Absolutely Fabulous Turns 30

Which is more than Edina and Patsy would admit to doing — turning 30, I mean. One of the principal jokes of Absolutely Fabulous (1992-96) was that the two characters, played by Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley, were much, much older than that, probably nearing 50, based on their boastful anecdotes of partying during the Mod Swinging Sixties. They hadn’t outgrown the lifestyle, and they devoted a great deal of energy toward trying to create the impossible illusion that they were half their ages, and that, and much else about the show, was comedy gold.

I first saw Absolutely Fabulous on a trip to London circa 1993 (haha, thus revealing something of my own age). The show hadn’t come to the States yet, and my hosts asked me how it would play in America. I was smitten with it of course, I saw in it a sort of revolutionary and ingenious transposing of elements traceable to Falstaff and W.C. Fields, to FEMALE characters in a way that was only possible for the first time at that point in history. WOMEN with voracious sexual appetites, and who lived to get fucked up on booze and whatever drugs could be acquired regardless of source or effect upon the body. It wasn’t just hysterically funny, but classically so. It revealed something timeless about the human condition, something that had previously been untapped. And it was even occasionally touching (though never sentimental). Yet, I had reservations about predicting that Americans could open up to it. At the time, I felt (and I was correct) that Americans had gotten WAY prudish since the Reagan years and the AIDS crisis. Obviously casual sex still happened amongst the young, but it was a much more hush-hush type of thing than it had been a couple of decades earlier. Ordinary grown-ups no longer went around talking about it, let alone boasting about it. And as for substance abuse — well, that’s what we had begun calling it by then. Not partying — substance abuse. It couldn’t be depicted without a bit of “tsk tsk” in the script so that the public would know that the producers weren’t “sending a message” that carousing was okay. It was the beginning of the period we’re in now, where we’re warned at the beginning of every film and television show that there may be smoking, drinking, sex, swearing and “substances” in what we’re about to watch. Ye Gods! Substances!

I was delighted to be proved wrong a few years later when the show did come to HBO and Americans did indeed embrace the show. And, to state the obvious, there IS a “tsk tsk” voice in the script, in the person of Edina’s young daughter Saffron or “Saffy” (Julia Sawalha). This relationship lay at the crux of the show’s origins. It was originally a sketch called “Modern Mother and Daughter” on the French and Saunders variety show. The daughter was originally played by Saunders’ comedy partner Dawn French, who’s roughly the same age as Saunders, which would work fine in a sketch, but wouldn’t be sustainable in a sitcom. Fortunately, Sawalha was a brilliant actress (I was about to say “child actress” but she was actually 24 when the show launched, just young looking). And so Saffy was the foil, and it drove a lot of the comedy. The daughter was the mother, and the mother was the daughter. To English audiences it played like the daughter was a scold and the laughs were at her expense. (I always felt the relationship in Sanford and Son, which of course was also based on a British sitcom, was similar. The sensible young person constantly chiding an immature parent). The show is so well written and well acted though, you could put different interpretations on it. You could, if you were so inclined, side with the daughter. Americans also had another pre-existing sitcom they could compare Ab-Fab to, if inexactly. On Family Ties, Alex P. Keaton had been an aspiring businessman whose parents were hippie idealists.

In Absolutely Fabulous, Saffie is a studious, sober and practical kid. Her single mother Edina or Eddie (Saunders) is a party-hard press agent, who traffics in celebrity, moving among musicians and the fashion world. Her partner in crime (they’re joined at the hip) is the gorgeous but aging model Patsy played by soap actress Lumley, a bit of stunt casting that British audiences recognized immediately, for she herself was the stuff of tabloids. Saunders has said that she got the idea for the characters from hanging around with Bananarama when they appeared together at Comic Relief in the late ’80s. Saunders herself is VERY much unlike Edina. On the few occasions when I’ve seen her in other roles the effect has been startling. When I think of Edina and Patsy, I see them in my minds eyes always swimming around on rubbery legs, falling out of cars, tumbling onto sofas, spilling drinks and pills and ashes all over the place. But because of the business they’re in, there’s also all this glamour and pretention and affectation tied to it, name dropping celebrities, and designer labels, and so forth, as though they stepped out of the pages of a magazine. It’s like this whole parade of contemporary pop culture invading a home, where poor Saffy is just trying to do her homework and cook a meal for herself. I’ve always loved that they chose a cover of “This Wheel’s on Fire” from Bob Dylan and the band’s Basement Tapes as the theme song, both for evoking the ’60s, but also the image of a flaming tire rolling down the road — that’s just what these two ladies are like.

It really is one of the best TV sitcoms of all time. In 2016, the cast reunited for a movie version of the show. It wasn’t quite the same. It never is.