Media: Let them lust after Lumley: With her eye - and ear - for a laugh, Jennifer Saunders needn't be concerned about her co-star stealing the limelight, says Jaci Stephen
Wednesday 26 January 1994
Suddenly, a voice axed through the chaos: 'Actually, I don't fancy Joanna Lumley.' Jaws cracked on to plates; eyeballs took leave of their sockets. The scene was a Bateman cartoon: The Man Who Didn't Fancy Joanna Lumley.
To many, Lumley is the undoubted star of Absolutely Fabulous. Gorgeous, pouting and undeniably sexy, she has already picked up numerous awards, including a Bafta, for her brilliant performance as Patsy: nymphomaniac, drunk and best friend of fashion PR Edina. Jennifer Saunders, who plays Edina and wrote the series, has also picked up a Bafta and an Emmy for the script, yet male television executives continue to whisper that she must be pretty peeved to have had the limelight stolen from her by her pal.
Lumley has certainly revealed herself to be a great comic actress, and the celebration of her new star status is justified. But a sitcom does not propel itself from BBC 2 to BBC 1 after one series on the strength of one performer, and to believe it does is to detract from the many other reasons behind the show's success: reasons solely to do with the imagination, vision and satirical eye of Jennifer Saunders.
Until now, Saunders has been most widely recognised and praised as part of the duo French and Saunders, where she proves not only an acute observer of human foibles and idiosyncrasies (especially those of women), but a versatile actress. Yet it is her partner, Dawn French, who seems to command most media attention. When the pair appeared recently on Des O'Connor Tonight, the host addressed most of his questions to Dawn. An insider told me that each time Jennifer spoke, Des cut across her. The edited result was virtually a tete-a-tete between Des and Dawn.
But Saunders is not just a talent in her own right, but an enabler of the talents of others. In show business terms, enablers allow others to become stars; they are the people whose sole aim is the quality of the finished product rather than self-glorification, and they will draw on the best resources they can to make that quality the highest. Saunders knew better than anyone how brilliant and successful Lumley's Patsy would be: she created her.
It is reported that when the idea of Absolutely Fabulous was first put to BBC Television's then head of comedy, Robin Nash, he said he could not see what was funny about two women getting drunk. But that's rather like saying you don't find funny the idea of a man who shouts all the time, as did Basil Fawlty; or a man who grumbles all the time, as does Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave. The best comedy always exploits one particular aspect of characters' lives in order that the audience then sees the world through their eyes and empathises with them.
Absolutely Fabulous is not about two women getting drunk, despite its central characters being two women who regularly do get drunk. It is a satire on the world of public relations, a brilliant observation on aspects of female friendship (the battles with weight and men, the 'Let's go on holiday]' mentality that strikes after the first bottle of bubbly), and a hilarious exploration of the situations, both fantasy and real, in which women find themselves. The stories are well constructed, well paced and varied in tone, and the one-liners outstanding.
Most important, it is real television in that the material would not work in any other medium. Most of today's sitcoms consist of words that do little more than accompany people moving between the kitchen and the living-room, and might just as well be on radio (indeed, many of them have come from radio).
But Saunders has as good an eye for the visual joke as she does an ear for the verbal one: a pair of feet jumping on to four different weighing scales, hoping for a better result; a mobile phone in an iso-tank; a wine tasting where the bottles seem to take on the life of real characters. You could take away the sound, and still you would laugh.
In the 10 years I have been reviewing television, nothing has made me laugh as much as Absolutely Fabulous. Men will continue to drip saliva at the feet of Ms Lumley - who can blame them? - but Saunders's extraordinary imagination is the backbone of the show's success. If you see Des O'Connor, tell him.
'Absolutely Fabulous' starts tomorrow on BBC 1 at 9.30pm.
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