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INTERVIEW | Helen Lederer, still fabulous after all these years

Recently Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley appeared on BBC Breakfast to talk about the 25th anniversary of Absolutely Fabulous. Nice as it was to see them, the announcement slightly freaked me out: 25 years?

There’s no way the show is that old! The 90s are only like what … two or three years ago, right? I mean, else that picture of my best friend and I posing as the world’s most famous fashion victims is twenty years old! There’s no way … But soon my self-denial had to shut itself up and admit that, yes one of the biggest and most influential comedies of the ’90s has reached its 25th anniversary. Time to look back on how it all begun.

Someone who was there for the start of it all was Helen Lederer a comedian and author who was part of the famous Comic Strip generation from the 1980s that brought us Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Rik Mayall and many other comedians who are now household names.

In Absolutely Fabulous she, together with Harriet Thorpe, is part of the recurring double act Fleur and Catriona (Lederer) whom always work at Patsy’s magazine in unspecified positions.

Here Helen discusses being part of the Comic Strip and working on Absolutely Fabulous.

How did you become part of the Ab Fab/Comic Strip team?

“I was a stand-up comedian on the circuit at the time and was cast in a few early comedy TV stand-up shows Including Naked Video for BBC2 -they saw me and I was deemed to be of a similar genre. I got cast in many of the shows Dawn and Jennifer wrote as well as Bottom and The young Ones by Ben Elton and Rik Mayall.

A lot of Lederer’s early work was in series with Rik Mayall, she starred in all his best-known series: The Young Ones, Filthy Rich and Catflap as well as Bottom and the New Statesman. What was it like to work with him?

“Utter heaven I loved that man-warm generous and sooo funny.”

She also starred in “The Dangerous Brothers” a series of sketches Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson recorded for Saturday Live, the famous stand-up show where Lederer was a regular and where Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders also performed. The show was hosted by Ben Elton who would later write the series Happy Families that starred Jennifer Saunders in multiple roles as a grandma and her four granddaughters. The series also starred Adrian Edmondson (whom she married soon after recording the show) and Dawn French and Helen as her cook and maid.

This series includes one of Helen’s favourite scenes: “When I was playing the maid Flossy to Dawn French’s cook and she bonked me over the head with a saucepan in Happy Families.”

Before these two series, Helen with French and Saunders all worked on a TV show called The Entertainers also starring Chris Barrie (who also starred in Happy Families, Saturday Live and various Mayall productions and would soon find fame as Red Dwarf‘s Arnold Rimmer.) This series seems to have strangely disappeared from comedy history, with not even a clip out on YouTube.

Even Helen herself seems to have forgotten it:

“Oee I can’t remember that one! I’d love any of the stuff I did to come back petition them please!”

What is known is that after two episodes the series suddenly had to be put out rather late because the naughty Jennifer Saunders used the word “clitoris” in one scene, which apparently killed off the programme immediately, as that word proved too shocking. A few years later Mr Chris Barrie said the same word on Red Dwarf with no problem. Times and standards changed quickly back then.

Following all these projects, the famous Comic Strip films (over 40 productions and counting) and the hilarious Girls on Top (also starring Ruby Wax, Tracey Ullman, Harriet Thorpe and Helen Lederer) French and Saunders moved on to become … French and Saunders and it was this show that would eventually give birth to Absolutely Fabulous. For the show, Dawn and Jennifer had written a short sketch about a hip and trendy mother and her conservative daughter that planted a seed in the mind of Saunders which would blossom into Ab Fab when the time was right.

The time was right when Dawn was unable to work on a new series of French and Saunders because family issues (the adoption of her lovely daughter) and Jennifer had to ‘cover’ for her. The first Ab Fab was rushed written project to help a friend with amazing results. In stepped Joanna Lumley, Julia Sawalha, June Whitfield and Jane Horrocks and a hit was born.

Did Helen feel the series would be a hit when she first joined the cast for “Magazine” in series one?
“I didn’t know what to expect and only in rehearsals did I begin to see the fun Jennifer was having building the characters and the preposterous scenarios that seemed to keep coming at us all.”

