Over forty and still being silly

Britain's favourite female comics are about to hit the road for the first time in 11 years. They may be superstars now, but they haven't forgotten the old jokes.
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The comedy promoter Phil McIntyre remembers clearly the last time French and Saunders toured Britain in 1989. "It was a very good drunken tour, that one," he recalls. But things are more sober this time. "The girls still like to go out nightclubbing," he says, "but they just can't do it as often. They've got families now." That's not all that has changed. While their last outing was a fairly straightforward affair, this time a 40ft lorry is required to transport an extravagant set involving state-of-the-art projectors and lighting rigs. It's the sort of thing even David Bowie would be proud of, says McIntyre.

The comedy promoter Phil McIntyre remembers clearly the last time French and Saunders toured Britain in 1989. "It was a very good drunken tour, that one," he recalls. But things are more sober this time. "The girls still like to go out nightclubbing," he says, "but they just can't do it as often. They've got families now." That's not all that has changed. While their last outing was a fairly straightforward affair, this time a 40ft lorry is required to transport an extravagant set involving state-of-the-art projectors and lighting rigs. It's the sort of thing even David Bowie would be proud of, says McIntyre.

Which is only fitting. The French and Saunders 2000 tour is a superstar affair, taking in 21 cities and more than 50 dates at major venues. So far every date has sold out and McIntyre is confident of passing the magic number of 100,000 ticket sales when the pair play four weeks at London's Hammersmith Apollo next month. Only a handful of performers, the likes of Billy Connolly and Victoria Wood, can achieve sales like that, and Dawn French, 43, and Jennifer Saunders, 42, are right up there with them.

"People love a double act," says McIntyre. "If you're a double act, it's like being a footballer who's left-footed - you've got a bit of an advantage because there aren't as many of you. And also they're women, so they've got double rarity. It's like being a left-footer who's really fast."

According to Jon Plowman, the BBC's Head of Comedy Entertainment, it's all to do with silliness. "I think people recognise in them two people being silly," he says. "They're good at being silly and they also bring to their work a sense of enjoying what they're doing. They've always had a great attitude. They say, 'This is what we do and if you like it, that's great, but if you don't, fuck off.' I think that's quite refreshing."

The current tour is an unsurprising mix of mainly TV-centred skits and feminine observation, although 40-plus motherhood has recently entered the French and Saunders comic orbit. Don Ward, the co-founder of London's Comedy Store, where the duo first performed, says their subject matter has hardly changed over the years, although their act has been honed considerably. While the likes of Andy de la Tour, Alexei Sayle and Ben Elton spent the Eighties laying into Margaret Thatcher, French and Saunders stuck to what Ward describes as "middle-class sketchy stuff". In his opinion they were comedy actresses rather than stand-up comedians. Nor was there any hint of how successful they would become.

"There was no star quality about them at all," he says. "They regularly used to get 'gonged off'. They might last five minutes or they might even get to eight minutes, but sooner or later the audience would have them off. They didn't seem to give a damn. They'd shrug their shoulders, pick up their 15 quid and say: 'Right, Don, see you next week.' And off they'd go." Ward says he was particularly struck by the fact that neither appeared to be more or less talented than the other.

Their big break came when they were recruited as the only resident female act at the Comic Strip, a new club set up by Peter Richardson, where they performed alongside Richardson, Adrian Edmondson, Rik Mayall and Nigel Planer. "They were desperate for women in order to make it PC," French said later. "We were just the first creatures with boobs to walk through the door."

Not only did they tour with the group, they also appeared regularly in The Comic Strip Presents ... TV films, the first of which, Five Go Mad In Dorset, was shown on Channel 4's opening night in November 1982.

The pair made their TV début as a double act the following year in The Entertainers, a Channel 4 showcase for new performers which had to be broadcast at 11.15pm rather than in its usual 8.30pm slot because they used the word "clitoris". Further TV work came thick and fast: two series of Girls On Top, a kind of female version of The Young Ones; Happy Families, scripted by Ben Elton, and starring Saunders in all the main roles, with cameos from French and the rest of the Comic Strip team; and, in 1987, the very first series of French and Saunders.

By now the pair had established a considerable following, especially among young women, and McIntyre persuaded them to embark on their first full-scale solo tour of the UK in 1989. It proved a great success, ending with a four-week run at London's Shaftesbury Theatre. Indeed so successful was it that two years later he approached them to do it again. As he was to do every year thereafter. "They always sort of said yes, but never put a time frame on it," he says. This year was different because "they were in the mood and they both needed a conservatory".

There had been plenty to get in the way during the past decade. Families, for a start. Saunders has three children with her husband, Adrian Edmondson - Beattie, 14, Ella, 13, and Freya, 10. French and her husband, Lenny Henry, have an adopted daughter, Billie, who is now nine. Then there was the matter of their individual careers to look after. Having spent their first 10 years very much together, they had spent the next 10 years establishing themselves as major stars in their own right.

As chance would have it, it was French's decision to adopt which resulted in solo success for Saunders. The pair were seven weeks away from recording a new French and Saunders series when French heard that a baby had become available. She had to pull out, but did not want anyone to know why. To cover for her, Saunders told the BBC that the writing of the series was not going well, but she had another idea, for a sitcom, based on a sketch the pair had once done. And so was born Absolutely Fabulous.

French has since admitted that she was jealous of the runaway success of the award-winning Ab Fab, and it was some time before she was able to achieve a prominence equal to her partner's. Murder Most Horrid was a start, but it was only with The Vicar of Dibley, in which she plays the chocolate-loving reverend Geraldine Granger, that she really established herself. Such is the ratings-busting value of the show that the BBC chose it to spearhead its Christmas season last year, with three shows over the holiday period.

Plowman says talk of lucrative golden handcuffs at the BBC is nonsense, but nevertheless the pair are "fairly well rewarded" for working exclusively for the corporation. A recent survey of celebrity wealth by the investment company Singer and Friedlander estimated that French is worth £5m and Saunders £10m. The discrepancy is largely accounted for by the TV production company that Saunders jointly owns with Edmondson.

Outside her TV work, Saunders is rarely to be seen. French, by contrast, has found herself regularly in the public eye, sometimes by design, at other times not. In 1994, for instance, she chose to appear naked in Esquire magazine in an attempt to strike a blow for fat women. In an accompanying article, she put forward the view that large women are better in bed than thin ones. "We know how to use our mighty weight," she said. "We know the considerable power of a full and voluptuous body." Somewhat naïvely she was then taken aback to find the pictures appearing in the tabloid press, along with comments that were often unfavourable.

The pair remain close friends even though they may go months without speaking to one another and they say they have yet to fall out. After the current tour is over, they will once again go their separate ways. Saunders is set to make Mirrorball, a new sitcom about failed thespians which will reunite her with all the regulars from Ab Fab. French, meanwhile, will be appearing on the London stage, playing Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Nevertheless, they are confident that they will be working together again, no matter how far in the future that may be. As French said recently, "The only time we won't work together is if one of us dies."

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