Although I never intended this blog to be an “encyclopaedia” of women working in comedy, I was thinking the other day that I should really get around to writing more about Jennifer Saunders… partly because she’s such a prolific writer and performer in her own right, but also because she’s so generous when it comes to sharing her spotlight with other funny ladies. So imagine my delight when I spotted a VHS boxset of Absolutely Fabulous (Series 1-4) in a charity shop, on sale for just two English pounds! Bargain! As it turns out, the collection is slightly incomplete by design, because the BBC broadcast a special (“The Last Shout”) between the third and fourth series, which isn’t included… presumably the Beeb were hoping that their customers would be so distracted by the shiny silver lettering on the lovely purple box, that they wouldn’t notice the continuity issues? Hmmm…
I have a definite memory of crushing on Saunders in the The Supergrass (1985), when I saw it back in my video rental days… although I can’t remember anything about the film itself (besides Adrian Edmondson fretting on a dreary beach). I was too young to catch shows like The Comic Strip Presents and The Young Ones first time around, but I saw the repeats at a fairly formative age, so I hope they’ve had an impact on my own sense of humour. They were what I’d classify as “punk comedy”… like a Derek Jarman flick with more pratfalls! They were spiky and energetic, and they didn’t shy away from shoving the viewers’ noses into the uglier and seamier corners of British culture. They had a blistering, “anarchic” energy, and a compulsion to spit in the face of the comedy “establishment”. So, yay for that. AbFab is a more conventional sitcom than The Young Ones was (in the sense that there aren’t any talking puppets or magical wardrobes), but it still has plenty of rough, unvarnished edges, and a slightly bratty, satirical bite to it. I admire Saunders for keeping that experimental spirit alive, even as the show gained a wider audience and became a household name. It’s pretty obvious from the fancy location shoots that the show had a decent budget behind it from the outset, since French & Saunders (the sketch show which spawned this series) was already such a popular fixture in the schedules… but I doubt anyone could have predicted just how successful AbFab would become, on a global scale. Judging the series purely on the basis of the four tapes I have, I’d say it got a lot funnier and stronger as it went along… but it never really settled down into a rut. There would always be a disorienting flashback (or flash-forward) waiting around the corner to trip you up, just as you were getting comfortable with the “dysfunctional family bantering in a kitchen” dynamic. I also admire the way Saunders would toss in obscure references and cameos, drawn from the pop-culture of previous decades, without worrying whether younger audience members would catch them or appreciate them.
The weird thing for me watching the show was that there are so many scenes where ‘Eddy’ is dressed in tight, revealing clothing and the camera will linger for a close-up, prompting the audience to roar with laughter. Obviously I appreciate the joke about her dressing “too young” for her age, and agree that most of the outfits she wore were hideously garish… but still, my initial reaction was usually more along the lines of “Hotcha!” than “Ha ha!”. I guess I’ve got a thing for “zaftig” women, so all the jokes about her being fat and needing to diet irked me a little… I thought she looked fantastic! But props to Saunders for throwing herself into such an unflattering role… then literally throwing herself down staircases and rolling out of car doors! It’s no wonder she started taking such long breaks between series… if only to let the bruises heal! I’m not sure how much comedy Joanna Lumley had done before AbFab… I only really knew her as ‘Purdey’, from the least interesting iteration of The Avengers… but she gives a fantastic performance as ‘Patsy’, playing her as a cross between a scheming “wicked witch” and a drug-sniffing meerkat. The script gives her some great put-downs to snidely spit out at people, but she also does some hilarious physical business, stumbling her way through any number of altered physical and mental states. I was already a fan of Julia Sawalha when the show first started, thanks to her fine work in Press Gang, so I immediately felt sympathetic towards the character of ‘Saffy’… although in retrospect, she comes off as slightly snarky and smug. I suppose it’s understandable, considering how she was raised (or rather, how she had to raise herself), and in reality I’d be firmly on her side, standing slumped shoulder-to-shoulder with her… but as a comedy character, she’s far less fun to be around than the others are, so it’s hard not to side with Eddy when she tries to loosen her daughter up a little. June Whitfield, of course, was a veteran of cosy suburban sitcoms of the 70s, so it makes perfect sense that she would play Eddy’s slightly culture-shocked mother… although exactly how “confused” she actually was, is a matter for some conjecture. It’s frequently suggested that she’s simply feigning dementia to annoy her daughter… who also has a compulsion towards dropping inappropriate malapropisms… and Whitfield is clearly having fun with the role, so it’s hard to say for certain whether the irritation she causes is intentional. Her kleptomania, on the other hand, is pretty blatant and ballsy! Jane Horrocks, I’ve already raved about elsewhere, but lord how I love to hear that Lancastrian accent of hers… even when she’s just talking gibberish, or over-enunciating a list of random celebrities!
As for the semi-recurring and cameo characters, there are almost too many to list… although, obviously I am going to try. Every episode seemed to be stuffed with famous faces… and minor characters were often given their own little showcase rants, which had nothing to do with the main story at all. This was most apparent in ep 2.4, which not only featured Patsy’s regular fashionista gal-pals, ‘Fleur’ and ‘Catriona’ (Harriet Thorpe and Helen Lederer, respectively), but also a sweary travel writer played by Jo Brand, a nervous layout artist played by Meera Syal, and an old friend of Eddy’s named ‘Bettina’, played by Miranda Richardson! That’s almost too much talent for one episode to contain! Other notables include the legendary Eleanor Bron as Patsy’s bohemian mother… Naoko Mori as Saffy’s long-suffering friend ‘Sarah’… Mo Gaffney as ‘Bo’, the on-again-off-again American girlfriend of Eddy’s ex-husband, ‘Marshal’… Kathy Burke as ‘Magda’, Patsy’s brusque cockney editor… Helena Bonham Carter as Eddy’s dream-version of Saffy… Suzi Quatro as a rockin’ dream-nurse… Rebecca Front as a random hot-tub bimbo… Celia Imrie as ‘Claudia Bing’, Eddy’s smarmy professional rival… Josie Lawrence as a shopping channel presenter… Erin O’Connor as a slightly wooden version of herself (bless)… Emma Pierson as an actress playing Saffy in her autobiographical play… and Ruby Wax as a couple of different characters, including a member of “Menopausals Anonymous”. Phew!