Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Absolutely Unfabulous

Downton mania aside, one of the most anticipated shows in the festive TV schedule this year was the return of Absolutely Fabulous. As early as November, coverage of the forthcoming episode began to appear, and Jennifer Saunders joined Twitter as @ferrifrump. Fashion, celebrities, gossip and debauchery - not since the 90's have we seemed quite so obsessed with "Who's in, who's out, who's sexy, who's not sexy, who's clever, who's not clever". Clearly its creators, and the nation, felt like a contemporary institution was about to make a much welcomed comeback.

I was 10 when Ab Fab first aired, and - as a full-blown media brat - I instantly recognised the Edina "type" from the kind of people who regularly populated our family kitchen of a weekend, talking of Harvey Nic's, Bolly, and lunches at Bibendum in South Ken. It was that halcyon moment in the mid-90's, when the rich were rich, the supermodels really were super, and the "we live like this" generation properly came into their own. As Edina quips in Season 2, "what you can't tell about a person by what they have chosen you to see on their coffee table isn't worth knicker elastic". My parents and their friends laughed at Ab Fab, the same way my friends and I laugh now about Dalston Superstars; they could hardly bear to admit it, but it was funny because there were elements which were oh so true.

But Ab Fab had something more. It wasn't just a comic reflection or parody; like the very best comedy, it stayed one step ahead of its audience. At the risk of sounding hideously "industry", it was like a trend report in a show. From the clothes, to the brand references, to the interior design, Ab Fab seemed to be the zeitgeist, not just represent it. Even Mary Portas, then Head of Visual Merchandising at Harvey Nichols, understood the PR value in allowing Edina to park her car on the pavement outside the store. Where else on TV at that time, was the image of a modern, aspirational lifestyle available? Coronation Street wasn't exactly heaving with Brabantia bins, Emma Bridgewater porcelain and bottles of Aqualibre, now was it, darling? And let us never forget that Edina was adopting children "one in every colour, one in every room", long before the Jolie-Pitts got going.

So, what made me really sad about the latest episode, was the gaping hole where real cultural insight used to lie. Yes, there were jokes about Twitter and the Kardashians, but those were easy wins, and fairly obvious ones at that. The media industry has evolved from the 90's into an engorged, self-propogating monstrosity, simply heaving with do's and don'ts, ins and outs. How could the Ab Fab writers have failed to leverage the fertile comedy ground today's Edinas are currently stomping around on? You'd think twenty minutes spent swathed in a cape from APC, on a sun lounger at Babington House with an iPad in one hand, and a cup of flat white in the other should at least get them started.