Profile: Jennifer Saunders - Absolutely the Last

JENNIFER SAUNDERS talks with James Rampton
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The Independent Culture
Jennifer Saunders leans forward and gets all conspiratorial as she reveals a trick she is aiming to play on her Absolutely Fabulous co- star Joanna Lumley. Saunders is planning to take round a life-size cut- out of Lumley she has been given by a video shop, place it on Lumley's doorstep, ring the front doorbell and then scarper. As she explains this schoolgirl prank, her eyes twinkle mischievously and her laughter is contagious.

Whether charging around as a war-painted character from Braveheart on French and Saunders or collapsing drunkenly into the flower-bed as Edina in Absolutely Fabulous, what Saunders communicates is exactly this unashamed sense of fun. She has turned larking about into a fine art.

"She has brought to telly some female silliness, and there wasn't a lot of that sort of stuff around before she came along," opines Jon Plowman, the BBC's head of comedy entertainment. "Other comedians talk about [Dawn] French and Saunders' ability to muck about - and that's infectious. In order to be silly on telly, you have to have an enormous skill, which you don't need if you're doing a joke or a character. You've got to let go and say, 'It's alright for us to sit around and discuss the characters in Hello! magazine.' You have to have confidence to get away with that."

Some commentators, however, have not found it so amusing. Scotland on Sunday attacked the final episode of Absolutely Fabulous as "an idea flogged well past its sell-by date". Saunders does admit that the programme was "disjointed, but I just had to get rid of all those jokes I'd always wanted to do. It would have been tragic to look back in 2000 and think, 'I wish I'd done that'."

Critics also laid into the last series of French and Saunders for its supposed self-indulgence. "People always accuse their show of being 'patchy'," Plowman contends. "Of course it is. There'll always be some things you like and some things your neighbour likes. It's in the nature of sketch shows. What Dawn and Jennifer like is exploring characters. They tend not to do quick jokes. It's not a 'dash into the pub, do a joke, dash out of the pub' kind of show."

Looking elegant in leather trousers and a beige top, Saunders seems to have had not a single sleek blonde hair ruffled by the buffetings. "I'm my own worst critic," she claims, "I could tell the critics a thing or two about my shows. Anyway, Ab Fab satisfies the fans. People love Edina and Patsy. They do everything people would like to do but would be arrested for trying. It's the getting away with it that people like. There's very little you can do these days without being done for it - either by the police or by guilt. We're so restricted. People look at Edina and Patsy and think, 'I wish I could say that'."

Like Harry Enfield, Saunders has the nous to quit while she's ahead; Ab Fab is now Ab Dead - although it will thrive in the video after-life. "It's been the greatest joy to do, and I'll miss doing the characters," she sighs. "But the show would only continue to lose impact. Other shows would replace it. It would become an imitation of itself. You would start acting up in it rather than acting in it."

Despite her status as one of our most successful female comedians - only French, Ruby Wax and Victoria Wood rival her - Saunders does not wish to be seen as a crusader for women's rights. "Absolutely not. I don't write anything from that point of view. I write for women because it's the only way I can use what I've experienced. It's good that people like what I write, but I don't want to go down the feminist path."

Nor does she view her characters as role models. "They aren't that successful, they're actually rather sad," she maintains. "They're triers whose lives aren't that great. Edina is always looking for ways to make herself interesting, she is always searching for The Life. She believes that attaching herself to something important will make her important in some way. She thinks, 'Because I'm a Buddhist, it means I'm important.' No, it doesn't. It means she takes her shoes off. Where she is is never good enough - which is a modern disease."

Saunders is now writing a show with the American comedian Mo Gaffney (who plays Bo in Ab Fab), but she will be back with French soon. "Dawn's got a flourishing theatre career," she says, before adding with a smile, "but I'm not bitter. We've always done separate projects. It keeps our partnership going. We wouldn't get any ideas otherwise. If you always work together, there's no air. You either start hating each other or vegetate. You end up having to use interpreters to speak to each other."

Dispiritingly for cynics (read journalists), there has never been a hint of a bust-up. "People imagine there's a huge rivalry between us," Saunders observes, "but our group is very supportive. Everyone is pleased with other people's successes because it reflects well on you. Dawn and I see each other on a social level. It would be pointless having a professional relationship but not a friendship. The only point in doing this is to have a good time."

'Absolutely Fabulous: The Last Shout' (with out-takes not seen on TV) is now available on video from VVL, pounds 14.99

JENNIFER'S TOP THREE AB FAB CREATIONS

1. Edina, the fad-obsessed, neurotic PR. Saunders relished this part. "There was nothing to stop you just being funny. It was just big hair, dressing up and falling over."

2. Patsy, the man-eating, Bollinger-chugging magazine fashion editor, played by Joanna Lumley. Jon Plowman, head of comedy entertainment at the BBC, worried at the time, "Will it appeal to anyone outside the square mile of Soho?' But we got the details right, and viewers felt it was authentic."

3. Saffy, Edina's swotty, puritanical daughter, played by Julia Sawalha. "A hippy mother breeding a conservative child was very recognisable," argues Plowman.

EYE TEST

1958: Born in Lincolnshire, daughter of RAF group captain

1977: Went to Central School of Speech and Drama, where she met Dawn French

1980: With French, answered ad in The Stage for performers at the Comic Strip, where "we sometimes outnumbered the audience". Met Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Alexei Sayle, et al there

1980s: Girls on Top, with French and Ruby Wax. Various Comic Strip Presents... films: Five Go Mad in Dorset, Bad News Tour, GLC, Oxford, The Strike, The Supergrass, Spaghetti Hoops

1985: Married fellow Comic Stripper Ade Edmondson, by whom she has three daughters

1987-95: Three series of French and Saunders

1992-95: Three series of Absolutely Fabulous

1996: Ab Fab farewell special

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