Sweetie, sweetie, sweetie, sweetie, sweetie! Fashion, the very first episode of Absolutely Fabulous, aired on the BBC 25 years ago today. Beep beep!
AbFab, which made its long overdue cinema debut last year, is, as if you didn’t know, a riotous and often cruel comedy about women being a bit bad. It’s kinda hard to believe now, but in 1992 and 1993 I sat the first series out completely. Let’s be honest, at first it did seem a trifle odd seeing Jennifer Saunders (the Lacroix-loving Edina Monsoon) in a sitcom without Dawn French, and even odder that her co-star should be Joanna Lumley (fash mag slag Patsy Stone), a rather prim and proper so-so oh-so English actress and former Bond girl whose star had waned considerably since the 1970s and wasn’t exactly known for comedy.
However, the main reason I didn’t watch AbFab was that the first season was hidden away at 10pm on BBC2. Not only was Lumley doing funny uncharted territory, but clearly no one had any idea of the huge hit on everyone’s hands, least of all the Beeb. I’d just moved back to the capital a few weeks earlier, the first time as an adult living in the city of my birth. Judi Forsyth (as she then was) and I moved down from the Buckinghamshire town of Milton Keynes and rented a modest two-up two-down in East Acton, West London. Coincidentally, we happened to be sharing a W12 postcode with the iconic BBC Television Centre in White City where much of the programme was filmed, and a certain suburb called Shepherd’s Bush, the geographical butt of the joke in the series.
My first job in the capital was as a chef at nearby Hammersmith Hospital (oh, so glam, though the exterior did double up as a school in the Iso Tank episode), next door to the notorious high security Wormwood Scrubs prison (even glammer), where the breakfast shifts started at an ungodly 6am. I’d be trying to get to sleep when the show was on, and occasionally I’d hear a massive belly laugh from Jude in the lounge directly below my bedroom. Actually, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard her roar that much before or since. She’d probably say she was just clearing a blockage.
“It can’t be THAT funny, surely?” grumpy young me would think to myself as I tossed and, well, tossed sometimes, desperate to do anything for shuteye. Oh, I’m happy to say, how wrong was I! AbFab has gone down in history as the go-to programme for ‘girls behaving badly’, up there with Fawlty Towers as an exemplary British sitcom and a perfect example of how the English can laugh at each each other in a way that is embarrassing, cringeworthy and, yes, if you like your comedy caustic, very very funny. David Bowie loved the show so much he even tried to buy the rights to remake it for the American market starring his wife Iman. Saunders wisely refused.
And what came after the designer label-obsessed Fashion? Why, only Fat and France. The three effs for you; how utterly appropriate. By 1994, when the second series had transferred to BBC1 and Pet Shop Boys produced that year’s Comic Relief single with the girls called, imaginatively, Absolutely Fabulous (shockingly, it’s the premier pop duo’s biggest seller in Australia), I’d started to understand what the diatribal drama was all about, even though, as Judi volunteered, the show had started to lapse into a parodic version of its former self, something that would cripple it in later series. What did she mean, I asked?
“Look at Patsy: the hair, she got dumber and everything became more silly and surreal. Patsy was quite sophisticated and a believable character in the beginning. They’ve now made her really thick.”
Like most gay men and women of a certain age, I still watched the show obediently ever since — sometimes for the clothes or the blatant way ahead of its time drug taking, but mainly for the merciless put-downs —though I think we can all agree the last episode that was truly LOL laugh out loud as opposed to just smile if you like it was probably 1996’s Christmas two-parter, The Last Shout. After that the self-parody and self-referential elements of the scripts took over, as if Saunders really was struggling for new material.
In the beginning, Absolutely Fabulous was based on a single sketch entitled Modern Mother and Daughter, an eight-minute skit from the third series of French & Saunders in 1990. Dawn and Jennifer were, then, the only female double act on TV, let alone the BBC. French subsequently appeared in only one television episode of AbFab (playing a breakfast telly host based on the less than gemlike Anne Diamond), and instead graduated to the safer, more genial The Vicar of Dibley.
