There's something mildly alarming about entering a hotel room to interview Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley about the new Absolutely Fabulous movie. Not that you expect the actresses to be anything like their screen counterparts; dissolute fashion PR Edina Monsoon and her best friend/co-dependent/hanger-on Patsy Stone, but you might wonder if the two women would slip too easily into character and that the encounter might end up as an impromptu Ab Fab sketch.
Lumley is sporting a Patsy beehive, but both actresses are on best behaviour, neither cutting across each other nor finishing each other's sentences. Saunders tends to do most of the talking, which is perhaps only correct as she not only wrote Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, but created the BBC sitcom from which it stems.
Originating in a 1987 French and Saunders sketch about generational role reversal – with a badly behaved, permanently adolescent mother and her sensible and prematurely parental daughter, Saunders (Dawn French having forsaken television in order to concentrate on raising her adopted daughter) grew the sketch into a full series that became one of the funniest sitcoms of the 1990s, with its ground-breaking satire on celebrity culture and the fads of what had yet to become known as ‘fashionistas’.
And having been there at the very beginning, Dawn French is partly responsible for the film, having finally put an end to Saunders’ prevarication.
“We were doing our New Year's show on Radio 2”, explains Saunders. “And Dawn said ‘what are you doing in the next year?’ and I said ‘I'm going to write the Ab Fab film’ and she said ‘alright – and if you don't, you have to pay me ten thousand pounds’ and I said ‘okay’. It was the greatest incentive I ever had... I probably wouldn't have done it without that bet.”
The movie sees Edina and Patsy running away to the South of France after Edina accidentally pushes Kate Moss off a balcony at a swanky showbiz party.
“I had written it and almost sold the film when someone asked ‘Have you asked Kate?’”, says Saunders. “I just imagined she'd say yes. So I felt really nervous sending her the script. I got a text back saying ‘love it’. That's all you get from Kate... ‘So you'll do it?’ ‘Yeah’...”
As befits a comedy, that, if it didn't exactly invent our present celebrity culture, recognised it before most, the film is crowded with over 60 cameos by the famous and the fashionable, from Joan Collins, Barry Humphries, Jeremy Paxman and Graham Norton to Lily Cole and Emma Bunton, along with more fashionistas and supermodels than a Milan catwalk.
“My happiest moment was when we were shooting a sort of fantasy sequence and I looked over and I had Stella McCartney on my shoulder, Lara Stone, Daisy Lowe, Alexa Chung, Lily Cole, Suki Waterhouse and Jourdan Dunn, and Kate wafting in”, says Saunders. “And I thought this is my fantasy – I don't know why I'm pretending it's Edina's. The great thing is that because they knew each other, if someone said ‘cut’, they just went ‘Anyway, the other day I saw so-and-so’...”
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And while press reports that Harry Styles and Kim Kardashian will be making appearances are denied, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie does throw up some surreal pairings. Who ever thought that Janette Tough from Scottish comedy duo The Krankies would ever be sharing screen time with Jon Hamm from Mad Men?
“There was a great day after filming near the Prospect of Whitby pub on the banks of the Thames”, says Saunders. “We all ended up having fish and chips in the pub, and there's a photograph of Kate [Moss] and John Hamm and Bruno Tonioli and Janette Krankie and Celia Imrie and Lulu. The staff remained completely calm, God bless them, as more and more people coming in... everybody in costume. It was terrific.”
Were they all old mates? And did anyone turn down the offer of a cameo?
“No, some are new mates”, says Saunders. “Rebel [Wilson] is a new mate, Jon Hamm is a new mate, Gwendoline Christie [Brienne in Game of Thrones] is a new mate. Did anyone turn us down? Obama, I think. Obama couldn't be in it.”
There is an argument, to which I partly subscribe, that says that Ab Fab properly belongs to the 1990s, and that the increased reliance on celebrities in later series and specials has been a symptom of its difficulties in adapting to the 21st century.
“It is a different beast”, admits Saunders of today's media and celebrity landscape. “I think the film reflects the fact that Patsy and Eddy don't survive so well in that world because they're not in control of it any more. The idea of PR now is that anyone can do it. Anyone can review a film, anyone can get their stuff online, so it is a very different world.”
“OK! and Hello! had only just started whenever it was we began”, adds Lumley, who says she is resistant to the lure of social media. “My agent very kindly opened up a Twitter account for me, and I've now put it on hold because I never use it or read it or do anything to it, except charities say ‘will you Tweet this?’”
Lumley's charitable work and activism straddles various causes, mostly famously fighting for the right of Nepalese Gurkha soldiers who served in the British Army to settle in Britain. Does she ever wish she could be more like Patsy, caring for nothing but her next cigarette and bottle of vodka?
“Patsy doesn't care about anything and sometimes you think ‘what a relief that would be’,” says Lumley, who turned 70 in May. “But she couldn't bear it without Eddy.... Eddy is her lifeline... somebody will get the car, somebody will pay... I do adore that Patsy doesn't know the word for cash, she just says ‘hand money’.”
Absolutely Fabulous may be rooted in the 1990s, but it has been hugely influential in raising the profile of female talent – not only showcasing Saunders' and Lumley's skill at knockabout humour, but with its predominantly female support cast of Julia Sawalha, Jane Horrocks and June Whitfield, along with its script editor Ruby Wax. The movie is directed by Mandie Fletcher, who also helmed the show’s 2012 Olympic special episode. Do the actors keep in touch in between the increasingly lengthy hiatuses between Ab Fab-related projects?
“Unless you actually work with them you don't often get a chance to see them,” says Lumley. “June Whitfield became 90 during the shoot, and I had done two episodes on her life interviewing her [for a Radio 4 birthday profile], and we've done a play together so I know June differently from Ab Fab.
“The rest of us, you know what it's like with your best friends, you don't have to catch up – we do quite a lot of 'Look at you!' and we all try to look our best so people would not go 'Oh my God...'.”
‘Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie’ opens nationwide on 1 July
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