4 min

Infinite Bitchery

Comic monsters touch eternal truths

BOLLY & STOLLY. Ab Fab's Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley serve up another cool round of delicious debauchery." Credit: xtra files

When the hit British comedy series Absolutely Fabulous ceased production six years ago nobody thought it would be resurrected. The Brits like to go out on top and, Coronation Street aside, seldom drag series out for years on end the way the US tend to do. Like Fawlty Towers before it, Ab Fab seemed destined for high-end cult status and endless mimicry by beehived drag queens murmuring “Sweetie darling.”

But you can’t keep good women down, especially when they’re as bad as Pats and Eddy, the lecherous harridans who drank, shopped and fucked their way into the hearts of millions during the original 18 episodes of Absolutely Fabulous in the early 1990s.

Jennifer Saunders, who plays Edina and writes the series, was working on another show starring the same cast but as different characters when the Ab Fab characters reentered her mind. From there it was but a short skip and a jump to writing six more episodes. The new shows debuted on the BBC in August and make their debut here Tue, Nov 2 on The Comedy Network.

The characters haven’t changed much since their debut in 1992. Edina has moved into TV production and Patsy has been promoted to managing editor of a glossy magazine, but they still refuse to act their age.

In fact, Patsy has dropped a few years. She’s down to 42.

“She lies through her teeth,” says Joanna Lumley, who plays Patsy, on the phone from London where she and Saunders are doing a photo shoot for a US TV magazine. “She’s clearly well into her 60s. She’s had serious surgery inside and outside. She’s quite a lot older than Edina but she’s never really admitted to it. She’s got an older sister who’s in her 70s, so I think Patsy is 60-something.”

Lumley, who says she’s 55 and married (to composer Stephen Barlow), is as charming as Patsy is ruthless. She talks about her bad-ass alter ego like a long lost friend.

“I think her mind is beginning to go slightly from all the substances she’s taken and the amount she’s drunk. You can’t get away with it forever. Her bones have turned to paper.

“She used to live above any old wine store where she could manage to find a place amongst the boxes and sleep there. That’s all gone, and now she’s living like a sort of dog in the bottom of the [Edina’s] house, skulking in and out.”

But age cannot wither the Ab Fab girls, nor custom stale their infinite bitchery. If anything they’re ruder than ever, especially when it comes to celebrities and society’s toxic obsession with the rich and famous. Stars like Twiggy and model Erin O’Connor who actually appear in the series fare reasonably well. But those who don’t are ripped to shreds. Yoko Ono is a wall of hair: “You couldn’t tell where the pubes ended and the feet started,” quips Patsy, while Mick Jagger is a “jumping old scrotum with lips.”

Surprisingly, most celebs seem to get the humour. “I can’t remember anybody saying they didn’t want to be on the show,” says Lumley.

Saunders writes all the episodes herself, but the cast must share some of the blame for the resulting debauchery. They rehearse and run-through each episode for five days before taping it in front of live audience, so there’s lots of time to kick the material around.

“It’s fairly fluid until it’s set in concrete, if you know what I mean,” says Lumley. What results is a quintessentially British series filled with incomprehensible British references (Who the heck is Carol Vorderman?) that somehow crosses the cultural divide.

When David Letterman interviewed one of the Ab Fab-ers during a visit to London several years ago, he looked absolutely bemused. (“I don’t think, in his defence, that he had seen Absolutely Fabulous,” says Lumley.) But everyone else seems to get it, not despite the fact that Pats and Eddy are bona fide monsters, but precisely because of it.

“Most people [characters] I do aren’t quite as bad as this one,” says Lumley. In her career, she’s played a really nice gold-digger in A Rather English Marriage, a villainess in James And The Giant Peach and a sexy crime fighter in the widely distributed New Avengers. “I don’t think anybody is quite as bad as Patsy.”

But badness has its appeal, apparently. Drag queens love Patsy, says Lumley, because she’s tall, broad shouldered and easy to imitate. “Big hair, lots of red mouth, cigarette, glass – you get her quite quickly. I think that’s quite fun… which is why we get some fabulous gay Patsy people.” The Sydney Mardi Gras has entire floats dedicated to her.

Ordinary folks like these irascible characters, too. Lumley and Saunders are constantly approached by people who think they have a daughter like Saffy, a friend like Patsy or a personality like Edina’s. “I think there is something about a comic monster,” says Lumley. “They’re not just ludicrous. In amongst the highly coloured nature of their lives, I think there is an eternal truth.”

Two of the great comic creations of recent years, Pats and Eddy have already entered the realm of myth and a life beyond the constraints of mere script. Even the show’s famous tag line has escaped its handlers. Patsy never says, “Sweetie darling.” It’s Eddy’s alone.

“But in that lovely strange way that nobody ever said ‘Come and see me sometime’ or whatever it is,” says Lumley, “‘Sweetie darling’ has become the catch phrase. So when people say to me in the street, ‘Say Sweetie darling,’ I do. But I don’t think Patsy has ever said it.”

The last episode of the original 18 was called “The Last Shout.” Don’t you believe it.