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

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

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When my hair eventually came back, it came back with a vengeance. It came back everywhere. Every tiny hair follicle – even the ones you thought were extinct after years of plucking and shaving and waxing – erupted into life. I started going over my body with a magnifying glass and a pair of tweezers. My face was a fuzz.

My head hair grew back thick and steely grey and looked quite funky – until my addiction to bleach kicked in again.

It was midsummer when it started to regrow. I had gone to stay in the south of France with our friends Betty and David. Tracey Emin was having a birthday party nearby, and we were invited. She’s a great character, Tracey. I went to her retrospective show at the South Bank, Love is What You Want, and it was wonderful. I tell you, what that woman can do with a blanket is nobody’s business! (Except of course it is.)

In one room, there was a big screen playing an animation of one of her drawings, a drawing of her masturbating. It was on a loop, so it looked pretty frantic. At the side of the screen was an attendant, an oldish man in a blue uniform sitting on a chair. All he had to look at was the screen. Day in, day out, shift in, shift out, hour after hour, and then going home to the family with that image flickering in his brain. I mean, it’s bad enough when you get an advertising jingle stuck in your head.

‘How was your day, dear? Did you get Neon or Masturbation?’

‘Masturbation.’

‘When do you get Neon?’

‘When Susan moves from Blankets into Writings.’

‘I like the blankets.’

‘Yes, I like the blankets. I never thought I’d say it, but they really are rather beautiful. I’d rather Blankets than Writings.’

‘Is Writings where she framed the tampon?’

‘Yes.’

‘Yes. I think I prefer Blankets.’

Tracey is often at Betty’s house in the summer and we have, on occasion, got stupidly, beautifully drunk. One time, we were in the pool singing one minute and then passed out the next. I woke up on the bed still in my wet swimsuit. And then Ade walked in. Hours had passed and he announced that the rest of them were off to get something to eat in Cassis. I refused to be left out and was going to prove that I wasn’t really that drunk, actually.

I got dressed. Well, I thought I had got dressed, until I was seen by the others. I still had my swimsuit on, but had pulled on a couple of pairs of leggings (with my shoe still inside one of them), a shirt, a dress and a jacket. But I went to Cassis. I wasn’t going to let the fact that I was decidedly wobbly and walking inside my own leggings stop me. I’m afraid that I recall little else of the evening, dear reader.

Tracey, meanwhile, had passed out and wasn’t seen till the next day. Lightweight.

Anyway, before we set off for the party, I had to make a decision about whether to wear the old wiglet or not. It was so hot that I took the decision to ditch it and go with the light sprinkling of new growth that had appeared.

It was a terribly glamorous party in a restaurant on a beach, and the photographer Richard Young was there snappin’ the arty crowd and me. I didn’t mind, because Richard is one of the good guys. He’s a gent. During the party, he came up to me and asked if I wanted to hold back the photos of me because my breast cancer hadn’t been made public. I had a quick think, but told him it was fine. There was no way I wanted to go back to the wig.

The pic went in the papers (with lovely Richard Young, unprompted, giving all the proceeds to a breast cancer charity) and for a few days it was news. And then, just as quickly, it was over. Though I did fear that, from then on, I would always be referred to as ‘Brave Jen’ …

Brave Jen’s Cancer Hell Secret

All Clear for Brave Jen

I made a statement via Maureen that just said I had caught it early and now it was gone. Surprisingly, I got lots of correspondence from people telling me that it was a reckless statement and that cancer is never gone. That I was only in remission and it could come back at any time. I was being told off for being positive! And for giving a false impression, apparently. I didn’t care. As far as I was concerned, it was gone and the chances of it coming back were – and are – really small. You move on.

And I did. I was out and about again.

Bear with me while I briefly explain the final part of my treatment. I have to do this, because it is relevant to the story I will tell next. I sense you’re tiring, but delay switching off the light, or making a cup of tea, or putting the Kindle under the sunlounger and reapplying the cream, because it won’t take long.

I had started taking the drug tamoxifen, which prevents you ever having any oestrogen ever again. This basically means it plunges you into the menopause in one fell swoop. It’s fairly brutal and you go through all the accompanying side effects: hot flushes, weight gain; a sense of mourning for lost youth, sexiness and somehow the point in anything.

