Steve Clarke revels in a radical hit that gloried in women of a certain age in glamourous 90s careers behaving badly
These days, TV comedies created and written by women, and starring a predominantly female cast, are rightly everywhere. It wasn’t always like that, especially in the UK where, not that long ago, female characters in sitcoms were often typecast as the butt of male jokes and relegated to the stock roles of sexpot, nagging wife or harridan mother-in-law.
Jennifer Saunders changed that with her breakthrough comedy Absolutely Fabulous, first shown on BBC Two in November 1992, before the series was quickly promoted to BBC One. Even today, Ab Fab, as it soon became known, sends out a manic energy that still feels fresh and wonderfully unbridled in our more culturally complicated times, dominated as they are by identity politics and the ever-present risk of social media abuse.
Think of Victoria Wood on acid and you’re not far off Ab Fab. Appropriately, its theme song is Julie Driscoll and Ade Edmondson’s psychedelic rendering of Bob Dylan’s obscure This Wheel’s on Fire.
The show ran for six series between 1992 and 2012, spawning a belated feature film in 2016. Saunders stars as fashion PR mogul Edina Monsoon. Joanna Lumley is her sidekick, magazine fashion director Patsy Stone, who eggs Eddie on to ever greater folly. Their pairing made such an impact that Eddie and Patsy lookalikes were familiar sights at gatherings on both sides of the Atlantic. The costumes were glorious and make Elton John look underdressed.
Casting these two as middle-aged hedonists struggling to keep up with their younger peers was pure genius. It almost didn’t happen. Ab Fab’s genesis was “Modern Mother and Daughter”, a sketch from the TV series French and Saunders, in which Dawn French played the sensible, upstanding daughter to Saunders’ debauched mother who acts like a teenager.
When the idea emerged to develop the sketch into a sitcom, French was due to play the Patsy character, but she had to pull out when she and her then husband, Lenny Henry, were given the opportunity to adopt a child.
Ruby Wax, script editor on Absolutely Fabulous, suggested Lumley for the role instead. After a shaky start – according to Lumley, she and Saunders took a while to gel – the pair ignited to become one of the greatest-ever sitcom double acts.
Their energy bears comparison to The Young Ones at its best, hardly surprising since both shows have their roots in the comedy troupe known as The Comic Strip, a Soho cabaret much sought out by Hollywood stars and TV types in the post-punk London of the 1980s.
Saunders and Lumley’s physical comedy is superb. The one-liners come thick and fast as Saunders’ wit skewers what we would nowadays call celebrity culture. “Meg Ryan a movie star? I’ll be the judge of that,” snaps Patsy in between swigs from a bottle of Smirnoff blue-label vodka.
The cast was fleshed out with nimble performances from June Whitfield as Edina’s parasitic mother and Julia Sawalha as her sensible daughter, Saffy, plus more star guests than Donald Trump has court cases. Helena Bonham Carter, Jo Brand, Debbie Harry, Elton John, and Twiggy were among those who appeared in the show. That is just the tip of the star-dusted iceberg.
The world of celebrity excess was the target of Saunders’ gloriously camp satire, but the celebrities couldn’t wait to rub shoulders with the absurdly over-the-top Edina and Patsy.
In interviews, Saunders often revealed that she found writing difficult. In a recent edition of BBC One’s Imagine, which took a panoramic look at the careers of French and Saunders, Alan Yentob provided some fresh insight into the Ab Fab writing process.
Saunders claimed writing Ab Fab was easy because there was so much of her in Edina’s character. Producer Jon Plowman begged to differ as he showed Yentob skeletal scripts that would often be left to the very last minute to be fleshed out.
Asked the secret of Ab Fab’s longevity, Saunders suggested it was down to the characters evolving in front of our eyes. In series three, there is evidence of growing maturity as Patsy considers being screened for breast cancer and Edina admits that she was never as promiscuous as her daughter was led to believe.
That, however, is not the way we will remember these supercharged pleasure seekers who still light up our screens more than three decades after they first appeared.
Absolutely Fabulous is on BritBox and Hulu.