Bonkers: My Life in Laughs - Jennifer Saunders (2013)

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

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The Laws of Procrastination have been the bane of my life. The laws that say ‘Don’t panic!’, that say every second not spent doing the task is ‘thinking time’, time spent ‘getting ammunition’. After all, how can you write without having things to write about? Get out there and experience life! Unfortunately, in my case, that really just involves taking the dog for a walk, sweeping, or watching Flog It! and anything with ‘Antiques’ in the title.

Take my first day of writing this book, for example. To start it, I took myself off to our cottage on Dartmoor. It was raining heavily outside and the sheep in the field in front were tucked under thorn trees, out of the wind. There is no Internet in the cottage and no television and it is very quiet (save for the weather). All I could do was write. There wasn’t even a view to distract me; it was as if I was inside a cloud.

When I arrived in the morning, I discovered that there were dead flies all over the floor, so I had to hoover for quite a while. This was entirely necessary because – according to the Laws of Procrastination – you cannot start work if there is an obvious job undone. And that job can be anything from tidying all yer drawers to washing everything in the whole house, including people.

I suctioned up every dead fly, some cobwebs, some crumbs and some coffee granules. If it hadn’t been for the rain, I might have headed out and hoovered the field.

I had brought my phone with me for emergencies, so, after the clean-up, I did feel that I deserved a couple of games of Bejeweled (a terribly addictive time-waster), one round of Scrambler (time-wasting, but good for the brain and the offset of dementia), and I did some very important texting before putting the phone on silent and opening the computer.

I had very nearly put my fingers on the keyboard when coffee came into my head. I always write best on coffee. So I thought it necessary to make some. Just black coffee. Coffee with milk makes me feel sick. So just a cafetière of black coffee. Marvellous.

I sat back down at the table with my computer open and allowed myself just a little time looking at my screensaver, which is a picture of my grandson, Freddie Furlong. He is only nine months old as I write, and very lovely. Before I knew it, I was looking at photos of him on my phone. I have literally hundreds of him, but with the self-discipline of a master of self-discipline, I eventually found the strength, after half an hour, to put the phone away, face down on the table. Face down and on silent. I will NOT be governed by the phone looking at me and ringing me up and taunting me with useful apps and the possibility of Twitter.

Drank some coffee. Had a little think.

I now had Twitter in my head. Just had to check my ‘Followers’ count. I didn’t Tweet because I thought someone who knew me and knew I should be writing would see that I had been distracted and have a go at me later.

I put Twitter away. Pushed phone away again. The taunting, teasing devil phone.

I needed to move away from it. So I had a wander with my mug and looked out of the window.

Had quite a long think about sheep’s wool and lanolin and how it used to be in lots of hand and face creams when I was growing up, until they discovered that it encouraged hair growth. That was discovered too late for many a hairy-handed, bearded woman, unfortunately, but now it’s about as welcome as parabens in beauty products.

Then the door of the cottage burst open and in came Freddie’s dad, soaking wet and holding out some lunch for me that he had brought up from the house. Home-made crab cakes and salad. Good Lord! I wasn’t going to have lunch. I was going to work right through lunch. I hadn’t got any food in the cottage because food can be distracting, and my reward for working was going to be a nice supper. I was going to work till six and then go back to the house and have a glass of wine and supper.

‘You don’t have to eat it. I just thought you might like some,’ said Dan.

‘Oh well, since you’ve come all the way up here,’ said me.

‘How are you getting on?’

Dan could see I was some distance from the computer.

‘Really well. It’s a really good place to work,’ said me, convincingly.

‘You might want to light a fire.’

‘No. I’m fine.’

I thanked him for the totally unnecessary food, and he left.

The crab cakes were delicious and I necked them quickly. I was very hungry, as it turned out. I was anxious not to waste any more time, but while eating the salad, I found a very small slug. It seemed quite well, despite being covered in yoghurt dressing, and I let it roam free around the bowl. It was a fascinating slug with an interesting face.

