Bonkers: My Life in Laughs - Jennifer Saunders (2013)
In my head, I’m multilingual. But in reality, I’m not. Basically I have just the one tongue. I travel the world thinking how great it is to have been born English; speaking English to foreign people who speak English. How lucky are we?
I do, however, speak a little Italian. I can order food and hold a small conversation. I have a brilliant, convincing Italian accent. So convincing, in fact, that all I have to do is say Buongiorno and I am engaged in long explanations and chats, during which I generally just nod and agree heartily. They think I’m a native, you see. They even try to guess where I’m from … is it Milano or Torino? Yes, I really do make a pretty good stab at Italian and have only once ordered testicles by mistake in a restaurant.
My French, on the other hand, is not such a success. This is not for want of trying; I have bought all the cassettes and I know quite a few words. But I just cannot, for the life of me, do the accent.
Absolutely Fabulous didn’t go out in Italy. I don’t think drunken old birds appealed to Berlusconi. It did go out in France, but it was never as popular there as it became elsewhere. Frankly, it went down better in Serbia. I know this because I get royalty cheques from Serbia, but very little trickles in from over La Manche.
It is possible that the French just don’t find women getting drunk funny. Although, personally, I think it could have been the dubbing: I once saw an episode of Ab Fab dubbed into French in which Eddie and Patsy just seemed like normal French women going about their daily business. Patsy was particularly French: she didn’t eat, she smoked and drank, and was fairly rude to people.
The show was, however, a cult hit with the gay community in France, and on the strength of that a producer wanted to make a film version. The French make films like we make TV. It’s a big home market, subsidized by the government, and they churn them out. So they bought the rights and various storylines and got on with it.
I thought no more about it, until one day Maureen called.
‘Hello, Maureen. How was your holiday?’
‘No. Throwing myself down a mountain. Now, the French have been on to me about you possibly making an appearance in the film. You remember … They’re making a film, love?’
‘I had forgotten, but I have now remembered. Thank you.’
‘Now I know this is going to be difficult, but they only need you for half a day …’
This was going to be difficult because I was on a nationwide tour of French and Saunders at the time. On the day that they were proposing, I had to be onstage in the evening at the Oxford Playhouse.
‘I don’t see how this can happen.’
‘They will fly you over.’
(Good. Because I didn’t fancy the swim at that time of year.)
‘Maureen, I just don’t think there will be time.’
‘They will fly you over by private jet after the show the night before and have you back in time for the show the next evening.’
Well, hello?! Private jet?! I’d never been in a private jet. And even though I don’t particularly like flying, I really wanted to go in one. This could be my chance! But it wouldn’t be any fun at all if I went on my own …
‘Can Abi come with me?’
‘I will check.’
‘I mean, she is my PA.’
‘I’m sure that won’t be a problem.’
‘And they’ll get me back in time?’ (I knew Dawn would be anxious.)
‘And Abi can come?’
(Sigh) ‘Yes, love.’
‘OK. But, Maureen? Maureen?’
‘This is important. Please don’t let them give me loads of lines. In fact, tell them I don’t want any lines at all.’
(Sigh) ‘Right, love.’
Maureen has the patience of a saint, but there are times when I know Maureen is despairing. I sensed this might have been one of them; she would now have to get on the phone to them and explain that, despite the fact they were flying me over especially and at huge expense, I didn’t want to speak in their film. It seems a bit ridiculous now, but I was so knackered from being on tour, my brain just didn’t want any more things to learn.
The film was already shooting and all they wanted was to see my face among the crowd at a Gaultier fashion show. Gaultier was doing the costumes for the film, and they had written a scene where La Eddie and La Patsy storm the catwalk and pull a handbag out of a model’s hands.
Sit in a crowd. I could do that.
So, a week later:
‘We are French and Saunders. Thank you and goodnight!’
The curtain came down at the Oxford Playhouse and Abi and I were whisked in a car to Brize Norton airfield, clutching small overnight bags and passports. We were overexcited, but attempting some kind of cool.
At Brize Norton the car drove on to the runway. At this point we lost our cool. It was like we were in a movie! We didn’t have to show our passports or any of the normal tedious stuff. We didn’t have to remove our shoes and belts and jewellery and go through a beep machine. Nor did we have to open our handbags so someone with plastic gloves could examine the entire contents, including all the detritus and tampons. No, we just got out of the car and were directed straight up tiny steps on to a tiny plane.
We felt like schoolgirls who had got out of class early and were on the first coach.
It was very plush inside: cream leather, shiny wood and one attendant. There were only six seats, and we tried them all.
We took photos of each other in full swank, drank gin and tonics, ate small food and landed far too soon.
We were then whisked away again by a car that was waiting on the runway in Paris and driven to the Ritz. All cool was lost now, and we just laughed the whole way. And the only thing I had to do the next day was sit in a crowd for ten minutes and then fly home again!
