolas after five Gurkha veterans were apparently barred from Britain despite a promise from Brown 24 hours earlier.

"Adopting the air of an angry schoolmistress, she sought (Woolas) out at Westminster and frogmarched him to a live press conference for a very public dressing down," the Daily Mail newspaper said.

"In the process, she effectively rewrote government policy." Now she is facing calls to quit acting in favour of a career in parliament.

"Lumley has that rare thing in public life -- a simple and uncluttered sense of principle," the Mail wrote earlier this month, while the Express added Friday: "Ms Lumley... your country needs you!"