As I watched the slug, I felt the temperature of the room drop and I thought to light a fire before getting down to writing. Yes. To light a fire. No point starting and then getting cold and then stopping to light a fire. Light it now. Do it now! So I did.

I tried to light it quickly, get it going and then not sit and watch it. That takes some willpower. I found that willpower after a mere twenty minutes, when I managed to tear myself away and returned to the table.

The slug was now on the table and not looking at all well. It had dried slightly and curled into a ball, like the inside of a winkle. I felt very guilty because I had quite liked the slug.

I picked it up and put it outside the door, into the rain. Perhaps it would revive. It seemed to uncurl and, for a moment, there was hope. But then the rain just pounded the poor slug and turned it into mush.

An unspecified time later, with not a single word written, I got up from the floor by the glass door I’d been peering through, only to discover that I had been sitting there so long that I had got terrible pins and needles. I was forced to hobble about for quite some time until my dead legs relented and I could return to the computer.

This is actually PATHETIC. And not only does it drive other people mental, but it also drives me mad. I want that feeling of having done it, of having signed it off, of pressing Send on a whole document of writing that has been done on time.

I try to pretend that this is the way it has to be. This is the way I work. Last minute means it has energy and life and, to a certain extent, this is true. With a sitcom. Handing it in late does mean that there is less time for other people to poke their noses into it, but it really has always been living by the seats of many pairs of pants.

Yet I have seemingly got away with it.

There has never been a show that couldn’t be made because the script wasn’t written. Although it’s been close a few times. Especially with Ab Fab.

I’ve written on the train on my way to London on the morning of a read-through. I’ve dictated scripts to my kids to write down as I’m driving. I’ve sat up all night writing till I’m hypothermic and the word count is at a standstill and I can hear the dawn chorus.

Birds tweetin’ means time is almost up.

It’s really not a good way to be. Detrimental to one’s health.

There was one time, however, that I really didn’t get away with it.

Dear reader, I am now going to show you the faxes that passed between Goldie and her assistant Teri, and me and Ruby, after our return from India in 1997. These were faxes.

Pre-India visit, we were pretty chipper. We had written a chunk of the beginning of the film. We had changed the title from ‘Ashes’ to ‘Baby Love’ and changed Goldie’s character’s name from ‘Goldie’ to ‘Baby’. The premise was good: she loses her husband but finds herself.

Jennifer, we can do this in a month!

FAX TO: Goldie and Teri (upon their return)

FAX FROM: Jennifer Saunders

Dear Miss Goldie Hawn and Miss Teri Schwartz,

Thank you and goodbye. Words that should have been unshipped from my mouth in the Departure Lounge, had we not somehow missed each other. But as Ruby – yes Ruby! – said, ‘It means the circle is not closed, it was meant to be!’ I agreed. We are both a little changed.

I hope your trip back was happy and un-gruelling and turbulence free. I did have to somewhat resign myself to my fate on BA due to a woman retching into sick bag behind me all night long. There’s never a healing spirit around when you want one.

London was a shock – very cold and a natural fog thicker than the pollution in Delhi. Extraordinary. I stood at a station to get a train to Devon and my fingers turned into Popsicles – too many suitcases, too few clothes and Popsicle fingers.

In Devon, crisp leaves were falling from the trees – sounding like heavy rain – echoes of the Glasshouse.

India was extraordinary.

Missing you already.

Swami Jen xxxx

Yes, India was extraordinary. But it wasn’t a holiday! It had a purpose. To make us write. WRITE. Write the story Goldie wanted …

FAX TO: Jennifer Saunders

FAX FROM: Goldie Hawn

Got your uplifting message – yes, back home with all the trimmings! I fade daily at 2 p.m. and drift into unconsciousness.

The trip was a step in time! And I had more fun and laughs. My spirit spins back to numerous moments shared, so free, so unencumbered.

You are a fine woman, Mrs Jennifer Saunders. And will make an exceptional swami in your next life.

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Can’t stop thinking and ‘dreaming’ of the final musical number. I did it for Kurt in the kitchen and he laughed hard! It’s brave and really good.

