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

CHAPTER THREE

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So onwards, dear reader. It’s 1981.

My 23-year-old self is sitting in a small dressing room at the Comic Strip club with Dawn.

After Dawn had agreed that we might indeed be described as a female comedy act, I’d rung the club and was told to come along and audition. Dawn and I had decided to do the Americans sketch that we had performed at the college cabaret. We hadn’t ever written it down, so we met after her school day to try to remember how it had gone. (I don’t think Dawn and I ever wrote any sketches down until we had to, which was when we started doing television and directors insisted on knowing what we were going to say. Even then, we gave them only a scant impression. As long as we both knew the order we were doing things in, we were fine. I still find that scripting over-formalizes things and you start waiting for each other to say the written line, rather than just acting out the funny.)

The audition took place at the Boulevard Theatre in Raymond’s Revue Bar in Soho, a popular nudey-show venue. Neither of us thought that being called to perform in a strip club was strange at all. We just went.

The Revue Bar was owned by the famous Paul Raymond, property magnate and porn king. It was one of the few legal venues in London that could show full-frontal nudity. Luckily, as it turned out, not Dawn’s or mine.

Sometimes, we were taken to meet Paul Raymond in the bar and he bought us a drink. Dawn and I never quite knew what to say to him. I don’t think he looked at us as if we were real women. We were a new breed. He was a strange-looking man, slightly built, and wore tinted glasses and often a long, waisted mink coat. But we have to thank him, because he was the one who eventually got us an Equity card.

The Boulevard was a 200-seater theatre. In 1980, Peter Richardson – with assistance from theatre impresario Michael White – hired it as a new comedy venue. The only other big comedy venue was the nearby Comedy Store, but Peter wanted his own place and brought with him the core group from the Store: Alexei Sayle (the compère), Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall (20th Century Coyote); himself and Nigel Planer (The Outer Limits); and a stand-up called Arnold Brown (‘I’m Scottish and Jewish – two stereotypes for the price of one’).

Ade and Rik had been at Manchester University together. Their characters the Dangerous Brothers had a crazed energy; I asked Ade recently how he would describe the act and he said, ‘Bollocks done at 100 miles an hour. No jokes, just a huge amount of fear.’ It was in fact a brilliant combination of non-jokes, great comic timing and extreme physical violence. Rik also had his own act as Kevin Turvey and Rik the Poet, and was being seen as the golden boy of comedy. He was a superb performer. Offstage Ade was the quieter of the two and would often come into the girls’ dressing room. I remember liking him, but there was no bolt of lightning. He also wasn’t available: he was married to his first wife, Anna.

All the boys were very civilized offstage. Alexei would storm on and off the stage in a blaze of screamed absurdities and ‘Fuck’s and ‘Hello John, got a new motor?’ and then be modest and shy. He and Pete and Nigel – and of course Arnold – were slightly older than the rest of us. Dawn and I got on best with the Coyotes initially.

They were all great acts, but Pete knew, or I suspect had been told, that he needed some females on the bill. Women. Hence the ad in The Stage.

We arrived, did our sketch and were hired. I have to admit, there didn’t seem to be a great deal of competition. The other acts auditioning were fire eaters and jugglers. There just weren’t many female acts around; most comedy clubs were bear pits. I think we got the gig by virtue of the fact that we were the first living, breathing people with bosoms to walk through the door. The ‘Alternative Comedy’ circuit was just taking off, and there weren’t yet many proper venues. Just pubs and vegetarian restaurants.

Culturally there was a great sense of change. To be young was to be angry and resistant and to rail iconoclastically (not entirely sure what this means, but the dictionary suggests that it’s what I mean) against what had gone before. Music was angry, and comedy was angry. But, generally, Dawn and I represented those who were just quite cross.

Dawn was more political than I was, because she was a teacher, I suspect, and had a real job. Whereas I was basically unemployed by choice. But neither of us could have been described as ‘right on’. We were not Right-Onners, though we would shout ‘Up Nicaragua!’ or ‘Down with Thatcher!’ when required, and that was quite a lot. And we all hated Bernard Manning.

Now I had a job. Dawn had two jobs.

To begin with, Pete put Dawn and me on the quiet nights – Tuesdays and Wednesdays – which was a good idea as we really didn’t know what we were doing. We were usually the first act on, presumably so that if we were very bad the audience would have forgotten about us by the end.

