Updated: Mar 30
I am desperately late to the Absolutely Fabulous party, but isn’t that just the Edina and Patsy way? Absolutely Fabulous, also cheekily known as Ab Fab, premiered in November of 1992 on the BBC and drunkenly meandered through five series, a heaping handful of specials, and even an American film. Fanatically obsessed with fashion and celebrity, Ab Fab follows the wild antics of PR non-mogul, Edina Monsoon, and her best friend and magazine fashion non-editor, Patsy Stone. Edina and Patsy are brilliantly portrayed by Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley respectively, and are based on characters created by (Dawn) French and Saunders, a popular British sketch comedy duo. While Absolutely Fabulous excels at many things, its most powerful contribution to the world is its unabashed ownership of the female body. “If you’ve got it, flaunt it,” and boy, do Edina and Patsy have something, alright.
There are five series regulars on Absolutely Fabulous, all of them female, and all of them unapologetically clumsy and eccentric. Edina and Patsy run the show, mind you, but Edina’s mother (named “Mother” and portrayed by June Whitfield), daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha), and personal assistant Bubble (Jane Horrocks), rounds out the core cast. These five women of various ages all fulfill different needs within the plot of the show, but all seem to breathe from the same set of lungs. Edina and Patsy have spent years abusing their bodies with drugs and alcohol, but they’ve grown just as dependent on the straight-laced Saffron’s constant disapproval of them. It’s palpable to see the buzz Edina rides after being chided by her daughter, and while Patsy complains about Saffron incessantly, it’s clear to see that Patsy is addicted to Saffron as well. Mother is on the cliff of Alzheimer’s at every moment, but she always seems to remember and lament how stuffy Saffron acts in reaction to her mother. And then there’s Bubble. Now, if Edina and Patsy aren’t wacky and eccentric enough for you, Bubble will have you covered. If it weren’t for Bubble, Edina and Patsy would appear manic, but with Bubble’s extraterrestrial fashion sense and bizarre vocal exclamations, Edina and Patsy are all but grounded in reality.
As often as you see this main cast, and the various members of the secondary and tertiary casts, the true sustenance of Ab Fab comes from Edina and Patsy (even though it might just be from Bollinger “Bolli” champagne and cigarettes). To call them the meat and potatoes of the program would drive them mad, considering how often Edina complains about how fat she is. And while we’re on the subject of Edina’s problem with her weight, let me clarify just exactly what I mean when talking about the ownership of the female body. Edina does spend a good amount of time struggling with the way she looks. There’s no disputing that. To say that she is a positive role model based on her life choices is a laugh riot. But Edina’s and Patsy’s strives towards perfection are always called out as bad behavior, and all of Edina’s personal moments of fat-shaming are used to comedic effect. Granted, it’s never good for an impressionable viewer to witness moments of self-pity and self-harm if they cannot separate fact from fiction, but Ab Fab makes it very clear that these women are ridiculous and their bad behavior is something to be laughed at and not idolized. (Although I not so secretly would love to be, or be best friends with, Patsy Stone.)
Aside from Edina and Patsy’s adventurous debauchery out and about in London society, the main backdrop of Ab Fab is the Monsoon family’s ever-changing kitchen. Saffron begs her mother to not waste money on remodeling their posh basement kitchen during almost every series, but Edina certainly doesn’t listen. This simple remodeling gag opens the set up for a world of physical comedy. Some of my favorite scenes are of Edina and Patsy throwing themselves down the kitchen stairs. Many times these stumbles are a case of the drunkies, but in other cases, it’s because there are no stairs to fall down. When your kitchen is constantly being remodeled, how are you to know if the stairs are missing or not? Also, the “Bolli” fridge and the Monsoon panic room are all adjacent to the kitchen, making it the perfect hub for all kinds of hilarity. Why Saffron always chooses to host her study and environmental groups in the kitchen is beyond me. It seems she too is begging for the symbiotic relationship of love and repulsion from her mother, just as much as Edina binges on Saffron’s distaste. The kitchen represents a space where the cast feeds off one another to both positive and negative effect.