In my room at the Ritz, I found a pair of silk pyjamas on my pillow - a present from the film company. Cherry on cake.
Could this get any better? Answer: actually, no. And it didn’t. No.
The six o’clock wake-up call the next morning brought us back down to earth and regretting the gin. But at least I awoke in silk.
The weather was cold, and we were taken - not whisked - bleary-eyed to the set in a minicab, deposited in a small office and told to wait. For some reason, I started to become nervous. We waited, and waited, until eventually the producer and director came in and told us that everything was wonderful but they were still dressing the set - and left again.
I shouted after them, ‘Remember, NO LINES!’
Someone came in with some jewellery that Jean Paul wanted me to wear. I thanked them. It was lovely. And actually I was allowed to go home with it. Nice perks, but I had peaked at the silk PJs.
We waited, and I had a little make-up applied.
Then the director and producer came back in. They were nearly ready for me.
‘To just sit in the crowd?’
‘Yes. Next to Catherine Deneuve.’
‘Would you mind sitting next to Catherine Deneuve?’
‘Er … no.’
They left again. Who, in their right mind, would object to sitting next to Catherine Deneuve. She is a goddess. I worshipped Catherine Deneuve. I mean, it’s CATHERINE DENEUVE.
I was just arranging how Abi could subtly take a photo of me with Catherine Deneuve when the director appeared again, holding a small piece of paper.
Would I mind saying a few words with Catherine?
He handed me the piece of paper. It had a few lines of script on it.
I looked at Abi. Abi looked at me. Lines. OK, it was only four lines, but, dear reader, in French! My heart stopped beating and I turned into an ice cube.
Catherine DENEUVE (à Jennifer SAUNDERS): Absolument prophétique!
Jennifer SAUNDERS (à Catherine DENEUVE): Littéralement fabuleux!
Catherine DENEUVE et Jennifer SAUNDERS (en choeur): Absolument fabuleux!
Patricia font un scandale et volent le sac aquarium.
Jennifer SAUNDERS: Je vais me réveiller, elles vont disparaître …
Catherine DENEUVE: Vous les connaissez?
Jennifer SAUNDERS: On a été présentée.
There are some fairly complicated words in there, I’m sure you’ll agree, dear reader. Some words with accents and one especially nasty word with a hat on.
Abi quickly became a CD for practice purposes, and we tried the lines again and again. But I couldn’t get them! And, if I tried them with the accent, I simply brought up phlegm.
Suddenly I was called on to set.
‘But … I … haven’t really … had enough … time.’
On set I was introduced to Josiane Balasko and Nathalie Baye, who were playing Eddie and Patsy. They both looked hilarious and we talked a little, I think. I can’t really remember because all I could think about was the lines. The only thing we had done all morning was wait, and now time was going too quickly.
I spotted Deneuve sitting in the director’s chair at the side of the set. She was immaculate and stately, cigarette in one hand, espresso in the other. Gay satellites circled her, replenishing cigarettes or coffee and attending to the hair, which was a magnificent hair-sprayed helmet of a do.
I thought about all the films she had made in her lifetime. Deneuve. The face that, by doing nothing, says everything. The actors she had worked with. Delon. Mastroianni. The directors. Buñuel, for God’s sake!
And now she was going to have to say a few lines with a fool.
Finally, I was introduced. She was, of course, perfectly charming and funny, and spoke flawless English. I attempted conversation as we were taken to our seats on the set. I made the decision not to look at her as we said the lines, just in case mucus came out. I really didn’t know what was going to come out of my mouth when the time arrived.
That time arrived all too soon.
The lights came up on the catwalk, and the models walked down through water and a heavy rain effect. It was beautiful.
French Eddie and Patsy storm the stage and the camera comes round and pans across the crowd to Catherine and me. We start the actin’ and the speakin’.
CATHERINE: Absolument prophétique!
MOI: Abberlabbermo fabberlo!
CATHERINE et MOI: Absolumenti fabbala dabbala!
MOI: Chervay moo revery san dispatchketchup.
CATHERINE: Vous les connaissez?
MOI: La plume de ma tante.
MOI: How do you think that went?
CATHERINE: I think we may have to go again.
And so we did. Again and again until finally I must have said it in a way that they thought they could do something with (or perhaps they had given up altogether). But by then it was getting late, and Abi was looking at her watch and then looking at me. We were in danger of missing the flight home. Even private jets have slots apparently and can’t just take off and land willy-nilly. We had to go. The fear of seeming rude to Ms Deneuve by rushing off was nothing compared to the terror of not making it back for the show and having to face Dawn.
We air-kissed and ‘au revoired’ ourselves into a small waiting car driven by a very young runner from the film, and were then hurtled through the streets of Paris at such speed that we both had visions of a certain famous crash in an underpass.