Rushed writing seems to be the key to Absolutely Fabulous as Jennifer says she always hands in the scripts at the very last moment. “Once she said she was thinking of my lines on the bus.. but it always arrives in the end. “ Helen confirms.

This could be a good thing as it keeps things fresh and exciting for the actors. The good atmos and friendship between the actors might be another key. No backstabbing and on set bitching here.

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Being on the show is; “Very good fun, people laugh a lot and suggest things and then we do it Jennifer’s way.”

The driving force, the power behind it all is, of course, the multi-talented Jennifer Saunders, a beacon of hope for many a young comedienne thinking that comedy was “just for men”. Her show proved without a doubt that women were equally capable of being funny as actors as well as writers. Not only that: Absolutely Fabulous was the first sitcom to gain worldwide acclaim since Fawlty Towers (also co-written by a woman; Connie Booth, something that is often forgotten!)

Ab Fab was a bit of a revolution for women and inspired a generation of talented female writers (including Lena Dunham, Rebel Wilson and Tina Fey) to work in comedy.

Still, nothing beats the original, as it has something important that many female driven shows never manage to accomplish: true strong women. To me, one of the best things about the show is that all the women in the series are fiercely independent and not after love or a relationship or going soppy over someone pretty. Patsy and Edina really want to be their own person and Edina wants Saffy to be like that too: despite their differences, Edina has often saved her daughter from ending up a downtrodden housewife.

It seems Ab Fab is the only female TV show out there that shows truly independent women who never back down. Their only loyalty is to each other. Is this on purpose and part of the worldwide appeal?

“I think it is certainly one of the appealing aspects as you say,” says Helen, “and perhaps it was written at a time when women were becoming more present in the male-dominated world of comedy.”

Talking about funny women, Helen and Harriet Thorpe are both very funny and talented women in their own right and seem to have formed a great double act outside of the series. Were they friends before the series started?

“I think we met on Girls On Top? But it was all around that time, she might remember better than me!”

A few weeks ago they performed as their Ab Fab characters for Comic Relief (supported by Jennifer) and last year there was a very funny sketch for the London Drag Race event.

Can we ever expect a series or sketch show?

“Ha ha well ask the men in suits! they seem to control all commissioning, don’t they…a media castle with a large moat around it.”

Acting and being funny isn’t the only string to Helen’s bow, though, like Jennifer she is clever and multi-talented. She has a BA in applied social science and is a popular and very witty writer with several highly acclaimed books to her name including Finger Food and Coping, with Helen Lederer. Her latest book Losing It is her most popular one. Her writing is warm and descriptive and you can almost see the characters acting the story out in front of you.

Would she ever be interested in seeing her book turned into a movie?

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“I’d love to and working on it …tricky times to get commissioned and investment I love Losing it to be a film!”

Returning to Absolutely Fabulous. After so many years as the characters, some of the character traits of Patsy and Edina might have rubbed off on the actors, probably.

So how much of Jennifer and Joanna can you see in Patsy and Edina?

“Tricky to say – They are both VERY good actresses so may not a lot.”

What was Helen’s favourite episode to work on?

“I loved being in the hospital scene with Joanna Lumley when she had had more surgery in Ab Fab

Why does she think Absolutely Fabulous is still so popular after all this time?

“Because the characters are over the top, fun outrageous and people like to see the bad side of PR!”

So Absolutely Fabulous is 25 and still going strong! Last year’s Ab Fab movie was a box office hit and the massive enthusiasm for the little bit part Jennifer recorded as Edina for Comic Relief this year shows the demand for more fabulous antics is still high.

Even though Jennifer herself recently expressed some doubts about a future for the two divas, she seems to be changing her mind constantly saying that whenever she thinks she is really finished with the show she keeps having new ideas and might end up recording Patsy and Edina YouTube videos with Joanna. And why not? No matter where they are these two ladies will always be fun and fabulous!!

What does Helen Lederer think, will there be more?

Ab Fab? Who knows!! Never say never -if there are I hope they put me in it!”

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