When the BBC launched Absolutely Fabulous — written by Saunders and starring her and Lumley as the drunken, promiscuous stars adrift in a caricature of "Swinging London" — each episode seemed funny, outrageous and brave. The casual flamboyance of the 1960s, and that decade’s influence on longer-term trends in society, music and style, were still largely unexamined and had taken on the features of a legendary era. Yet however right-on retro the show came across, it was launched in the 1990s.
Now the movie moves with much the same cast into 2016, and the roughage (the middling script, the embarrassingly gay undertones, and even the idea that the Sixties simply boiled over with love and flowers) has not just become dated, but has taken on cruel, amoral themes that lurch into view as Edina (Saunders) and Patsy (Lumley) get old, out of phase, and (worst!) go broke thanks to their continual riot and trivial banter. Champagne, "boutique vodka", drug use that will make your hair stand on end ... Well, Charlie Manson was around at the time, invisible in the series, but now a species of designer psycho for our fearful time.
The film must be credited for not turning away from the harshness of social change as it affects would-be beautiful people. Towards the end Edina cries out: "I’m old and fat!" And she is. Her PR agency cannot keep pace with the cooler Millennials; her clients need crisper product tuning; and their lifestyle just seems torrid and redundant. Yet they carry on: every small blot on their façade (such as being wanted by the police for the apparent murder of Kate Moss) can be simply blown away like a mote of cocaine.
Anorectic-spare Patsy does most of the coke, sniffing as haughtily as she totters across rooms, walking into things. She and Edina live together, along with Edina’s daughter Saffy (Sawalha), the ancient crone Mum (Whitfield), the brainless PA Bubbles (Horrocks) and Saffy’s daughter Lola (Donaldson-Holness). They still have Che Guevara posters! A combustible brew indeed, each bouncing off each other like billiard balls, effortlessly selfish.
Apart from the intricacies of this almost-incestuous module, swarms of celebrities crowd the screen. They are — I assume — mostly real people, though apart from a few I don’t recognise them, perhaps because I’m not steeped in British culture. Figures such as Kate Moss and Lulu probably stir vague memories in those of us above a certain age; but many are flickerings on UK television or fashion shows and make no real impact outside their velvet cages. Is that the point? That celebrity itself is fluff and transience?
Perhaps: but the movie revels in the transient.
The plot? Well — there is that "murder", but also, to keep this cantankerous household afloat, Patsy must pretend to be a man (she does rather look like one when she sticks on a moustache) and marry the richest and most lonely woman in the world — who, fortuitously, is actually a man dressed up as a woman, so that the genders are not addled in that mix.
Elsewhere, the LGBTQ (for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) brigade is given full prominence. Those not au fait with the category may find this confusing, though references to "dick-snipping" speak for themselves.
Needless to say, the spoken jokes — catching up with the times — are as foul as the behaviour on display. A reference to the contents of a Jacuzzi is unprintable. And while any hint of morality is doomed, so is sentimentality. This is why the girls’ sorrow (they are not adult women) at their age and decrepitude has a solemn, mournful tang. Sixty is not, after all, the new 30.
Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie
Directed by Mandie Fletcher; written by Jennifer Saunders
Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley, Julia Sawalha, June Whitfield, Jane Horrocks, Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness, Lulu, Kate Moss, and a parade of stars