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7 July 2016updated 14 Sep 2021 2:52pm

The original riot girls: the sparkling legacy of Absolutely Fabulous

Absolutely Fabulous: the Movie revels in the blasé humour that made the television series so groundbreaking.

By Ryan Gilbey

The first episode of Absolutely Fabulous, Jennifer Saunders’s sitcom about a hedonistic PR guru and her stick-in-the-mud daughter, went out on BBC2 in November 1992. The timing for a show about women behaving badly (and refusing to take into account how this would make men feel) could not have been better. The punk-feminist riot grrrl movement was well under way. In March, P J Harvey had released her debut album, Dry; Elvis Costello observed primly that all her songs seemed to be “about blood and fucking”. Madonna had published Sex, a coffee-table book for the bedroom featuring images of the singer hitchhiking in the nude, and being seen without embarrassment alongside Vanilla Ice.

Preceding Absolutely Fabulous by a month was Sinéad O’Connor’s appearance on the US TV show Saturday Night Live, during which she tore up a photograph of Pope John Paul II to protest against sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. In 1990 Frank Sinatra had threatened to “kick her ass” when she refused to have the American national anthem played before one of her shows. The Goodfellas actor Joe Pesci turned up on SNL a week after O’Connor with the pope’s picture taped back together. “If it was my show, I would have gave her such a smack,” he said, miming a whack with the back of his hand. The audience applauded wildly.

Absolutely Fabulous could not have been more necessary. In the programme’s opening scene, Edina Monsoon (Saunders) swigs from a bedside bottle of Bollinger, then clamps sunglasses to her face and staggers downstairs to alternately torment and emotionally blackmail her teenage daughter, Saffy (Julia Sawalha), before leaving for the office – via Harvey Nichols – with Patsy (Joanna Lumley), a coked-up blonde who is as cold as a vodka stalagmite. By the time that first episode was over, with Edina sliding drunkenly down the kitchen window, an abbreviated lexicon of excess had been created (“Bolly”, “Harvey Nicks”, “Ab Fab”) and a taboo had been broken. “I don’t think women being drunk is funny,” said Robin Nash, the BBC’s head of TV comedy. The US networks agreed: Roseanne Barr tried to make a version with Carrie Fisher as Edina and Kirstie Alley or Barbara Carrera as Patsy, only to be thwarted by prudishness.

There has already been one spin-off film – the 2001 French adaptation Absolument fabuleux – but the official version has been a long time coming. “Most frustratingly for me, it just doesn’t seem to be able to write itself,” Saunders wrote in 2013. Though Absolutely Fabulous: the Movie bears many of the hallmarks of bad British sitcom cinema (floodlit lighting, echo-chamber sets), it is also barbed and appallingly funny in places. Saunders and Lumley proved long ago that they are screen drunks of the calibre of W C Fields or Carol Burnett. Lumley in particular has perfected an elaborate, soused totter, head wobbling on her elongated neck like a jelly on a stick.

It’s strangely exhilarating to find no male characters of any influence here. There is a publisher (Mark Gatiss) who is vile to his assistant – unlike Edina, who indulges her own nitwit PA, Bubble (Jane Horrocks). And Saffy’s boyfriend (Robert Webb) is as much of a wet dishcloth as she is. It was always part of the show’s vicious brilliance that Saffy’s self-righteousness felt more disagreeable than anything Edina and Patsy could do. They confessed to having tied her to the central reservation when she was three; Patsy said she’d advised Edina to have an abortion, and described Saffy as a “bitch troll from hell” (a line reprised in the film).

This could only be liberating, when few things are treated with more suspicion in society than a woman who neither wants nor likes children. Edina is just about cognisant enough of the damage she has created to make her inability to repair it ­borderline tragic. Patsy lacks even that sliver of self-awareness. You could find more ­empathy in a switchblade.

The film allows Saffy a moment of kinship with a group of drag queens. True to form, though, men play no part in the meagre plot, in which Edina flees the country with Patsy after accidentally killing Kate Moss. Sending TV stars to the south of France seems, in the light of the terrible 1966 Morecambe and Wise film That Riviera Touch, like hollering the word “Macbeth” in a theatre. But this trip incorporates a glorious incident involving Patsy posing as a man. Crossing genders is old hat for her; in series two, it was revealed that she once had a sex-change operation (“It fell off”). Lumley’s ravenous, sexualised presence is heightened spectacularly by her Victor/Victoria get-up, so it’s a pity the script doesn’t give it more space. The sequence evaporates in a puff of innuendo when an explosion of bad taste would have been just the ticket.

It may be foolhardy for the final scene to mimic Some Like It Hot: it makes you wish you were watching a real movie rather than trumped-up television. But now that the Ab Fab legacy is ubiquitous – in Sex and the City, Girls and Catastrophe; in Megan Mullally in Will and Grace, Jane Krakowski in 30 Rock, Amy Schumer and Melissa McCarthy – it would be churlish to deny Saunders this lap of honour. 

This article appears in the 06 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers