'Absolutely Fabulous' is returning for a short series to celebrate the programme’s 20th anniversary.
Jennifer Saunders came to Julia Sawalha in a dream to tell her that there would be a new series of Absolutely Fabulous. "It was about a year ago, and it was really weird, because I knew it was going to come back. In the dream, I was hugging Jennifer, really hugging her, and everyone was just sort of there... Joanna, Jane, June. I woke up and thought: 'That’s it, we’re going to do another Ab Fab.'"
This was about the same time that Saunders was ill with breast cancer, although Sawalha didn’t know she was unwell. “I sent a text, and Ade [Edmonson, Saunders’s husband] replied saying that she had cancer but was coming through it. Seeing her this year, you wouldn’t have known she’d been ill. She’s not the kind of person to wear it on her sleeve. She doesn’t talk about it at all and she looks fit and gorgeous and bouncy and healthy, and exactly the same as she did the last time we filmed an episode eight years ago.”
In Ab Fab, Sawalha plays Saffy Monsoon, the dowdy intellectual embarrassed by the behaviour of her mother, Edina. In real life, she has far more in common with the Saunders character, who chants as she speaks and practises Buddhism “almost religiously”. Early on in our meeting, Sawalha talks about the haunted house she used to live in, in the middle of the woods in Somerset. How was it haunted, I ask. “Oh, just a little bit of paranormal activity, really,” she replies, and there’s quite a lot of it going on in this interview.
“I’m into the law of attraction, and quantum physics,” announces Sawalha, matter-of-factly. “Like cosmic ordering. It’s all about thinking lovely things that you would like in life, and feeling good about them before they manifest, so that by the time they do, you don’t want them because you’re on to your next desire.”
Isn’t that a bit pointless? “It’s our purpose on Earth, to constantly want to evolve and expand. It’s a really good philosophy to use with ex-boyfriends – because instead of resenting them, you are grateful for them helping you to manifest what you do want. You say: 'Thank you so much, because you are helping me create someone so much better.’”
Sawalha, who has dated Alan Davies (her co-star in Jonathan Creek) and Keith Allen (her co-star in Martin Chuzzlewit), is currently single. She broke up with her last boyfriend in 2007. His name was Rich Annetts and she met him at Glastonbury; he lived on a barge in Bath and was described as a “water gipsy”. Naturally. Sawalha says she wasn’t happy about being single for “a while – you know, you do go through times where you feel a bit sorry for yourself?”, but it doesn’t bother her so much now.
“There’s someone I’ve manifested in my vortex, so to speak. That’s the law of attraction – you create this vortex of all the things you want.” She is drinking cranberry juice – she has been teetotal for seven years because “I just couldn’t take the hangovers” – though so far as I can tell, the cranberry juice was ordered conventionally from a waitress rather than cosmically. Anyway, back to what is in this vortex. “I actually have someone there,” she says, “I just haven’t met him yet.” What is he like? “My God, the list is endless. Emotionally available. Not an actor. Just someone who is in alignment with themselves and happy.”
While I didn’t think Sawalha would be pure Saffy, I didn’t expect her to be quite this different, so different that the photographer and I failed even to recognise her at first. We wandered cluelessly around the hotel bar until a mini-woman tapped me on the shoulder and said “Excuse me” in a sarf London accent, “I’m Julia.”
Really? Is she sure? Sawalha is 43 but looks half that age, and her hair is like a magnificent glossy headpiece from a shampoo advert. There is not a hint of curl in it, not even a slight kink or wave – it is dead straight and so shiny that if a very bright light were to be reflected off it, you would be temporarily blinded. And it occurs to me, as I admire her voluminous fringe, that if Sawalha tried any harder not to look like Saffy she would probably be sitting here in a pair of sunglasses with a baseball cap pulled down over her face.
Three new episodes of Absolutely Fabulous, to be screened over Christmas, were filmed in September. “They had a slight fit when I walked in and said 'Is your hair going to stay like that?’” Immediately, Sawalha was transported back to the early Nineties, when she “partied like a wild animal because everybody thought I was Saffy. I used to go to a lot of gay clubs and drag queens used to grab me and say 'Darrrrling, I want to do a makeover on you’, even though I was perfectly made up and smothered in glitter anyway.”
Poor Julia has spent most of her adult life living in the shadow of Saffy. Born in London, her Jordanian father, Nadim, is an actor and writer (he starred in the BBC drama Dangerfield) while her older sister, Nadia, used to be in EastEnders. Julia’s career pre-dated Ab Fab – she was big with kids during the Eighties when she starred in the ITV show Press Gang, about a group of teenagers who produced a newspaper – and she has since starred in a host of dramas, including Lark Rise to Candleford, as Dorcas Lane. “It was one of the most glamorous roles I’ve ever played. I was swathed in silk and gold.” Dorcas was a transitional role, but it is still Saffy with which everybody associates her.
Sawalha remembers being “utterly terrified” when she first went up for the role in Ab Fab. She thought everybody would hate her. “When we first had the audience in to film the first series I couldn’t breathe.” The success of the programme “shocked” Sawalha. “I never really took it in and I never really absorbed it.”
So she was, as she puts it, “reticent” when Saunders told her Ab Fab would be coming back to celebrate the programme’s 20th anniversary. “I really wanted to work with everyone again, but I was concerned that maybe the characters might have changed too much. But then I thought: 'Why turn down the chance to work with a group of girls you love?’ So I just got over it. Jennifer told me a couple of ideas she had for it, and I just roared with laughter. I had to do it.”
Sadly, Sawalha cannot tell me what happens in the new episodes. There has also been talk of an Ab Fab film, but she says she doesn’t know much about it. What would her dream job be? “Let’s fast forward straight to my vortex,” she smiles. “I want to be in The Hobbit. I love fantasy and mythical adventure films. I believe in fairies, and angels. I believe in nature’s spirit, that there are other realms, other planets, life forms. But this article is going to make me look like a nut job, so I think I better stop there.”
The first of three 'Absolutely Fabulous’ episodes is on Christmas Day on BBC One at 10pm