I will never understand why, on film and TV sets, it is often left to the runner to transport the actors about. These youngsters must have only just passed their test.*
Anyway, we made it on to the plane with seconds to spare. We flew back and, within an hour, I was in much more familiar territory.
‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. We are French and Saunders!’
‘I’m Jennifer Saunders.’
‘And so am I!’
When the film of Absolument Fabuleux eventually came out, I was amazed to see the scene still in it. And with my voice. I think. I took a good deal of confidence from this.
Then, in 2005 …
‘Good morning, Maureen.’
‘Now, there’s a part in a French film come up.’
‘It’s filming half here, half there, and you wouldn’t be needed the whole time. The part is an English woman.’
‘Now, you would have to speak French.’
‘Well, I can do that. I speak French.’
‘I thought you did. So that’s a yes, is it?’
In my head this was going to be the perfect vehicle to break into the world of films. I could have a nice sideline going in European movies. I mean, if Kristin Scott Thomas can do it!
For this film, they were going to give me a dialogue coach and send me tapes of the script being read in French. Perfect.
It was called L’Entente Cordiale and starred Christian Clavier, a very funny man who speaks only a little English. And Daniel Auteuil, an extremely well-known French actor. I was told by Patrick, my make-up artist, that Christian is a ‘king’ in France and that both he and Daniel had been given the honour of being allowed to have holiday houses in Corsica. They are very particular in Corsica and apparently you have to be chosen, or you run the risk of having your house set on fire and being generally terrorized off the island. I fantasized that, if I ever got in trouble in Corsica, I could call on one of the two ‘kings’ to help me out.
Both men are quite small, so I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to look like a great big bear beside them. Heigh-ho.
The film was a comedy, and for the life of me I can’t remember the exact plot (if I ever knew it). But my character was an English woman who helped them along in the caper.
The whole crew was French, as were most of the actors, with a few English exceptions. Shelley Conn and Sanjeev Bhaskar both had parts. Shelley had to speak Hindi and French with a Hindi accent. She spoke neither, but pulled it off. Or, at least, I believed she pulled it off. It sounded like the right kind of noise to me.
We shot in various locations around London - from Mayfair to Tooting - and it all seemed jolly. Plenty of laughter and messing about. I mean, there were the odd moments when I had to repeat a line or I didn’t know when to come in with a line because they were speaking so fast in French that it was impossible to follow. It would suddenly just go very quiet and I would notice everyone looking at me before the director shouted, ‘Coupé!’ And there was the odd occasion when they would all be looking at me because they simply hadn’t understood what I had said, but then neither had I.
In Paris, we shot some scenes in the Jardin des Plantes, which is a garden with a sad zoo in it. I had a quick look at the reptile house and even the snakes looked sad.
I had been taught to play the cello - or at least fake it well - and I had to make serious woman-playing-cello faces. This was even harder than talking in French. Long strokes with the bow and a bit of wobbly hand on the bridge. Serious face, eyes closed, slight shaking of the head to denote impending ecstasy. This went on for a whole morning.
Thank God for lunch.
The great thing about French film sets is that they always break on time for lunch because the food cannot be kept waiting. The catering is a wonder to behold compared with what I’m used to. Normally, there’s a truck and you all queue up in dribs and drabs to get a plate of something meaty or salady and a jam roly-poly with custard. You then take it to the ‘bus’, which is a double-decker adapted for the purpose, and eat it with the crew. Or you go back to your rabbit hutch if you want to be alone and have a quick nap afterwards.
In France, it is different. Everybody breaks at the same time and then eats together on laid-out tables. You are served a three-course meal, and wine and beer are available. Moderate drinking is in fact encouraged. The food is delicious and the whole affair is very civilized. Being allowed a modicum of alcohol doesn’t seem to slow down the afternoon at all; in fact, I would say it rather oiled the machine.
When my involvement in the film came to an end, I knew I would mostly miss the lunches.
I ‘completed my part’ in the middle of the countryside, about an hour from Paris. There was much kissing and giving of presents. I was unsure what accepted practice was, present-wise, so I just took a leaf out of Dawn’s book and gave big and plenty. Much more kissing ensued, and telling me I’d been fantastic and how much they were looking forward to seeing me again at the premiere and what a party we would have …
Months went by. Months and months. I heard nothing. No party invite arrived. Occasionally I would bump into Sanjeev in London.
‘Heard anything about that French film?’
‘It must be out soon.’
‘Yes. I would have thought so.’
‘Perhaps we have been cut out and they’re too embarrassed to tell us.’
A full year went by and eventually I googled the film. L’Entente Cordiale had been released and we had both been dubbed. They had been too embarrassed to invite us to the party. My voice had been replaced by a quite hard but precise French voice, and she had struggled to make the words match my movements. I might as well have just opened my mouth sporadically like a goldfish for the whole film. The effect would have been the same.
So that was it. Kristin Scott Thomas could breathe easy. I air-kissed my foreign film career goodbye.