I did become depressed, and this is how I know …

Ade and I had wanted to go away on holiday in the late summer. I had said I would book somewhere but could never quite get my head together to do it. Eventually, Ade said that he would do it. I was pleased. We decided to go on a tour of the lakes in northern Italy: Maggiore, Como and Garda. This sounded good. Ade took care to show me all the places we were going to stay, and I approved everything. It looked idyllic.

Was I happy?

Yes, I was. What could possibly be nicer?

We flew to Milan, hired a small Fiat 500 and drove to our first stop on the trip: a lovely hotel that I had seen on the Internet, and approved of, on the shores of Lake Maggiore.

The weather was heavenly. We drove through the town of Stresa, towards the hotel. There were lots of hotels on that road. I thought the first one was going to be ours, but it wasn’t. Nor was the next one. Or the next one. And then it happened. I felt a terrible, sad, heavy fury come over me.

A voice inside said, Why didn’t he book those nice hotels? The ones we’ve just passed? The ones close to town?

This Evil Jennifer voice continued as we passed other hotels, eventually coming to ours. This hotel wasn’t good enough. I could tell. We got out of the car and walked in. The lobby made me angry. The lobby of this nice hotel – a hotel almost identical to all the others we had passed – made me angry.

Ade had booked a lovely room with a balcony overlooking the lake. It was lovely. But not lovely enough for Evil Jennifer.

Why couldn’t I love it? What was wrong with me?

We walked out at night and found a restaurant on the Isola Bella where we ate delicious food and watched the moon low in the sky, over the water. The next day, we walked through ancient gardens and did a little light shopping. This is normally my thing. This is normally perfect for me. Italian food and light shopping are the things I dream about, but I couldn’t get past a looming feeling of disappointment.

We left after a couple of days, and continued on our trip.

Our next stop was the lovely town of Bellagio, overlooking Lake Como (which, frankly, all towns there are, because if they’re not, they are on the other side of a mountain and therefore useless for lake holiday purposes). Ade had booked a charming, family-run hotel at the top of the town, with lovely views. But, by the time we got there, I was embedded in a funk. Even before we had walked into the lobby, I knew that it wouldn’t do. As we headed down to the room in a lift, Ade knew that I knew that Evil Jennifer knew that it wouldn’t do.

As we walked into the room, he said, ‘Do you want to just go home now?’

‘No.’

‘We could try and book somewhere else. But I think everywhere will be booked.’

But Evil Jennifer knew there was a place that had a room. The Villa d’Este. One of the most expensive hotels known to man. The Villa d’Este had a room. Evil Jennifer knew this, because she had checked on the Internet in the last hotel.

‘The Villa d’Este has a double room.’

So that’s where we ended up for the next few days, and Evil Jennifer thought it was good enough. Ade, on the other hand, took some convincing. It’s really everything he hates: not much to do except sit in the sun and look at extremely rich people. But Evil Jennifer was determined to enjoy sitting under the blue sky by the blue swimming pool that floats on the lake, listening to inane rich conversations and watching the odd boat troll up and down Como.

And yet I still had a strange hollow feeling, even as I lay there necking numerous £20 gin and tonics.

The next part of the trip was a drive up into the mountains north of the lakes. The roads were exciting – full of hairpin bends – and the air and the views were spectacular. But Evil Jennifer started to spot something … and it began to fester. She had spotted that some of the road signs were no longer in Italian. Oh no. They were in German. And now some of the towns had German names. German, dear reader!

‘Why are we in Germany?’

‘We’re not in Germany.’

‘Well, why is everything in German then? We are in Germany.’

I hadn’t wanted to go on holiday in Germany, and the thought of it made me unreasonably cross.

‘We are in the Tyrol. It used to be Germany, but now it’s Italy.’

I wanted to cry.

We stayed that night in Bolzano. Ade had rung ahead and booked the biggest room available. It was really nice, and even Evil Jennifer started to feel awful and shamed and shut up, thank God.

In the museum in Bolzano there are the mummified remains of the 5,000-year-old man who was discovered beautifully preserved under ice in the Alps. They have his thin, contorted, leathery body and all his artefacts on show. It is a truly fascinating thing to see. So the fact that I couldn’t get enthused about him was a real sign for me that all was not well. I love a corpse. I love a bit of gruesome. As a teenager, I lay in bed at night in my bedroom with blue walls and a red ceiling (I had decorated it myself) and terrified myself reading Dennis Wheatley novels. I would lie awake wondering how long it would take me to draw a pentagram on the carpet if the devil came to visit. Oh yes, I love a bit of gruesome. I would actually like to go back to Bolzano in my real mind and see the 5,000-year-old man again.

