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

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

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I blame the chickens. The mesmerizing chickens.

When you own chickens, they defy you just to feed them. They draw you into their little world of characters, rivalries and absurdities. It is the most addictive soap opera.

You wake up thinking chicken: wondering if the Light Sussex has been allowed on the perch that night, or whether the crazy bantam with the headdress is still being bullied by the Wyandotte. Will the Rhode Island Red ever lay an egg? Will the ex-battery hens ever be fully accepted? Most importantly, will Kat and Alfie ever get back together again?

Explanation. In 1999 Ade and I moved the family from Richmond to Devon. It was a quick decision and one that we have never regretted.

For years, Ade and I had been looking for a small place in Devon, somewhere close to Peter and Marta Richardson, in the area we knew and loved from making the Comic Strip films with them.

I saw it first in Country Life, where it was described as a ‘Small Gentleman’s Manor’. Ade was not exactly a small gentleman, and it was further north on Dartmoor and bigger than the weekend cottage we were after. But I liked the look of it. I rang up the estate agent, who said it had been taken off the market. Yet it still wouldn’t leave my head. I hadn’t even driven past it, but there was something about it that I just loved. It is a traditional granite Devon longhouse that would once have been a farm, perfect for small gents and indeed a small family. A few hundred yards from the moor.

As luck would have it, it came back on the market. We viewed it on a misty, damp Dartmoor day in the autumn, when the rain dripped from trees that were heavy with lichen. The view was obscured by a cloud, and the stream that runs right by the house was a torrent. Every surface was covered in thick, beautiful moss. Inside, the house was atmospheric. We were suddenly in a Thomas Hardy novel – the new folk pushing in on old ghosts. We were drawn in.

We bought it, dear reader. I have never been sentimental about houses; I’ve always felt that I could move on and start anew very easily (a hangover from my childhood, I suspect). But I honestly don’t think we could ever let go of our Devon house. It is the house that the girls think of as home.

We moved there permanently because we felt that the girls – Ella, in particular – needed the freedom that Devon would provide. She had expressed the desire to run on the moor and ride ponies. We didn’t realize quite how keen the others would be. We were anxious, particularly, about Beattie, who was very happy in Richmond. We needn’t have worried.

US: We’re thinking of moving to Devon.

BEATTIE: OK.

US: OK?

BEATTIE: Yes, if we can do it quickly.

US: But won’t you miss your friends? I mean, you’ve known most of them since nursery.

BEATTIE: Most of them haven’t been my friends for quite a long time, actually.

Freya was easy too. So that was it.

We then set about creating our own menagerie. Ade went from being a man who could only just about tolerate a small dog to a man enjoying two dogs, a few cattle, a small herd of sheep, ponies, a rabbit and the crazy cast of chicken EastEnders.

We lived on ‘Devon time’, time that can make hours pass in mysterious ways. Some days, I would take the girls to the school bus, get home, muck out a stable, and then it would be time to pick them up again. Sweeping, pottering in the garden and daydreaming whiled away the hours.

The girls all rode and had ponies and enjoyed the same freedom that I had had when I was growing up. If one of them had said, ‘I am going for a walk up on to the moor for an hour or so on my own,’ I would almost certainly have said, ‘No, that’s not safe.’ But if they were going up on to the moor on a large, sometimes unpredictable animal, my response was more relaxed: ‘Of course you may!’

The lanes to the house are narrow and, although there is a farm and another house close by, it is off the beaten track. The loudest noise you will hear is the mooing of cows, or the occasional tractor. Apart from friends and locals, no one knew we were there, or indeed cared. Why should they? Which is why I was so very cross, in fact enraged, when the Daily Mail decided to send a helicopter over the house to get some pictures. The minute I saw it, I knew, and my heart pounded with fury as it came low and flew round and round. What I really wanted to do was go out and flick ‘V’s and throw things, but I managed to contain myself.

Another time I was out with one of the girls in the lanes. She was on a pony and I was on a bicycle, and we were heading back to the house. We turned a corner and saw a car blocking the lane a little way ahead. It seemed odd and, as we got closer, a man leaped out of the driver’s side with a big camera and started snapping. We couldn’t get by, so had to turn and run away and hide until he had gone.

I was FURIOUS. I wanted to punch him. Eventually, when we thought he had gone, we made our way back to the house. I told Ade, who set off on a hunt for him, but couldn’t find him. We imagined he had left. But then I saw him in a field, sneaking around the house, snapping and snapping.

I saw red, shouted, and yes – as a person of my generation does – flicked the ‘V’.