The sun is shining in my meditation room and illuminating all of my sacred artifacts from previous visits. Let it shine on you too.

Love you.

Miss the laughs.

Goldie

We did have laughs. Plenty of laughs. And the musical number was something that Ruby came up with for the end of the film. I think it began with some flies on a cowpat in India, and the flies are doing something like a Busby Berkeley number. Then the camera pulls back to reveal a full Bollywood production on the ghats in Varanasi, with even the dead rising up from the pyres to join in. I think that was the gist. Goldie loved it. So now we had an ending. We had also been given some pretty clear notes from Goldie on what she wanted to see in the script and what we needed to do.

The script was too serious and her audience would definitely expect it to be quirkier. She wanted the character lighter. She said that there was no point in her playing a WASP. She wanted the character to be alone at some point and to have to rely on the goodness and spiritual nature of India. She repeated the story of the disabled friend to us; the one she had managed to dance with. We were under no illusions any more. That story had to go in. We had to get the cripple in. And time and patience were running out.

FAX TO: Jennifer Saunders

FAX FROM: Teri Schwartz

We think about you and the trip all the time – what a time we had! Goldie and I thought – how about a date, a goal if you will, for the script to be sent to us. How does Dec. 15 work? It would be great to have it to read by the 15th, before the holidays while the experience is still fresh and bubbling in your memory.

Look forward to hearing from you.

Love and good cheer

Teri

Oh dear. I have a deadline. I don’t like deadlines. I don’t like them at all.

FAX TO: Teri Schwartz

FAX FROM: Jennifer Saunders

Dear Teri,

All faxes received and understood by we the newly enlightened.

Good idea! Ruby back today and we will restart the progression.

Dec 15th v. good date – mainly because it is before Xmas and to clear the desk before the festivities would be excellent and also I’m taking the kids to N. York for 5 days on the 13th which I had set in my mind as a deadline anyway. So full steam ahead etc etc.

OK. So – we will press on – pull up our slacks and give the brain a bit of oil and the computer a bit of a good old poundin’.

Tinkerty tonk.

Jennifer x

I don’t know why I decided to write to them as if I was Bertie Wooster. It’s not good though, is it, dear reader? These people were paying us. Paying us! They had taken us to INDIA. And now I was trying to be blasé and cheery and tinkerty tonk. And did we oil our brains and pound the old computer? Heigh-ho and tonkerty tonk, no, we did not. And I am ashamed to say it goes on and on.

FAX TO: Teri Schwartz

FAX FROM: Jennifer Saunders c/o The Slow Brain Trust

Dear Teri,

I’m so sorry I didn’t call you back last night but there was a momentously important football match on. Manchester Utd (my team) v. Juventus (Italian champions). We won, which is the only reason I can write today with a sharp nibbed pen without stabbing it into my thigh! I then came up to the office and worked late – YES I DID – and wrote some good bonsai jokes.

My fax no is 0181 332 —. You can pester me on my fax and on my phone. I know you are probably very furious waiting for more paper offerings and I am dotting the ‘i’s’ and crisping up the next batch. I hope you like the opening.

Jx

Please bear in mind that we are just days off the deadline. Did I pound the computer? No, I didn’t. I watched football. Now, it is true that I do take my football extremely seriously. Manchester United has been my team since I was at school. And this was an important European match. But even I am shocked at the nerve. ‘I hope you like the opening’? They had read the opening before! All we had ever sent them was the opening. The bonsai jokes were four pages in. All we had was the opening …

FAX TO: Teri Schwartz

FAX FROM: Jennifer Saunders

Dear Teri,

I know you’re expecting it and it is coming – I had a slight rethink – it was turning into a Bergman film and Ruby is back this week and I really want to go over things with her. Please forgive. I am sending you the first few pages so you see something is in existence and it may be a hint of the style etc. A canapé for you.

More soon, I promise.

Please still like me.

Your Jennifer

Please still like me! Pathetic. I am PATHETIC.

They have had a morsel and a canapé and I should now be shot. They get nothing more before Christmas and it becomes fairly tense. I mean, Christmas is always busy and there’s so much to organize, and I did have the trip to New York planned with the girls. Actually, it was a lovely trip. Just me and the girls staying in a penthouse suite at the Four Seasons, which I had got for free courtesy of Ab Fab Perks Ltd. We climbed up the Statue of Liberty, skated in Central Park and ate epic breakfasts at the Plaza, but my fingers never touched a keyboard once.

After New Year, I had a phone call from Goldie, who told me to come to New York. She had to be there for a few days and we were to bring all the writing we had done and stay there until we had finished the script.

As it happened, Ruby couldn’t make it, so I went there alone. I thought, if the worst came to the worst, I could write it on the plane.

FAX TO: Miss Goldie Hawn

FAX FROM: Jennifer Saunders

DATE: xx January 1998

Dear Goldie,

My flight gets into New York JFK at 11.40. It is British Airways. Later than I thought due to British-Summer-Winter-Greenwich-Meantime and gaining and losing hours at whim it seems.

Happy to pick up the cost of flight through my company – we owe you that much by now at least I am sure.

Spoke with Ruby today; she gave me enough notes over the phone to keep me re-writing non-stop this weekend.

Look forward to seeing you on Monday.

Love

Jennifer

Unfortunately, the writing-on-the-flight plan was foiled by free Champagne. The flight cost so much, it seemed a shame not to enjoy it. And so I did. I was feeling very nervous when the announcement came that we were about to land, so I started desperately going through my excuses in my head. If, during my life, I had spent half as much time writing as I have making excuses for not writing, things might have been very different indeed.

Now, I am good at bullshit when I need to be, but I had a definite feeling that I was about to be found out. It was an almost out-of-body experience. Dead man walking. I hadn’t done the work. I had drunk Champagne.

I wished Ruby had been with me. She would have written on the plane and she would know what to say to Goldie.

Her apartment was many, many floors up, on top of a building overlooking Central Park. Little did I know, as I took the lift up, that I wouldn’t be taking it back down again any time soon. Goldie was suitably disappointed by the lack of script and was fairly stern. I had brought her no pages. Nothing printed at all. The little I had was in the laptop. I had not done my homework and I was to be kept in until I did do it.

I sat at my computer for three days. I didn’t go out. I wasn’t allowed out.

My work was checked at regular intervals and I was fed and watered and allowed toilet breaks. Goldie stationed herself where she could see me, and always between me and the door. Sometimes she sat at the door. I was going nowhere.

If Goldie went out, she didn’t leave me a key.

I wrote and wrote.

After three days, the routine loosened up a bit and I was taken one evening to see The Lion King, which had just opened on Broadway. I had been a good girl and I got a treat.

I wrote some more and Goldie added things all the time. She did try to introduce the cripple gently into the script, but I knew that my life wouldn’t be worth living if Ruby read it. We already had too much going on.

By the end of the week, the script had filled out. I was just writing to order, which is how it should always have been. The problem was, we weren’t cutting anything as we went and the script had become an epic. A seven-hour epic. It was three different films: a film about a woman coping with grief, a film about a woman coping with the menopause and a film about how hilarious India can be. A couple of days later, we were almost done and I was allowed another treat. I was taken to see Eartha Kitt at the Café Carlyle. Eartha was marvellous. She was seventy-one and did a full backbend over a chair in the finale.

Goldie was very kind – is very kind – and she is a huge star. Being out in New York with her jolted me back to reality. She wanted this film to work because she was fifty and roles for women of that age in Hollywood are rare. Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton had them covered. This was a very personal film for her as well; it was about so much that she loved in India. This woman has a meditation room. She gives great ‘om’. This film was to be an expression of Goldie.

After five days, I was released and allowed to come home.

FAX TO: Goldie Hawn

FAX FROM: Jennifer Saunders

DATE: 22 January 1998

Miss Hawn!

Have just come up to the office and picked up your fax. The builders are in here at the moment so I am working from the house – where the telephone is broken – ho hum! There is a new number in the house which is 181 408 —.

