TELEVISION / Fabulously dedicated followers of fashion

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The Independent Culture
IF YOU'VE been feeling stampeded by the recent wave of hype for Absolutely Fabulous (BBC 1), then the first episode of the second series put the cap on it. There were guest appearances by Helena Bonham Carter, Mandy Rice-Davies, Richard E Grant, Germaine Greer and Suzi Quatro, all obligingly appearing in one of Edina's self-gratifying dreams. The message was clear - we've got clout. It's an odd spectacle - a comedy that made its name by mocking the sheep-like followers of fashion and which is now itself so fashionable that it can assemble its own celebrity flock.

Last time round, the programme had the advantage of surprise - it came out of the blue with its edge of real nastiness (you never saw Terry getting legless drunk and sneering at June) and brilliant observation. Three episodes in, you were still trying to come to terms with its confidence, the fact that it wouldn't hedge around trying not to discomfit the audience and some of the laughs, mine anyway, were distinctly uncomfortable. It hit its moment perfectly too. We'd been told many times already that the winners of the Eighties were devious or greedy but nobody had demonstrated so deliriously how silly they could be. For anyone who has ever nursed a worm of envy while turning the pages of Hello magazine - those accusing, perfect lives - Absolutely Fabulous was genuinely liberating.

Appropriately enough, the opening episode of the second series included a nice crack at the Hello ethos (Patsy gets involved in a sex-scandal and is promptly invited to bare her reception room to the nation) but it's already become possible to wonder whether the reaction to the last series didn't have a little touch of hysteria to it - the sudden, wild laughter of someone who's been bottling things up. This is probably ungrateful, though. The pretensions won't ever disappear and if some of the gags threaten to wear thin - Saffron's disapproval and the vacuities of consumption - Absolutely Fabulous is still capable of hilarious aggression.

'No bloody mini-bar,' Patsy complains when she and Edina check into an exclusive private hospital for some leisure surgery, though she cheers up when she finds that the drugs trolley has cigarettes on the lower shelf. My favourite line, though, was the scornful outburst about picture- bylines: 'It's bad enough having to read most of the crap that's written without having to look at a photo of the bastard that wrote it.'

The Man from Auntie (BBC 1), Ben Elton's new series, wasn't ready in time for review (I'll catch up next week) but Thursday evening is already strong on comedy without these two heavyweight additions. Over on BBC 2 The All-New Alexei Sayle Show has been quietly performing miracles, without the help of Radio Times covers or blanket press coverage. For my money, he has the edge on Absolutely Fabulous. I can't advance any complicated arguments about this really, I just laughed more often. From the title sequence (a hilarious pastiche of Rhoda) to the throwaway jokes in the credits for his Australian soap (Psycho Ward Eleven), there's a feeling of prodigality about the way he throws gags around.

'You know, I genuinely try as hard as I can to buy British,' he says sincerely, as he walks through an electrical store, and then his voice hardens for the punchline, 'so in consequence my house is full of slightly second-rate crap.' If the British had invented the Walkman, he continues, 'it would have been a teak box . . . covered in leatherette, with the headphones out of a Lancaster bomber'. The running gags are good too, in particular Egbert and Bill, two performance artists of ineffable stupidity, and a garrulous Scouser who sits in the corner of a pub bending your ear about the fights he's got into. Last night he was explaining how he'd been barred from the General Synod for nutting the Vatican Envoy during the last ecumenical conference. 'He called me a twat 'cos I disagreed with him over Trinitarian literalism,' he explains in an aggrieved tone.

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