At first, we were so inexperienced that we thought we had to change our act every evening. Then someone pointed out to us that it was in fact the audience who changed and that we didn’t have to. By this point, the pool of sketches that we could use had been getting shallow. In desperation one night, this happened onstage:

Dawn and Jennifer move around the stage attempting to look like Thunderbirds puppets. Eventually …

SAUNDERS: What’s the time, Brains?

Dawn raises arm as if to look at watch, but wrist hits forehead.

FRENCH: Four o’clock, Mr Tracy.

Silence from audience.

SAUNDERS/FRENCH (to audience): Thank you.

They bow and leave the stage.

Every night, sick with nerves, we would stand side-stage waiting to go on and I would look out at the audience through a little window in the door and wish they weren’t there, wish that they would all go home. We were only just getting away with it at that point.

Occasionally a man would make his way into the audience by accident. This wasn’t the show he had come to see at all. They were easy to spot, men like these, sitting on their own in large macs looking confused when Alexei Sayle leaped on to the stage and opened the show with his loud Marxist-inspired sweary rant, before introducing me and Dawn. And then, to their total shock, we would come onstage fully dressed and remain so throughout the act.

The best thing about going on first was finishing first. We would make our way around to the back of the auditorium to watch the other acts. This is how we learned how to do it. They had been at it longer than we had, and were incredibly confident and funny.

One of our favourite guest acts was called Hermine. She was a French performance artist and beautifully weird and funny. She was accompanied in her act by a musician who was tall, softly spoken and smelt better than any other boy. This was her act:

Music starts.

Hermine enters slowly.

She is entirely covered by a cone of newspapers that have been glued together. It is the pink Financial Times. All you can see is her feet. She gingerly makes her way over to the microphone.

Inside the cone, she starts to sing the theme to Valley of the Dolls in a low French drawl:

‘Got to get off, gonna get

Have to get off from zis ride …’

Then, very slowly, she starts to pick a hole in the paper (evoking our memories of the egg) and, while singing, gradually emerges from the cone.

It was mesmerizing. Her expression never changed. When she was totally out of the paper, she just leaned into the microphone.

‘Sank you.’

And left the stage.

At this point we didn’t have a name for our own act. We were just ‘The first act this evening …’ It was Alexei who eventually came up with French and Saunders, out of sheer frustration. We had knocked about a few names and our favourite was Kitsch ’n’ Tiles. We thought anything with ’n’ in it was cool. Luckily, Alexei disagreed and we have him to thank for that to this day.

So, backstage there are two small dressing rooms, as well as the fire escape where Peter and Nigel go out every night after coming offstage to have a shouty boys’ row. I don’t know what has happened between them, because the act had always appeared to go well and been fairly similar every night. The shoutings and fights, however, are regular. We think the problem is that Peter is a bit of a wild man and Nigel is a proper actor, and the mix is explosive.

Pete had spent a lot of his adult life travelling around Europe in a converted horsebox, and Nigel was currently understudying Che in Evita, which was the big new musical. My favourite musical, in fact. When I was in Italy, I had asked my mother to get hold of the cassettes and send them to me. It wasn’t the stage version – Elaine Paige hadn’t been invented then – and the part of Evita was sung by Julie Covington, whom I worshipped. She had given me hope when I learned that she hadn’t actually become famous until she was twenty-seven, so I still had time …

My wanting to be famous started when I was at college and I wanted to be in a band. I wanted to be Patti Smith (not look like her, just have her life). I wanted to read Rilke and Rimbaud, and write crazy poems that didn’t require punctuation or form, and sing to thousands of people. Popular, but cool and dangerous. It was a good daydream.

Truth is, I would have been scared to death of Patti Smith and all her friends. There is a line in Joni Mitchell’s ‘Case of You’: ‘I’m frightened by the devil, and I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid.’ That’s close to my truth. I love crazy people, eccentric people, people who are brave and ‘out there’, but I am always just quite safe myself.

