I was 31 years old when Ab Fab first appeared on our TV screens; a young mother, with two tiny kids, a scary mortgage, an industrial sized case of hypochondria and a 1930’s house, in dire need of ‘doing up.’ Maybe this was why the supposedly delightfully funny, but obnoxious, Edina and Patsy passed me by – like two, not so stately, ships in the night. My mind was evidently elsewhere. Perhaps my sense of humour had gone walkabout back in my 30’s, due to several unremitting adverse personal circumstances…….. perhaps.
It wasn’t as if I’d not given the comedic talents of Jennifer Saunders a go, well before Ab Fab, via the French and Saunders Show, which the husband just could not stomach. Indeed, the usually calm husband’s aversion to Jen and Dawn verged on the mentally unstable. ‘I HATE those two!’ he’d shout at the telly from the armchair. ‘They are NOT FUNNY – turn it over.’ I used to take their part, being that one of the husband’s main criticisms was Dawn’s FATNESS – or ‘the hippo’ as he preferred to call her. (I know, I know…… but we’re not all politically correct, and fatness tends to be a lifestyle choice, as I know to my detriment, when choosing mega-sized Teaser bars, instead of a boring apples multi-pack.) ‘Being fat has got nothing to do with her talent as a comedienne or actress,’ I used to righteously whinge, ‘what about good old Hattie Jacques?’ I would add, bringing up our mutual admiration of a good Carry On. I carried on with my determination to find the Mses French and Saunders funny – subsequently failing and pulling the plug on French and Saunders forever.
Then The Vicar of Dibley came along and people loved it, and still I didn’t quite get it. I was in a small local choir at the time and the women there couldn’t get enough of Dibley. We even had to include the theme song in one of our concerts…..the lord is my shepherd dah dah dah……. Nah, didn’t do it for me.
And today I went to see the new Ab Fab movie with the friend (I have one friend.) I’d seen an interview on The One Show with Saunders and Julia Sawalha (Saffy) who was definitely looking like she now has a ‘stretched foetus of a face’ – a line from the movie – via a not so good plastic surgeon. The film looked to be a hoot from the trailer and absolutely stuffed with celebrity cameos. Ooh, it’ll be worth going just to play spot the famous person thought I – little knowing that the trailer contains all the best bits and should, in fact, have constituted the movie, which is over-long by about 60 minutes.
For Absolutely Fabulous is anything but fabulous, and I came out feeling somewhat vindicated in my 90’s indifference to the TV show. The TV show originated with a very short sketch in the original French and Saunders show, and the movie feels like a series of sketches that don’t quite have the momentum or content required for the big screen. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt like leaving a cinema before the film ends.
Yet again, I can’t fully explain why this movie doesn’t work. It’s something to do with the writing, and something to do with the directing, and something to do with the messy, none too crisp editing. It’s also that all those cameos don’t quite work – particularly Lulu’s – and the fact that a very long interview with Jerry Hall, on the red carpet, dies an even longer death. It’s significant that the people around me in the theatre barely raised a smile, let alone a raucous laugh. Any laughter that did arise had the curious quality of being ‘polite laughter’. As if the Ab Fab fans felt a loyalty to their inebriated heroines and so were determined to show some sort of appreciation of the messy and too drawn-out proceedings.
As in the TV series Saunders veers between the shallow, narcissistic world of PR and celebrity, and the real world; as held up in a mirror by her daughter Saffy. That tension is supposed to produce humour I assume, but most of the time that humour falls strangely flat – like Edina falling flat on her arse exiting a taxi cab whilst paralytic. To be fair Edina does do a bit of aquatic soul searching towards the end of the movie, showing us that she’s fully aware that age, in her case, definitely has withered her, and that maybe it’s time to knock her brand of selfish idiocy on the head. If you’re an Ab Fab fan then you’ll be pleased to know that this change of heart doesn’t last.
Jennifer Saunders is a good, if slightly intimidating actress (intimidating in person too I should think) – as you get the sense that beneath the ridiculous Edina exterior the no-nonsense, very posh Saunders is still there – but the star presence, that shines so powerfully for her rabid Ab Fab TV fans, seems to diminish on the big screen. And all the star cameo appearances in the world can’t save a script that struggles to repeat the success of the original.
What was needed was an American style coterie of quick fire writers, supplying rapid gags and witty asides to fill up some of the ‘dead air’ as we moved from scene to scene and character to character. Better still, they should have drafted in whoever wrote Eddie The Eagle. But Ms Saunders wrote the whole thing herself. Sometimes it really is better to get by with a little help from your screen writing friends.
The saving grace is Joanna Lumley. At 70 Lumley is just brilliant. Oozing class (strange when playing a promiscuous, drug taking, hard drinking, looney old bat) stupendous comic timing and the ability to contort her still beautiful features into all kinds of grotesquely leering grimaces. The leching tongue thing she does, at every male in the vicinity, is comic genius.
I went to see Ab Fab really wanting to like it. To finally be able to say, after all these years, that Yes! I finally get it. But the best I can say is that the friend enjoyed it and laughed, in what appeared to be all the right places; and the friend’s reactions are generally indicative of what goes down well with the general public.
I have a feeling that the Ab Fab movie will gets its chance to fully shine when it comes out on DVD – perhaps that’s where it belonged in the first place.