“This is the ‘Ab Fab’ we know and love, but it has now opened up onto a believable, cinematic scale. We’ve given it an uplift, I suppose. And the effect that that creates is that it makes the audience feel that they are somehow, more than ever, living Patsy and Eddy’s experiences alongside them.’’
26-years after Ab Fab became a cultural phenomenon on television, the hedonistic ‘sweetie darling’ duo invade the big screen with their Absolutely Fabulous larger than life movie.
Once again, outrageous and sensational style, sassy sensibility, and warped wit is back in fashion and destined to dazzle a new generation of filmgoers, and regenerate their swarm of loyal fanatics.
In a sense, it is essential to have an Ab Fab mindset to fully comprehend the influence and fearless attitude it passed on to those who were bewitched by its magical spell, giving everyone the right be be their own person and defy traditional conventions.
It all began when the acidic wit and controversial humor of master British satirist Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders surfaced with French and Saunders.
It satisfied the appetite of TV viewers who were looking for entertainment that dared to be different and challenged fixed cultural mindsets, resulting in the creation of the outrageous Little Britain and deliciously dark League of Gentleman.
Sweetie Darling: Twenty Five Years of “Absolutely Fabulous”
In 1990, Jennifer Saunders and her comedy partner Dawn French were writing the scripts for the third series of their hit TV show, “French and Saunders”, when they came up with a sketch about a mad, ‘modern’ mother, an ex-hippy called Adriana – as played by Saunders – and her sad, straight-laced daughter, as played by French.
One year later, in 1991, French and Saunders were preparing to film their fourth series. Studios had been booked at the BBC and the show’s longtime director, Bob Spiers, was in place. Just as the girls – who had been comedy collaborators since meeting at drama school in the late 70’s – were about to get down to writing the series, Dawn French and her then husband, Lenny Henry, got the phone call they had been awaiting hopefully for years; a baby girl was ready for adoption. Work had to be put on hold.
It was at this point that Saunders got a call from her longtime agent, Maureen Vincent, wondering if there were anything else that she could think of that might fill the studio slot? For Saunders, who had never considered writing anything on her own, this was a terrifying suggestion. Encouraged by her husband, fellow writer and comedian Adrian Edmondson, Saunders had a think about what on earth she could write. It was then that she came back to the idea of the modern mother Adriana, who she would rename Edina “Eddy” Monsoon. “I had enjoyed writing and playing the character,” she says. “I could speak her easily, which made the writing easier, indeed possible.”
Saunders – who got the idea for Eddy’s job from Lynne Franks, then London’s hottest fashion PR – wrote a treatment, and the wheels started to turn. Jon Plowman, the “French & Saunders” producer (who went on to become the Head of Comedy Entertainment at the BBC), liked the idea and encouraged her to go away and write a pilot. Saunders scribbled the pilot – ‘Fashion’ on an A4 notebook. In it, Eddy wakes up on the day of her big fashion show to a hangover and a guilt trip from her daughter, Saffy. Along with her best friend, Patsy, Eddy turns the show into a rousing success and, the next morning, she and Patsy trick Saffy into thinking that Eddy is going to check into rehab.
Originally broadcast on the BBC in 1992, “Absolutely Fabulous”, or “Ab Fab” as it would come to be known, aired to instant acclaim. Patsy and Eddy shocked and delighted in equal measure, Saffy made our toes curl and gave the show a heart, Mother knocked us dead with her withering one liners and Bubble made us laugh out loud with her surreal inefficiency.
It was a show that had something for everyone: a dysfunctional family, a die-hard friendship and a huge, outrageous sense of fun.
“The characters in ‘Ab Fab’ – and it is a concept that is driven by its characters – are a cartoon version of all of us,” says Saunders. “And I think, at the end of the day, people like to laugh at themselves and not take life too seriously. If I had to say why the show was a success, I would say that it was because it was a license not to have to behave. Patsy and Eddy are awful, sad human beings, but they enjoy themselves hugely. Plus, they are each other’s greatest ally. My main experience over these past god knows how many years is that people come up to me and say ‘I’ve got a Patsy, I’ve got an Eddy. They are just like me and my mate.’ And, do you know what, everyone likes to have a little double act, a friend who supports them, who they can have a laugh with. Because that is what family, in its strongest possible sense, is and should be. And that’s all any of us want from life, really. That, and to have fun, to have a laugh, and not take it all too seriously.”
Riding high on its runaway popularity, “Absolutely Fabulous” – which was also bought by the Comedy Central in the US in 1994 – ran for three series, from 1992 to 1995 (winning the BAFTA Award for Best Comedy Series in 1993).
In 1996, a two-part television film entitled “The Last Shout” was to be its finale. But the world wanted more and, between 2001 and 2004, two further series and three one-off specials aired.
Seven years later, in 2011, Saunders once again bowed to public demand with two further hour-long specials on Christmas Day 2011 and New Year’s Day 2012, both directed by Mandie Fletcher. A further special aired to coincide with the 2012 London Summer Olympics (also directed by Fletcher, and for which Saunders won a Best Actress BAFTA) – was to be the last.
But four years, and much lobbying later, Saunders has finally given the world what it has really been waiting for: Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie.
Hedging her bets; bringing “Ab Fab” to the big screen
“You keep meeting people and they keep enjoying it, but it was Joanna Lumley who finally forced me into it,” says the arch-procrastinator, Jennifer Saunders, a woman much happier sweeping her terrace or cleaning her keyboard than she is actually sitting down to write.
“She put it very simply, and very brilliantly. She simply said ‘You must write it, darling. Otherwise we will all be dead and we won’t have made the film.’And I love hanging out with Joanna, and I love being with the other cast members, and I knew that we could have a lot of fun.”
Around the same time, Saunders was recording her Radio 2 Christmas show with her old friend and collaborator, Dawn French. When French asked her, live on air, what her New Year’s Resolution was, Saunders (who had recently published her autobiography “Bonkers: My Life in Laughs”) replied that she was determined to finally write the script for the film version of “Ab Fab”. French, who had heard it all before, spotted an opportunity.
“She said that, if I hadn’t written the script by the same time the following year, I would have to pay her £10,000,” Saunders remembers. French & Saunders shook on it and the deal was done. “I was pretty confident that I would have written it by the summer,” says Saunders.
One year later, on the eve of recording their end of year 2014 show, Saunders realised, in a blind panic, that she hadn’t fulfilled her side of the bet.
“I had such a mental block about writing it,” she admits, “I just couldn’t quite see it yet.” Not wanting to suffer the indignity of losing the bet, not to mention the £10,000, Saunders quickly banged out the first 30 pages of a 90 page script. On the blank 60 pages, she simply wrote “Blah, blah, blah”, hoping that French might not notice.
On the day of the recording, as she handed over the unfinished script, Saunders was “actually sweating and panicking.” When the recording had finished, her comedy partner came up to her and said “That’s not the script.”
“This was just before Christmas and I argued that I had until New Year,” Saunders remembers.
“I promised her that, by New Year’s Day, she would have a finished script.” Over the next couple of weeks, Saunders continued to flesh out a version of the script and emailed it to her comedy partner, knowing full well that French was a luddite who didn’t do email and “would probably never get round to reading it.”
Still, Saunders had kept her side of the bargain and, by then, the word was out. “Most movies are a script in search of some money,” explains Jon Plowman, who had produced all five series and seven specials of Ab Fab over the years.
“But this was more a case of some money in search of a script. From the minute the word got out that Jennifer was contemplating writing the film of ‘Ab Fab’, lots of financers threw their hats in the ring. It was what the world had been waiting on for years.” Both Plowman and Saunders are particularly happy that BBC Films have a stake in the film. “The BBC is where the show started, ”says Saunders. “We owe them a lot.”
Albeit a little unwittingly, Saunders was now committed. She was not without her worries.
“I felt, what I’d always felt, which is that it wouldn’t be enough to make a film version of the TV show, because that was just an excuse to make jokes for half an hour. No, the film had to be something different, something bigger. It had to be relevant. It had to be about Patsy and Eddy now and the reality of how their life would have panned out. And that reality, let’s face it, was always going to be quite sad.”
In a world which is “running away with itself”, Eddy has become an anomaly. “She has always been an enthusiast for the new but, in an age of social media, everyone is onto everything before she can be,” says Saunders. “The world has left her behind, in a way. She’s become slightly irrelevant and behind the bounce. Neither she nor Patsy is savvy enough or hip enough – because they never were, let’s face it – to keep up.”
The subject of aging in the modern world was something of particular interest to Saunders, herself now a grandmother of two. “Eddy and Patsy don’t know how to grow old, in the way that none of us seem to these days,” she says.
“In cave man times, we would all have been dead by the time we were thirty. Now, we flap about until we are 70, 80, even 90 and we don’t know what to do because biologically we should just be dead. And we haven’t got this extra brain or gene that tells us how to live to be old. We used to just disappear into the twilight without spectacles but now we can have laser surgery and we don’t know what to do. We don’t just not know how to grow old gracefully; we don’t know how to grow old at all. It’s like we’ve lost the ability to stop wearing trainers.”
No one more so than Eddy and Patsy. “They refuse to give up,” says Saunders. “They can’t, and won’t, ever admit to being old. Ever. So they have to find a different dream; they have to retreat into the past, into something sentimental and nostalgic that they love and know. And, for them, that is the idea of the South of France, of somewhere halcyon where their idea of glamour is still clinging on for dear life.”
Saunders herself is baffled by the modern world. “To me, keeping up with Facebook and Instagram and Twitter is a whole day’s work,” she says. “I don’t know how not to trail through other people’s worlds of children and dead friends and dog videos before I get to someone I actually know.”
To her mind, the 21st century – with its earnest, faddy twittering – is just as ripe for a swipe as it ever was. And what more powerful symbol of its antithesis than Kate Moss? “Kate represents the old souls,” explains Saunders. “No, she’s not going to give an interview, no, she’s not on social media and yes, she’s still bloody gorgeous. Kate Moss is the one person that defies everything about the modern world and that is precisely why the world loves her. It is certainly why Patsy and Eddy love her. She is the one that they would like to live like. Because she has fun, and she doesn’t play by the rules, and she manages to be herself, however she wants to be, and gets more beautiful with every day that goes by. She doesn’t age or fade; she blazes a glorious, rebellious trail and, in the sweetest, coolest, most gorgeous way pays no heed to what anyone thinks.”
The secret to the success of “Absolutely Fabulous” has been its refusal to play by the rules. “It was the first time, on screen, that women were seen behaving badly,” says Jane Horrocks (Bubble), who originally auditioned for the part of Saffy, and then created her own, fabulously kooky character in Bubble. “When Patsy and Eddy came along, women the world over felt that they had been given permission to get arseholed and have a laugh. They were such a breath of fresh air; such a brilliant, funny relief.”
Patsy and Eddy do what most of us would like to do but that which we don’t quite have the guts to do. And now, on the big screen, their glorious misbehaving is going to be amplified. But Saunders was determined that, along the way, there needed to be a moment of reckoning. No victory can be sweet if there isn’t a lot to lose.
“I wanted to make sure that Eddy was driven – and, by driven, I mean quite literally driven – into a moment of comeuppance. Her awful moment is the moment that she looks at who she is, and who she has been, and what the future holds, and almost embarrasses herself into saying that she loves someone.”
But Patsy and Eddy will never lose. They can’t lose because at the end of the day their audience wants to see them win. Firstly, because of their friendship, which is a thick and thin union that has lasted longer and more joyously than most marriages of the same length. And secondly because, in their boundless optimism and resolute refusal to be anything but themselves, they provide the perfect comic tonic to real life.
“The truth is that times are quite dark,” says Joanna Lumley. “People are tired and lives can sometimes feel dull. But Patsy and Eddy don’t feel that. They are positive forces, life forces, forces for fun. And they believe that, whatever happens to them, they are going to survive and come out on top.”
From sitcom to cinema; painting the bigger picture
“This is ‘Ab Fab’ on a completely different scale,”says producer Damian Jones. “Fans of the TV show are in for quite a treat because they are going to get all the outrageousness and hilarity that they first fell in love with, wrapped up in a very glamorous package.”
Filming on Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie began in October 2015. From the outset, the team behind the film were determined that its denouement should take place on the Cote d’Azur.
“Patsy and Eddy are wildly hedonistic creatures and to them the South of France is a sort of nirvana,” explains Jon Plowman. “It’s got all the ingredients for their sort of good life – yachts, sea, sun, booze, hotels that are beyond the dreams of ordinary mortals where drinking huge amounts of champagne before breakfast is absolutely the done thing. It’s the life that they have been looking for since 1991, when we made the first pilot for the series.”
“Our ultimate aim was to open the TV series – which largely took place in the closed set of Edina’s house – up into 360 degrees,” Harry Banks explains.
“This is the ‘Ab Fab’ we know and love, but it has now opened up onto a believable, cinematic scale. We’ve given it an uplift, I suppose. And the effect that that creates is that it makes the audience feel that they are somehow, more than ever, living Patsy and Eddy’s experiences alongside them. We can drive with them up to Eddy’s house, follow them down the stairs into the kitchen, go with them to a party, cruise with them on a yacht. It’s the same ‘Ab Fab’ we know and love, but now it’s in Technicolor.”
“It was very simple, really,” says Mandie Fletcher. “We wanted it to look, and feel, like a glass of champagne on a dark day. We’ve given it the gloss, the glitz and the glamour that it deserves.”
