A year or two ago, Ruby Wax pulled into a gas station in Nowheresville, Arizona. The attendant asked where she was from. "London," she said. "Really?" said the attendant. "Do you know those two crazy chicks from Ab Fab?"
In person, with her attractive yet strangely immobile features and frightfully pukka voice, Jennifer Saunders seems anything but a crazy chick. She is sitting in a Catholic church hall in the lee of the Hammersmith flyover, following a high-level meeting with her script editor – the same Ruby Wax – at Starbucks in Notting Hill.
The church hall is frequently used for rehearsals by the BBC comedy department, but the elders of the diocese evidently do not insist on reading the scripts beforehand. Saunders is here to rehearse episode five of the new series of Absolutely Fabulous, which begins tomorrow after almost five years of supposedly terminal retirement. It is an episode called "Small Opening", which has Patsy (Joanna Lumley) exhorting Edina (Saunders) not to become a celebrity. "No, darling," she rasps, "you don't want to be one of those skinny bitches who just sticks on two patches of Elastoplast and a little bit of dental floss and calls it an outfit. You don't want to wap your fanny out at a prem..."
But Edina really, really does, unlike her alter ego Saunders, who rather eschews the glam side of celebrity and has never been know to wap anything out at a prem. She might be part of a showbiz couple – she has been married to comedian Ade Edmondson for 16 years – but they recoil from the limelight, somewhat to the consternation of their three daughters, Beattie, Ella and Freya, who would like to go to far more starry parties and premieres but have the significant handicap, starry party-wise, of spending much of their lives in Devon.
The Saunderses/Edmondsons have long had a holiday home on Dartmoor and are now reportedly considering selling their Richmond house (for £2.25m) and moving out of London lock, stock and barrel. But the distance Saunders keeps from the celebrity circuit, spiritually, intellectually and physically, is precisely what has enabled her to lampoon it in the new series. "I don't do parties... you can't join it if you're going to write about it," she says, adding that she was enthralled by Celebrity Big Brother, especially the Vanessa Feltz-Anthea Turner ogle-fest. "I was amazed by it. Totally hooked. I said 'I'm not going to watch that crap' and within two minutes I was hooked."
When Saunders agreed to revive Ab Fab (far from there being long and detailed negotiations, the BBC's head of comedy entertainment Jon Plowman suggested it and she said, "Oh, alright"), she realised that the world had moved on since 1996, that the fashion industry could no longer be the platform for Edina and Patsy to topple off, dead drunk. "Fashion is now just another service industry," she says. "You can get Gucci in Asda. But what has taken over is this celebrity feeding frenzy." How did she do her research on celebrity, then, if not by going to parties? "By six months of really intense magazine reading," she says, with a short laugh. "I did visit Heat magazine. Actually, I was incredibly disappointed. I thought they might be a bit bitchier, but they seemed quite nice. I was hoping for edge, but it was edge-less."
For the new series, Saunders has created a new character in Katy Grin, an insincere TV presenter beautifully played by Jane Horrocks. Katy's CV includes stints presenting Blue Peter and the Lottery show, not unlike, in fact remarkably like, Anthea Turner. But Katy is not Anthea, Saunders assures me.
"Not specifically. She's a breed. Carol Smillie, Vanessa Feltz, Anthea Turner... being a presenter has become a real career option, the idea that people are going to drama school so that they can eventually become a presenter..." Saunders rolls her eyes. "I find presenter-worship extraordinary. But the turnover is pretty quick. You know they're doing every single job they can until the juice runs out, and then there is complete disbelief when they find out that the public doesn't love them."
Wax, she adds, has been a rich source of insight on the subject. "Ruby's very good on the whole idea of fame, and how people try to squeeze the last minutes out of it when they get to a certain age. Like when Madonna did that sex book, she knew her body would never look that good again." Oh, to be a fly on the side of a tall latte in Starbucks in Notting Hill.
Despite Wax's input, however, Saunders is very much the boss. It is revealing to watch the rehearsal process, because although she encourages everyone to make additions and amendments to the script, gaily laughing at their suggestions, they all, from the producer and director down, plainly defer to her. Sometimes, she admits, she puts her foot down. She smiles. "Occasionally, if someone says 'I find that a bit long,' I say 'then say it quicker'." But she does not, like some writer-stars, put her foot down with a petulant stamp. She was too well brought-up for that sort of carry-on. Besides, she is now 43, and even Edina, who turned 40 before Saunders, has mellowed slightly.
"It's 10 years since we started and people do get on, get slightly more morose, too old to be thrashing around on the town," she says. "Also, we used to get a laugh on 'colonic'. But nowadays everything is available at your local health spa. Everyone can get acupuncture. So what I'm concentrating on is more the psychological side: my mother was hopeless with me, I'm hopeless with Saffy, that sort of thing. The gay community, particularly in America, became obsessed with the sweetie, Bolly, fags stuff, but I've tried to get rid of it a bit in this series."
Saunders has a reputation for being a difficult interviewee, which an appearance on Parkinson with her long-time collaborator Dawn French did nothing to diminish. And yet, perhaps because she is among friends in a rehearsal room, her natural habitat, I find her both charming and forthcoming. Her father was a group captain in the RAF, and comedy was not exactly in her blood. But television comedy captivated her. I ask her which programmes she liked most. "Erm, Terry And June," she says loyally – June Whitfield, who again plays Mother in the new series, is standing not five yards away. "Everything, really. Erm, Till Death Us Do Part. But Lucille Ball was the one I loved most."
In 1977, Saunders went to The Central School of Speech and Drama in London, and there met Dawn French. It is well-documented that at first they thoroughly disliked each other. French thought Saunders too posh, Saunders thought French too sensible. But eventually they clicked, formed an act called The Menopause Sisters, and took it to the newly-formed Comic Strip, where they duly met Edmondson, Rik Mayall and co.
Ab Fab later developed out of a French and Saunders sketch, Saunders tells me, "because Dawn was adopting her daughter and needed time off, and that was the sketch I chose because I had most lines." According to French, however, there was more to it than that. As she tells it, Saunders was protecting her because the adoption came through while they were writing another series of French and Saunders, and she did not want people to know why she was backing out. "We already had the studio and crew booked and we didn't want to let anyone down, so Jen said 'Dawn doesn't want to do this at the moment, but I have a comedy series for you instead.' "
For a smokescreen, it made a hell of a sitcom. But after five years, Saunders decided that everyone was in danger of having too much of a good thing. "It would become an imitation of itself," she said at the time, explaining the decision to wind it up. "You would start acting up in it rather than acting in it."
After five more years, these considerations evidently no longer apply. Saunders even concedes that she would like to write another series after this one. But her ego is fragile enough to be apprehensive. "Everyone will be out to judge it," she says. "I do feel a certain amount of fear, fear that the moment it's committed to paper it might no longer be funny." Tomorrow, the nation decides.