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Inside Vogue – it’s all Ab Fab, sweetie

Sweetie, darlings, one of the great pleasures provided by the eclectic schedule of Vision TV these days is a rerun of all the episodes of Absolutely Fabulous.

It's 20 years since Ab Fab (Absolutely Fabulous Christmas 2011 runs Monday, Dec. 10, 8:30 p.m. on Vision) first aired but the show won't die. Although there have been "final" episodes, creator Jennifer Saunders has dreamt up a new batch of stories several times, all timely, and there's a plan to do an Ab Fab movie in the next year. "Fabulous, sweetie," as Saunders, playing Edina Monsoon, would say.

It's remarkable that the old episodes are still funny and scathing about the world the show mocks – fashion, public relations, frantic trend-following, the cult of designers and the maniacally airhead media world that surrounds the absurd fashion industry. Episodes made before there were cellphones are still hilarious when they depict a story meeting at one of the glossy fashion mags that employ Patsy (Joanna Lumley) in some vague position as "fashion director" or such. "Heels, heels are in! And skirts, yes skirts!" And the inevitable declaration, in regard to some hideous piece of clothing, "Lacroix sweetie, Lacroix!"

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This brings us to In Vogue: The Editor's Eye (Thursday, 9 p.m., HBO Canada) a new documentary made to coincide with the 120th anniversary of American Vogue magazine. Mainly it's a loose history of the magazine rooted in the work of its various fashion editors. To begin with, several people involved with Vogue are asked what a fashion editor does and several are stumped. It's a real challenge to describe. And so from the start it seethes with the Ab Fab vibe. Mind you, when we meet many of these editors things get both gorgeous, visually, and at times eminently mockable. My dears, every acid impression you have of the fashion racket will be confirmed when you meet Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele, fashion director/editor from 1985 to 1995. She talks in the most extraordinary manner. After announcing that she "adores" something, she will continue to emphasize that she "ADORES!" it, talking in tones that can only be captured with all-capitals in print.

In the fashion racket de Dudzeele is a true legend for mixing designer with street-level fashion in many memorable photo spreads and covers. She calls it her "salade" and we are thrown straight into Ab Fab again.

Another notable – some would say unforgettable – character is Polly Allen Mellen, fashion editor from 1966 to 1991. As such she shifted Vogue from an elitist magazine to one that acknowledged the travails and needs of working women in the U.S. Also, of course, she was in charge of much of the visuals during the rise of the feminist movement. All WASP crispness in attitude and speech, Mellen gives the impression of being a nightmare to work with. And this is confirmed in one of the doc's best moments. That's when designer Vera Wang describes her brief time as an assistant to Mellen in the early 1970s. Exhibiting a mixture of shivers and laughter, Wang describes the experience as "absolutely brutal."

Still, there will be other things for which Mellen will be remembered, including introducing a snake into the notorious Nastassja Kinski portrait by Richard Avedon, and the use of erotic, highly charged photos by Helmut Newton.

The doc is a lot of fun, but not entirely comprehensive. Anna Wintour sits there calmly, less icy than usual and chats about the various figures who have shaped the magazine.

But little attention is paid to Grace Mirabella, whom Wintour replaced in 1988. While Mirabella was not the "fashion editor", she was the editor-in-chief when the magazine's fortunes and importance soared.

Though there are many hints about the autocratic attitudes and tantrums that flourish in the fashion and Vogue environments, almost all is forgiven when we meet Grace Coddington, current creative director of Vogue. Coddington is clearly an artist in a world of frippery and fake fabulosity. She was the most memorable figure in the documentary The September Issue, made in 2009 about the internal workings of Vogue. (Her memoir has just been published, by the way.) And her extraordinary Alice in Wonderland spread for Vogue from a few years ago is shockingly beautiful and mad. Here she says little and is all the more admirable for that.

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What's really missing, one supposes, from this very engaging doc, is stuff about booze, drugs and very, very bad behaviour. That's all on Ab Fab and, in the context of In Vogue: The Editor's Eye, Ab Fab feels like a documentary. Watching the HBO doc, you can hear Edina Monsoon cackling with delight.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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