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Bright lights, Soho, Wardour Street: It’s Terence Conran via Absolutely Fabulous, Pet Shop Boys and a bit of Bowie

“No matter what you’re doing, whatever you want,

there’s always a Terence bloody buggery Conran book on it!

A piece of muslin and a terracotta tile and suddenly it’s Tuscany.

It takes more than a carefully placed bottle of olive oil and some balsamic vinegar to make a kitchen.” 

— Absolutely Fabulous, Door Handle (1995)

Wherever the kitchen, I’m sure there’ll be a bloody buggery teaspoon close by. Probably near the industrial staircase and the minimalist white box. 

During the many seasons and specials of the pioneering BBC comedy Absolutely Fabulous, the basic premise of its brilliantly outrageous protagonists, the self-centred London fashionistas Edina ‘Eddy’ Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley), is that they continually indulge in a riot of drugs, booze, sex, cosmetic surgery, shopping sprees, and luxury trips abroad. And do so without the slightest sniff of morals or principles.

Paying for old people to eat cake is not their word du jour.

Such is the shamelessness of these two excessive snarks that not only have they managed to delight in making all seven of the deadly sins — pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth (as if you needed reminding) — their virtues but they’ve even created a few of their own along the way.

White Box, an hour-long episode that originally aired as the Patsy and Eddy Christmas special of 2004, is essentially more of the same on steroids. The basic plotline — which is really just a way to display the ladies’ — sorry Pats, girls’ unbridled narcissism — is that the Monsoon monster sets out to redesign the show room focal point of her house (commonly called a kitchen, in regular parlance) with the help of a couple of old old old friends from way back. The same potty pair from the second season’s New Best Friend, actually (the one with little Lulu licking the plate); the pretentious king and queen of minimalism Bettina and Max (Miranda Richardson and Patrick Barber). 

Others joining in the affray include a hammier than a pig farm Nathan Lane as an obnoxious designer, Roseanne’s Laurie Metcalf doing a fun turn as a psychic, and Miranda Hart as Yoko. Oh no? In fact, in a classic case of bargain basement BBC recycling, Edina’s kitchen would later be reused as the shop set on Miranda. 

An enormous part of AbFab’s appeal was its contextualisation within hip and trendy nineties-into-turn-of-the-Millennium London life, namedropping to within an inch of Holland Park. The show was practically a branding campaign for Monsieur Christian Lacroix, as well as Bolli and Stolli, and casually caustic but incisively sly references were dropped into every episode about real models, pop stars, actors, royals, politicos and designers. For instance…

“I thought a little mosey down Bond Street, a little sniff around Gucci, sidle up to Ralph Lauren, pass through Browns and on to Quags for a light lunch.”

And to be sure, despite their crisp coveting of the fashionable eatery Quaglinos, owned by the pioneering businessman Sir Terence Conran, there was an insidery thrill in Eddy tossing off a knowing laceration of his unapologetically bourgeois design movement when she felt like it. Including a scene in White Box itself, where the British home design guru even pops in for a bit, not in her box but in his own bastion of aestheticism, The Conran Shop in Marylebone High Street.

Assuming he was actually allowed to see the script before filming his cameo, the episode pointed to Conran having been a jolly good sport for allowing himself to be sent up like that. Or as the bloody brainless bimbo Bubble (Jane Horrocks) might have said, very modern of him to take his name being used like that.

Perhaps she was just clearing a blockage or something.

Anyway, I know I live in France and come from a typically suburban English middle class family but I see nothing wrong with being bourgeoisie. Or a rebel, come to that — to paraphrase another subject of AbFab’s merciless mocking back in the day, Madonna, then the Marylebone-based wife of Britpack film director “Guy Itchy.”

Before The Conran Shop there was Habitat — a French word meaning housing conditions, naturellement — which the visionary aesthete founded in the 1960s. I admit, when I was a resident of leafy West Hampstead I used to shop at Habitat fairly regularly — the convenience of having it occupy a significant space next door to my supermarket of choice, Waitrose Finchley Road, certainly one factor. 

Even now, I visit the Nice branch a few times a year, and can confirm the quality and contemporary chic of their home furnishings in the 2020s is still way above most high street chains in the gallic republic, and which makes the almost total elimination of the Habitat name from British life unseasonably sad.

Years before they inadvertently inspired IKEA’s flatpack revolution, Habitat made homes cheerful, and that included the price. In fact, my parents’ porch still has the whitewashed brick and terracotta quarry tiles aesthetic that Conran popularised.

A self-described “Bauhaus-educated chap” Terence Conran’s modernist principles and desire to democratise design, retail and restaurants permeated all corners of modern life over six decades, at one time owning more than 900 stores across the UK, US, Europe, and Japan. A kind of visual soundtrack of our lives, it’s an extraordinary legacy.

