Mike Atkinson

Interview: Jennifer Saunders

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on March 28, 2008

Perhaps it’s unfair to expect comedians to be funny all the time. Perhaps, when you’re halfway through a marathon tour of the UK, the pressures of constant travel will conspire to rob you of whatever sense of humour you once had. Perhaps, when you’re nearing the end of a long-running comedy partnership, the desire to market yourself as an appealing proposition cannot help but dwindle. Perhaps, when your final series for the BBC (a “greatest hits” clippings job, with a few minutes of new material thrown in each week) has suffered poor reviews and lousy viewing figures, the desire to rule a line and move on can only make you testy and impatient.

Maybe it’s just because you were sitting on a train to Brighton, with the phone line cutting out every few minutes, feeling self-conscious about being interviewed in public, and understandably nervous about that night’s show.

Or maybe, just maybe, when your interviewer has admired your work for the thick end of a quarter of a century, and has been looking forward to communicating that admiration in person, disappointment is the only, and inevitable, outcome.

Whatever the reasons might be, the fact remains that my much anticipated chat with Jennifer Saunders turned out to be the dullest interview that I have conducted with anyone since Shayne “Mister Personality” Ward, just over a year ago. Granted, Jennifer was never less than courteous and professional – but as our conversation progressed, her answers remained resolutely terse, warily defensive, largely disinterested and utterly humourless.

(Oh, OK. I think she laughed twice. Three times, tops.)

The French and Saunders Still Alive tour, which comes to Nottingham next Thursday, has been billed as a final chance to see the pair perform together, as a comedy duo. “We’ll probably work together again, but I don’t think we’ll be doing the double act as such, unless there’s the odd Comic Relief moment.”

So, no chance of ending up like the ever-valedictory Cher, then? “No, I don’t think so. The tour is the tour, and then that’s the end of it.”

We have been here before, though. Absolutely Fabulous came to an apparent conclusion after the third series, before being resurrected for a couple of “last ever” specials a year later. Five years after that, it returned for two more series, followed by a few more specials, eventually spluttering to an end in 2005. So we might be forgiven for harbouring a few suspicions.

“Um, yeah. But that was… I never, I never wrote that off as a… I’ve never said it was finishing. You know, it’s just: when you get time, and people want it, then you do a bit more.”

If you say so, Jennifer. But what has brought about the decision to call it a day as French and Saunders?

“I think that the days of doing a sketch show have passed. There’s lots of new young acts coming up, and we’d rather quit while we’re still enjoying it – and people still want to see it – rather than letting it drift on.”

A lot of the duo’s material over the years has parodied whatever happens to be popular at the time, be it from television, music or film. There might therefore be a certain sense of relief, at not continually having to “keep up” with everything. (Dawn as Adele and Jennifer as Duffy, maybe? It’s an admittedly tantalising proposition.)

“I think it’s more about what’s a common experience these days. Much less is a common experience. I think it’s harder to play anybody, because fewer people see them. The ratings on TV shows now are tiny, compared to what they used to be. Nobody watches the same stuff. Different age groups don’t watch the same stuff.”

As for any future plans to work with her comedy partner, Jennifer is keeping an open mind. “We’ll be doing another Jam and Jerusalem, so that will be the next thing. But I’m sure that we’ll look at ideas on things we can work on together. We have a production company together, so we’re always seeing each other and talking through ideas. As ever, you never think too far ahead.”

Shooting for the third series of Jam and Jerusalem commences this spring. This is excellent news for those who have enjoyed Saunders’ shift of focus, away from the hot-house world of “media”, and towards the altogether gentler world of village life.

“We have a lovely time. Everyone really enjoys working on it, and it’s a nice fun project. It’s nice working with people that you respect so much, and writing for them.”

Although the show is clearly tightly scripted, it’s tempting to wonder whether any of the lines come from the fine ensemble cast themselves, during the filming process.

“A certain amount, but we shoot it so fast. It’s on a very quick turnover. But if a problem comes up in a scene, then we’ll sit down and change it over the lunch hour.”

Does this shift of emphasis – from the urban to the rural – mirrors changes in Jennifer’s own life?

“I think so, in a way. But there’s so much media now. When I first did Ab Fab, there wasn’t the same celebrity culture. There was only Hello! magazine. Nowadays, everyone who falls out of a cab without their pants on is a Patsy and Edina, in a way. It’s very commonplace. So where I thought there was a gap, it was in something that was basically about nice people. The only thing that it challenges is other people’s cynicism, really.”

But then there is also Saunders’ latest comic creation: Vivienne Vyle, the demonic doyenne of the daytime TV chat show, and a deliberate satire on the likes of Jeremy Kyle. (From Vyle to Kyle: the reference is hardly a subtle one.) Has Kyle offered any response to being so expertly skewered?

“No, none. Absolutely no response.” A steely silence, maybe? “I’m sure he’s blissfully unaware.”

As for the many other public figures that have been targeted by French and Saunders over the years, it seems that none have ever kicked up a fuss. “I don’t think anybody has, really. If we do it on the show, then we tend to invite them along anyway.”

One of the duo’s most memorable parodies was Dawn French’s take on Catherine Zeta-Jones, some of which is reprised on video during the tour. This apparently heavy reliance on video footage has come in for criticism in some of the reviews – but before I could give Jennifer the chance to answer the charge, I was hastily, anxiously silenced. “Don’t tell me, please. Honestly, don’t tell me anything. I’m not reading them, so please don’t tell me.”

Time for one final question, then. Once the tour is over, and the double act put to rest, it must be tempting to think: right, I’ve reached a certain stage in my life (Saunders turns fifty in July), I’ve been at the top of my game for twenty-five years, my daughters will soon be leaving home, and so maybe I don’t need to work so hard any more. Wouldn’t it be nice just to stay down in Devon, keeping chickens, and maybe opening the occasional village fete?

“Well, if we were that rich, then yes – but we only work for the BBC! I think you’ve read too many of those lists! But I don’t think I’d be tempted, anyway. I enjoy my job, and I think it’s a really good, fun job. We’re very lucky, and as long as we can do it, then we’ll keep on doing it.”

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