The running gag, and, admittedly, it’s as old as Plautus, is: a mother is parented by her child, who is more mature than she is. This is the original failure of Edina (“Eddy”, “Eds”); she cannot look after her own daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha), who becomes an increasingly dour prig that doesn’t want to dress nicely because it would please her mother, thus ending up looking like a stale old piece of toast, according to her nemesis Patsy. This, then, is what a real mother should be: always in the kitchen. Or on the toilet.
“Stop trying to find yourself fascinating,” daughter tells mother; neatly foreshadowing the rise of the “me, me, me, look at me!” self-obsessed world we now find ourselves in, fuelled in no small part by the shallow veneer of social media networks. Eddy, who’s based upon the Jewish fashion PR Lynne Franks, is a wonderful subject for tragedy; and a complex one for comedy. She is incapable of being happy, because she has no core. She is tossed in the wind, clutching at fads, zero attention-span: Iso tanks, crystals, bum bags, Buddhism et al.
Eddy is, like Franks was, rich and successful — Franks ran her own business when few women did — but you never see that on screen; you rarely witness Eddy doing anything functional. You see only the chaos that surrounds her in her multi-million pound house in Holland Park (OK, Shepherd’s Bush it is then); the fear she has of herself; the self-disgust that is the brilliantly close to the bone comic engine of AbFab.
If there’s one thing Edina loathes more than being ignored it’s her body — its bumps, its excrescences, its leaks — with a terror and commitment which, while no doubt familiar to female viewers who turn to the Daily Mail for similar torment, is kind of pitiless. And this is why Ab Fab was always an unusual and unconventional situational comedy — middle aged Eddy is the butt of the joke. Always. Unless it is Patsy.
Edina Monson, you see, is the functional one in Absolutely Fabulous; the enabler. Her best friend is Patsy (“Pats”), an often spiteful woman whose Ivana Trump-modelled long-legged high-haired physical beauty initially disguises (and I imagine makes palatable for an audience, unless the producers thought it hilarious to feature a drunk who also looks like Joanna Lumley) what must the most unnervingly accurate portrait of alcoholism seen in popular culture.
Patsy gets drunk. No — that is wrong. Patsy is always drunk. Patsy falls over. Patsy wets herself. Patsy sets herself on fire. Patsy snorts cocaine. A lot of cocaine. Pasty hasn’t eaten anything since 1973. Oh, except that single crisp, in one of the most brilliant examples of physical facial humour ever. All this is done without shame or the slightest self-awareness. Let’s be honest, whether it’s the sophisticated and much posher version of the character in the early episodes (rewatch Fashion to see what I mean) or the taller haired vulgarian parody of the later series, we all know people like Patsy.
Jennifer Saunders has said that Absolutely Fabulous is really a comedy about friendship, which I imagine sits ill with Franks, who was once, apparently, her friend. To laugh at Eddy and Patsy is to laugh at female failure. But failure is not a bad subject for comedy — it’s actually one of the best, as Basil Fawlty and Alan Partridge and David Brent tell us. Interestingly, the male of the species have only ever fleeting cameos, which is probably why most men of a heterosexual persuasion never really ‘got’ AbFab (hi Luke!).
The other pair of Absolutely Fabulous supporting roles are played by the birdlike waif Jane Horrocks (incompetent gormless PA, Bubble) and nonagenarian national treasure June Whitfield (the eccentric elder Mrs Monsoon, Mother). It’s impossible to imagine how anyone other than those two could have pulled off those minor roles with such massive success, a testament to the versatility of both actresses.
Bringing things full circle, the very final property I lived at in Britain before I emigrated was on the Richmond/Twickenham border in 2013 and early 2014. Next door neighbour, one Ms Jane Horrocks (Saunders and Adrian Edmonson were just up the hill). No, we never spoke. That just wouldn’t be English, now would it? I wonder if she’d have preferred a fax, miserable little turnip.
Steve Pafford, France