Interview: The unflappable Jennifer Saunders

Comedian and actress Jennifer Saunders. Picture: Getty
Comedian and actress Jennifer Saunders. Picture: Getty
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What do we learn when we meet Jennifer Saunders? She’s very calm, but with a subversive streak. She’s a dreadful procrastinator, who’s fond of Scotland, and is an excellent driver. And she sees the humour in everything

Jennifer Saunders isn’t sure if she ever did a porn film.

“I was sure I didn’t and when my agent phoned up to ask me about it because the press were asking her, at first I said no. But then you start doubting yourself. Maybe I was drugged or drunk? Or something I did innocently was changed – my head put on someone else’s body? But then I thought, no, definitely not. So, no.”

I’m glad that’s cleared up or Saunders’ reputation as prime time British comedy icon might be in jeopardy. Alongside the BAFTAs, Emmy, British Comedy Award, Rose d’Or and various others, she’s also up there in Good Housekeeping magazine’s list of Best British Role Models for teenage girls. She’s TV royalty, from Comic Strip to French & Saunders and Ab Fab, one of the nation’s favourite comedians, for heaven’s sake. Her new book is the venerable BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week the week after next.

Saunders has a butter-wouldn’t-melt carapace, yet it’s her subversive streak, honed in the alternative comedy academy of the 1980s, that has made her such a success. When we meet, it’s never far from the surface, and it breaks through as she talks, bottom lip spreading out in mirth while the top one stays terribly British stiff (“It’s because I played the flute as a child,” she says).

At 55, she’s demurely dressed in subtle navy and black, her bleached blonde hair bouncy, grey-blue eyes bright and tail bushy. The only thing remotely flash is the huge diamond dazzler on her ring finger. In the Edinburgh hotel where we meet when she’s in town to catch her daughter’s comedy show at the Fringe, she smiles at people who recognise her and responds with a polite “Hello, hello.”

“Are you doing any more of that show?” they call over.

“I’ve got something coming out,” she says, dismissing them with a calm smile.

“Would that be more Ab Fab?” I ask.

“That’s too frightening a prospect now. That you undo all the good stuff,” she says.

“Are you well now?” someone else calls across the breakfast buffet, referring to her 2009 discovery of breast cancer that saw her undergo a lumpectomy then chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

“Yes, thank you.” She smiles sweetly and they retreat. “I like Scotland,” she says, looking round. “My mother is a Stewart and lived here some of her childhood. I recently started doing my family tree but my mother is so vague about who’s who. There are Tennants on my father’s side who were Scottish too. We used to spend our holidays in Dalry in Ayrshire visiting my mum’s relations when we were young, every summer trying to climb Blackcraig.”

“Who was Black Craig?” I ask. She giggles. It’s very gratifying to make Saunders laugh.

Then she’s back to looking as cool as a cucumber, exuding an air of calm. This is a trait that has stood her in good stead in the high-octane world of showbiz and also in a personal life, that has had its share of ups and downs. Where others might panic or have a meltdown, she simply carries on and if a little humour can be extracted from the situation, all the better. Breast cancer, her mother’s stroke, shooting Lulu ...

“That was absolutely terrible! We shot Lulu!” she laughs and launches into the tale with glee. It happened when Lulu was a guest on French & Saunders, who were dressed as John Travolta from Pulp Fiction. The singer was being held hostage and annoying them by constantly singing the opening of Shout! The joke was they would ‘shoot’ her and the blood packages taped to her body would explode. As long as she kept her arms away from her side they wouldn’t backfire into her skin. Unfortunately one of her arms was too close and the charge went into it, creating a hole the size of a £2 coin and twice as deep.

“She didn’t sue. She’s got one of those attitudes that everything is an experience, don’t turn it into a negative, everything makes you strong. She said, ‘look how lucky I was to be on the show? What am I going to do if I start suing people?’ It’s a fantastic attitude and it keeps everyone on your side. So then we don’t go “Bloody Lulu! She had her arms down by her side, what a bitch!”

Despite having to have minor plastic surgery, Lulu is still a friend.

