The year was 1992 and I was at a lavish party thrown by Vogue magazine in Princess Diana’s favourite restaurant, San Lorenzo in London’s Knightsbridge. All the top designers and models were there, posing and mainlining champagne.
At the front of the restaurant, there was a tiny bar with a television. As soon as the unmistakable theme tune of a certain new sitcom was heard, everyone flocked to the screen — and I found myself getting as much attention as the programme itself.
The show was Absolutely Fabulous and although it was only the second episode, word had got out that, as the leading fashion PR of the day, I was the inspiration for larger-than-life character Edina Monsoon. Each time she did or said something ludicrous, all eyes were on me, checking my reaction. I always thought the series clever and hysterically funny, but the comparison hurt. After all, Edina was often drunk, drug-addicted, ate compulsively and was incapable of looking after herself. (These weren’t all true of me, I hasten to add.)
What’s more, I had considered Jennifer Saunders, who created and wrote it, a good friend, and at first it stung that she had portrayed me like that; why couldn’t I be part of the joke not the joke?
Loved series Ab Fab that ran from 1992 to 2004 is marking its 30th anniversary. 1990s leading fashion PR of the day, Lynne Franks (pictured) reveals that she was the inspiration for the larger-than-life character Edina Monsoon
Now, as the much-loved Ab Fab celebrates its 30th anniversary — it ran for five series between 1992 and 2004 and spawned a movie — I wish I hadn’t been so sniffy. I particularly regret turning down the chance to do a guest appearance in an early episode. It would have been great to show my seven grandchildren now.
It’s only with the wisdom of hindsight that I can see and admit the strong resemblance to Edina — from my state-of-the-art West London basement kitchen, with its wine fridge and stainless-steel units, to my eccentric high-fashion clothes and tree-hugging tendencies. And only now do I really appreciate the fact that Jennifer’s brilliant satire was written with great fondness.
She later wrote in her memoir: ‘Lynne was into everything that was new: clothes, music, clubs. She was a whirlwind of zeitgeist.’
It was true. I really was at the centre of London life. And it was absolutely fabulous.
But at the time I denied the similarity strenuously. I saw myself as a serious businesswoman with 50 employees and a multi-millionpound annual turnover who was also a champion of women’s rights. I was irritated whenever a photo of Edina and her even more eccentric sidekick Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley) accompanied any article written about my business and more serious work.
These days, however, I am proud to have inspired such ground-breaking TV. It was so wonderfully outrageous and totally un-PC — we need to see more of this kind of comedy these days, especially led by women. In these inhibited times, where comedians live in fear of being ‘cancelled’ for causing the slightest offence, we could really do with a laugh at the outrageous antics of Eddie and Patsy.
Pass the Bolly: Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley as Ab Fab’s loveable Edina and Patsy
Whether it’s the cost-of-living crisis or the war in Europe, we’re all so much more serious these days, and understandably so.
Indeed, over time I have become more Saffy — the sober, serious daughter — than Edina. The heavy drinking and hard partying is long gone. I now live in Wincanton in deepest Somerset, where I run a B&B and vegan cafe and mentor teenage girls.
I have found that Generation Z, no doubt affected by all the lockdowns, are far more serious and clean-living than their parents or grandparents ever were. There’s none of the excessive drinking and drug-taking: it’s all about living a caring, sustainable life. And I find myself in total accord with them. As far as I’m concerned, my new life is anything but boring — I’m doing so much rewarding new work — but perhaps my younger, more exuberant self would have begged to differ.
Ab Fab takes me back to a crazy but deliriously happy period in my life, when people really did party all the time — another universe…and, yes, on reflection, Edina and I really did have a lot in common.
She said I was ‘a whirlwind of zeitgeist’
The 1980s were a boom time for London fashion. My agency, Lynne Franks PR, which I started aged 21 from my kitchen table, organised the catwalk shows for the very first London Fashion Week in 1984. We also represented many of the country’s top designers, such as Katharine Hamnett and John Galliano, and the buzziest clothes shops, including Edina’s favourite store, ‘Harvey Nicks’ in Knightsbridge.
As a PR, it was my job to work with clients — luminaries of the fashion world, including Jean-Paul Gaultier and Jasper Conran, singer Annie Lennox and comic Ruby Wax — on all aspects of their image.
