Saffy Speaks: Julia Sawalha Talks Her Life On Ab Fab

Saffy Speaks: Julia Sawalha Talks Her Life On Ab Fab

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is here! Julia Sawalha writes about life as TV’s legendary (and long-suffering) Saffy

The Audition
I’ll always remember walking into the casting offices and seeing the late Charlotte Coleman, the beautiful and gifted actress (who played Scarlett in Four Weddings). We exchanged friendly hellos as we always did. We were forever on the same casting circuit trying out for the same roles, which she, quite rightly usually got. I’d given up hope before even going in to read, as I felt certain she’d get the part. I took a deep breath and entered the dreaded casting room. The producer Jon Plowman, director Bob Spiers and Jennifer were there. I sat next to Jennifer and was in awe. She was very kind and I remember thinking how beautiful she was. I felt the usual nerves but as soon as I started reading with her I began to relax. I did my best, said my goodbyes and left not thinking for a second I would get it. Then I received the phone call offering me the role. It was a total surprise. 

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The First Rehearsal
Rehearsing for the pilot was probably one of the most nerve-racking experiences of my career. I was so in awe of all the cast I was a trembling wreck. At times Jennifer would say, ‘You can say what you feel at the end of that line.’ As an actress I was used to being told to stand on my mark, say the lines and not sway from them. Yet I was being given free rein to say what I liked by Jennifer Saunders, in front of June Whitfield, Joanna Lumley and Jane Horrocks as well as Ruby Wax. So it was hard not to feel petrified.

Filming The Shows
The audience went wild when Jennifer and Joanna came on set. It made me want to make them laugh and give them a great evening. But there were also the cameras to consider. There’s a temptation when you have an in-house audience to raise the energy of your performance, which for the people at home, might look overcooked. So you have to remember to strike that balance.

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Trying Not To Laugh
People always ask me how I kept a straight face. It was VERY hard at times. I’d try to do most of my laughing in rehearsal to get it out of my system. I could hide behind Saffy’s seriousness too. Sometimes the more stern I was, the more likely it was I was totally laughing inside. Patsy eating a crisp for the first time in her life was one of the more difficult moments to keep a straight face. Another was when Jennifer had to say Bombay mix. The way she said it was just so funny.

Becoming Saffy
Saffy was tricky for me at first. I spoke with my father, an actor, who gave me some insights. He talked about the era Edina would have grown up in and what her childhood would have been like. I remember him saying, ‘Saffron. Why has she been called this name? It reminds me of swirling saffron coloured scarves, of a bohemian lifestyle.’ Then the penny dropped. I stopped obsessing about my own character and looked at Edina’s instead. In rehearsal I studied Edina and began to build an idea of what their relationship was like when Saffy was a child. Saff had a very difficult upbringing, (being tied to a central reservation when she was three years old and having her moustache waxed when she was asleep!) so it’s safe to say she was poorly parented. I also knew what it felt like to be the youngest of four females in a house and drew from that dynamic.

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Becoming Famous
The success of the show started to sink in on a trip to New York to publicise Ab Fab coming out on video. I was doing a signing at a record store in Manhattan and I wasn’t expecting many people to come. In the car on the way to the store I saw a queue that went on forever. I asked the publicist what all those people were queuing for. ‘They’re queuing for your signature honey!’ she said. I spent the next six hours signing videos completely overwhelmed.

Public Attention
Sometimes people would shout out ‘Sweetie Darling’ to me. And often when I had a meal in a restaurant I’d hear, ‘I hope you find it Absolutely Fabulous!’ But whilst the popularity of Ab Fab grew, I tried to lead as normal a life as possible. At first I’d go out partying for an escape and try and pretend that none of the fame was really happening. I found the recognition really difficult to deal with. And I began to realise how important my privacy was to me, so I quietened down my life. Everything became easier if I kept a low profile.

Making The Movie
When I found out the movie was going ahead, I had some reservations about reprising Saffy. After two decades playing her it’s been a struggle not to be typecast. But I really wanted to work with the cast again and the script was funny. I was also excited to see how Saffy would have evolved. Most people feel sorry for Saffy but I never have. She’s clever, she loves her family and she’s worked out a unique way of surviving within a completely dysfunctional household. Playing Saffy has been such a hilarious experience and enriched my life so much. People often ask if she has affected my personal life in any way. Not in the slightest. But I tell you something, she’s totally killed corduroy for me.

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is in cinemas from 1 July

If you can't wait 'til then, catch up on the Ab Fab quotes you'll be saying all day

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