When Eddy and Patsy burst onto our screens 20 years ago, they changed television for good.
I remember falling off my sofa with hysterical laughter – for the first time a pair of strong women (albeit drunks, liars and appalling role models) ruled the roost. Before then, popular comedy always had men in leading roles (Fawlty Towers, The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin, Yes Minister, Blackadder, The Likely Lads, Porridge, Dad’s Army… the list is endless). In Absolutely Fabulous, though, men were completely redundant to the action. The central characters are a pair of middle-aged women so vile and excessive that no man in his right mind would have anything to do with them.
Eddy and Patsy are monsters with warped values and extraordinarily self-centred lives, a pair who’d rather be fashionable than anything else. Their binge-fuelled escapades allow them to live out our secret fantasies – they behave badly on our behalf, and sod everyone else. Children, mums, ex-husbands and secretaries are all nuisances and inconveniences. Normal moral values are completely turned upside-down. They swear, puke, trash the furniture and rarely eat. They would kill for an invite to a top party.
Girls On Top
I was working at the BBC as an executive when Ab Fab – as it became known by millions of devotees – was created and witnessed first hand how a collection of ideas and anecdotes gave birth to a hit show. A bit earlier, I’d produced a series with Ruby Wax, when she had the brilliant idea of filming a couple of sketches with Joanna Lumley, in which she broke into Joanna’s flat and discovered Joanna was a drunken sex fiend. I couldn’t believe that Joanna (who I’d met in the late Sixties when I was a junior fashion editor for a national newspaper and she was a top model and former Bond girl) would allow herself to be sent up like this. But she was brilliant.
Lynne Franks, on whom Eddy was loosely based, had worked with me on Petticoat, a teenage magazine, when I started out in journalism. Soon, Lynne left to start her own PR company and was hugely successful. Ruby, Lynne and I all hung out together in 1991, and one day we went to lunch in a Japanese restaurant near BBC Television Centre with Dawn French. That long boozy lunch, surely provided Jennifer and Dawn with loads of material as we competed with stories of our outrageous behaviour. Initially a sketch about Eddy and her daughter Saffy was aired in Dawn and Jennifer’s comedy series – it was this that grew into Ab Fab, with Joanna playing Patsy, the woman who never ate, smoked continuously and allegedly held down a top job as a fashion editor.
The brilliance of '''Ab Fab''' is that women are in charge, in spite of seeming completely wasted
The minute the show aired, I was asked if Patsy was based on me – it wasn’t, although I admit to quite a few excessive moments during my time writing about fashion and producing telly programmes. Patsy is an amalgamation of several women Jennifer met around then (one was a famous dress designer she met via Lynne). Lynne was initially very hurt that Eddy was partly based on her, right down to the house in the show, which was in Maida Vale and looked just like Lynne’s. Especially as Ruby (who edited the scripts for Ab Fab) used to regularly go there for dinner.
These days Lynne can laugh about Ab Fab, but it must have been tough to cope with at the time, especially as she was running a successful PR company with many important clients. Lynne was outrageous in some ways, but always kind, thoughtful and a good mother.
Unlike Eddy, she’s always been very good at her job. Eddy is a dysfunctional cartoon character who treats her daughter Saffy appallingly.
The Nineties were a time when we partied a lot, when the fashion and media industries were full of drink and drugs. The brilliance of Ab Fab is that women are in charge, in spite of seeming completely wasted. All the characters – from pious Saffy to June Whitfield’s ‘Mum’ and the perennially potty PA Bubble – are fully rounded individuals, who continue to surprise us. Saffy loves her mum, in spite of receiving nothing but insults in return – it’s total role reversal. Straight-laced Saffy always dressed primly while her mum crammed herself into the latest gear. She morphed from studious schoolgirl to swotty student, but then re-appeared after a spot of charitable work in Africa with a mixed-race baby, which Eddy just sees as a fashion accessory. Mum is forever embarrassing Eddy by revealing facts about her childhood and keeps pinching stuff from her house to flog in her charity shop.
Of all the characters, I adore Patsy the most. I loved the episode where she struggles to eat a single crisp. Or the moment when customs officers search her luggage and take away a lot of white powder, only to tell Pats that it’s not a class-A drug but a bathroom-cleaning product. I can never forget Patsy staggering about in a skintight leather skirt and jacket, swigging from a bottle of Bolly – are today’s The Only Way Is Essex girls really any different? In many ways, Ab Fab’s OTT characters have turned into grisly reality. I can’t wait for the new series – I’m sure Jennifer hasn’t lost any of her power to shock us.
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