I wish I had read more books. I am ashamed to admit that I don’t read much. I’m not even a good skimmer. I just don’t read huge amounts. I am still partial to the odd murder, however. I have read the complete works of P. D. James and Patricia Cornwell. Thankfully, Patricia is fairly prolific, so I always have a good murder for the holidays.

When friends say, ‘Have you read the latest so-and-so?’ I just say, ‘Yes. Marvellous.’

‘Not as good as their last though.’

‘No. Not as good.’

The truth is, I have probably never heard of so-and-so.

Ade is a great reader. He reads novels and history books and almanacs and books about words and books about books, while I sit in bed next to him playing Jumbline on the iPad.

After Bolzano, we stayed a night in Verona and then flew home.

I recognized that what I had felt was pretty awful and not normal. Crying in the bath is not normal. Not for me, anyway.

It was Tanya Byron who put me straight.

‘I think you might be depressed.’

‘No. I’m just angry all the time.’

But of course she was right, as she generally is about these things. It was all about chemicals and hormones and the general lack of serotonin, which is what you produce when you’re happy. Actually, if you want to know about these things, it’s probably best to surf the Interweb and not rely on anything in this book. In fact, don’t rely on this book for anything. Just be totally safe and don’t ever quote me.

So I went and got help and got some little pills which opened the curtains again and exiled Evil Jennifer.

Some time later, I did an interview for the Radio Times and talked about the after-effects of chemo. This interview, unbeknownst to me, was then translated for the Foreign Press, before being retranslated back into English. I would like to share it with you.

Jennifer Saunders has announced candidly about adversity from abasement afterwards her analysis for breast cancer.

The 53 year old humerous entertainment singer pronounced her menopause was triggered by Tamoxifen, a drug since to women after operation for a cancer to cut a risk of it entrance back. It had left her feeling vexed as good as incompetent to get out of bed.

‘You accept that “I wish to go to bed and beddy-bye forever.” You feel fagged out as it creates we feel depressed.’

She pronounced her husband, Comic Adrian Edmondson, had additionally been influenced by her condition. She joked in a repository interview: ‘Ade was essentially vibrating in a residence a alternative day as good as pulled a sheepskin over himself.’

‘I said, “Why dont we spin a heating on?” And he said, “Because you’re prohibited all the time. And thereafter cold. And thereafter hot. And thereafter sweating, as good as thereafter not sweating.” ’

Of 6 months chemotherapy she endured, Miss Saunders said, ‘You only courage your teeth as good as bear it.’

It was a single of her most appropriate friends, clergyman Tanya Byron, who done Miss Saunders realise she was pang of depression.

‘I’d say, “The accomplished apple is adjoin me. Everyone abroad is amiss about everything,” and she’d say, “No darling, I anticipate that ability be depression.” ’

Read the abounding account with jennifer Saunders in the Christmas bifold affair of Radio Times, on auction now.

I had been thinking about one thing all that year. I wanted another dog. I missed Whisky and Beryl. It is odd living without animals. Living without children and animals is even odder. Talking to a dog is like talking to yourself, but without the sense that you’re going mad. You talk to the dog, and then you reply for the dog, and whole conversations can be had and decisions made without anyone else present.

‘Now, where did I put my handbag? Can you see it, Beryl? Is it upstairs? Oh no, there it is! Yes, there it is, you stupid woman. It was staring you in the face! I am not a stupid woman, and this may well be the early onset of dementia, so less of your lip, Beryl. Now, do you want to come out with me today and I can give you a walk on the way back? Yes, I do. Good. Come on then! What are you waiting for? I’ll need to get out some cash, but you can wait in the car, can’t you? Now, where are my shoes?’

I was in the park one day and heard a woman severely telling someone off:

‘It is just ridiculous how you behave! I mean, what do you think you’re doing? Why don’t you listen to me? You can’t just run off, because you’ll get lost! Think about that. Think about it. Think! I’m just so disappointed in you. It just can’t go on, or I don’t know what I’m going to do. Maybe we just can’t come to the park any more. How would you feel about that? Hmm? Now, come on, we’re going back to the car.’

