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If you were around in the 1990s, you were undoubtedly privy to another British invasion we had here in America: this one on our television screens. There was a veritable flood of shows from across the Atlantic that became smash hits in this country, going as far back as the late ‘60s (Monty Python’s Flying Circus) and early ‘70s (Are You Being Served?), not to mention those that were adapted into classic American sitcoms (Sanford and Son, All in the Family ). Witty, whimsical, naughty, with a certain je ne c’est quoi that attracted so many of us here in the States to begin with, they were unlike what most domestic television was at the time. For those of us in Generation X, such phenomenal shows produced in the United Kingdom during that period, including Keeping Up Appearances, Mr. Bean, Blackadder and Prime Suspect, remain staples and continue to attract new viewers.
This certainly rang true when it came to my teenage television habits in the early part of that same decade; however, one specific Britcom surpassed anything else for me back then. Sweetie darlings, I’m talking about Absolutely Fabulous (or AbFab if you’re in the know). Premiering in 1992 on the BBC, this bawdy buddy comedy set in a posh London neighborhood was anything but typical. The series was based on a sketch created by Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French for their own show, French and Saunders (French would strike sitcom gold herself a couple of years later with the wildly funny The Vicar of Dibley). But thanks to Comedy Central importing it to the US, Americans were able to be enamored by two characters that I feel were England’s answer to Lucy and Ethel. No small feat, that’s for sure.
In Absolutely Fabulous, Edina Monsoon (Saunders) is the head of a moderately successful public relations firm, even though she only has a handful of clients. She lives in a lovely, multi-floor home in the Holland Park section of London, firmly and loudly insisting as to its location whenever someone questions if it’s in the less tony section of Shepherd’s Bush. She receives a decent amount of financial assistance for its upkeep thanks to two ex-husbands. A lover of excess, particularly food and booze, the constant joke throughout the run of the series is her weight problem, which the show has always inflated as her being “two stone” overweight (around 28 pounds in our customary units). Her passion for fashion is just as strong, but less than keen. Truthfully, the style of clothing during that decade wasn’t exactly something to fondly look back on, but Edina was a slave to fashion. Wearing a lot of bright prints, giant gold Venus symbol necklaces, and hats galore, she went gaga over Christian Lacroix ensembles and showed off her acquisitions whenever possible.
Then there’s one Eurydice Colette Clytemnestra Dido Bathsheba Rabelais Patricia Cocteau Stone, commonly known as Patsy (Joanna Lumley). She’s a fashion editor for a magazine (largely in name only after having a tryst with the publisher), whose teased-up blonde French twist, cool attitude, cleanly tailored outfits, ability to stay alive on a diet of cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol (she has barely eaten since 1973) and vocal disdain for her best friend’s daughter make her the perfect foil to Edina’s frenzied energy. As for Patsy’s age, no one really knows! She either routinely lies about it or has truly forgotten how old she is, therefore, she sticks to between 39 and 43 in the series. While she is equally as madcap as Edina, Patsy does have a slightly clearer head about matters. Don’t let that fool you, though.
As was mentioned before, there is a child in the mix. Despite her name being a stereotypical moniker for those born in the ‘70s to a hippie-ish parent, Edina’s daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha) is on the opposite end of the spectrum in temperament and taste. While her mother is the freewheeling type who tends to skirt responsibility and a traditional home life, Saffy is very straight-laced, studious, and quite prim—almost to the point of repression. In a major role reversal, Saffy took on the parental role that her mother didn’t, and to hear her tell it (and you do—a lot), she felt Edina was quite neglectful, and Patsy didn’t help matters. Patsy and Saffron’s mutual enmity is a frequent subplot throughout the entire series and it’s pretty damn funny to watch them verbally spar. While Eddy deeply wanted her daughter to loosen up and behave more like a typical young adult, she always threw down and defended Saffron’s honor when push came to shove. In the Series 3 episode “Jealous,” one of Saffy’s significantly older professors gets a bit amorous with her. Once it’s revealed that he’s married with children, it makes Saffron quite uncomfortable, and she looks to her mum for help. Eddy’s buried maternal instinct comes out, and she unleashes one mean right hook on the man.
Rounding out the main cast are two ladies who are both extremely ditzy, and fit in just fine with the rest of the AbFab universe. Edina’s mother, known only as Mrs. M (June Whitfield), is the awesome granny who will always get one over on you and cheerfully deliver a zinger. Oh, and she’s a bit of a kleptomaniac. Over at Edina’s office, her assistant Bubble (Jane Horrocks), truly lives up to her name. Frequently clad in even more outlandish outfits than Edina, Horrocks’ natural Lancashire accent delivering one bubble-headed exclamation after another gave us a memorable supporting character. Bubble may not have been the sharpest tool in the shed, but as Edina’s eyes and ears at work, she saved her countless times.
Throughout these years, we get a taste of Edina and Patsy’s marvelous lives, complete with hilarious mishaps, endless scrapes, and great catch phrases. As a bonus, since the duo do love a bit of the drop, some of the most bizarre cocktail combinations were created, which often came about by mixing an extremely expensive champagne with a spirit. Want to have a drink AbFab style? Try a Stoli Bolli (Stoli vodka and Bollinger champagne), Veuve and Bourb (Veuve Cliquot champagne and bourbon), or the Dom and Bom (Dom Perignon champagne and Bombay Sapphire gin). I have not had the courage to try one of these, but I do wonder how their livers held up….
Shows produced in the United Kingdom can have a staggered number of episodes per season, so while the entire kit and caboodle ran over the course of 20 years, each series run was rather short. The first three series, each about six episodes long, aired from 1992 to 1995, followed by the two-part special, “The Last Shout,” in 1996. Two more series came in 2001 and 2003, with another special sandwiched in 2002. After that, my beloved AbFab went dark for around eight years. True to form, it came back, better than ever. To commemorate Absolutely Fabulous’ twentieth anniversary, a trio of new episodes aired in 2011 and 2012. Between Saffron’s two-year prison stint for fraud, Patsy being on the hook to her dealer for fifty thousand pounds, and a hysterical send-up of the fascinators at the Kate Middleton/Prince William wedding using pretzels, it was like no time had passed at all. We may not have been finished with AbFab after that, but it did come to an end after it got the big screen treatment in 2016 and with Whitfield’s passing in 2018. An era was truly over.
Absolutely Fabulous turned 30 in 2022, and though it has had its official swan song, it still feels as fresh and lively as the day it premiered. Just like Lucy and Ethel, these two best friends were so intertwined in each other’s lives, it’s virtually impossible to picture one without the other. Sharing a hunger for all things stylish and happening, a flair for the dramatic, a love for nightlife, men, liquor, recreational drugs, and the tendency to get into mischief and trouble at every turn, you can see why they got on so well. Despite their firmly being middle aged, Patsy and Edina desperately wanted to stay youthful, so if going to rock concerts, dressing up in goth clothing, getting a horrific chemical peel (in Patsy’s case), and becoming blitzed every now and then made them feel young, they did it. They unabashedly and unapologetically lived life on their own terms, and brought us all along for the ride. They weren’t out of touch with reality—if anything, they made ours a lot more fabulous.
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A Massachusetts native and ‘80s kid through and through, Katy Kostakis writes about Arts and Entertainment, Lifestyle, Food and Beverage, Consumer and Culture. She has written for Turner Classic Movies, Film Inquiry, Time Out Boston, YourTango, Patch and more. Check out her quips and rants on Twitter @KatyKostakis on Instagram @katykostakis, and on her website, katykostakis.com.
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