That iconic Patsy sneer, more of a lip-twitch than a smile, was the trademark of Absolutely Fabulous’s hard-drinking, chain-smoking, dissolute supermodel.
But what actress Joanna Lumley didn’t reveal in the classic 90s sitcom was that the inspiration for Patsy’s cruel grin was Joanna’s greatest hero – Elvis Presley.
The King of Rock’n’Roll was famous for his mocking sneer too. ‘I loved his smile,’ Joanna admits as she explores her idol’s roots in an hour-long ITV documentary called Elvis And Me. ‘I loved the fact he never had huge, cheesy grins – he had a special Elvis grin and I borrowed it.’
Joanna fell for Elvis when she was just ten years old. She heard Blue Suede Shoes on the radio in 1956 and begged her aunt for pocket money to buy the single.
With no TV and just the record sleeve to show her what Elvis looked like, she fell in love as the song played endlessly on her gramophone. Almost 60 years on, she set out to understand how one American boy turned the world on to the power of blues, gospel and rock music.
In an open-top vintage red Chevrolet she goes exploring America’s Deep South, discovering not only Graceland, his Memphis mansion, but the tiny shack in Tupelo, Mississippi, where Elvis was born and raised in poverty.
‘They really were dirt poor,’ she says. ‘Literally, they were so poor they couldn’t afford a floor, just earth. They had no electricity, heating or running water, and Elvis, his mother Gladys and father Vernon, a carpenter, had to share a bed. That’s why he later bought a house that looked like a palace – Graceland.’
Elvis’s parents were God-fearing people and never missed a Sunday church service, not least because free meals were available after the sermon.
But Elvis was a rebel even as a child, and he loved to hang around in the black quarter of the segregated town listening to the gospel choirs and street musicians. At the cinema he’d sneak over the barrier, put in place to keep the races apart, so he could sit with his black friends.
What begins as a fact-finding mission turns into a pilgrimage as Joanna visits all these haunts. She even goes to the hardware store where an 11-year-old Elvis went to buy an air rifle... and emerged instead with his first guitar.
Her guide at the King’s stately home is his widow Priscilla, now 70 but a mere 14 when she first met Elvis while he was in the US Army in 1959.
Before heading to America Joanna and Priscilla meet at London’s Abbey Road studios to hear a mixing session for the latest Presley release – the King’s voice dubbed on to an orchestral soundtrack on an album called If I Can Dream.
Both women find it deeply moving – ‘like Elvis had come into the room and was standing behind us,’ Joanna says – and it was natural for them to get together again at Graceland.
For Priscilla, every visit to the mansion that was once her home feels strange, as though she’s never left the home she shared with her husband for nine years and he’s still upstairs, sleeping off an all-night movie session: Elvis was an insomniac and often watched films into the small hours. The upstairs rooms are out of bounds to visitors.
‘That’s been kept sacred,’ explains Joanna. But she explores every inch of the ground floor, including the two sprawling dens where the King could relax.
One is decorated with garish wooden carvings that Elvis spotted in a furniture shop – and one look at Priscilla’s face reveals she’s always loathed them. In the other ‘man-cave’, Joanna spots the drinks bar, and is surprised to learn that despite well-documented problems with substance abuse, Elvis almost never drank alcohol. He preferred a glass of milk.
The Presley marriage hit the rocks when Elvis resumed touring in the late 60s, and the couple split in 1973. ‘It’s a very complicated and sweet story,’ Joanna muses. ‘Even when they were divorced, they still loved each other.’
And Joanna admits she can’t condemn him for his philandering. ‘It would have been jolly difficult not to, because every girl in the world, including me had I not been too young, would have queued up and flung herself down like a doormat just so he’d step on her. It’s no wonder he succumbed.’
Priscilla isn’t the only girlfriend Joanna speaks to in her quest to understand his true character before fame overwhelmed him. His first serious crush, a schoolfriend called Dixie Locke, is now 80 – the same age Elvis would be today – and she remembers him as ‘a good kisser’. He was also possessive, and wanted her to wear his high school ring. One day, when she’d been selling lapel pins for a charity, Elvis lost his temper, furious that she’d been speaking to men on the street. During their row, Dixie flung the ring across the street. The two lovebirds kissed and made up... but never found the ring.
In those days, Elvis did all he could to look different, turning his collar up and wearing his dungarees with one strap hanging down. But it was his fashion sense as a star that really enthrals Joanna, and leads to her favourite moment on her voyage.
She visits Lansky’s, the tailor’s shop whose styles triggered the Elvis look. In a whirl of clothes that betray her roots as a model, she tries on just about every jacket in the store, posing with shoulders low and hips swivelling. The music, the glitz and the grit are alluring, but it’s obvious that what Joanna loves most are the Presley threads.
But the shopping spree at Lansky’s has a melancholy note too. When he first shopped there, in the year of Blue Suede Shoes, Elvis was 21. No one could guess then, but he was exactly halfway through his life.
Joanna Lumley: Elvis And Me is on Wednesday at 9pm on ITV.