I would introduce designers to the celebrities who wore their clothes, for instance arrange who sat where on the allimportant front row at the shows, and secure flattering exposure in the media. And all without social media — imagine!
As both a friend and a client, Jennifer Saunders came to my parties and hung out at my house with her comedy partner Dawn French (whose then-husband, Lenny Henry, I also did PR for). At that time I was obsessed with acid house music — I wore a primary-coloured tracksuit and cap and had very short orange hair, despite being in my late 30s and a mum of two. Not my best look!
And, like Eddie, I always threw myself into every situation 150 per cent. I never wore ‘Christian Lacroix, darling’ as she did, but I was known for changing my outfits three times a day or more during the London Fashion Week catwalk shows.
bsolutely fabulous: Patsy, Saffy and Edina. Lynne says that these days she’s more like Edina’s daughter Saffy
I saw this as a way of supporting my many designer clients, much to the mirth of the fashion editors. Looking back, I’m not sure I always did the designers any favours. Katharine Hamnett’s mini tulip skirt, although stunning on young, skinny models, definitely didn’t look right on my ‘mum bod’. But like Edina, I was in complete denial. Jennifer, who became close to some of the designers, particularly Betty Jackson, was obviously taking note.
I was nothing if not spontaneous — just like Edina. Parties would just spring up at my home, office or whichever trendy venue I happened to be in. I remember fun nights with clients such as celebrity hairdresser Sam McKnight (who did Princess Diana’s hair), top photographer Tony McGee, and every model, fashion designer, DJ and pop star who was anyone. We would dance the night away, often alongside Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Culture Club or my client, singer Lisa Stansfield.
Parties would spring up wherever I was
There were always queues of young gatecrashers from the best art colleges and universities trying to get in. I found this quite gratifying, having left school at 16 myself. It was the age of opportunity after all — quite unlike the stifling, box-ticking culture of today.
One of our most memorable parties ended with Jennifer and Dawn’s husbands, Ade Edmondson of The Young Ones and Lenny, DJing and me drunkenly crying my eyes out in the loo about nothing in particular, watched askance by Dawn and Jennifer. I woke up the next day with the type of hangover we saw Edina and Patsy suffer in Ab Fab — although, with two young children, staying in bed all day wasn’t an option for me.
There is a classic scene in one of the first episodes, where Patsy and Edina are backstage at what looked like the British Fashion Awards, with Jerry Hall and Marie Helvin, ogling all the gorgeous male models.
Lynne Franks and Joanna Lumley at the UK Fashion Export Awards 2009 at the Landmark Hotel, London
This was clearly based on the time I invited Jennifer and Dawn to be judges at one of the first ever British Fashion Awards. (Rather than ogling male models in real life, however, they were busy telling me their husbands were far more attractive.)
Diana Ross was another of my clients. She flew me out to Las Vegas by private jet to be interviewed and was terrifying. In 1989, Diana wanted to be hip again so I arranged for her to do a surprise appearance at London’s coolest venue (another client) Brixton Academy.
In those days before social media, our brief was to pack the venue with Press without officially announcing her appearance. It was tough, but we got the hot radio DJs to start the rumour that Ross would be there, and the word got out.
Dawn and Jennifer would stand in front of my Buddhist altar chanting “French and Saunders” — with me in stitches
Diana turned up looking sensational in a black leather biker’s jacket and a green leopard-skin, figure-hugging dress. After doing three numbers to huge applause, she ran out the back door to her limo. We made the front page of the newspapers and she was the talk of the town.
I also worked for Dolly Parton, who was lovely — despite her aggressive manager hitting me round the face for keeping him waiting (yes, really!). Of course, I should have sued him, but in those pre-MeToo days I just kept my head down. I heard Dolly parted company with him shortly after — he certainly wasn’t good for her reputation.
There was another side to me that Jennifer also used to comedic effect — my interest in alternative spiritual practices. Yes, like Edina, I was known to hug trees and practised my Buddhist chanting daily.
In one famous episode, Edina comes into her office on her clunky (but then state-of-the-art) mobile phone, saying to her hapless PA Bubble (Jane Horrocks) the classic line: ‘I’m chanting as we speak.’
This was immediately adopted by my fellow Buddhists everywhere with great humour and was even made into a badge by fans in the U.S.
