It started with Absolutely Fabulous.
(I know, I know, a real Julia Sawalha fan -- and doubtless Julia herself! -- would be retorting right now, “It did no such thing...” And to them I plead nolo contendre. But I'm not talking about Julia just now, I'm talking about me. All in good time. Now let me tell this my way.)
When AbFab first beseiged the airwaves of America, preceded by much fanfare proclaiming it the wittiest, cutting-edgyest comedy ever conceived, I found the show repellent, abhorrent, and terminally Not Funny. (Or, to put it another way, I didn't Get It.) The lead characters, Edina and Patsy, are pathetic, and their adventures into the excesses of sex, drugs and the London fashion scene do not amuse me. They are great poster children for abstinence, but too intensely obnoxious for me to find funny. Edina manages, occasionally, to do the right thing, when browbeaten into it by her straight-laced daughter Saffron; more often, she is led further into depravity by her lifelong friend Patsy.
But somehow I kept finding myself drawn to it, for reasons I couldn't fathom. “What is so attractive about this show?” It's like watching an automobile accident -- not really wanting to watch, but not able to look away.
I finally found the handle that allows me to grasp and enjoy the show. As far as I am concerned, the show belongs to Julia Sawalha, as Saffron. She appears to be the only normal person on the show, although she too has her eccentricity: Hope. She is crippled by eternal hope that Edina will, finally, grow up. It’s not likely, so long as she remains influenced by the utterly corrupt and irredeemable Patsy, but Saffy clings to hope despite everything.
Saffron actually has a second flaw: She refuses to do anything Edina might approve of -- even if it’s something she wants to do. She enjoys ticking mum off, and rarely passes up an opportunity to do it. I think she is jealous of Edina’s freedom: Somebody in this household has to be the responsible one; Saffy doesn’t really want the job, but Edina is just so day-to-day incompetent. (This is the woman who went to Saffy’s university and interrupted a class to have Saffy show her how the can opener works.)
Sunday afternoon, I saw an episode new to me, in which Edina fails to win an award of some kind, and Saffy brings her philosophy professor home for tea while Edina and Patsy are away. The episode showed a Saffy different from any other I’d seen: she was happy, smiling, giggling, smitten with the prof and too shy to say so. (I almost didn’t recognize her.) Saffy had finally found the courage to kiss him when Edina and Patsy staggered in. And each pair of people, distracted by their own lives and problems, managed not to notice the other pair (in a very small kitchen) for several long seconds. Saffy, typically, came to her senses first, and sent the prof home; it was many long minutes of dialogue later before Edina’s lightbulb came on, and several more false starts before she managed to wrap her mouth around the unfamiliar phrase, “There was a man here when I came in.” He turned out to be married; Edina, once sufficiently aroused from her drug-induced stupor to know what was going on, very satisfyingly belted him one; and Saffy, for a brief glowing moment, had the mother she wanted.
But Saffy is my window into the series, the only character that I really care what happens to. She conveys the impression of being more than she appears: A meek wallflower would not seek out confrontations with Edina, nor would she win them as often as she does. Once I realized this, I spent a day watching AbFab with fresh eyes, trying to figure out (for instance) just why Saffron really wanted to go to Marrakech. The reason she gave didn't quite sound right. I think I know what she was doing while Edina and Pats were unconscious for three days, though. I wouldn't put it past her to arrange to keep them insensible; I know I would have.
I’m in big trouble if I turn into a fan of an actress whose work is mostly unavailable in the US. (Although the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice is, I believe, available on video...) But one of the many pictures of Julia available on the Web makes lovely wallpaper for my Windows 95 desktop at work. I haven’t found anything yet I’d rather have greet me when I arrive.
I think some of these people think she's still seventeen. People change when they get older: Get over it. (Believe me, I know, I'm 42.)
(Alex Knowles' THE Julia Sawalha Pages are the source for most of these pictures; visit and enjoy.)
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