That was the pic that appeared in the papers: Grumpy Rude Person. In the Mirror, it was the photograph that they ran on the Letters page with one person saying that it was outrageous that I should behave like that, that I should have more respect and act more graciously. After all, it was BBC licence fee payers’ money funding my wages!

The reason I was angry was that Ade and I don’t play the publicity game. We don’t do premieres and red carpets and self-promotion. Up until then, the papers had left us pretty much alone. I don’t want people knowing where I live, and what that photographer in the lane was doing was making it less safe for my children. I don’t want creeps hanging around.

There. Said it. I did actually say it forcefully to a poor Daily Mail journalist at a press thing some time later. He looked chastened and said that he would pass it on. I don’t get angry often, but when I do, I really do. (I didn’t flick the ‘V’s that time though, dear reader.)

Anyway, anyway. A few years after we bought the house, my parents uprooted from Cheshire and moved nearby. My father had retired and, on their own in the Grange, they felt that they were rattling about in it a bit. They had been regular visitors to our place and loved the area, particularly the people.

There is something special about our part of Devon. I think this is because it is that little bit far enough from London that it isn’t overrun with commuters. None of the locals feel the need, therefore, to be insular. People are interested in you and pleased that you like the place; you are left alone but, subtly, your every move and sighting is being noted.

My parents bought a house close to the village and set about creating another beautiful garden. It is just above the cricket pitch, and in the summer their gardening was accompanied by the gentle crack of leather on willow and, on one memorable occasion, the not-so-gentle crack of Ashley Butler’s Achilles tendon (it could be heard half a mile away). The years in the Air Force had made my parents experts at organizing a social life, and within a short time they had a close group of friends.

My brother Simon moved to the area too and became the landlord of the local pub. He really is the greatest facilitator of other people’s good times, with the Joanna Lumley-like ability to have in-depth conversations with people he has never met. They always seem to know him.

Simon was living with my parents when my father fell ill with cancer. He was an incredible support for my mother and a steadfast nurse to my father.

In typical style, my father kept his extraordinary good humour throughout his illness. Thanks to his wonderful GP, Pete, and local nurses, he was able to die peacefully at home. We sent his ashes up in a firework from the top of the hill in front of their house. It seemed appropriate for a man who loved to fly.

He is much missed, but often quoted in the family. His jokes live on with my girls. He would always lick his knife at the table, because they weren’t allowed to – ‘Nappa just licked his knife!’ – or steal food off their plates when they weren’t looking. He was a wonderful father and much-loved grandfather. This is the reading I chose for his funeral:

The only life worth living is the adventurous life. Of such a life, the dominant characteristic is that it is unafraid. It is unafraid of what other people think … It does not adapt either its pace or its objectives to the pace and objectives of its neighbors. It thinks its own thoughts, it reads its own books. It develops its own hobbies, and it is governed by its own conscience. The herd may graze where it pleases or stampede where it pleases, but he who lives the adventurous life will remain unafraid when he finds himself alone.

Raymond B. Fosdick

After we had moved to Devon we didn’t abandon the London life. I was still doing the odd Ab Fab and French and Saunders. I would go up to the smoke regularly on the train. It generally was a race even just to get to the train, because getting to Exeter is a forty-minute journey, plus you have to take the parking and ticket-buying into consideration. I would leave twenty minutes for it. If Terry Wogan was on the radio before I hit Whiddon Down roundabout, I knew that I was certainly going to miss the train. I would have to start thinking up my excuses.

I never really planned to write a television series set in Devon. It just happened. The contributing factors were the following. Firstly I was full of disbelief that nobody had done a TV series based on the film Calendar Girls. Secondly I was sick of seeing the country portrayed on TV as being only full of people who were either ‘oooh arrr!’ or ‘I say!’ and nothing in between. Thirdly I had been struck by what an extraordinarily difficult situation widowhood is. Fourthly I had met Sue Johnston at my brother’s pub and decided that I had to work with her.

Eventually, Jam and Jerusalem was born.

I wrote the pilot episode alone, but the rest of the series I wrote with Abi Wilson. I had first met Abi on a documentary that I was making about dance – as you do. She was working for the production company and we got on well. After that Abi would write to me occasionally, wondering if I needed anyone in a PA capacity or anything. When she sent me a letter saying that she was now working at the Money Channel, I knew we had to get her out of there.

It was 2000 and Dawn and I were about to go on tour. I thought it would be good to have Abi there as ‘general factotum’, which was, in fact, her initial job title. Dawn insisted on a formal interview and we demanded to see all her O-level certificates and swimming badges. All her paperwork was in order and she passed with flying colours.