Keeping calm in the face of the coming storm is also her attitude to work and ensconced in a BBC office with a comedy series to write, Saunders confesses she and comedy partner Dawn French would happily spend half the day talking and reading magazines for “ammunition”, then often treat themselves with a matinee. She defends this on the basis that much of their comedy was ad lib, spontaneous, never written down, yet admits that procrastination has been the bane of her life. With a deadline approaching she’ll take the dog for a walk, sweep the floor, watch anything with ‘Antiques’ in the title, then panic will set in and she’ll pull out the stops at the last minute, writing on the train to the studio or pulling an all-nighter. She only wrote Ab Fab because Dawn French dropped out of the fourth series of French & Saunders in 1991 when she and Lenny Henry suddenly got approval to adopt. With the studio booked, Saunders worked up the character of Edina from a French & Saunders sketch and Ab Fab was born. Her method seems to work, except for the one time she did miss a deadline – for Goldie Hawn.

Her friend Ruby Wax had met Hawn in LA and said she and Saunders would write her a film script. It was to be about a widow (Hawn) going to India to scatter her husband’s ashes. Months in, they didn’t have the script Hawn wanted. It’s not that they didn’t try. In fact they had two feature films’ worth of material. Saunders had written all about the menopause and Wax about modern art, but there was no India, no ashes. In frustration Hawn took the pair off to India where they all had a riot, but still no workable script. Next she invited Saunders to her Central Park apartment to show her what they’d done. As Saunders puts it, Hawn was suitably disappointed by the lack of script and was “fairly stern”. Saunders was to be kept in the flat till she wrote it and she recounts how Hawn sat between her and the door while she wrote for five days solid, denied a key, but allowed toilet breaks and food intervals. Even then, no workable script ever emerged.

“Even today Ruby and I will meet and discuss writing the film. One day it will happen. It will be done,” she says.

And how are things with Goldie Hawn now?

“She’s fine because we are the butt of the joke, not her. We loved India. We just never did the film,” she shrugs and smiles. Oh well.

The Hawn debacle and porn film episode are recounted in her funny autobiography Bonkers: My Life in Laughs. Saunders has obligingly complied with the publishers’ demand that she celebrity name drop regularly and mention

royalty as much as possible, not forgetting to add just a touch of sadness: “If you’ve had cancer then

milk it”.

There are tales of liquid lunches with Tracey Emin, gossiping with Rupert Everett, lending Robin Williams her T-shirt, ogling Dolly Parton’s breasts, hanging out with Carrie Fisher, Roseanne Barr, Dame Maggie Smith, Richard Pryor, Angelina Jolie and Cher, and a whole roll call of British comedy big shots. There’s her friendship with Dawn French, they still meet and phone “and laugh a lot”, and her absolutely fabulous champagne-fuelled junkets all over the world with Joanna Lumley, after they decided never to turn down a paid-for invite. And the royalty box is ticked too, with Prince Charles – when she met him she told him how much she liked his chutney. Camilla laughed, he didn’t.

“I always swore I would never write a book. But I read Clare Balding’s and it was really interesting and so prettily written and lovely and not too revealing. I went to her book launch and met her editor who said ‘why don’t you think about it? You can do it however you want, based on your characters or you’. Then I thought, what else am I doing? Let’s do it. They said you can always get someone to do it for you, but I didn’t. I had help with the structure, where someone interviewed me solidly for two weeks and suggested chapter themes that I then wrote. I wrote it like sketches, in 30-minute bursts and that was easier. Then it was quite late [no surprise there], so I had to do a lot of hours at the end and finished it in my holidays. It’s what you don’t put in that’s the hardest thing, and missing people out. You either offend them by putting them in or by leaving them out. But you can only put them in if there’s a story attached.”

There are stories aplenty. Her friend Harriet is included by dint of her hugely supportive pep talks and being the inspiration for Patsy, Joanna Lumley’s character in Absolutely Fabulous. When Saunders is having trouble writing (always), Harriet will say, “Well, you shouldn’t feel guilty, darling. And you know why? Because you’re brilliant. And you’re better than them. And they are bloody lucky to have you. Don’t they understand that this is how you work? Don’t listen to them. F*** ‘em. You don’t need this! Just write it now and get it over with. Well done, darling.”

As Saunders describes her life from childhood to becoming a grandmother, there are plenty of stories from school to her career in comedy through French & Saunders and on to Ab Fab, none of it planned and much of it plain silly, hence the title, Bonkers. “My life has been bonkers, so why not call it that?”

