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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge