It was almost twenty-seven years ago since Absolutely Fabulous erupted onto British television screens. As a nation, we love Patsy and Eddie: their style, their debauchery and all their irreverent ebullience. Retrospectively, the show has been ranked number seventeen in the BFI’s top 100 British Television Programmes.
Initially, it seemed America was not as keen. When the show aired on Comedy Central, the L.A. Times forewarned viewers “When was the last time a hit comedy centered on two 40ish women who chain-smoke and guzzle booze for breakfast? They even smoke dope without having to suffer horrible consequences—that is, other than looking a bit pathetic.”. Yet, with an appropriate air of defiant triumph, the booze guzzling, drug taking duo effortlessly charmed American audiences.
When writing unruly women, contemporary screenwriters have cited Ab Fab as a source of inspiration. In an interview with Caitlin Moran, Lena Dunham (creator of the seismically popular comedy-drama series GIRLS that aired in 2012) revealed, “Ab Fab was a hugely formative influence on me…seeing a woman on screen behaving madly and badly and tearing things up”.
Through the awards it won, the viewers it garnered and the critics it impressed, GIRLS demonstrated the demand and on-screen space for flawed, badly behaved, fully-rounded female characters.
With this demonstrable appetite for wayward women, and the backing of Amy Poehler, came the green-lighting of Broad City. Previously a small web series with a cult following, the brainchild of comedians Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson followed in the footsteps of Ab Fab to be aired on Comedy Central in 2014.
Broad City sparked debate over the female protagonist’s drug use, toilet humour and sexual escapades. Yet, the confidence of the protagonists makes them irrepressible through their brazenness. Just like Eddie and Patsy, Abbi and Ilana possess an enviably flamboyant nonchalance. They are each other’s enablers, confidants and constant companions. Both shows intimately explore the platonic relationship between two women in all its hilarity and generosity. Meanwhile, romantic interests are firmly and refreshingly secondary.
The irrefutable success of GIRLS and Broad City alike seemingly initiated a veritable feast of female friendship focused content. Grace and Frankie in 2015, Insecure in 2016, The Bold Type and GLOW in 2017, Good Girls in 2018, Dead to Me, Trinkets and Tuca and Bertie in 2019.
It seems an unfair realisation then, given Absolutely Fabulous’ catalytic influence over the content and commissioning of these programmes, that each title on that vast list is, in fact, American. The tiny proportion of airtime given to female friendship in the UK is, frankly, rather disrespectful to the institution of Jennifer Saunders’ genius.
But, ‘Killing Eve was aired by the BBC’ I hear you scream! Firstly, if that narrative is about friendship, we are all safer in solitude. Secondly, close, but not quite. Further inspection reveals it was (shockingly) BBC America. Phoebe Waller-Bridge on the How To Fail podcast recalled the show was “turned down sort of by everybody, actually. All the channels in this country. I thought it was a goner… and then they sent it to BBC America who very simply just went… great! That was it. We love it!”. A BAFTA award-winning masterpiece nearly flushed down the loo by the sheer idiocy of our commissioners. God bless America.
So, why exactly is this happening?
We Brits clearly enjoy content about female friendship, the pilot for Derry Girls averaged 2.5 million viewers and was commissioned for a second series before the next episode had even aired. Similarly, the BBC Three comedy Witless and the gratingly dubbed ‘female Inbetweeners’ series Drifters enjoyed respective success. Without becoming passé, female friendship is a near certain safety net for British networks to generate validating volumes of viewers.
Is it the duo dynamic, rather than the content, that there is opposition towards perhaps? After all, Ab Fab first aired in the 90s. Is this less about gender and more about generation? I could believe it, if it weren’t for two men by the name of Jez and Mark.
Ah, Peep Show. How could you forget the programme every millennial man publicly proclaims his love for in his online dating profile in a bid to appear good humoured and relatable? Hilariously tragic, the show traverses through the pairs flawed and often selfish relationship in all its comical glory.
In May this year, show creator Sam Bain demonstrated his commitment to diversity in an essay for the Guardian, in which he announced plans for a female-led reboot of Peep Show. Where is it being developed? Of course – America!
Bain’s enthuses, “From Absolutely Fabulous…to Chewing Gum, there are few things more enjoyable than watching a first-rate comic actress being allowed to make a total tit of herself.” Agreed. Yet, shoehorning women into roles meant for men is more likely to allow said actress making a tit of herself to go truly tits up. Who could forget the reaction to the re-cast Ghostbusters?
Could Bain not have workshopped an original concept for two female leads? Put eloquently by the New Statesman, “what will inevitably come with that failure to match the original series’ will be an onslaught of veiled misogyny, predicated on the idea that female leads will always fail to be as good as male ones.” Remakes will always face preconceptions. Historically, original content is king (or rather, in this case, queen?).
The opening line of Absolutely Fabulous was “thank you”, said scornfully to Eddie as she silences her pounding music and characteristically swigs from last night’s bottle of red. Jennifer Saunders, thank you, indeed, for the influence you provided, the trends you have provoked and the work you have produced. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Narratives of female friendship cannot simply be disregarded as dated. In the words of Eddie herself, “it’s not a fad darling, it’s not like crystals”. America is generating a plethora of great content, but please, can we have some too?
by Lydia Spencer-Elliott
Lydia is a graduate of The University of Exeter with a degree in English and Film. Her favourite films include Babydriver, Lady Bird, I, Tonya and The Grand Budapest Hotel. You can follow her on Twitter @LSPENCERELLIOTT or find more of her writing at lydiaspencerelliott.wordpress.com