Absolutely Fabulous

Friday, September 7, 2001 by

If in doubt, fall over: the credo of Absolutely Fabulous since its debut in 1992. A step down from a chair, a simple walk across a room… the tiniest movement from Edina (Jennifer Saunders) or Patsy (Joanna Lumley) always came accompanied with assorted jerks and twitches, better still an all-out collapse at the knees. Now that familiar maelstrom of motion is back for a new series, together with dialogue processed as mechanically as a checkout till-roll and – of course – endless shouting.

Saunders apparently revived her iconic 1990s smash after only a moment’s thought. Nothing to do with the failure of last Christmas’s Ab-Fab-under-another-name Mirrorball then, or the derisory Let Them Eat Cake. The latter was curious enough for finding French and Saunders submitting themselves wholly to the machinations of other scriptwriters; unnecessary and perhaps unintentional, the resulting fifth-rate Blackadder rip-off was alarmingly absent of humour. This once-vigorously ruled-out return of Absolutely Fabulous restores Jennifer to role of sole writer, albeit, as ever, with a co-credit for Ruby Wax as script editor.

This relationship is perplexing. Does Ruby simply sift through her mate’s lines, dropping in “sweety-sweety-sweety” babblings and more loose-limbed spasms? Or is it a more conceptual role? For Saunders hinted as much when publicising the series, almost going so far as to ascribe Wax the role of a pop cultural windsock, catching the breeze and gesturing in the direction of comedy gold.

But with such entrenched characterisations – we knew pretty much all we needed about Patsy and Edina after the first five minutes of the opening series – Absolutely Fabulous has always needed firstly the strong conceit and secondly crackling dialogue to renew itself over each subsequent 30 minutes. So far this new run hasn’t delivered either of these, to which you can hold not only Saunders and Wax responsible but ultimately those BBC bosses, thrilled at the return of a ratings banker, who it could be argued have indulged their cast to the point of no return.

The absence of focused, shaped narrative has created off-kilter episode structures. For instance, the second in the new series, “Fish Farm”, seemed to open mid-scene by accident, its first line half-obscured by title music, before unidentified characters began sounding off about meaningless events. Making Mother (June Whitfield) central to the action during both this and the closing scene made for a neat symmetry but also felt like a tokenistic gesture to shoehorn her into the otherwise-unrelated, ultra-thin plot: new gardener arrives, Edina decides to get off with him.

On such a ragged premise, the dialogue hung all too bare. Once Jennifer and Joanna’s Happy Days-style entrance applause faded, here were those familiar fish-out-of-water gags (they’d just been to a Marilyn Manson gig) strung out for a whole 10 minutes, nothing whatsoever to do with the main plot. When the chief storyline arrived it sustained itself on a stream of unsubtle, unimaginative sex references – “I’d never be happy just with … vegetarian sausage!” – and one-liners about crotches: “Mine’s more a one-way system; I can still blow smoke-rings through mine”. To which the audience helpfully boomed guffaws, each and every time, often at lines (“Come on girls, I’m on a double-yellow …”) that weren’t even jokes, just statements. Bizarre.

But there were big problems with the delivery as well. So far the whole series has felt terribly under-rehearsed. With all this talent and noted female comic experience the presence of embarrassing hesitations and people talking over one another was extraordinary and telling. Again, the thing seemed cursed with a Saunders and Wax script battering against a painfully rickety structure, which in turn invited dodgy editing – scenes fading for no reason and conversations left open. The cumulative effect was no pace, and jokes piled up in a queue waiting to be discharged; while each sequential turn of the screw and plot twist failed to be countered by any release or heart-stopping resolution.

Deficiencies could have been masked with clever characterisation, or visual humour, but chances were wasted and occasional attempts botched. Here’s a badly executed sight gag: Edina sports a blow-up bra, Patsy helps inflate it, and daughter Saffron walks in. A daughter-reminds-mum-about-contraception spiel was recycled entirely from the original French and Saunders sketch the whole series was based upon in the first place. The endless bitching felt hackneyed; topical throwaways dull (there was a Charlie Dimmock joke. About breasts), while the climax was totally mismanaged, with no sense of timing or wit accompanying that inevitable pay-off (the rich gardener being nothing of the sort …)

There’s now no distinction between these women “behaving badly” and the world they inhabit. Ironically the series has aged worse than its notoriously image-conscious characters. In her hapless courting of the gardener Edina wasn’t breaking any stereotypes, but she wasn’t being funny either. The sitcom is now entirely without charm: even Saffron isn’t to be sympathised with, she’s merely a pitiful creature.

Absolutely Fabulous‘ discharged mania bounces off the tiny set, never settling into comedy equilibrium. Just as there’s no balance to Patsy and Edina’s high-heeled prancing, so the script rocks and judders across a half hour of screen time. An air of pointlessness is horribly pervasive; yet Saunders is even openly contemplating yet another series. How she can have any respect towards this franchise is a mystery. All that’s left are gags about genitalia – and no trace of any pride – coming before yet another (prat)fall.


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