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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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage