One week after I saw Absolutely Fabulous, I saw Ghostbusters. I saw it in the same cinema, on the same day of the week, at the same approximate time, midday. I saw both films for the same reason: because for many many years, they have been a part of my personal entertainment environment. I am “a fan” of them. They have particular intrinsic value to me.
Each time I saw a film the cinema was almost empty, but each time I attended the rest of the audience was totally different demographically. Both times, the bulk of the attendees could be summed up as being members of one of two social groups. This is what they were:
During Ghostbusters, the audience was 70% adult male nerd archetypes, 30% girl-children attended by their grandparents. During Absolutely Fabulous, the audience was 40% awkward-stage teen girl “friendship groups,” and 60% old ladies. I mean old ladies. White hair and perm old ladies. One and a half-inch pleated, three-quarter length polyester skirt old ladies. These old ladies were also largely attending in friendship groups.
The audience for Ghostbusters makes perfect sense to me. Little girls are being taken to see grown up women being cool heroes; grown up boy fans of the previous Ghostbusters are going alone to check if this new version holds up (We all know about the climate re: nerd bros and Ghostbusters — these may have been supportive viewers or bitter ones. Either way they’re pre-explained by the franchise’s existence as a masculine property).
Teenaged girls going to see AbFab makes decent, somewhat obvious sense, too. Patsy and Eddy are a friendship group against the world, and they’re women who say, in deed if not word, fuck the patriarchy. They’re role models for teenagers, like they’re role models for adults, because they exist sans responsibility. They’re a riot. Total stand-out appeal.
Old ladies, though. The thing is, I discover, I don’t actually expect old ladies…to like anything. That’s a matter of shame, and personal shortcoming, but it’s also a matter of comprehension: we aren’t shown old ladies doing anything in “the media.” Are we?
Actually the last time I went to the cinema, I saw the Vuvulini. That was a year ago. I forgot. And Fury Road wasn’t a film marketed as for old ladies; there weren’t any in the cinema then, as I recall.
Absolutely Fabulous showed me I was stupid in the first few scenes. Patsy asks Eddy who will play her in the movie of Eddy’s book, an autobiography. Eddy explains that it’s not even really a book yet, it’s just a meeting about a book, but that…no yes, of course, eventually it will be a film, of course. And Patsy asks again, in exactly the same tone of voice: who will play her in the movie of Eddy’s book? Oh fuck. I’m a dope. These ladies are here because Patsy and Eddy are old. These ladies are in the audience because they wanted to see a movie about themselves. Absolutely Fabulous is about old ladies.
And in fact, it is. It’s scripted that way. Age has always been a joke and a caution, in AbFab, because you can’t be cool if you’re not young but of course Patsy and Eddy have always demanded to be let into coolness anyway. That’s their whole thing: they defy the rules. They know them, they decry them, and then they break them. But you can’t actually escape elderliness. It’s not only a joke scene flash-forward with fake tits on elastic and great laughs about pissing yourself. Being old is real and it’s coming for you if you don’t die. They’re finally looking the devil right in the eye.
Harsh moments of belittlement fall heavier on Eddy than they do in the televisions series. This is a film, and it feels like a film — it’s a climax and it feels like a climax (classic gags from the series are repeated, and it feels like self-respect instead of cheap or lazy; recognition that the jokes were so often really that good, that television isn’t of lesser quality though it may be of lesser prestige). Her book is rejected from publication, with cruel words about her irrelevance, and Saunders performs self-doubt with an emotional nudity that lasts only a moment but which has never been seen on Edina Monsoon’s face before. She’s wailed, she’s moaned, she’s panicked, she’s been vulnerable. But she’s never been… honest…?
In response she does everything wrong, acts in desperation, and makes a mistake much bigger than usual. Eddy’s always lived “from self-induced crisis to self-induced crisis,” as Saffy shouted in season one and wrote into her autobiographical play in season four, but she’s always coped with them. She’s thrived on the “rise again” part of the cycle. But she’s old now! Her granddaughter is a teenager. Her daughter’s a divorcee who’s realised that centring her mother’s needs, even to directly contradict them, is unhealthily deprioritising her own. If Saffy’s old enough to calm down, get over herself, and self-actualise…then how old is Eddy? Too old for this shit. She’s tired and nobody will take her seriously. She’s lost the power to force vindication through. She runs away. Which could also be phrased as, “she retires to France.” OLD.
This is a colossal spoiler, but before the film is up Eddy and Saffy tell each other “I love you.” If you’ve ever cared about this series, or these characters, you will find so many circles closed here. Relationships and differences that have been evident and mined for emotional comedy since 1992, characters and foibles that have been precious because they’re hilarious and hilarious because they’re real enough to become precious have been steadily growing, interacting, changing and stubbornly hardening in place. We get everything released here: Saffy and her mother speaking honestly about their mistakes and weaknesses. Why does Patsy stick with Eddy anyway. What’s the meaning of life. What makes a place, the place. And even “why was each series so short” — the collected sum of this show thirty-two twenty minute episodes and seven specials. It’s because if you go away for a while, the people want you more. And when you come back, you’re fresher, even if you are older. You’re only as irrelevant as you feel, darling. And if you need a rest, you jolly well take one. Drink this. Swallow that. You’ll feel better in a jiffy. You can do this. Any problem is transformed by determination.
Almost every regular female guest star returns for the film (and that’s commitment to theme). Beyond Saunders (58), Lumley (70), Sawalha (47), Jane Horrocks (52) has plenty to do as Bubble. June Whitfield (90) is present throughout. Lulu does a Taggart turn at sixty-seven. Mo Gaffney (57) cameos. Kathy Burke (52) has a few good scenes. Harriet Thorpe (59) and Helen Lederer (61) are vital. Celia Imrie (63) is as delightfully awful as always as Claudia Bing. Janette Tough (69) shouldn’t have played the role she did, but should surely have had a role. Dawn French (59) reprises her morning television host role. Jerry Hall (60) commands a long joke. Llewella Gideon (49) is as gleeful as always. Kate Moss provides the pivot of the film’s drama when Eddy accidentally murders her — Kate Moss, the forty-two year old supermodel. And Emma Bunton retains her “baby” crown at forty.
Who, in 1997, ever thought that Emma Bunton would be the one Spice to appear in another comedy? Who? NOBODY. But that’s loyalty. That’s a confident refusal to bow to pop relevance, when you’re the one making pop culture. AbFab knows the rules. It decries them. And it breaks them. Old means not dead. You’re still here. Remain visible. Roll with the punches. Keep the party going.
Oldness would be a cheap way to excuse the faults in this film. I won’t do it. The film ends on a trans joke that could have been avoided entirely if AbFab hasn’t refused to acknowledge lesbians since Saffy confirmed in season one that she wasn’t one after all. Jennifer Saunders, I love you. Your love isn’t offered as widely as it should be. Thank you for this film — it will last me til I die. It’s a true regret that it won’t last others in the same way.