French and Saunders: Return of the cheeky girls

They have their place in Britcom history, the celebrity husbands, the big houses and swimming pools. And, with the solo successes of 'The Vicar of Dibley' and 'Absolutely Fabulous', no reason to reform their double act. But, after eight years, they are back, so a big hand, please, for...
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If a week is a long time in politics, eight years is a lifetime in show business, but that's how long it's been since the last series of French and Saunders, which returns to BBC1 this Friday. When the previous series finished, John Major was still Prime Minister; the meanest show on TV was Spitting Image, and Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders' friendly skits still seemed cutting edge. Now savage satire is the norm, not amiable send-ups of old movies.

For their first series since 1996, French and Saunders have drafted in some fresh blood. As well as such seasoned co-stars as Ruby Wax, playing the controller of BBC1 (don't joke about it - it might happen), they're joined by bright young things Matt Lucas and David Walliams (stars ofLittle Britain), plus Michelle Collins, Amanda Holden and Denise Van Outen in a Shakespearean version of Footballers' Wives. Yet in today's crueller comic climate, is there really still an audience for jolly parodies and in-jokes about Auntie Beeb?

Compared with shows such as Little Britain, French and Saunders feel cosy and conformist. Yet although they were never nasty, there was a time when they were regarded as quite radical. If they seem comfortably mainstream now, that's only because they've been so influential. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, most other comedians were struggling to keep up.

French and Saunders got their first big break more than 20 years ago, in a troupe of outrageously talented "alternative" comedians called The Comic Strip - so called because they performed in a theatre adjoining Paul Raymond's nude Revue Bar. Their (fully clothed) revue was a cult success, but it really took off when Jeremy Isaacs asked them to make a comic film for the first night of Channel 4 in 1982. The result was the splendid Enid Blyton spoof Five Go Mad in Dorset, which led to dozens of TV films and two movies. One of their co-stars, Robbie Coltrane, called The Comic Strip a cross between Carry On and Joe Orton. It's a description that could easily apply to the best of French and Saunders.

French and Saunders appeared fleetingly in alternative comedy's favourite sitcom The Young Ones - but although the show's humour was anarchic, as in most sitcoms all the best parts were for men. In response, French and Saunders teamed up with Ruby Wax to create Girls on Top, starring Tracey Ullman. "Boys can't write for girls and girls can't write for boys," said Saunders succinctly (and fairly accurately). Girls on Top put women centre stage. "It really was incredibly encouraging, because up until that point I think I'd been a bit depressed about whether I could ever get anywhere," says Jo Brand, one of many female comedians inspired by their success in an overwhelmingly male industry. "They were a new broom. They swept away the old stuff before them." Suddenly, there were women on TV laughing about men, rather than the other way around.

French and Saunders' conversational comedy was a world away from the one-liners that most male stand-up comics prefer. They didn't tell jokes, they told stories - and although their humour was highly polished, it still felt spontaneous and informal, like women talking to each other. "Women slag men off all the time," says Brand. "They just don't tend to do it when there are men around." But these women did, and they got away with it. "They're prepared to do anything for the sake of comedy, which I really like about them," says Brand. "They're prepared to look hideous." Unlike a lot of comics, they were able to laugh at themselves.

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders were born in 1957 and 1958 respectively. Both their fathers were in the RAF. They grew up on the same forces camps, but they never met as children - although they did share the same best friend. They finally met in 1977, at London's Central School of Speech and Drama. It was mild dislike at first sight. Saunders thought French was cocky. French thought Saunders was snooty.

They both married comedians. French is married to Lenny Henry; Saunders is married to her Comic Strip co-star Adrian Edmondson. French and Henry have one daughter; Saunders and Edmondson have three. Yet although their CVs seem bizarrely similar, their backgrounds are quite different. Saunders' father was an officer; French's wasn't. When they left drama school, French got a job as a drama teacher, while Saunders sat at home and did the crossword.

"Lenny and I live in a big house and we've got a swimming pool and stuff, but it's all new to us," French once said. "It's not what we grew up with. We sort of believe that someone will take it away at any moment, which is why we are always working. But Jennifer grew up in a house like that. Absolutely expected to live in one. Doesn't have any guilt about it." There was a wobble for French when her husband was accused in tabloid papers of an affair, but the couple say they are over that now.

The differences between the two women are reflected in their solo careers. While French has racked up an industrious array of impressive acting roles, Saunders maintains an air of languid nonchalance, while somehow conjuring up a phenomenally successful career, notably withAbsolutely Fabulous. Inspired by a French and Saunders sketch about a sensible teenager and her rebellious mother, and written when French was otherwise engaged being a new mum, the comedy became a national obsession, despite its unashamedly elitist situation. "Will it appeal to anyone outside the square mile of Soho?" wondered French and Saunders' producer Jon Plowman. Yet the world that it created was so vivid and convincing that its popular appeal extended way beyond its boundaries. Ab Fab became a byword for metropolitan arrogance and extravagance, and Patsy Stone, Joanna Lumley's feckless fashionista, became a comic icon.

Meanwhile, French was starring in a gentler yet more enduring hit. Created by Richard Curtis, The Vicar of Dibley could have been written 40 years ago, but for the fact that its central character is a woman. Yet, in its own unassuming way, the sitcom is far more daring than anything else that French or Saunders have ever appeared in. The Vicar of Dibley presents the case for female priests far more persuasively than the Church of England ever could.

Plenty of comedians have grabbed bigger headlines in more risqué shows, but few have managed to remain on peak-time TV for two decades. And so French and Saunders' influence, especially on female comics, has been immense. "They weren't trying to be glamorous or sexy or alluring," says stand-up Lucy Porter. "They were just being stupid and mucking about." But there was a bit more to it than that. "It was the first time the dynamic of female friendship had really been explored in comedy," adds Porter. "I don't think you could have Smack the Pony if you hadn't had French and Saunders."

French and Saunders' success reveals something about British comedy that the chattering classes frequently forget. For every viewer who wants to watch comedies that shock or startle, there are many more who simply want to be soothed and reassured. French and Saunders were never overtly political, unlike their "alternative" contemporaries such as Ben Elton. Their chatty banter always felt closer to the Cambridge Footlights than the Comedy Store.

As French and Saunders grow older, and their comedy grows softer and safer, there's every chance they'll become less fashionable - but there's also every chance that they'll become even more popular, too. With their famously funny spouses and their good deeds for good causes, they're the closest thing we have to a comic aristocracy. Long may they reign.

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