Dawn and I have the smaller of the dressing rooms, which we generally have to ourselves, there being a lack of comedy females. All the boys are squashed into the other one, next door. We do go in and hang with them sometimes, but, to be honest, it stinks. They are always dripping with sweat when they come offstage, and the only facility to wash in is a sink which is always filled with bottles of beer. Their stage suits are hung up, wet with sweat, and left to dry out before being worn the next night. The funk of BO and fags is heavy in the air, spiced up with a whiff of old doner kebab, chips from the night before and the odd fart. It hums.

Occasionally, at various intervals, the boys come and see us in our nice, un-smelly dressing room. Including Ade. Quite often.

In our nice, un-smelly dressing room, we have a mirror with lights around it and a good shelf in front, where we can put a hairbrush and some make-up. We have only recently learned about make-up and its effects. Last week, we got into our dressing room to find another woman in it. Pauline Melville was slightly older than us and had a very funny act. She seemed to have lots of things laid out on the shelf, and we watched as she applied them to her face. She was putting on make-up! The effect was good, and it got us thinking that perhaps we should put on make-up too. We bought a light foundation and some brown mascara, and didn’t look back.

Whenever Dawn and I have done a show together – in a studio or on tour – we always share a dressing room and, if possible, sit next to one another. It is comforting, and we chat and run lines and check each other’s make-up before putting on our costumes.

Once, during a French and Saunders show, our make-up designer tried to have us separated. We were about to have a very long, tricky make-up session to become the Fat Men, involving prosthetics (moulded bits of latex that change your face shape) and bald caps. The designer had decided that it would be quicker if we were apart, because we wouldn’t talk and interfere with the gluing process. It never happened. Within minutes, we were back sitting next to each other again, talking and laughing, sometimes to the point of tears, as we became the characters. This made the poor designer’s job really difficult.

All dressing rooms in theatres have their differences, but they are invariably all shit-holes with poor facilities, bad plumbing and nowhere to be comfortable. But you make do. By the time we were doing big tours and large venues, we had a ‘rider’, a list of things we would like to see in the room when we arrived – not just a bowl of waxy, inedible fruit and some peanuts. We like Marks & Spencer sandwiches, lemons and honey (for Dawn’s vocal-cord drinks), nice coffee, chocolate (preferably Crunchie bars), and a bottle of good Sauvignon Blanc for after (eat yer heart out, Mariah Carey!).

Dawn doesn’t drink a great deal, but I do, given the opportunity. Never before a show though. If someone offers me a drink pre-curtain up, I hear her voice booming from a distance: ‘NOOOOOO!!!!’ You see I did it once, in the early days of the Comic Strip, and went a bit happy and woozy and lost any sense of timing. I have never been allowed to forget it.

Back to the Comic Strip, 1981.

Over the time we have been there, we have honed our act and written more substantial sketches. We have even found a way of getting into and out of them better. At first, we came onstage, went straight into character, and the audience only knew we had ended when we said ‘Thank you’ and took a bow. There was no real French and Saunders. But then we started going on in the second half of the show, and Dawn insisted we got equal pay with the boys, which took it up to about £15 a night, so that, instead of just being able to afford the bus fare home, I could have a doner kebab as well.

We were now part of the gang, and the reputation of the Comic Strip had grown. Through Michael White’s connections, the audience had almost become more watchable than the show. It had become trendy, with famous (the word ‘celebrities’ hadn’t been invented yet) Jack Nicholson and Bianca Jagger types watching. There was even a Sun headline: ‘Bianca’s 4-letter night out’. Lenny Henry came in one night and sat at the back. But most extraordinary was that Robin Williams came in, not only to watch, but to perform in the guest slot. We always had guests: Keith Allen, Tony Allen (the Guv’nor), Chris Langham, Ben Elton. But Robin Williams!

Dawn and I insisted that Robin share our dressing room because the thought of him entering the funk next door was more than we could bear. He was wired and never stopped talking, a different voice coming out of him every other second, like machine-gun fire. So we never stopped staring. He did a brilliant set. (Although the audience were slightly confused by the fact that Chris Langham, not realizing who the acts were that night, had gone on in the first half and done most of Robin Williams’ material.)

But Robin Williams! Robin Williams on the stage where Dawn and I had performed our (very popular) rebirthing sketch – the one where Dawn is trying to rebirth me and I can’t find my way out of a red duvet cover. Robin Williams! I had four comedy heroes at this time – Robin, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor and Joan Rivers – and throughout my life since have managed to meet them all. I’ve never been disappointed. All are, or were, geniuses and took risks. Mr Pastry took a back seat for a while.

