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Jennifer Saunders on the Return of Absolutely Fabulous, Smoking on Television, and Bum Knees

Jennifer Saunders as Ab Fab’s Edina Monsoon. Photo: Jack Barnes ? BBC

Pop open the Bolly, darlings: On Sunday, Logo and BBC America are co-premiering the first of three special episodes of Absolutely Fabulous, reuniting the trend-obsessed publicist Edina Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders, co-creator with Dawn French) with her best mate, fashion editor and proto-cougar Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley) for more bawdy mischief. Edina returns with a Twitter account, an enviable Champagne fridge, and her daughter, Saffy (Julia Sawalha), freshly sprung from jail; Patsy, still in a miniskirt and a stash hidden in her updo, with a huge debt and a rude awakening. We spoke with Saunders for the magazine (and got her to admit there would be an Ab Fab movie). Here, the rest of the conversation.

Technology has changed the culture so much that even the language has changed: Twenty years ago, Eddy was permanently attached to her mobile phone, which few people had back then.
It was barely a mobile phone [laughs]. It was the size of a brick, you know? And that was the latest thing, a mobile phone.

Now she’s blogging and tweeting.

Yeah, at first it was the fashion boom, then there was the celebrity boom, and now it’s the social-network boom — I think they kind of define the eras, really.

Eddy and Patsy are children of the sixties, the first generation trying to cling to youth culture. You don’t see Eddy’s mother doing that.
No, no, she left it when she was about 40. I don’t know if my mother ever had a youth culture. Eddy and Patsy are desperately trying to stay in youth culture, but I think they just can’t keep up now, and that’s the point. It’s what I feel. I can’t keep up, and I really don’t care. There’s 300 celebrity magazines and they’re just scraping the barrel and regurgitating; they don’t know what they’re doing anymore.

What was it about the theme song, “This Wheel’s on Fire” — written by the Band — that resonated with you?
I just love that song, and I’ve always loved this version by Julie Driscoll. I thought it told a tale of those women without brakes who are not going to stop until they explode.

In the first episode, “Identity,” we learn Patsy has lost track of her age.
She was always a bit vague, Patsy. She has a routine of how to get up, how to keep alive, how to hang on jobs — she can hang out in magazines. I mean no one’s pushing Anna Wintour aside. I think it’s kind of realistic actually.

And Saffy is still rebelling against her mother by refusing to be a rebel. Now she’s disappointed Eddy by failing to have a lesbian affair during her stint behind bars.
In the most ghastly kind of symbiotic sadism, it’s like she can’t release from Eddy and Eddy can’t release from Saffy because — I thought about it a lot when I was mapping out plots — without the threat of Saffy, there’s nothing to spur Eddy and Patsy on. She needs them because they are the only interesting thing about her. [Laughs.] Julia always said, “Saffy’d have left if she didn’t really need this.” Saffy likes having a mother with a bit of money and a nice house and comfortable things.

You’re known for doing all of your own stunts, and usually in one take.
Yeah, we always did it in one take. It wasn’t in the script, but if we find something that we think is gonna be hilarious then we just do it. Joanna is the most amazing clown, so clever and so funny at it. I always want her to be in something because she’s so funny. I’m not boasting, but I am the only person who gives her roles that are against her image. She’s fantastic at playing old people, for example. I would just pay again and again to see her doing anything like that.

I heard you recently had a terrible fall, in real life.
It was a silly thing. I tried to make a joke of it on the radio and the press picked it up that this was a big story — which it wasn’t. I was slightly drunk and I fell down some steps, and I hit myself quite badly.

Are you okay now?
Yes. I just cut my head. But I was fine that night. I had a headache for a few days.

Does this mean Eddy won’t be sliding headlong down her staircase anymore?
I did a big fall in the Olympics episode [the third episode], but that’s just completely showing off, nothing more. I’ve decided now I really am too old to fall over. There’s a time and it’s just stopped now. My knees are shot from all that falling over [laughs]. I have to be a bit careful now.

Eddy and Patsy are smoking again.
I know! That wasn’t really a conscious thing. I hadn’t realized how little we smoked in the last one. I don’t actually smoke, but I was smoking so often; I think it was a nerve thing. It’s a very bad idea to do it on TV because of the continuity thing, but I didn’t seem to think about it really.

You notice it now, in the past ten years, since our mayor started his anti-smoking campaign.
I remember when people used to sit on television doing an interview and they’d light up a cigarette.

I can’t believe it actually spread across Europe. Now even in Paris you have to smoke outside.
I know! That’s just criminal! I mean, the only thing I’m glad of is your clothes don’t smell of it, your house doesn’t smell of it. It’s a much nicer environment altogether. But it gets boring, you know, because everyone leaves the table and goes out to have a cigarette.

Who’d have thought Mayor Bloomberg’s reach would extend to Western Europe. It’s like he’s made everyone an honorary New Yorker.
Joanna and I are honorary New Yorkers, actually. Officially. Got a certificate seven years ago.

Was there a ceremony?
Yeah, it was during LGBT week, gay pride week. It was very lovely.

Did you come dressed as yourselves, or as Eddy and Patsy?
You know, normally people get a bit disappointed when it’s just us, so we decided to dress up a bit and be a bit madder. I was wearing this big white hat with stars and stripes tied around it and a white Ralph Lauren suit and looking Edina-ish you know [laughs]. We got to this bloody thing, and it’s honestly one of the most serious things I’ve ever been at, it was in a big hall with doctors and people who’ve changed sex and been bullied, people telling stories about people who’d been murdered because they were gay. It was like so serious, you know? And bloody Joanna, I said to her on the plane, “Do you think I should make a speech?” And she goes, “No, darling, they don’t want that. Just get on the stage and say, ‘Sweetie darling, sweetie darling, thank you so much, sweetie darling.’” [Laughs.] I’m sitting there this whole time thinking, I am going to kill her. She said, “You’ll be fine, you’ll be fine.” I said, “Well, you get up and make a speech.” And she said, “No, darling, you’ll be fine, you’ll be fine.” We looked ridiculous, and Whoopi Goldberg came and presented us with the award and made a nice speech. Honestly, I felt so humiliated because this was a really serious audience, and I had to invent some sort of speech. But after that we were taken to a gay club for a look-alike contest, so we were happy.

Jennifer Saunders on the Return of Absolutely Fabulous, Smoking on Television, and Bum Knees