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Matthew McLean on ‘Absolutely Fabulous’

For all the camp and capering, Eddie and Patsy’s antics also have a plaintive, even existential tinge

Jennifer Saunders as Edina Monsoon in Absolutely Fabulous, 1994, television still. Courtesy: BBC Stills Archive

Jennifer Saunders as Edina Monsoon in Absolutely Fabulous, 1994, television still. Courtesy: BBC Stills Archive

Like the era that spawned it, Absolutely Fabulous (1992–2012) stopped being funny some time before it ended. But, when it was good – roughly until about 1996 – it was fantastic. Developed from a single sketch – 1990’s ‘Modern Mother and Daughter’ – from the British television comedy show French and Saunders (1987–2007), the sitcom’s running gag is intergenerational inversion. Grown-up baby boomers – represented by cosseted, faddy PR Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone, her damaged but irresistibly steely crony – reveal themselves to be more spoiled, superficial and gullible than their juniors, not least Edina’s earnest, conscientious daughter, Saffron.

Eddie and Patsy are emblems of the 1990s – the perceived excesses of which the show parodied as well as, say, American Psycho (2000) did the 1980s. But the script also identifies them firmly as children of the 1960s; a mention in Ab Fab was, I think, the first time I heard of the Baader Meinhof. An introduction of sorts to my parents’ cultural milieu, the show was also (as many childhood texts are) a kind of fantasy training for adulthood. Today, Kathy Burke’s ferocious editrix, Magda, remains an inspiration in magazine meetings, just as silently reciting Eddie’s putdown to a gallery assistant – ‘You only work in a shop, you know: you can drop the attitude’ – often stiffens my spine when ‘seeing shows’ in an intimidating locale.

For all the camp and capering – lunching with Lulu, falling out of cars, buying milk from Harrods, waking up on rubbish barges – Eddie and Patsy’s antics also have a plaintive, even existential tinge. Like any human soul, they meet doubt, ennui and disappointment on their way. For one moment in the 1996 special, Eddie even wonders: ‘What if there isn’t any fun, darling?’ But the remedy is more of the same – another drink, another fag, more excess. What else? Core to British comedies, I think, is that the characters ultimately are no more able to break free from their situation than Didi and Gogo are from the road in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953). ‘I don’t want more choice,’ Eddie declares during one drunken speech, ‘I just want nicer things!’ It’s always been my credo.

Matthew McLean is Senior Editor, Frieze Studios, based in London, UK.

Issue 200

First published in Issue 200

January - February 2019
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