Born in Lincolnshire, one of four children to an RAF father and biology teacher mother, she moved schools a lot but rather than become the class clown, became “a great blender inner”. A bit of a tomboy, she rode horses and was allowed to steer her dad’s car, igniting a love of driving that saw her carry off the fastest woman title, and fifth overall place in Top Gear’s Star in a Reasonably priced car competition, ahead of actor Michael Sheen and chef Gordon Ramsay.

“I’m a really good driver. I’ve been driving since I was very small and I do like driving fast. I remember the first time my dad taught me that when you go into a corner you change down then put your foot right down on the way out. I’m very competitive about driving,” she says, revealing a steely determination that isn’t always apparent.

After school Saunders was set up by her mother to embark on a teacher-training course at the Central School of Speech and Drama where she met Dawn French and one of the nation’s great comedy partnerships was formed. An ad in The Stage for female comedians to perform at The Comic Strip saw them join the group of alternative comics that included future husband Adrian Edmondson as well as Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer, Peter Richardson and Alexei Sayle. Touring followed, then they moved onto the fledgling Channel 4 with Comic Strip Presents... In 1987 she and French created French & Saunders, the sketch comedy series for the BBC that achieved massive ratings and aired until 2007. Absolutely Fabulous enjoyed a 13-year run from 1992 and took its anarchic silliness into a two-part film too. Saunders also voiced the Fairy Godmother in Shrek 2 in

2004, and has done various TV projects including Jam and Jerusalem and guest roles. More than enough to warrant a wall of awards, yet Saunders turned down the OBE she was offered in 2001.

“Well, Dawn doesn’t like any of that stuff and I knew that. We thought it’s a bit silly unless you’ve done a lot of charity work. I might have said OK, but I thought, ‘what for?’ All we have done is get paid really nicely to do our job. We haven’t done masses of charity work or set up a foundation.” Saunders had already made the trip to the palace in childhood anyway, when her father was given a CBE and made the queen laugh.

“Yes, well, he did a lot of stuff to earn his.”

Not everything that Saunders touches turns to gold, however. Viva Forever!, the Spice Girls musical she wrote, closed in June after only seven months with a loss of “at least £5 million” and the producer admitting they just “couldn’t make it work”. Saunders’ response was a brief: “So the critics – five middle-aged men – didn’t like it. If you send your dad to see Viva Forever! on his own, then of course he’s going to hate it. It was no surprise.”

Unruffled. Not bothered. Well she’s comfortably off and has bigger things to worry about than the cancellation of a show. Saunders credits her parents for teaching her the importance of rolling with the punches and hitting back with laughter, so it is true to form that breast cancer should be a source of amusement for her.

“There’s always humour, especially about something like that. I used to take someone with me for the chemotherapy so I could do jokes. You always try and find something absurd. I found the treatment really easy because I had a schedule and people are nice and kind to you. And you can be as grim as you like and no-one says anything. No-one minds. It’s lovely. I recommend a little dose of cancer to anyone,” she says.

In the same vein, her mother’s stroke was a source of great mirth for both of them. Saunders had rushed round immediately and by the time the air ambulance arrived, they were both creasing up over her mother’s inability to speak, for example sending Saunders upstairs to pack a nightie that was kept “in the donkey”.

Her mother is recovered now, apart from the occasional “donkey” and Saunders and Edmondson live mainly in their London flat near Hyde Park, while eldest daughter Ella, husband Dan and baby Fred, live in the Devon family home. The couple have two other daughters, Beattie, the comedian, and Freya, now all in their twenties and the recipients of a “normal” upbringing away from the red carpet. Saunders says they were just never interested, for example turning down the chance to meet Phillip Schofield because he didn’t have his gopher with him.

Saunders puts her long and happy 28-year marriage to Edmondson down to “always finding new things to do, whether moving or holidays or jobs. It’s also about compromise. Sometimes it’s just not worth having an argument. Neither of us likes arguments. There’s probably so much flushed under the carpet it’ll explode one day. It’s much better not to say anything. We spend chunks of time apart and have

our own lives and jobs, and that helps. He’s in a play in Chichester at the moment,” she says proudly. “He’s got more of a Yorkshire

work ethic than me. I don’t worry about working. I’ll be doing another series of PG Wodehouse’s Blandings, but after that I don’t know.” She shrugs.

“Are you well now?” yet another concerned fan calls over.

“Oh yes, thank you,” she says and smiles. “I’m fine.”

I can tell you readers, this is a lie. She’s not fine, she’s Bonkers.

• Bonkers: My Life in Laughs is published by Viking, £20