When he came offstage, Robin was sweaty and didn’t have a spare T-shirt, so I gave him mine. A blue striped T-shirt. I gave my T-shirt to Robin Williams. I told him he could keep it, hoping that one day, when our paths crossed again, I would strike up a conversation.

‘Hey, Robin! Still got that blue stripey T-shirt with the red bit round the collar?’

‘Why, I sure do. Let me buy you a drink …’

‘Jennifer.’

But a week later it was returned, unfortunately washed and ironed. Heigh-ho.

Soho was a great place to work, and in 1981 it was very different from today. There was the sex industry and the film industry, but not yet the sprawl of bars and restaurants. And the Groucho Club hadn’t been invented then. That didn’t happen until 1985. It is now a much busier but, I think, less interesting area. There were some good cheap restaurants, a few bars, but mainly strip joints, clip joints, porn cinemas and sex shops. As you walked down the street, most of the door buzzers stated that there were prostitutes living there, should you feel inclined to visit them. Often they would be standing by the door, just advertising themselves. It was a beautifully scruffy place full of degenerates and generates, transvestites and vestites, comedians, artists and addicts. The streets smelt of rubbish from the market, smashed bottles of vodka and marijuana.

As I walked to get the bus late at night, I never got any hassle. I just wasn’t the sort of girl that the men on the streets were after and – not supplyin’ or requirin’ drugs, or indeed carrying any more than £5 in my bag at any time – I probably wasn’t a target. And there were enough heavies standing outside the venues to make you feel protected.

Back in the dressing room. We have all decided that, after the late show tonight, we are going to see some kind of sex show. We suspect that most of the boys have already seen one, but do not let on. Dawn and I are conflicted by our confused and largely non-existent feminist politics. We are just going to see what all the fuss was about.

SORRY, FEMINISTS, THIS IS A LONG TIME AGO AND I AM NOW MUCH CLEARER ABOUT IT ALL.

Back in the early days of the Comic Strip, Dawn and I played a couple of very scary gigs. One was at the Drill Hall, which we were told was largely a feminist venue. And it was. We were hissed throughout our set for showing women in a negative light.

The other scary one was the Comedy Store. The boys had played there a lot, but we had never had the nerve. Basically, you just had to play onstage and hope that the audience liked you. If they started booing, the compère would hoick you off. It was competitive. The level of booing depended on how drunk the audience were, how fast you could get through your act. I realize that this is why the boys’ acts were fast and aggressive: you just couldn’t allow the audience any thinking time.

We went onstage to the inevitable shouts of ‘Show us yer tits!’, which we ignored, and proceeded at speed with our sketch. But the shouts got worse and were coming mainly from a large group of men in the corner. ‘Get yer tits out!’ We tried to keep going, but just when I was happy to leave the stage, Dawn marched to the front and looked hard at these men.

‘Will you just shut up! Do you realize how rude you are being? There are people in this audience who actually like to listen. Stop it! Just shut up!’

The whole audience went quiet and so did the shouters. We finished our act and left the stage, to mild applause. Dawn had frightened them. Dawn was not only brave but she was also a teacher and she was having none of it.

Later, as we were about to leave, one of the group came up to us. He apologized profusely and explained that it was a stag do that had got a bit out of hand. Surprisingly, they were from the River Police.

Right, so now we are in the sex-show building. We have paid some money for a session. There appears to be a line of velvet-curtained booths. We are told that there is only one booth available and no more than two are allowed in at once. We say we will take it in turns. Which we don’t. We all pile into a tiny booth and draw the curtain. It is totally dark.

Suddenly, a shutter goes up in front of us and we are looking at a near-naked woman on a bed (at least she has her pants on). She is playing up sexily to all the booth windows, stroking herself and pointing her bottom at them suggestively.

When she comes across to our booth, I see that she is not happy. All eight of us have our faces pressed to the glass, laughing. She isn’t doing any of the stroking or bottom pointing for our benefit and, before we know it, the shutter is coming down and we are being asked to leave.

We can’t even get our money back.

We think we’ll go to Jimmy’s in Frith Street for some chips.