Gilbey on Film: Less than absolutely fabulous

Bringing sitcoms to the big screen is a difficult business.

Ever since movie versions of sitcoms fell from whatever tawdry favour they once enjoyed, old comedy shows can hope for little more now than to end their days on the Dave channel, where they can expect to be shot to pieces like Sonny in The Godfather -- only with commercial breaks rather than bullets. But the phenomenal success this summer of The Inbetweeners Movie, which joins The King's Speech and the final Harry Potter as one of the top British box-office hits of 2011, might change all that. This is one explanation for Jennifer Saunders's announcement that she plans to write a movie version of the sitcom which has come to define her. Yes, crack open the Bolly, chop out a few celebratory lines and go looting at Harvey Nicks -- Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone, the platinum-card banshees with hairdos from hell and morals from somewhere far less civilised, are back. What has been overlooked in all the celebratory cheerleading is that Absolutely Fabulous has had a less-than-wonderful afterlife so far.

The show, first aired on the BBC in the early 1990s, had its origins in a French and Saunders sketch about a teenage girl ashamed of her shrill, baseball-cap-wearing mother. Saunders then developed the idea with Ruby Wax, but its appeal was not apparent to everyone. A BBC development executive took one look at the show and scoffed, "I don't think women being drunk is funny". According to its producer, Jon Plowman, Ab Fab only overcame this snobbery thanks to the support of a secretary to the BBC's head of entertainment, whose enthusiasm convinced the channel to take a chance.

Two decades ago, the show's unrepentant anti-social bent, so much more abrasive than the Men who Behaved Badly on the same channel, was a tonic. It contained a British strain of that casual griminess found overseas in Roseanne, only Ab Fab never stooped to offer an emotional reprieve in its closing minutes. And while Girl Power was still just a twinkle in an evil Svengali's eye, it gave us two superficial, alcoholic, substance- abusing women who did what they wanted, when they wanted, and to whomever they wanted. Like so much great comedy, it allowed its audience to experience vicariously the thrill of using the wrong fork, saying the wrong thing, being perfectly horrid to everyone around you, and loving every second of it.

No wonder America pretended not to be in when Edina and Patsy rang the doorbell. After every other network recoiled, Comedy Central bought the series, and watched its average ratings triple. It wasn't long before rumours began circulating about a US version. The tradition of adapting British comedy for American audiences has rarely been an honourable one. One Foot in the Grave, for example, was snapped up by Bill Cosby and puréed into heart-warming goo. The original show's creator, David Renwick, watched, he said, with "an increasing sense of despair and grim inevitability."

But the problem with Ab Fab was not that it was purchased by someone who wanted to make Edina and Patsy celibate or teetotal. On the contrary, Roseanne Barr bought the US rights because "every line of it is brilliant." She instructed the crack team of writers whom she had assembled for her version of the show to: "Bring me something every day that scares and shocks me." (New Yorker subscribers can read about the behind-the-scenes process in John Larr's profile of Barr.) Carrie Fisher was a natural for Edina. Kirstie Alley, formerly Rebecca from Cheers, was pencilled in as Patsy, though the sultry Barbara Carrera had also been considered. But commentators were in little doubt that the show's spirit would be crushed before it ever got on the air. "Absolutely Fabulous is so appealing because it is as trenchantly sophisticated as it is hilariously base," said Time magazine. "American sitcoms are rarely allowed to be either."

And so the show, retitled Ab Fab!, withered on the vine. Roseanne had enlisted Saunders and Wax to help her rewrite the pilot episode three times to calm the network's nerves. In the first version, she tried to smuggle through all the booze and drugs gags from the original shows, but these were expunged by nervous executives, acting in the capacity of Customs and Excise officers frisking suspicious-looking tourists. Out went the Bolly, out went the coke, though Roseanne assured fans that the characters' appetites would be implied, if not depicted.

"It's a ground-breaking show for this country, and it is difficult for the network to see what the show is," she said when negotiations had reached an impasse. "We just got hip enough to watch Seinfeld and see unmarried people having sex." As it became apparent that Ab Fab! would never be aired without being sanitised, sanded down and defanged, Roseanne could only gnash her teeth and watch helplessly as another sitcom, Cybill, beat her to the finishing line with a more homely, palatable portrayal of female fallibility.

What AbFab enthusiasts may not realise is that there has already been one, largely unloved incarnation of AbFab The Movie. In 2002, French cinema audiences were treated to a gaudy big-screen version, Absolument fabuleux, woven together from some of the TV scripts. Josiane Balasko, best known to British audiences as the butch lesbian who tempts Victoria Abril away from her dull marriage in the 1995 comedy Gazon maudit, played Edina, the reckless, decadent single mother immortalised by Saunders, while the classy Nathalie Baye braved the high heels, bouffant and inches of slap required to take over from Joanna Lumley as Patsy. (Saunders apparently makes a cameo appearance during a fashion show scene.) The trailer is rather frightening, featuring as it does Balasko and Baye staggering around in garish outfits, falling over and calling for champagne while Marie Gillain looks on aghast as prim daughter Saffy.

The natural reaction from hardened fans might well be outrage, but some consolation can be found in the name of the costume designer: at least those Jean-Paul Gaultier togs must've provided candy for the eyes. I haven't seen the movie but I'm curious to know whether the humour translated (onto the cinema screen, that is, rather than into French). It is at least encouraging that Balasko has some experience in coarse comedy. As one of the writers and stars of the popular 1982 film, Le père Noël est une ordure ("Father Christmas is a scumbag"), she was never going to be first choice to adapt that Last of the Summer Wine movie.

If that film version is as unappetising as the trailer suggests, we could write it off as a justified sliver of cultural revenge for what English-language cinema did to Les diaboliques: after the Sharon Stone version, the French have surely earned the right to screw up something that we hold dear. As for Saunders's own proposed AbFab movie, we can reassure ourselves that, unlike the US version that never was, it will reach the screen with its characters' vices, not to mention their penchant for colonic irrigation, intact.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.