Joanna Lumley tells Film Critic Tony Earnshaw how the AbFab movie allows her to grow old disgracefully on screen.
That timeless television phenomenon, Absolutely Fabulous, might never have happened. At least, it might have happened but then rapidly faded into obscurity as one of those TV experiments that failed.
Back in the early 1990s Jennifer Saunders had an idea to extend an existing idea and came up with a premise entitled Fashion, loosely based on leading PR guru Lynne Franks. The actress she pitched it to was Joanna Lumley. These days, 25 years later, Lumley is perilously close to joining Helen Mirren, Julie Walters and the late Victoria Wood as a national treasure.
Back then, however, she was a fortysomething ex-model, ex-Bond girl, ex-New Avenger and sometime TV favourite. Her film career – which included an appearance in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as ‘the English girl’ and playing vampire hunter Peter Cushing’s spunky granddaughter in Hammer’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula – had stalled.
Then came Patsy Stone. Lumley had no clue as to the character, the job, the milieu or what Jennifer Saunders expected when she was invited to take part in a read-through of the very first script back in 1991. Moreover, she and Saunders didn’t seem to click.
“I’d been sent this unbelievably funny script. I laughed out loud. I went round to meet Jennifer for the first time ever at the BBC. I opened up the page and started to read, but I didn’t know who Patsy was. And I didn’t really know what Jennifer wanted. We read it through a couple of times and each time Jennifer just sat there. The more I read it, the more she didn’t laugh. And I thought, ‘This is awful. She hates me.’ So we started off a bit strangely.”
Part of the misconceived sense of awkwardness might have been due to Saunders working on her own after years with partner Dawn French. In fact the French and Saunders duo had been set to film a new series when French and then-husband Lenny Henry dropped all professional engagements to adopt a child.
Thus Saunders, with time on her hands, dusted off a sketch she had written with French and polished it. Hey, presto, Eddy and Patsy were born and a 90s television classic resulted.
Lumley has always suited the small screen. Hers is too much of a personality for movies. And there are rather too many poor films on her CV. But she has blossomed in TV, proving that she is a much better actress than many gave her credit for.
Alongside 26 episodes of The New Avengers and the 34 episodes that followed of Sapphire & Steel there have been eye-catching roles in A Rather English Marriage, The Glory Boys and Sensitive Skin. And, of course, the show that became known as AbFab.
The show lasted, on and off, for 20 years. Beginning in 1992 and concluding with an Olympics special in 2012 it encompassed two-part finales, one-off specials, Comic Relief sketches and sundry other vignettes all lapped up by an adoring public.
According to Lumley, who turned 70 in May, it was she who urged 57-year-old creator Jennifer Saunders (aka Edina Monsoon) to resurrect Eddy and Patsy.
“I laid the trap into which she had to walk, which is by telling the world that she was writing the film. I said, ‘You must write it, darling. Otherwise we will all be dead and we won’t have made the film.’” Age is a running joke in AbFab. In the TV series Eddy was constantly denying her age; Patsy flatly refused to confront it. And in the new film one male character, faced with a superannuated Patsy, splutters, “Oh God, I can’t believe you’re still… alive!”
Still alive, still misbehaving, still smoking and swigging the Bolly. But life and time is passing our heroines by. Eddy is still running her PR company but the landscape has changed. She’s an anachronism. Patsy, meanwhile, is soldiering on in the way that only Patsy can.
Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie sees Eddy and Patsy scheming to sign up supermodel Kate Moss to Eddy’s agency. Naturally it all goes wrong, and at a party peppered with the great and good Moss ends up in the Thames and very dead. With the fashion world out for blood, Eddy and Patsy flee to the Riviera. “They kill Kate Moss,” says a deadpan Lumley. “The police are after them, obviously, so they have to flee the country. They go down to the south of France. When you’re thinking of a film, first of all think where you’d like to go.”
The film is directed by Mandie Flatcher, a veteran of Black-Adder II, Only Fools and Horses and later editions of AbFab. Also returning are Julia Sawalha, Jane Horrocks and 90-year-old June Whitfield as Mother. But the film is notable for its non-stop conveyor belt of celebrity cameos. They include Joan Collins, Dame Edna Everage, Jeremy Paxman, Lulu, Graham Norton, Sadie Frost and Stella McCartney, who previously popped up in the TV show. Gliding through them all are Edina and Patsy. Time slides off them.
“They are our alter egos,” says Lumley. “They do all the drinking and smoking because obviously Jennifer and I are pretty good people in real life. They’re surviving so we just hook onto them. They look fine and they seem to keep going. And they seem to get, in the end, roughly what they want albeit with a few bumps along the way. But they’re good friends and they love each other. The truth is that times are quite dark. People are tired and lives can sometimes feel dull. But Patsy and Eddy don’t feel that. They are positive forces, life forces, forces for fun. And they believe that, whatever happens to them, they are going to survive and come out on top.”
Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is on saturation release.