All the J’s; the “Ab Fab” Family
“It was basically just like Christmas every day,” says producer Jon Plowman of the joys of reuniting the original “Ab Fab” family.
Getting the gang together was, in many ways, the easiest part of the filming process. “We all hoped it was going to happen at some point because the longing for it was just so colossal,” says Jane Horrocks.
All the J’s – Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley, Julia Sawalha, Jane Horrocks, June Whitfield (and Jon Plowman) – have been a family for longer than a lot of their new, younger audience demographic have been alive. Having worked together on and off for twenty five years, on five series and seven specials, they know every aspect of each other’s characters – both in fiction and in reality. “The great thing about having a success is it means you can do more of what you’re doing, make more of what you’ve been making,” explains Saunders. “We all became a family, and there is no better feeling than going into something knowing that people you love will be there.”
“We are safe as houses, the five of us,” says Joanna Lumley. “We know that. We know each other. We know each other’s characters. And we know our audience. I am sure I speak for all of us when I say that we have all adored being back together again.”
“It does feel that we just lock back into how we were twenty years ago,” says Helen Lederer, who plays Catriona. “Some anxieties, some joys, always gossip.” June Whitfield (Mother), who celebrated her 90th birthday during filming, says “I couldn’t have asked for anything nicer.”
“We are all very different, but we have all – crucially – got the same sense of humour,” says Julia Sawalha. “We are all very relaxed and pretty normal people, actually. We haven’t got high demands. At the end of the day, I would much rather sit with my lovely colleagues than in a trailer on my own with a fan heater blowing in my face and an iPad.”
After years of togetherness, Saunders and Lumley are a particularly sharp double act.
“Some of my happiest times have been sitting in costume with Joanna, having conversations in character that just make us pee,” says Saunders.
“She is a seriously funny person and the joy is that she is not remotely precious. I love working with her. Just being Eddy and Patsy is, to me, like a kind of mindfulness. If I could just do Eddy and Patsy for ten minutes a day, I’d probably be absolutely sorted; getting out all that laughter and all that angst and saying things you are never usually allowed to say. Once I’d done that, I could just continue on a cloud of loveliness. The greatest thing, for me, is that there has never been anywhere we couldn’t go with the characters and, on the film, this was amplified.”
For their chemistry to work at its highest possible frequency, all the J’s – most particularly Saunders, Lumley and Plowman – felt that it was essential to work with a director who could speak their language. From the outset, the award-winning director Mandie Fletcher seemed the only girl for the job.
Fletcher – whose top-drawer comedy credits include “Blackadder” and “Only Fools and Horses” – had previously worked with Saunders on three series of “Jam and Jerusalem” as well as on three 20th Anniversary Specials of “Absolutely Fabulous”. “She’s fast, she’s brilliant and, most crucially, she’s got a great sense of humour,” says Saunders. The admiration is certainly mutual. “I’m desperately fond of Jennifer,” says Mandie Fletcher.
“She’s not just a terrific writer, but she’s also an extraordinary performer. With most performers, you get a good performance, but it’s grounded. But there’s something about Jennifer where, if you give her a moment, she’ll cut the strings and float above. Plus, she now has a confidence in herself which, I believe, has made for something very special in this film, because she’s touching as well. This film is not just all about broad comedy, about falling over and getting drunk. There’s an honesty and a truth which underlies the whole thing, and that gives it a consequence.”
With Fletcher at the helm, the rest of the family fell very easily, and obviously, into place. Every key Head of Department – Production Designer Harry Banks, Costume Designer Rebecca Hale and Hair and Makeup Designer Christine Cant – all worked on the TV series of “Absolutely Fabulous” in some capacity. And even those who weren’t part of the original “Ab Fab” family – Director of Photography Chris Goodger and Editor Gavin Buckley – have significant collaboration history with Mandie Fletcher.
For those new to the “Ab Fab” family, every day was pure joy. “Every day, there was huge amounts of laughter,” says producer Damian Jones. “Because, most crucially, there is a strong chance that this will be the Ab Fab finale, that this will be the end of the series as we know it, so everyone has given it their absolute all. It has been a real labour of love.”
“At the end of the day, there’s something quintessentially British about ‘Ab Fab’,” says Damian Jones. “It celebrates every aspect of our culture, but most crucially, our tendency not to take ourselves too seriously.”
“One day, we’ll all be dead,” says Saunders. “So I say, let’s just all enjoy every single blooming minute as much as we possibly can, for as long as we possibly can.”