ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS: JENNIFER SAUNDERS AND JOANNA LUMLEY
| Jennifer Saunders And Joanna Lumley Are Back As Fashion’s Biggest Nightmare, This Time On The Big Screen—The Better To Offend Us With, Sweetie Darling! Here, In A V Exclusive, The Dynamic Duo Dish On The Return Of The Cult Classic
ashion people aren’t famed for having a sense of humor about their personal lives, which makes the success of Absolutely Fabulous in haute circles something of an enigma. The cult series, which has been on and off our TV screens since 1992, stars Jennifer Saunders as Edina Monsoon, an overweight and morally challenged PR agent, and Joanna Lumley as Patsy Stone, an alcoholic fashion editor—and Eddy’s best (and only) friend. The first, desperate to be loved in a lurid Lacroix wardrobe, destroys everything she touches, from her client relationships to her family, while supporting Patsy’s drug-addled life. Frankly, The Devil Wears Prada doesn’t come close to Ab Fab’s mean-spirited depiction of fashion professionals. So, how exactly did they get some of the biggest fashion stars, like Kate Moss, Stella McCartney, and Jean Paul Gaultier, to star in the long-awaited film version?
“They don’t think it’s about them,” Saunders, 58, intones dryly. “They think it’s about other people in the business.” All the hysterical observations in Ab Fab are her own, as she wrote the original sketch (cowritten by Dawn French), the show that developed from it, and now the film. Out of character, Saunders and Lumley are in fact very chic, by the way, a million miles away from their stumbling creations. “Remember: it’s extreme, we’re cartoons,” says Lumley, 70. “Wearing excessively ill-chosen clothes by high quality, top labels, always two or three sizes too small, that [Edina] put together with hectic abandon. And [Patsy], just a succubus who clings on,” at which point, both erupt into gales of laughter.
Ab Fab wasn’t supposed to run (in spurts) for over 20 years. “You don’t ever think like that when you’re starting,” says Saunders. “You do a series, then hope you’ll do a second.” Despite this, there have been six sporadic series (or to Americans, seasons) and almost annual follow-up specials, all of them hilarious. “And we’ve scarcely aged at all,” shouts Lumley. This statement, something her character would say between her teeth, unleashes another wave of giggling. The two seem to have just as close of a bond as their characters—albeit rather less medicated. “Honestly, it’s so shocking when we see early pictures,” says Saunders of the start of their friendship. “Look how juicy we were,” she moans. “Almost filled with juice. It was like, our lips, juice everywhere, and shine,” as they both desperately massage their faces, cackling wildly.
FROM LEFT: LUMLEY WEARS CLOTHING BOSS RING HER OWN SAUNDERS WEARS DRESS STELLA McCARTNEY
The premise of the film is simple. Saunders’s first thought was, “Edina Monsoon killing Kate Moss is a funny idea. The one thing she wants, she kills.” From there the film grew, simply and brilliantly. “The first thing was, Edina kills Kate Moss. Funny. And then: where shall we do it? The South of France sounds rather lovely.” Cut to Edina and Patsy, by now the most hated women in Britain, hiding at the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat on the Riviera, mainlining “Bolly.” While filming, Instagram was blanketed with shots of Moss, cigarette in mouth and champagne flute in hand, emerging from the Thames.
“She was great,” says Saunders of working with the Super, “because she’s been a model—to her, she was being treated terribly nicely, offered cups of tea and blankets. She said, ‘Ooh, if this was a [fashion] shoot, none of this would happen; they’d just say, “Why are you shivering? Get on with it!”’ She’s absolutely brilliant.”
If this feels like the end of Edina and Patsy’s vodka-fueled journey, then perhaps it is. Saunders isn’t convinced she’ll add more seasons or specials to the series, despite the current vogue for relaunching on Netflix. “Honestly, I’ve got this feeling [Ab Fab] could be done. I don’t think there’s any juice left.” We’ve heard it from her before. But this time, the threat is partly due to the changing comedic climate. “You can’t be rude about stuff anymore,” says Saunders. “Everyone’s so fucking sensitive about everything now.” While saying this, she inspects the on set breakfast, doing the perfect sniveling Edina Monsoon voice, eyes wide and palms up. “Oh, I’m so sorry I offended you. I’ve offended a croissant. I was croissant-ist. And they’ve got their own Facebook page, croissants now. I’ve offended some food.”
"EDINA MONSOON KILLING KATE MOSS IS A FUNNY IDEA. THE ONE THING SHE WANTS, SHE KILLS."
Actually, the best thing about the show was just how wildly offensive it was, with its frank depictions of abuse, alcoholism, and fashion tokenism (punctuated by Edina’s enduring tagline, “Sweetie darling”). Despite this, or perhaps because of it, when re-watching the series, it’s striking that the universe they created is almost entirely populated by women and LGBT people. This idea gives the creators pause. “We tried very hard,” says Saunders, “but [gay people] refused to be offended—and I admire them for that. Thank God you’re hanging on in there.” Lumley takes a more serious tone. “You go back and pick through it, the amount of gay references and ease with which it’s been put into the story, without it being dragged along like a great log of plot. It’s really normal that one of [Edina’s] ex-husbands now lives with his young boyfriend. It’s completely normal that [Edina] wants Saffy [Edina’s long-suffering daughter] 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.”
Without intending to, Ab Fab blazed a trail, one that has only recently been picked up by tragicomedies like Orange Is the New Black. They even got gay married long before it was legal. Whoopi Goldberg herself officiated Edina and Patsy’s wedding. As they consider whether—horror of horrors—Ab Fabmight have actually made a difference, the duo perk up. In 2002, they were due to receive an award for their contributions to LGBT culture during Pride in New York. “We went in with the idea that it was going to be this great camp affair,” says Saunders. They showed up in full Edina and Patsy drag, Saunders wearing a huge Philip Treacy Stetson wrapped with the Stars and Stripes and Lumley in her character’s signature beehive.
“I was afraid they wouldn’t know who we were,” justifies Lumley. As the ceremony rumbled on, they realized it was a much more sober setting, replete with piano solos and memorials to people who had died of AIDS complications. “And proper speeches,” wails Lumley. “You didn’t just go up and say, ‘Cheers, thanks a lot,’” which was of course what they’d planned to do, using Patsy’s favorite catchphrase. Saunders is completely hysterical by this point.
“Whoopi Goldberg came on to give our award, and we went, Oh no, we’ve totally misjudged this whole thing. At which point, as more people were crying and our moment was arriving, Joanna leaned over to me and said, ‘I think we should’ve made a speech.’” But it was too late. In true Ab Fab fashion, they ascended the stage, as bewildered as their characters, and said, “Cheers, thanks a lot.”
This story is taken from V102, our Fall Preview issue out July 14.