When it was announced that landmark Britcom “Absolutely Fabulous” would make a comeback with three new episodes timed to coincide with the show’s 20th anniversary, fans worldwide shrieked with joy — and for good reason. Since it debuted in 1991, no show has come close to parodying the fashion industry and its aversion to political correctness with such glee and rapid-fire wit.
The trio of specials (the first two of which already aired on BBC America — the last has been timed to coincide with the 2012 London Olympics) reunites the entire principal cast, including bitchy PR exec Edina (Eddy) Monsoon (series co-creator Jennifer Saunders), her long-suffering daughter Saffy (Julia Sawalha) and her stick-thin, pill-popping best friend Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley).
If the new episodes are any indication, Edina and Patsy haven’t changed. 20 years on and they’re still boozy, self-righteous, indulgent and outspoken. In other words: absolutely fabulous.
Longtime BBC producer Jon Plowman has been with the show from the very beginning. Before “Absolutely Fabulous” debuted, he was responsible for Saunders’ popular skit show “French and Saunders” and has since gone on to produce a slew of award-winning comedy shows, including “Little Britain” and “Extras.”
Plowman took some time to talk with Indiewire from Britain about the return of “Absolutely Fabulous.”
Whose idea was it to resurrect the show for its 20th birthday?
Somebody pointed out to me that 2011 was 20 years since we did the pilot, and 2012 would be 20 years since we did the series. It seemed like a such a huge amount of time that I felt I had to point it out to Jennifer [Saunders]. We all thought, bloody hell, the whole cast is still alive — which is itself a minor miracle — so we thought, well there’s no excuse for not doing it. We were originally going to do one [episode], but then the studio asked for three.
When it was brought to your attention that it had in fact been a whopping 20 years since the series debuted, were you caught off guard?
You think, bloody hell! I thought it was 10 at most. When somebody tells you that, you think, my god it’s been 30 years since I did that or this.
Had you tried to get the gang back together since the last special in 2004?
It’s been a show where we’ve sort of never said never. The first time I thought we finished it was somewhere in the late ’90s where we did a show called “The Last Shout.” We all thought, well that’s it, hooray hurrah, well done everybody, thank you very much. At the end of that, Jennifer decided she was going to write another show, a show called “Mirrorball,” which we made a pilot of with virtually the same cast. The pilot’s not bad. So she then set off to make the series, and then I remember she rang me up halfway through and said, “I sort of can’t get Edina and Patsy out of this. They keep sort of popping up in my head while I’m writing it.” So I said, “Well, let’s do some more.”
When the first of the three new episodes premiered in Britain, it drew 7 million views, not bad considering the “Downton Abbey” season finale was airing at the same time. Were you surprised it still had this massive popularity, 20 years on?
It was very nice. Well, yes I was surprised truthfully. You never quite know whether it’s a thing where people will think, that was then and this is now. I think part of what has happened in between, was because of time passing, you’re able to look back and say, “Well, that didn’t work quite as well.” Like odd things. We redesigned the kitchen to the way it had been back before the last season. Jennifer was intent that she wanted to write something that was set mostly inside the house with the main cast. By and large, that’s how it was.
Two decades on, the show’s format has remained intact. The only thing that appears to have change/evolved has been the clothes, Edina’s home and the rampant pop cultural references.
I remember when I first read the pilot script that Jennifer had written with a pencil in an exercises book. She asked me to take it look. She was quite sheepish about it. It felt like she was initiating everybody into a world that no one knew existed, really. A world that was sort of ahead. In other words, Jennifer has always stayed slightly ahead of where the audience are. The look of things and the fact that she had an isolation tank, when nobody had an isolation tank; it was the sort of thing that only people on the edge of fashion would know about.
I mean — it’s been a weird one. When we started it, part of the point was to point at this part of the world and laugh at it, and say, “Look at these people, they are clearly bonkers.” Maybe they caught up with us.
When we started it, the people who thought it was funny were the exact people we were laughing at.
That’s the funny paradox about the show. The “bonkers” characters are by far the most endearing of the ensemble.
Yes. I think it appeals to a wish fulfillment thing in everybody. We all think, wouldn’t it be nice to live like Patsy and Edina? Wouldn’t it be nice just to drink champagne and not really appear to work at all. The second episode of the new ones, Patsy comes in and does what appears to be five minutes of work on the magazine. She snorts a line of coke and her working day is over. We all sort of think, wouldn’t that be fun?
Like “Sex and the City,” but more extreme.
Yeah, but we did it first. It was very nice that they ran with our idea. I watched (and probably not many people did), the second “Sex and the City” movie, and it takes place in Morocco. I met the writer afterwards and he said, “You did that.” And I said, “Yeah we did that, but in half an hour.” We were lucky that good people followed us.
What was Jennifer’s original pitch to you some 20 years ago?
It came from a sketch. I produced the sketch show “French and Saunders.” There was a sketch in one episode that had Dawn French playing Saffy and Jennifer playing Edina. That felt like it had life in it. It didn’t feel like it had to be pitched anew. We wanted to run with these characters.
We had various conversations when we started. First thing, I had Jennifer explain who people were; who was this designer Christian Lacroix? We had a pre-discussion about whether we should keep the real designer names or make it up. Also the title. It felt like a gift to critics; “Absolutely fabulous? Oh no, it’s not.” But thankfully they didn’t say that.
I remember thinking it was a bit like “42nd Street.” If it isn’t like that, then it sort of ought to be. And if the world of fashion and PR isn’t like in “Ab Fab,” then it sort of ought to be. People tell us it’s fairly accurate, even now.
Without Joanna Lumley there wouldn’t be a show. Since she wasn’t in the skit that inspired the pilot, when did she come on board?
What happened was Jennifer had somebody in mind when was writing Patsy. She also had in mind that Patsy wasn’t a recurring character. Maybe she’d just pop up from time to time. We offered it to Joanna because she’d done a play in the West End of London written by an American, funnily enough. She played a character who had a huge amount of shoes. She just had, you could see, this ability to rise above the material — but that’s not fair of Jennifer (laughs). She knew how to do high comedy. That was joy in watching her. She said yes within 24 hours.
She and Jennifer had worked together but not much. Once they got going, we knew we wanted Patsy in every episode, so she’s still there.
Take me back to the first time you saw the two of them on set together.
From memory I think it felt slightly like Jennifer was treating Joanna like she was Dawn [French]. Joanna’s an actress. I think to begin with, she found the way of working quite hard. She found the assumption that not necessarily every word of the script would be there on day one, and that things could change on the fly — she found that a bit disconcerting. But she worked out quickly that this was actually a lot of fun.
And she absolutely knew the character, that was the extraordinary thing. She’s said publicly, that she felt like she was playing from an area she knew, because she had been a model. She had known people like Patsy.
You Brits sure like your seasons short. I read rumors that there’s a full order of a new season coming out next year…
Well it depends what you mean by a season. In America, that means 22 episodes.
Yeah, I know that’s never going to happen.
That’s neeeever going to happen. Jennifer has talked about making a movie. I know the BBC would love to have another season. There’s a sort of open bank account to do another three next Christmas, so it might be another thing we’ll do as Christmas specials. But that of course depends on whether the cast stays alive and whether the audience still wants us.