The feeling is mutual re our time in New York. All good – all progressing.

Freya was off school today and put on The Lion King video and it bought back to me how breathtaking that show was – I am determined to get the kids to it somehow.

It was such a joy – and thank you for NY – nicest kick up the ass ever had.

Speak soon

Love Jennifer

Yes, the kick up the ass had worked to a certain extent, but now the script was a mess. And neither Ruby nor I knew what to do with it. Plus, it had been going on so long that other things in our lives had begun to take over and take priority.

FAX TO: Goldie Hawn

FAX FROM: Jennifer Saunders

DATE: 28 January 1998

Goldie, Goldie, Goldie!

Please excuse errant behaviour. When I spoke to you at the weekend I forgot I had a pre-standing filming commitment for 3 days this week. As it turns out it’s these 3 days and they are rather long – my mind was elsewhere.

Today however I get back at a reasonable hour and will do the computer print fax thing.

Rest assured that every spare moment I am ensconced in Winnebago with portable.

Apologies. I will consider myself stared at angrily.

Love J x

FAX TO: Goldie Hawn

FAX FROM: Jennifer Saunders

DATE: 1 February 1998

Dear Goldie,

I faxed you some pages late on Friday so you should have up to page 94. If not let me know as my machine often puts them through in clumps and I was not here as it was faxing.

I have read through it and it is not good. I know it is not good – soulless and no direction but I am pressing on to the end and will go back then.

Anyhow – I’m ploughing on and can’t apologize enough for last week.

Lesson is always limit your availability even to very old good friends or get stuck for 6 days in the most extremely horrible conditions – no discernible organization or heat source or part. Ugly place, ugly costume, ugly face – ugly actress by end of week.

So cross. So angry. So sorry.

Don’t hate me. Hate self enough for all our needs.

Will drink bottle of whisky and give this ‘looking for Ravi’ stuff some semblance of writing.

Think of you hourly.

J x

FAX TO: Jennifer Saunders

FAX FROM: Goldie Hawn

DATE: 7 February 1998

Darling girl,

Call me and send me what you have got. You owe me some pages this Monday. Let me know what you think and we can discuss it.

I love you and think of you and because I have these sentiments I refuse to let you rest! Work! Work! Write shit if you have to, just WRITE!

XXX

FAX TO: Goldie Hawn

FAX FROM: Jennifer Saunders

DATE: 9 February 1998

Baby Delivery Report for Attention of Mrs Hawns (eventual mother)

Monday, February 9th a.m. Labour now reaching third stage and progressing speedily and satisfactorily. Head showing and surrogate mother’s pushing hard now – much dabbing brows and screaming. Small whisky administered for pain-killing purposes.

Full urgency of situation appreciated.

Baby well over-due and must get out by end of week to increase chances of survival.

Forceps at the ready. As soon as it’s out it is yours to breastfeed. It is a heavy one with a light-weight personality – much like its surrogate mother’s.

Yours Drs Sandwich & Johnson.

We did give birth to a baby of sorts: a mess of a baby weighing in at eighteen pounds. It was sent to Goldie, and then Ruby and I were summoned to LA. We were put up in a lovely hotel in Santa Monica which was close to Goldie’s office. We met with Goldie several times, sometimes at her house and sometimes in her trailer on the set of The Out-of-Towners, which she was filming with Steve Martin.

We were in her trailer talking about the main character.

‘You see, I think she needs more …’

‘… jewellery.’

I looked at Ruby and Ruby looked at me. I had now lost the plot.

We went back to the hotel.

We walked on the beach and Ruby did some rollerblading. We sat by the pool and drank. We went back to our rooms and got a note to say that Teri would be ringing us. I went to Ruby’s room.

Ruby took the call.

It was brief.

‘Hello, Teri.’

‘Hi. Listen, Goldie wants to know … Is there any way you can get the cripple into the village?’

Ruby repeated the line to me and I shook my head.

It was over.

No further correspondence.

Well, that is, until recently, when Goldie and I met in London and found that, all these years later, it was actually possible to laugh about it. Just. Only just.