I eventually saw her as she walked by me. A woman in a Barbour jacket and wellies, towing a disgraced-looking spaniel.

I’m not that bad. I do realize that they don’t speak English.

I wanted a dog. I needed a dog. It’s strange to go for a walk without a dog. In the country, if you see someone walking on their own through a field, it looks a bit weird, unless they’re wearing Gore-Tex and have a map around their neck. But a person walking alone in normal clothes in the middle of nowhere makes you wonder what they’re up to. If they have a dog, it’s perfectly clear. They are walking the dog. Nothing suspicious about that.

I spent hours googling dogs. It seems to be popular to have cross-breeds at the moment, especially something with poodle in it. Labradoodle, Jackapoo, Cockapoo, Lhasapoo, Pugapoo, Poopapoo. And then there’s just Poo.

All these dogs look very adorable as puppies, and of course you’d be seduced by them. So I made myself look at pictures of grown-up Poos. Old Poos. And that made my mind up. I wanted a whippet. Nothing with ‘poo’ in it at all.

You can’t beat a poo joke. Although, when I was growing up, my family had a different name for it. We called it a fourth. Never knew the reason for this until recently. It came from my grandfather, who was a don at Christ’s College, Cambridge. The college is built around courtyards, of which there are three. Off the third one is a toilet, so visiting the lavatory became known as ‘going to the fourth’.

My father was retching one day as he came into the kitchen.

‘Cat’s done a huge fourth in the bath!’

Sorry to take you there, dear reader, but I thought it interesting.

I got Olive, a blue whippet, as a puppy and have never regretted it. She is a real friend and comes everywhere with me. She is well behaved in meetings, eats chips, likes to catch squirrels, and will wear clothing, wigs and scarfs for comedy purposes without complaint. She has her own Twitter site, which is nothing to do with me (that’s perhaps slightly creepy). She has appeared on television and is generally recognized more than I am these days.

Once, I was standing on a train platform with her coming back from Devon to London when a woman approached and said, ‘Hello. I know you, don’t I?’

I looked up and she was talking to Olive. She then looked up at me.

‘I know who you are too, but this is the one I wanted to meet.’

So, life is good again. I have a job writing a musical, a documentary to make about horses, and I have a dog.

Onwards.

Viva Forever! was a great job, and I feel lucky to have had it.

It was also a huge learning experience. Musical theatre is like no other world. Compared to a play, a musical is like a juggernaut. Nothing is simple. Music is complicated. Even the casting is complicated. Every part has to be covered by someone else, understudies and swings, and under-swings and over-studies, roundabouts and see-saws.

We did workshops and I discovered it is such a joy to be in a room with people who can just sing. Really sing. And actually dance. Dawn and I have spent so long pretending to do these things, and you watch so much TV with contestants on talent shows trying to be good at these things, you forget there are people who actually can do them. And are brilliant at them.

Choosing which Spice Girls songs to use was the hardest part because somehow they had to add to the narrative. They had to be part of the story. The Spices had a lot of hits, but not a huge oeuvre (I try to use the word ‘oeuvre’ as often as I can, as it adds pretention to a sentence, I find). Oeuvre.

One of the nicest parts of doing the musical was meeting up with the Spices again. I knew Emma Bunton the best as she had been in Ab Fab a few times, part of my oeuvre, and when it came to explaining the storyline to them and playing the songs, she came to the meeting with Mel C. Also one of my favourites. My other favourites are Mel B and Victoria, and Geri is definitely my favourite. They sat and listened as I read out the storyline, and then Judy would play the songs in the relevant places – or in fact most of the time turn the air-conditioning on and off because she got her remote controls mixed up.

What I love about the Spices is how much they loved being Spice Girls. As they listened to the songs, they would reminisce and on occasion actually cry. When the Spices are together there is a great energy, and that happened on the opening night. They were a gang again.

Despite all their ups and downs they remain fiercely loyal to each other and to the Spice Girl legacy. Even Victoria, under all the stiff fashionista carapace, is still a Spice at heart.

It was a great night, and Judy threw a party that might go down in history as being the best party ever.

The reviewers killed the show, for the moment. Judy had been warned that they would go for it even before any had seen it. I think some are still bitter about Mamma Mia! being a hit despite their efforts.

But I feel sure it will be back. Brighter and better, and we will all be flickin’ the ‘V’s.