Monday 26 September 2016

How Absolutely Fabulous predicted our celeb-obsessed culture

With Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie about to hit our screens, Donal Lynch looks at how the show predicted our celeb-obssessed culture

Donal Lynch

Published 27/06/2016 | 02:30

Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders in 'Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie'.
Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders in 'Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie'.
Ab Fab
Ab Fab: The girls are back
Edina and Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous movie

Even as the invitation landed in my inbox for the first Ab Fab-themed party of the summer, there were "concerns". What if it's not funny anymore? What if we can't deal with canned laughter and Lulu dream sequences? What if all those travelogues have robbed Joanna Lumley of her capacity for channelling Patsy's debaucherous insouciance?

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But then the trailer launched and various clips leaked online and suddenly there was a sound of virtual glasses clinking. There's Graham Norton, there's Joan Collins, and - good God almighty - there's Jon Hamm. With Patsy! "Hi Jonnie, don't you remember me?" she asks in a Dietrich-esque purr. "Oh Christ, you're still alive," he answers, incredulously. So she is, and, with the movie about to be released, the world has finally caught up with Jennifer Saunders's vision.

From predicting the rise of reality TV to satirising conspicuous consumption and the obsession with celebrity culture, Ab Fab's cultural impact was far reaching. It lionised female friendship and made ostentatious fashion a running joke long before Sex and the City. It all but invented the idea of the celebrity cameo - Kate Moss, Minnie Driver and Germaine Greer were among its most memorable walk-ons. It casually included gay and transgender storylines rather than, as Lumley put it, "dragging them along like some great narrative log". It sent up the nascent PR industry, which would soon threaten to consume and control all other media. It predicted that, for a whole generation of people, a midlife crisis wouldn't be so much a difficult moment as a chaotic way of life.

What once appeared to be satire is now purely naturalistic - every decade that has passed since the heyday of the show seems to have made its vision of celebrity excess more and more prescient. Behold, for instance, Kim Kardashian transforming one unfortunate sex tape into a career that saw her create a gargantuan lifestyle brand. Or what about Angelina Jolie displaying her generosity, one third-world orphan at a time? There's Madonna mortifying her kids and squeezing herself into an attention-grabbing mutton-dressed-as-lamb outfit. There's Gwyneth Paltrow launching a series of sex aids. And, oh dear me, isn't the current prime minister of England a former PR? Any one of these could have been moments from an Ab Fab storyboard: instead they are the media reality we live in.

Ab Fab
Ab Fab

There was always a sense that Eddie, a magazine editor, and Patsy, her hard-drinking sidekick, were really just trying to improve themselves, one barmy fad at a time. The characters sent up a world where self-improvement was emerging as the new religion: clean eating, Atkins ("old carcass eating old carcass"), paleo, mindfulness - you know Eddie and Patsy would have been all over these. You might be too posh to push, Eddie would tell you, but have you tried this Eskimo birthing rag? Kate Moss swears by it.

The programme predicted the explosion of branding that would define the noughties. For Eddie and Patsy, Lacroix, Bolly and Gaultier seemed like talismans against any impending disaster. And you know they would have figured out a way to make the hideous belt-tightening of the recession palatable for a photo shoot. Austerity chic, anyone?

Some 20 years before the word 'kidult' was coined, Ab Fab was predicting that parents would start embarrassing their offspring on a scale not seen since Adam and Eve caused the downfall of humanity. You would almost think that Madonna, Lindsay Lohan's mother Dina, Sharon Osbourne and Elton John had studied old footage of the show while developing their parenting style. A whole generation of celebrity children echoed Saffy's lament: "Mum, you're not going out in that."

Ironically, perhaps, the original cast has suffered at the hands of the media revolution they presaged. When I met Joanna Lumley in Dublin a few years ago, she told me she dreaded the reality TV landscape foreshadowed both by Ab Fab and her own travelogues. "It all seems so unbearably bitchy. I can't imagine doing it now," she told me. "It all looks very staged." Even though the original series had long since been cancelled by the time we spoke, Lumley still had people shouting out its catchphrases to her on the street. "Of course at some point I must have said those things, but it was such a long time ago. And sometimes I just stare blankly. We only ever made six episodes of Ab Fab a year. I've met drag queens who were better at doing Patsy than I was. I'm so much quieter than her."

The art of Ab Fab would begin to imitate life in other ways too. Jane Horrocks - the actress who brought to life Edina's ditzy assistant, Bubble - recently claimed she'd named her north London mansion Tesco Towers, after paying for it with the proceeds of the ad campaigns she'd fronted for the supermarket, then complained that its branches were "full of chavs". How hideous, darling.

Jennifer Saunders says she was worried about following up the success of the show with a movie because "wouldn't it be awful if it were awful" but relented after Lumley advised her: "do it before we die; we're on the brink." On the big screen, Edina and Patsy are still the personifications of hard-living glamour ("Patsy basically is a cigarette. Her insides have been eaten away by cocaine and booze, so fags are the only things that keep her going," Lumley told me back when I interviewed her). They navigate their ways around Harvey Nic's and London's trendiest hotspots. Blamed for a major incident at a chic launch party ("you've killed Kate Moss!"), they become entangled in a media storm and are relentlessly pursued by the paparazzi. Fleeing, penniless, to the glamorous playground of the super-rich, the French Riviera, they concoct a plan to make their escape permanent and live the high life in perpetuity. There are dream sequences and more celebrity cameos than you can shake a bottle of Bolly at.

Edina and Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous movie
Edina and Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous movie

More importantly, Patsy's bouffant is miraculously intact, Eddie's body has begun to resemble a bin liner full of designer yoghurt, and the name-dropping reaches epic levels. In short it's irrepressibly, unmistakably, absolutely fabulous.

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie will be released in Irish cinemas on July 1

Ab Fab: The girls are back
Ab Fab: The girls are back

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