If the kitchen is the heart of Ab Fab, then the series itself is dealing with some seriously high cholesterol. Ab Fab doesn’t know the meaning of the word “moderation,” and completely lives in excess, with the exception of success. Because of this success deficit, the cast becomes hungrier and hungrier for any level of positive recognition. Rarely have I seen a comedy use desperation to more success than Ab Fab. No matter the high, the intoxication, the publicity, and the fashion...Edina and Patsy always want more. Edina’s PR firm represents British pop stars Lulu and Emma Bunton (Baby Spice), but just one Spice won’t do. Edina aggressively hunts down every “It” celebrity she can, so much so that some celebrities have restraining orders filed against her. Watching Edina sulk as she can’t get her way is a pure delight. And when Edina sulks, she goes on shopping sprees to buy even more ridiculous clothing, as to be taken more seriously, and the cycle continues. I can totally understand if a viewer were to say that Ab Fab is a bit too repetitive for them, but as for myself, a student of improv and comedy, repetition is funny.
Absolutely Fabulous is a symphony where the conductor repeats each movement more loudly and chaotic than the one before. And with each repeated movement, Edina’s and Patsy’s dancing becomes more and more frantic. All throughout the series, Edina sings a song about her intended level of fame that goes a little something like this:
"I’m walking down the road/ Just people say hello/ Say you’re looking great/ I say ‘Thank you’/ Your hair is so great.../ I say ‘Thank you’/But I’m just...walking down the road/ They say ‘Are you Stella McCartney’s best mate? / I say ‘Yeah thank you, so cool…’/Walking down the road…"
The more you hear this little ditty throughout the series the more bombastic it becomes, even resulting in a rock rendition at the Royal Albert Hall. This song is a physical manifestation of Edina’s thought process and her disconnect from society. And, of course, it has to do with physical movement.
Every beat in Ab Fab is motivated by some form of physical comedy. Saffron’s clear disdain of her mother’s enabling friend, Patsy, is at first exhibited by evil side-eyes, but grows into full on slaps in the face. Bubble begins her journey by bumbling around the PR office, not knowing what general office supplies and equipment are, and evolves into a spirit-channeling one-woman show, performing scenes completely separate from the plot, for and by her. In ‘Acting for the Stage 101’ classes, one is generally always taught to “use the space,” and Bubble is a perfect example of this rule. There’s even a running history of Patsy being a man for a period of time, and the joke isn’t about her gender or sexuality, but more so based on how she inhabits her space. The longer the series runs, and the bigger Edina remodels her home to be, the smaller the space becomes in relation to the size of the characters. Despite Edina’s best interests, she truly does become larger than life.
The female physical comedy shown in Absolutely Fabulous pioneered the current wave of female comedy we enjoy today. I am in no way discrediting the work of I Love Lucy, The Carol Burnett Show, Three’s Company, or any other show that truly helped get this movement off the ground. And with stand-up’s Fanny Brice, Moms Mabley, Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, we have proof that strong, female comedy has been stewing and aging for a long time. Ab Fab simply remembered to get you in the kitchen to smell it. There is a strong queendom of physical comedy right now being lead by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, Melissa McCarthy, and the duo Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer (to name a few) that may not be related to the legacy of Ab Fab, but certainly exists in the same universe.
Edina and Patsy soar in that universe because they know how to fall. They use their bodies to stumble, stagger, and slur their way through life, just as well as they know how to slump right on out of a taxi. Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley knew the importance of reclaiming the female form from the male gaze in spite of its inexplicable ties to fashion and beauty, and they used this knowledge to subvert the notion that women can’t exist in both realms. We can be ridiculous and beautiful, self-deprecating and confident, aged and young-at-heart; none of these qualities are mutually exclusive. So, listen to Edina and Patsy when they say, “Nothing is a sin.” “We’re eating of the forbidden fruit.” Our job as an audience is to make that fruit less forbidden until it’s just fruit. Everyone deserves to be in that garden. Alright, sweetie darling?
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.