I remember Dawn and Jennifer would stand in front of the Buddhist altar at my home, chanting ‘French And Saunders’ over and over — with me in stitches.
One element of the show that definitely wasn’t based on me was Edina’s relationship with her daughter, Saffy. It has been claimed that it was inspired by a row Dawn witnessed when I took her to visit Ghost, then one of the country’s biggest fashion labels. When we were there, the label’s flamboyant owner was arguing with her teenage daughter.
My daughter, Jessica, was more of a wild child, who took to hanging out with me. It was my son, Josh, now a comedian, who claimed he was more like straitlaced Saffy.
In the words of Patsy and Edina…
Edina: ‘Couple of weeks I’ll be bendy like Madonna, darling. Then I’ll be able to kiss my own a*** from both directions.’
Patsy: ‘One snap of my fingers and I can raise hemlines so high, the world’s your gynaecologist.’
Patsy: ‘It’s so long since I actually remember going to sleep instead of passing out.’
Edina: ‘You’ve given up drinking before.’
Patsy: ‘Worst eight hours of my life.’
Patsy: ‘I know what you’re feeling, darling, but really, I don’t even care.’
Edina: ‘We’ll go on public transport, Pats.’
Patsy: ‘Are you mad? I’ve got nothing to wear on public transport.’
Edina: ‘I’m sorry if that sounds selfish, but it’s me, me, me!’
Saffy: ‘You’ve been getting dressed for three hours and you still look like a bloated citrus fruit.’
Edina: ‘If you’re a bloody psychic psychologist, how come I’m always having to phone you?’
Edina: ‘Cancel my aromatherapy, my psychotherapy, my reflexology, my osteopath, my homoeopath, my naturopath, my crystal reading, my shiatsu, my organic hairdresser. And see if I can be re-birthed next Thursday afternoon.’
Patsy: ‘The last mosquito that bit me had to check into the Betty Ford Clinic.’
He certainly disapproved of some of my younger boyfriends following my divorce from his father, Paul Howie, an Australian designer, in the late 1980s. Looking back, Josh had a point. In my 40s, my relationship with a gorgeous 22-year-old German fire-eater one summer at our holiday home in Majorca was definitely tougher on teenage Josh than it was on me!
There are, though, other similarities. My mother was known to make sardonic remarks in the background, much like June Whitfield’s character as Edina’s long-suffering but acerbic mother. And my PA was the spitting image of Bubble, too — though in real life she was incredibly efficient.
There’s a scene in one episode where Edina wanders round the supermarket with three trollies, overflowing with pineapples, coconuts and alcohol — that was definitely reminiscent of me shopping for yet another party.
We certainly had a lot of fun but after I sold my PR business in the late 1980s, I moved to LA for a more relaxed, hippy lifestyle. I’d be out on the beach at 7am, watching the dolphins.
Suddenly I was eating far more healthily, climbing mountains and going on retreats. You don’t drink out there because you drive everywhere — there were parties but they were far calmer affairs. And I was busy starting a new California-style PR business and writing transformational self-help books for women.
I returned to the UK in 2003 to be closer to my family and threw myself into a new venture, the SEED network which creates a supportive community for women. Through group meetings and one-to-one coaching sessions, I encourage them to explore their potential.
However, some Edina facets of my life persisted. In the final series, Saffy returns pregnant from some humanitarian work in Uganda. She names her baby Jane, but Edina insists on calling her Lola — which is the name of my 18-year-old granddaughter, born around the same time.
Now 18, my lovely Lola is a brilliant singer and artist — and like many of her Gen Z contemporaries, she is full of wisdom. We are very close and just like the Ab Fab film of 2016, when Edina goes to the South of France with granddaughter Lola, I recently went to Ibiza with my Lola.
I may have white and purple hair, wear long, colourful dresses and still dance at Glastonbury, but my social conscience now puts me firmly on the Saffy side of life. I’m in bed most nights by 10pm, no longer throw money around and I’m more likely found on a women’s march or coaching female leadership and business skills on trips to Kazakhstan or South Africa than getting drunk in nightclubs.
There are conversations at the moment about turning my story into a documentary, but they’d have to encompass the full spectrum — from peak Edina to softer, more circumspect Saffy. My life has certainly been one of extremes.