First on screens 25 years ago this week, Ab Fab is still the best thing ever made about our weird, wonderful industry
When I was eight years old, I made up my mind that I wanted to become an actress, thanks in part to an admiration of the 1990s comediennes I saw on TV; from Miranda Richardson as the petulant ‘Queenie’ in Blackadder, to the troupe of women in Channel 4’s Smack The Pony. Above all, however, I loved the work of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, and though my acting dreams fell by the wayside, a penchant for the dramatic seemed to follow me wherever I went over the next 20 years. So, naturally, I ended up with a career in fashion. Subsequently, Saunders’ sitcom Absolutely Fabulous – one that I hardly understood as child, but would prompt me to drawl “pass the Bolly, sweetie darling!” at whoever would give me the time of day – is a TV show that I adore now more than ever.
For those unfamiliar with the premise of Ab Fab (though seriously, what have you been doing with your lives?) the show centres on two middle-aged women working in fashion: Public Relations executive Edina Monsoon (played by Saunders) and her chain-smoking-pill-popping-bouffant-sporting counterpart, Fashion Editor Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley). Neither of the pair, despite their supposed high-powered jobs, seem to do any work whatsoever, spending time in their own world of ill-fitting Christian Lacroix, guzzling endless bottles of Bollinger, totally co-dependent on one another for survival in ‘young and trendy’ 1990s London. “Got to have a life, haven’t I? Work should just be the little side salad, shouldn’t it sweetie?” questions Eddie in on episode.
The additional characters in the series cleverly serve as representations for various facets of the fashion universe. There’s Edina’s hapless assistant, aptly named Bubble (Jane Horrocks), who despite an acute inability to function is made an Editor at Vogue; Magda, Fleur and Catriona, played by Harriet Thorpe, Kathy Burke and Helen Lederer, colleagues working at Patsy’s magazine with great outfits but totally mysterious job titles; and Eddie’s daughter Saffy (Julia Sawalha), the bookish antithesis to her and Patsy’s hard partying, totally irresponsible ways.
“This month I want articles about how lovely spending money is. Expensive things are better, cosmetics are great. I want money money money, spend spend spend.”
Naturally, the clothes in Ab Fab are integral to the plot, with each scene punctuated with Eddie’s maximalist ensembles (Lacroix, Escada and Moschino galore), Patsy’s power suiting, and Bubble, who dresses a lot like Grayson Perry if he were walking in a Jeremy Scott show. Conversely, Saffy is presented as a dowdy librarian, frizzy hair and round glasses offset with knitted sweater vests and a clunky ‘sensible’ shoe. “Everybody’s there! Everybody! Big names, you know. Chanel, Dior, Lagerfeld, Givenchy, Gaultier, darling. Names, names, names,” says Edina, rather aptly, in one particular episode.
The cameo is also synonymous with Ab Fab, with the cast list reading as a ‘who’s who’ of revered industry names, too. The 2016 film in particular was reflective of how beloved the TV series was, with the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier, Jerry Hall, Suzy Menkes, Pam Hogg and Stella McCartney all saying a resounding ‘yes’ to making on-screen appearances – a testament to the fashion industry’s ability to laugh at itself if ever there was one. When the 2016 film came around, even Kate Moss was content to fall in the Thames for it.
“This is the moodboard for the next edition. SEX BITCH ARISTO SEX PUNK WHORE BITCH PROZZIE LEZZIE PUNK TART SLUT. Oh but Alex, Alex – with lovely shoes.”
Reportedly, the character of Edina Monsoon was based on 90s PR mogul Lynne Franks, a friend of Saunders herself. As Franks told Stylist in a candid interview, “Ab Fab was fiendishly funny, but also a show with a strong message: it was written by a woman – the brilliant Jennifer Saunders – with an almost all-woman cast, about a PR business run by a woman. It was also an opportunity for those of us then in the fashion and media worlds to laugh at ourselves.” Whilst admitting that the joke didn’t seem very amusing at the time, she continued, “When I look back at old episodes, I howl with laughter at the scenes that I identify with – Edina going on her own spiritual journey and hugging a tree; the crazy Buddhist PR on her mobile phone barking instructions to her staff as she walks through her office; the supermarket shopping trip where she gets confused and ends up with three full trolleys.”
“The show’s affectionate teasing of an industry that can so often be harshly ridiculed and misogynistically dismissed as a vapid waste of time ironically proved that it was much more human than people thought”
Certainly, clever caricatures of the fashion industry are few and far between. After Ab Fab came 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada, where the roles of Miranda Priestly and her assistant Emily played up to fashion’s perceived bitchiness, superficiality, and lacquered veneer. Although being an astute observation of the inner workings of the magazine world, the film failed to tap into Ab Fab’s universal appeal: that Eddie and Patsy – for all their attempts to maintain a similar Priestly-like façade – were as fundamentally flawed as the rest of us. When Edwina goes jogging in an attempt to lose weight (in an episode titled Fat) she galumphs down the road for a few metres in a carefully put-together outfit, before giving up in exhaustion. Relatable.
And here lies the crux of the reason why I love Absolutely Fabulous with a passion. Yes, the characters it portrays may be occasionally problematic, but they are human and lovable all the same. Ultimately, the show’s affectionate teasing of an industry that can so often be harshly ridiculed and misogynistically dismissed as a vapid waste of time ironically proved that it was much more human than people thought. Although fashion’s landscape has drastically changed since the 1990s, and the days of company cards, constant boozing and nightly drug-fuelled parties are not quite so prevalent – the series is just as brilliant as it ever was.