Twenty-one years ago this week a sitcom arrived on British television involving three characters so improbable that they held the nation in thrall. It had started as a French and Saunders comedy sketch about a hedonistic ‘modern’ mother (Eddy) and her appalled, straight-laced daughter (Saffy). To spin this out into a series, Jennifer Saunders added Joanna Lumley as a hard-nosed, hard-drinking best friend (Patsy) and two essential props: Bollinger champagne (Bolly) and Stolichnaya vodka (Stolly). Absolutely Fabulous was born.
It was never intended as a piece of social commentary — yet it has turned out to be bizarrely prophetic. Over the past two decades, Britain has steadily witnessed precisely the change in generational behaviour adumbrated by Saunders. The middle-aged are having more fun than ever — spending extraordinary amounts on booze, restaurants and designer clothes. Today’s young Brits are, by contrast, the most sober and sensible in living memory, keeping their heads down, their wallets closed and their minds focused on the mountain of debt that awaits them. We are now living in Ab Fab Britain.
‘I suppose what I wrote was an extended sketch, with as many laughs as I could pack in over half an hour,’ says Saunders in her new autobiography, Bonkers: My Life in Laughs. It was just for gags — she wasn’t trying to lampoon an emerging social type like Harry Enfield did with ‘Loadsamoney’ and ‘Tory Boy’. She based Eddy on a sweet but foul-mouthed friend of hers and added the drinking, smoking and partying for the hell of it. The idea of a younger generation rebelling against their parents’ relaxed attitude to drugs, casual sex and other debauches was pure guesswork.
And it was spot on. To watch Ab Fab now is to see 21st-century Britain being sent up before it really emerged. Take the original eight-minute French & Saunders sketch, where Eddy saunters upstairs to her daughter’s room and begs her to stop her homework and join the party she’s holding. ‘Come down and share a joint with us later?’ After being shot a poisonous look, she sneers: ‘Oh so sorry — I’ve mentioned drugs in front of my own daughter.’ You can see the gag: imagine children being less liberal than their parents! It’s now the reality. A recent NHS study showed that only 9 per cent of school pupils believe it’s acceptable for them to smoke cannabis. Among the general population, it is 32 per cent.
Eddy and Patsy’s guiding philosophy — ‘try everything once’ — is fast going out of fashion. Even trying cigarettes has lost its place as a rite of passage; Prince Charles’s recent admission that he’d tried smoking aged 11 dates him. Twenty years ago, three in five pupils admitted to having tried smoking. Now it’s just one in five. And they’re more censorious — the number of pupils who think ‘It’s OK to try a cigarette at least once’ has fallen from 54 per cent to 31 per cent over the past decade. Smoking behind the bike sheds is more likely to mark you out as a dysfunctional freak than a daring rebel.
Marijuana, LSD, speed, cocaine — surveys show that every drug you can think of is plunging in popularity amongst the young. The proportion of under-20s who say they have taken drugs in the past month has halved over the last decade. Only two drugs are on the up and both are legal: Ritalin and Modafinil, stimulants that can power students through ten-hour study sessions. The Care Quality Commission recently raised the alarm at the way the prescriptions of these so-called study drugs have risen 56 per cent in five years, to 1,800 a day. It’s a long way from Woodstock. Whereas older generations took drugs to party (and still do), Britain’s young are now popping pills that help them work harder.
Shunned by the youth, Britain’s drug dealers are watching their market collapse. Over the past two decades, the street price of cannabis, cocaine and Ecstasy has fallen by at least two-thirds. A tab of LSD is now cheaper than a half pint of cider. Never have illegal drugs been more affordable — but never have young people shown less interest. Their parents, however, are raving it up. The 45-to-55s, a category that would probably include Patsy and Edina, although neither would like to admit it, are twice as likely to take drugs now as they were when Ab Fab was filmed, according to Home Office data. The under-25s are half as likely.
It’s the same with booze. Today’s forty-somethings are spending 40 per cent more on alcohol than they were ten years ago. (This could reflect greater consumption, the rising price of Bollinger, or both.) And the under-30s? Their alcohol spend has -actually fallen, as they save their money for expensive mobile phones instead. One of the strangest facts about Ab Fab Britain is that pensioners now spend more on booze than the under-30s do. The rocketing price of drink will be a factor — the cost of a shot of Stolly has more than doubled. But the simple fact is that today’s young are less interested in getting hammered.
Sex, too. The scene where Saffy checks to see if her mother had run out of condoms, then helpfully supplies her with more (‘and use them this time!’) seemed the furthest-fetched gag of all. Not now. According to government figures, sexually transmitted diseases are rising fastest among the over-45s. This reflects the rise in singletons of that age, divorced and online dating. Eddy’s poor relationship with Saffy’s father (‘Have you seen the bastard recently?’ ‘Are you referring to Dad?’ ‘Oh “Dad”, “Dad” — give him a little title to justify his puny existence’) anticipated another trend. Today’s British teenagers are more likely to have a mobile phone in their pocket than a father at home.
Saffy stayed in her childhood bedroom well into her twenties. This appalled Patsy, who regularly urged Eddy to evict her party-pooping daughter (‘cut the cord, darling, cut the cord’). Several thousand loving British parents have similar thoughts, when they’re making breakfast for offspring who somehow failed to leave home. But this is the grim reality of the housing market: cheap debt means prices are soaring. Property owners are suddenly very well-off (and can afford to go to Glastonbury and take more taxis). Those who don’t own homes can either borrow a fortune to buy a shoebox, or stay at home, glowering.
Would Ab Fab have worked if Saffy was a boy? It might not have been as funny, but it would certainly not have been as prescient. Eddy despairs Saffy’s preference for homework over men (‘I don’t want a mustached virgin for a daughter, so do something about it!’) but Saffy was a prototype of the single-minded, industrious women which would go on to triumph not just at school — girls now get more As — but outnumber men at university.
And not just the soft subjects. (‘Must you do physics?’ Edina once pleaded. ‘Can’t you do one little arts subject, then you can come help me in the shop?’) Women now account for the majority of medicine and law graduates, part of a gender revolution which has eliminated the pay gap for the under-30s and will soon feminise and transform Britain. Tomorrow really does belong to Saffy.
This is where Saunders got it wrong: she described Saffy as a sad miser ‘with nothing to shout about and no identity of her own’. The real-life Saffys have plenty to shout about — but it’s harder to treat university as three-year party if you’re paying £9,000 a year for the fees. Britain has changed into a country where, unless you’re very rich, it’s far harder to bluff your way through life. What you earn is dictated by what you learn, and the young know it. And if they want to dance badly at music festivals, smoke weed, get drunk and fall over — well, there’s plenty of time for that in later life.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 9 November 2013