10 Fabulous Facts About Absolutely Fabulous
By Garin Pirnia
In the early 1990s, long before it was acceptable for women on TV to act in a juvenile manner, BBC scored a major hit with Absolutely Fabulous, a.k.a. Ab Fab, which featured two British women who behaved badly—chain-smoking and abusing drugs and alcohol. Jennifer Saunders played Edina, a publicist who said “sweetie darling” a lot and raised a mature-for-her-age daughter, Saffy (Julia Sawalha). Edina’s best friend was Patsy (Joanna Lumley), a model-turned-fashion magazine director who donned a beehive hairdo and came out as transgender (and also said “sweetie darling” a lot). She also enjoyed the booze, and asked important questions like, “Who dies in their own vomit these days? Nobody.” Edina’s nameless mother (June Whitfield) and Eddy’s personal assistant, Bubble (Jane Horrocks), also added flavor to the show.
The story began in 1990 when Saunders and Dawn French were a part of sketch TV show French and Saunders. Saunders did an eight-minute skit as Edina and French played Saffy. A few years later, while on hiatus from the show, Saunders jotted down the idea for what would become the pilot for Ab Fab. “At the beginning it was all about Saffy and Edina, because when I first wrote it, Patsy was a sort of add-on character who supported Edina in her awfulness,” Saunders told Out Magazine. “But actually I just love working in a double act.”
The series originally aired off and on between 1992 and 2003, with a total of eight specials sprinkled between 1996 and 2012 (including a 2012 Summer Olympics special). In 2016, Fox Searchlight distributed Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, written by Saunders. The film revived the debauched antics of the friends and included an opening sequence in which Edina accidently killed Kate Moss. Here are 10 fabulous facts about the series.
1. JENNIFER SAUNDERS BASED THE SHOW'S CHARACTERS ON REAL PEOPLE.
By the time Saunders created the sketch on French and Saunders, designer fashion was becoming more widespread, and she knew a fashion publicist. “I thought, ‘That’s a genius job for a sitcom character,’ so we did her as a sketch,” Saunders told Lena Dunham during an interview with Lenny. “We also had another friend who had an absolutely bonkers mother who was eccentric and wild, and me and Dawn just combined the two.” Patsy was originally a “low-life journalist,” but Lumley’s background as a model helped shaped the character into someone who was more polished.
2. IT DEVELOPED A DEVOTED FOLLOWING IN THE GAY COMMUNITY.
When discussing the series, Saunders told V Magazine that the reason the show was such a hit with the gay community is because "[gay people] refused to be offended—and I admire them for that. Thank God you’re hanging on in there.” Looking back on the series, Lumley said that all the gay references seemed normal to her. “It’s really normal that one of [Edina’s] ex-husbands now lives with his young boyfriend,” she said. “It’s completely normal that [Edina] wants Saffy to be a lesbian or that Serge [Edina’s long lost son] is gay and living in New York. It’s completely normal that Patsy is transgender.” Lumley also said she thinks Patsy makes a good drag queen, “because Patsy’s quite tall,” she said. “You just want to get your good yellow wig on.”
3. IT PROBABLY WOULDN’T FARE WELL IN TODAY’S CULTURALLY SENSITIVE CLIMATE.
When Vanity Fair asked Saunders if Ab Fab would air today with the same jokes intact, she said: “I think it’s a tricky time for comedy, because people are now so aware of not offending, and everyone is quite precious now about their identity. I don’t think we could make half the jokes we did then.”
In fact, Saunders admitted that she did run into some issues while working on the 2016 feature version of the series. “If you write a movie, you have raft of lawyers telling you who you can offend and who you can’t offend, and who’s going to sue you and who won’t,” she said. “So, it was quite an issue, I have to say.”
4. AMERICA (UNSUCCESSFULLY) TRIED TO ADAPT THE SHOW.
In 2009, James Burrows directed a U.S. version of the show, which was set in L.A. It starred Kathryn Hahn as Edina, Kristen Johnston as Patsy, and Zosia Mamet as Saffy. Fox jettisoned the pilot, and Jon Plowman, executive producer of British Ab Fab, knew why. “The trouble with doing Ab Fab in America is that it will have to end with Edina and Saffy hugging, Patsy giving up drink and drugs, and them all hugging mum,” he said. “It won’t work. It’ll be too nice.”
5. THE SHOW WAS INFLUENCED BY THE BAND BANANARAMA.
Lumley and Saunders were guests on The Graham Norton Show and Lumley said in the ’80s, she and Dawn French used to party with the group. “Bananarama were the hardest drinking girls I’d ever met in the ’80s,” Saunders said. “I never met girls who drunk so hard. They drunk so much vodka. I remember one of them opening a cab door and coming out ass first, and I thought it most brilliant thing I’d ever seen.”
6. SAUNDERS SAID IT WAS "PAINFUL" TO PORTRAY EDINA.
Edina wears clothing that are two sizes too small because she refuses to wear anything that fits her. “Edina gets to wear some extraordinary costumes but they’re always so painful,” Saunders told Elle. “When I think of Edina, I think of painful shoes and painful clothes.”
7. IT’S A FEMINIST SHOW.
“It’s never been about them finding a relationship, or defining themselves by having to have a man,” Saunders told Vanity Fair. “They live life entirely on their own terms as women, and to be honest, men don’t really affect them much. I mean, occasionally they want sex, but who doesn’t? They’re not defined by normality. They create their own normality.”
8. JULIA SAWALHA’S FAVORITE SCENE TO FILM INVOLVED BOMBAY MIX.
BuzzFeed asked Sawalha, who played Edina’s daughter, what the funniest scene she had to shoot was. She said it was the moment when Edina asked her if she wanted to nibble on some Bombay mix. “It was my most painful scene moment,” she said. “It took about half an hour, because she had to come up behind me and say [puts on accent] ‘Bombay mix.’ And for a week she did it and for a week in rehearsals I couldn’t hold it together, and on the night it had that thing of I know it’s coming, and it just went on and on and on.”
9. A MENTION OF IVANA TRUMP LED TO AN ENCOUNTER WITH DONALD TRUMP.
Twenty years ago, Patsy mentioned Ivana Trump in an episode. As Lumley told Vanity Fair, Trump got wind of it and invited Lumley to a party in London. “He was with Marla Maples then, and first she came and was the sweetest little character: ‘Oh, I think you’re so gorgeous, you look so beautiful,’” Lumley said. “And then the Donald came along, with that Brillo Pad hair stretched across his head, and gave me a very odd look, as if he was sizing up a horse or something. And after examining me, he muttered, ‘Yes, she’s quite good-looking, she’s a bit like Ivana.’”
10. SAUNDERS AND LUMLEY ACCIDENTALLY MADE PATSY AND EDINA RELATABLE.
In an interview with Lena Dunham, Lumley stated that Edina and Patsy were “really vile and dreadful” people. However, Lumley had fans coming up to her saying the characters reminded them of people they knew. “And some people would queue up to say, ‘My mother and my aunt are just like you and Eddy, and this is a picture of them.’ And you go, ‘Oh, no, how great. Well done, you. But oh my God, we are awful.’ And they went, ‘Oh, yeah, they love it. They go out, they get drunk.’ And you go, ‘Oh my God, we weren’t trying to teach people to get drunk.’”
Lumley further explained they didn’t set out to do that. “I don’t think we had expected that, because we painted them with such broad brushstrokes. We were trying to be high satire.”