With his interpretative eye, zealous energy and restless entrepreneurial spirit, this self-confessed voluptuary socialist “of the Burgundy variety” did more than anyone to enhance material life in Britain during the second half of the 20th century. Like John Lennon and David Bowie in their wildly different ways, lighting an escape route from suburban humdrum was his continued inspiration.

With an almost messianic desire to change the way we lived and shopped and ate (continental quilts in drab post-war austerity Britain? They didn’t exist before Habitat), he influenced everyone from Mary Quant to Jonny Ive to John Lewis, as well as creating a great British institution in the shape of the Design Museum.

It is possible to be a socialist and have staff, you know.

And it‘s lights up, boys, because on the 91st anniversary of his birth, how’s this for a stylish slice of sixish degrees of separation?

Born on October 4, Terence Conran shared his birthday with American actress Susan Sarandon and Pet Shop Boys’ Chris Lowe, both of whom, coincidentally, both worked with David Bowie on The Hunger (1983) and Hallo Spaceboy (1996) respectively. 

Keyboardist Lowe — one-time student designer of an industrial staircase in Milton Keynes, situated a mile from both my parents’ whitewashed home and the current headquarters of what remains of Habitat UK — once owned a swanky apartment in Wardour Street’s Soho Lofts that adjoined Conran’s mega-sized Mezzo restaurant, both part of a 1990s development that replaced London’s iconic Marquee club.

Legendary lensman Terry O’Neill published a collection of his photos from a Bowie appearance at the venue called When Ziggy Played the Marquee: David Bowie’s Last Performance as Ziggy Stardust. On 16 November 2017, El Tel launched the book with a personal appearance at the same Conran Shop used in AbFab. O’Neill died exactly two years later, to the day, with Conran following on 12 September 2020.

Thirteen years earlier, I met Conran and his fashion designer son Jasper in unhappy circumstances at the funeral of a friend of mine — the much missed Martijn ‘Noah’ Schuitemaker — in July 2007. Noah had been Finance Director of Conran Holdings and, for reasons that are still unexplained, had taken his own life aged just 36.*

Terence Conran gave a beautiful and heartfelt eulogy at the service, and it struck me that for someone who’d been involved in the cut and thrust and wheeler-dealing of big business for half a century, how his humanity shone through. Not just by the words he had written by how he kept breaking down as he tried to read them. Noah was essentially his accountant, an employee, and yet I came away terribly moved by Conran the man. Jasper, too, was sobbing as he watched his famous father apologise to us for his continued emotional sidetracking of this lovely lapidary reading. 

Noah and I first met at a Pet Shop Boys gig in 2004, at the Barfly club in Camden, and I suppose a small scrap of comfort was that his last concert was also by his favourite pop act, when PSB’s Fundamental Tour rolled into W6 a month before his death. Amid slight bemusement from yours truly, Neil Tennant greeted the audience that night with the one-year-off chronology of “Welcome to the Hammersmith Odeon, where I saw David Bowie in 1972.” (Famously, it was 1973, and the final paying Ziggy Stardust concert prior to The 1980 Floor Show, the invited guests-only shebang that Terry O’Neill captured.)

Over the closing credits of each episode of the fourth season of Absolutely Fabulous in 2001, the regular theme tune of the Bob Dylan-penned This Wheel’s On Fire would be punctuated by an audio blast of Bowie circa ’72 singing “…Ziggy played guitar-ah!” 

Just that one note, with no explanation. Though it’s well-known that The Dame though the early series so hilarious he had the grand idea to remake AbFab for American TV starring his supermodel wife Iman. Jennifer Saunders declined to give Bowie the rights, though in 1994 she did agree to Pet Shop Boys making a Comic Relief single that sampled some of the funniest lines of dialogue from the show.

Naturally, it’s Absolutely Fabulous.

The satirist Craig Brown once joked that before Sir Terence Conran “there were no chairs and no France.” 

So as I write this from the South of France sitting on a chaise de cuisine, I know that chairs might be a bit more than nice — kind of essential, even. You could put them next to the bloody marvellous tap, I suppose.

Thanks Gran.

Steve Pafford, Nice.

Terence Orby Conran, 4 October 1931 – 12 September 2020

Terence Patrick O‘Neill, 30 July 1938 – 16 November 2019

*After Noah’s funeral service there was a drinks thing, at which I found myself deep in conversation with a doctor who told me a scandalous story about Prince Harry that had been massively covered up in the press. (He was the surgeon who had treated him). This isn’t the place for it but, alas, the timing was curious: Harry’s mum Princess Diana had been holidaying in the South Of France and had just celebrated her 36th and final birthday, as had Noah. 

One for the epitomb then. Memento Mori

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