Pour yourself a stiff one. The ladies who lush are back and just as bawdy as ever

Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley are feeling decidedly unfabulous. During a rehearsal break in a communal BBC makeup room in London, Saunders is silently twirling her character’s auburn wig while Lumley is adding another coat of hussy-red lipstick. They’re hours away from wrapping the last episode of ”Absolutely Fabulous”’ fourth season (the Brit import is returning to Comedy Central on Nov. 12 after running in originals 1994?95). It’s been a particularly grueling week, including a six-and-a-half-hour stint in a makeup chair aging the two actresses for a fantasy sequence. ”I’m feeling a lot of self-inflicted pressure right now,” says ”Ab Fab” writer-cocreator Saunders, blankly staring at a Polaroid of her octogenarian alter ego. ”It’s quite pathetic.” Lumley smiles. ”But tonight’s it, Joanna,” she continues in a tone that makes you think she’d just been sentenced to a lifetime of thrift-store shopping. ”Margaritas, shall we?”

Cheer up, sweeties — there’s plenty of stuff to toast to. Even the end of the go-go ’90s hasn’t stopped the debauched adventures of hard-drinking fashion magazine editor Patsy Stone (Lumley) and hard-dieting trend slave/PR guru Edina Monsoon (Saunders): Eddy is now running a TV production company while Patsy is busy de-aging with ”Parralox” (think Botox plus paralysis so emotions don’t leave wrinkles) despite early-onset osteoporosis. Edina’s overwrought daughter Saffy (Julia Sawalha) is an aspiring playwright, and Bubble’s cousin Katy Grin (based on a real-life, self-promoting TV personality named Anthea Turner, who seems to be the Brit Kathie Lee Gifford) becomes Edina’s partner. (Jane Horrocks plays both Bubble and Katy.) Oh, and the drink du jour is ”Veuve and bourb” as in Veuve Clicquot and bourbon. (If you say it with an English accent, it rhymes.) ”The circumstances have changed, the house has been redecorated, but the relationships are exactly the same,” says Lumley. ”Who wants a huge change?”

That’s exactly what Saunders thought after she finished the pilot of ”Mirrorball,” her proposed post?”Ab Fab” series about a self-obsessed stage actress, starring the exact same cast. (”I remember warming up the audience and saying, ‘We went through tremendous effort changing the characters — you’ll notice each one has a different hair color,”’ recalls Jon Plowman, who produced both ”Mirrorball” and ”Absolutely Fabulous.”) ”The [”Ab Fab”] characters just never would leave my mind,” says Saunders. ”They’re just our alter egos. Certainly Joanna’s. Edina is definitely mine. I guess I never really asked anyone if they thought [coming back for another go] was a good idea.” Lumley didn’t seem to mind. ”Jennifer does all the work,” says Lumley. ”She tells us where to be and we tag along and do her lines. Right now it feels like we’ve had just a fortnight off — [not] five years.”

And in the time that’s passed since the cast reunited for 1997’s one-hour ”Ab Fab” special called ”The Last Shout,” some things have changed. ”A lot of the shock value in the show — women saying certain things and having that close friendship — is sort of passé now because of ‘Sex and the City,”’ says Saunders. ”Everyone has fashion now. It’s all Jimmy Choos and Manolo Blahniks. It’s so dull. There’s no comedy in [them] anymore.” (A clearly ”Sex”-besotted Saunders even has Patsy say, ”I hate ‘Sex and the City.”’) And there’s suddenly not much comedy in ”Ab Fab” jokes about the Taliban destroying Afghan Buddha statues. (At press time, Comedy Central execs were debating editing out the lines.)

Absolutely Fabulous
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