ABSOLUTELY Fabulous stars Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley appear to inhabit an entirely different universe to the four US comediennes who were subjected to a vicious online trolling campaign prior to the release of Ghostbusters.
“Women aren’t funny?” repeats Saunders, so dumbfounded by such an atavistic proposition that at first she assumes she hasn’t heard right.
“That hasn’t been a question I have been asked since about 1982.’’
Lumley is similarly perplexed, pointing out that when Saunders created their much-loved Bollinger-swigging alter egos Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone in 1991, she and Dawn French were already “colossal” stars in the UK.
On their side of the Atlantic, where Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is set to become one of the 10 top grossing films of the year, the two women haven’t been following the recent social media attacks on Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and Saturday Night Live alumni Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones.
“But there does seem to be a sightly misogynistic thing happening in America at the moment,” observes Saunders.
“I don’t know if it’s caused by (Donald) Trump ... but the stuff that is being said about Hillary (Clinton) is so retro. It’s really odd.”
Saunders wonders whether the American comediennes copped as much flak as they did because they had had the gall to take on a beloved male franchise.
Right from the very beginning, Absolutely Fabulous — in which all five main characters are women, a fact few critics even bother to commentate on — has played by its set of own rules.
“Patsy and Edina live their lives like men, in that they don’t live their lives in that stereotypical Hollywood way where every woman has to somehow be in a heterosexual relationship, or be wanting one, or getting over one,’’ says Saunders.
“They live completely autonomously.”
But Saunders acknowledges that the comedy landscape has changed significantly in the 24 years since Absolutely Fabulous made its small screen debut.
“Comedy has got more polite. I think because of social media, people have become a lot easier to offend — because you can have a gang of being offended quite quickly,” she says.
“I don’t think we could make the original series now if we wanted to. I think you would be a lot more policed.”
Patsy and Edina might have become less monstrous over time. But on the big screen, where films such as Trainwreck and Bridesmaids are few and far between, the characters still feel deliciously transgressive.
Grandmotherhood hasn’t made Eddie any less neglectful. When she and Patsy flee the country, after accidentally killing Kate Moss, they only take Saffy’s daughter with them because her credit card isn’t maxed out.
Broke and socially-ostracised, Patsy decides to fund their next set of exploits by hitching up with one of her former suitors, a porn king played by Barry Humphries.
But after discovering that men their age only have eyes for women forty years their junior, the gender fluid fashion magazine editor dresses up as a bloke — and marries a filthy rich baroness instead.
After more than two decades, the joke would have worn pretty thin if all Absolutely Fabulous had to trade on was Patsy and Edina’s bad behaviour.
At the core of audiences’ enthusiasm for the terrible twosome, however, is their vulnerability — in the movie, Eddie’s stable of PR clients has dwindled to just Lulu and a vodka company — as well as their fireproof friendship.
“Everyone wants a bestie like that, someone who has their back no matter what,’’ says Saunders, revealing that she actually modelled Patsy on one of her friends.
“Harriet (Thorpe) is in the film. She plays Fleur. She is the best at backing you up. She doesn’t even care who it is.
“I’ll go ‘oh, they have been on at me. I haven’t got the script in’ and she will say ‘darling tell them to f--- off. They know you are going to do it. They know it’s going to be a success. You are a genius. Now when are we going to meet for lunch?
“I always thought that was such a nice dynamic. And I always thought Patsy would fulfil that role for Eddie.”
After working together for so long, Lumley and Saunders have gotten to the point where they finish off each other’s sentences most of the time.
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But Lumley says she doesn’t, in fact, have a female friendship as close as the one she has on screen.
“My husband is my best friend. That’s the truth of it. So whatever is on my mind, or eating me up, or if I want to travel somewhere, apart from being my husband, he is the person I would like, thank God, to do it with,” she says.
“Otherwise I probably wouldn’t be married. I think marriage is a strange, fragile, and if you are in it and it’s good, lucky state. “
Many critics have singled out Lumley for what they describe as her scene-stealing performance in the film, but Saunders swears that she feels no jealousy.
“I haven’t read the reviews, but that’s what I would imagine because she is brilliant. Even I am staggered. Always.”
While the characters have been enthusiastically embraced by audiences around the globe, Saunders says it’s possible that she and Lumley are actually Eddie and Patsy’s biggest fans.
“I think it’s quite odd, but we love them so much.”
The pair’s own favourite episode, says Lumley, is the one in which they are very old “more than 100”.
Saunders recently looked it up on her iPad.
“I don’t think we have ever laughed so much ... because they are still going,” she says.
“Patsy’s got a beehive but it’s so bald underneath. Just wisps. I don’t know if she has ever seen herself from behind.”
The pair’s enthusiasm for their characters’ ageing process augurs well for fans who are hoping for a movie sequel.
“While we are still alive there’s a possibility,” the pair say.
Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie opens today (August 4)