Sunday 26 January 2020

Joanna Lumley: Absolutely Fabulous will steal Christmas day

Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley in Ab Fab
Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley in Ab Fab

Tessa Gibbs

Joanna Lumley talks about the boozy return of Patsy and Edina in Absolutely Fabulous this Christmas

In a hushed studio at BBC Television Centre in west London, Joanna Lumley is hurling great wodges of banknotes into the air. Or rather, her character, Patsy Stone, is. It has now been so long since Absolutely Fabulous first hit our screens that in this reunion episode of the sitcom, which leads BBC One’s evening viewing on Christmas Day, Patsy has collected her pension. And, with characteristic abandon, she is literally throwing the money around

The thought of Patsy as an OAP is a sobering one for Ab Fab fans. The series began in 1992, and millions remember it as a glamorous, champagne-swilling totem of their early adulthood.

And it has played a more-than-usually central role in my own life: Lumley’s son, Jamie, is my husband, and the first time I met my mother-in-law-to-be was at another Ab Fab recording in 2001. All I remember, apart from my crippling anxiety, was that she complimented my boots.

She and I, as well as its original fans, have moved on since then. But, says Lumley, who is now 65, the cast have had little difficulty in recreating the show’s trademark mayhem. “Feeling wildly under-rehearsed helps,” she confides after recording finishes.

From the studio audience, it all looks terribly efficient. But Lumley says that it has been a hair-raising week: recording is taking place on a Friday evening, and on Monday, there wasn’t even a script.

She explains that Jennifer Saunders – who writes the series as well as co-starring as Patsy’s best friend Edina Monsoon – likes it “not just when her face is up against the wall, but when she is literally paper thin and plastered to it”.

It’s enough to give Jon Plowman, the veteran BBC comedy executive who came up with the idea for this reunion, even more grey hair. He acts as the studio-audience warm-up guy, telling us all at the start to “make friends with your neighbours, because it’s going to be a long night”. His patter would conventionally be done by a comedian. “But they don’t use aspiring redcoats any more, because of all these BBC cuts,” he says and gets the night’s first laugh.

But it’s nothing compared to the hysteria that greets Patsy as she slopes on to the stage. Many of the audience are so young that they must have been in nursery when Ab Fab first aired. “Their mothers bought the boxed sets and told them they would love it,” says Lumley. “And they did.”

Nothing has greatly changed in the Monsoon household, where Ab Fab’s stories have usually unfolded. The set is the familiar basement kitchen. But the frames of reference are different. Stella McCartney has replaced Christian Lacroix as Eddie’s favourite designer. Bubble, her eccentric assistant played by Jane Horrocks, now struggles with an iPad. And in a dream sequence, Eddie meets Sarah Lund, the Danish detective from The Killing – actress Sofie Gråbøl flew over especially from Copenhagen to shoot her hilarious cameo.

“I think that, in these austere times, there’s something escapist about the colour and glamour and sheer insanity of Edina and Patsy’s world,” says Lumley. “People tend to say they’re like Edina and Patsy best when they’re drinking themselves into a coma. They’re loved because they have no brakes.”

It’s Patsy and Edina’s abiding friendship which Lumley feels underpins her onscreen chemistry with Saunders – combined with her desire to make Saunders laugh. “When we first met I thought the only thing I can do is to try and do something that she thinks is funny,” says Lumley.

Her impromptu “Patsyisms” between takes – be they with a cigarette or a bottle of vodka – entertain Saunders as much as the audience. There’s now talk of an Absolutely Fabulous film, and Lumley is enthusiastic. “People say films from sitcoms are catastrophic, but I think people would love it,” she says.

When we are finally disgorged, it’s easy to forget that this show is Christmas fare (there are two further shows after Christmas Day).

Patsy isn’t a fan of Christmas. When we saw her on Christmas Day in 2003, after three decades of not eating solids, she nearly choked on a slice of turkey. But the years have mellowed her on this count at least. “Christmas,” pronounces Lumley, “would be good now as long as Patsy and Eddie are with each other – and not stuck in some stifling family get-together.”

Absolutely Fabulous is on BBC One on Christmas Day at 10.00pm

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top