By the time Jam and Jerusalem came along, Abi was my PA and general factotum. She had the same passion for the show and the subject matter as I did, and she is – goddammit – a bloody brilliant writer.

Everything about that show made us happy. The cast was made up of many brilliant women – Sue Johnston, Pauline McLynn, Joanna Lumley, Dawn French, Rosie Cavaliero, Suzy Aitchison (June Whitfield’s daughter), Doreen Mantle, Maggie Steed, Salima Saxton, Sally Phillips – and a couple of wonderful men, Patrick Barlow and David Mitchell. Mandie Fletcher directed and Jo Sargent produced: also wonderful and also brilliant (so in fact everything was not just wonderful, it was also brilliant).

The setting was North Tawton in Devon, and if we weren’t filming, we were sitting in my brother’s pub, where Pauline would give us all a quick flash of her tits before calling it a night. Which was lovely. I’ve added lovely to the mix.

At first, I wasn’t going to be in it, but as I was going to be there every day anyway, it seemed a bit silly not to be. I also managed to get most of my family in it, and horses and dogs.

It was such a happy show. We made it to try and show a good community – a funny community – where, basically, people make the best life being who they really are. Where young people and old people sit together in the pub. Where life isn’t about money and position. The complete opposite of Ab Fab, but much closer to the world I was living in.

I miss that show. Shows are like families. You become very close very quickly, call each other darling, and then it’s all over. I miss all the families.

I wish the BBC had given us another try. They cancelled it just as the ratings were getting good. The cast even offered to do it for less money. But no. Thumbs down from some twat in a meeting.

Heigh-ho.

The main problem for me, not doing Ab Fab any more, is that I no longer have a voice to say the things I shouldn’t say.

For example: on the airbrushing of photographs. Yes please, if it’s my face. If it’s going to be my face almost actual size and taken very close up on the front of a magazine that is going to be in supermarkets and newsagents, then yes please, I want to be airbrushed. I don’t let strangers that close to my face under normal circumstances. They keep their distance and see me in a nice light. I want a good photograph. Everyone knows it’s just a photograph.

On the set of The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle, a show that I wrote with Tanya Byron about a daytime confessional talk-show host, was to be a giant, blown-up photo of me. A photographer was sent to the rehearsal room and snapped me quickly in the wig. I was a bit worried because she didn’t seem to have any heavy lights or, indeed, any expertise. But I thought they must be putting an effect on it. A filter. A graphic effect. Something.

I walked on to the set the first day and there was my face – fifteen foot high, at least. They had not put any effects on it. It was shiny and open-pored and creviced.

I screamed. It was airbrushed.

The writing of Vivienne Vyle had come about when Tanya had sent me an idea. We had first met in 2005 when Dawn and I asked her to be a guest on a series of French and Saunders. Tanya is a psychologist and had a show called The House of Tiny Tearaways on television, which we loved. In it, she dealt with children’s various eating and behavioural disorders. We got her on to French and Saunders to give us that same treatment: to show where our behaviour was going wrong and how we should, to all intents and purposes, grow up.

We were nervous that she would find it all a bit too silly; she did, after all, have a proper job, she was Dr Tanya soon to be Professor Tanya, and we were just ridiculous people who hadn’t even managed to write a script for her. She was, thankfully, more professional than us and had managed to devise her own script. Her job in our show was, along the lines of her show, to stop us regressing into silly childish behaviour and if necessary to intervene. I was Brigitte Nielsen and Dawn had one of her finest moments as Jackie Stallone. Tanya did a great job and only admitted afterwards that she had been in fact ‘shitting it’. Her words, I promise you, not mine.

After that Tanya and I kept in touch and became friends. Her job fascinated me. Psychology is the best character study. I learned that pseudo dementia can simply be brought on by constipation (something to remember, and why I always have some prunes handy), and that I would probably not be good at her job because I’m a little low on empathy. I belong to the ‘Just pull your socks up’ school of thinking.

One day she plucked up the nerve to send me the idea for Vivienne Vyle. It was an idea she had had for a character, a daytime talk-show host along the lines of Jeremy Kyle, whom we were slightly obsessed with. Tanya had never written a comedy show before and was very naive. She arrived for the first day of writing, sat at the desk and got ready, fingers poised on the keyboard. How I laughed. That’s not how you write comedy, you fool. You have to talk aimlessly for days, read magazines, go shopping and have quite a lot of lunch.

She soon got the idea.

Back in the chicken run there’s been a bit of a disaster. Baddy fox has been and there may have to be a total recast.