Bonkers: My Life in Laughs - Jennifer Saunders (2013)
I am sitting in a cabana down by the sea in the south of France, in April 2004. It is a little striped tent in the grounds of the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc. I am not alone. Sitting next to me is Rupert Everett and, opposite us, a nervous Japanese journalist.
It is a press junket and every journalist is allowed less than two minutes in the tent to ask their questions before a PR person comes in and tells them their time is up. They are then moved to another cabana, with another member of the cast. This one is talking way too slowly.
‘Hello, Mr Everett and Miss … [he looks at his notes in his shaking hand] … Saunders.’
‘How are you?’
‘We are very well.’
‘I want to tell you, we are big fan in Japan …’
PR: ‘I’m sorry, your time is up.’
Japanese man then shakily packs his notebook away, bows and is replaced by a Swedish one.
PR: ‘You have two minutes!’
It had begun with a call from Maureen a year earlier.
‘Hello, Maureen. Good morning!’
‘How are you?’
‘I’m very well, thank you. How was your holiday?’
‘Were you throwing yourself down a mountain?’
‘No, golf. Couple of things, love. Would you please get round to sending me back the various contracts that you are still in possession of. Are you in possession of them?’
‘Er … not sure.’
‘I’ll send them to you again (small sigh). Now secondly. A voiceover for a cartoon.’
‘It’s a DreamWorks thing.’
‘It’s the follow-on from the Shrek one. Did you see that?’
‘Yes. Yes, I’ll do it.’
‘The other cast are Antonio Banderas, Eddie Murphy -’
‘Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz -’
‘Julie Andrews, Rupert Everett, John Cleese -’
‘Would you have any interest, love?’
‘Yes. Yes, I would like to do it.’
‘Fine. So that’s a yes?’
‘It would require you to sing.’
‘I can sing.’
‘Yes, I thought you could. I’ll let the various folk know.’
Back in the cabana, the Swedish journalist takes too long to get her notebook out of her bag.
‘So, what was it like working together?’
PR: ‘I’m sorry, your time is up!’
We shouted after her as an Italian took her place, ‘We didn’t actually work together!’
And that was the truth. In the whole of the Shrek process, I was never in a studio with any other actors.
The director was Andrew Adamson, a gently spoken New Zealander with long, blond hair. He was a fan of French and Saunders and Ab Fab, which was how I had come to be considered for the part.
In the first meeting, he had shown me the initial artwork for the Fairy Godmother. It wasn’t quite how I had imagined she would be, based on my own physicality. She appeared to be quite short and dumpy and rather old. Heigh-ho.
It was from these drawings and the bits of script that I had to find a voice for her. Which, as it turned out, was basically my own voice, with a bit of Joan Collins thrown in for good measure. I really only have two voices that I can do well: Sandi Toksvig and Joan Collins. I can do Felicity Kendal at a push.
Sometimes, when I do a part, I have no idea what the voice is going to be until the director says, ‘Action!’ I genuinely have no clue what will come out of my mouth. And, once you’ve started with a voice, you then have to remember it for the whole show.
But then I’m not technically trained, you see. I’m sure real actresses have a much better method.
In The Hunt for Tony Blair, one of the final Comic Strip films, which we made in 2011, Peter Richardson asked me to play Margaret Thatcher. OK, I can do that. Then he said, ‘But it’s film noir and set in the 1940s, so, actually, Maggie is based on Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, although I want her to look like Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’ This is Pete’s bonkers-ness, and also his genius.
I was flummoxed. John Sessions was in a scene with me and I practised a bit with him before shooting. John, who is an expert at all voices and impersonations, looked at me and said, ‘Drop the regressive “r”.’ I now had nothing.
On ‘Action!’ I really thought this was going to be the moment I was found out. I have spent my entire career waiting for the tap on the shoulder.
How has she got away with it for so many years?
Why, she’s no good at all!
Fingers would point. Laughter. Cruel laughter.
But luck was on my side. What came out of my mouth was deemed satisfactory and I got away with it. All I had to do was try to remember the voice from scene to scene.
The Fairy Godmother was altogether simpler. Andrew would read in all the other parts and hold up pictures. Until I eventually saw the finished film, all I could imagine was the other characters speaking in a soft New Zealand accent.
The recording was done in lots of separate stages. The script would change as the animation was built up. But in all of these stages it was only ever Andrew and me. I never met any of the other actors until Cannes.
Often, in a recording session, Andrew would ask me to be more animated as I said my lines. But surely I’m just the voice? Not quite. The whole thing was being recorded on film, so that the animators could add my physicality to the character’s movements.
In the final session I realized, to my horror, that the Fairy Godmother explodes. Explodes! I know that she was the baddy, but this did seem a bit harsh. It seriously reduced my character’s hope of appearing in any future films. This didn’t seem fair at all. Why would she explode? Couldn’t she just limp off or repent?
I made them record the line ‘I’ll be back!’ just before she popped, but it was never used. This was always going to be a one-off.
In the cabana, I thank God that I’m sharing it with Rupert. At least we can have a good laugh. I have known him, on and off, since college. He went there to train to be an actor, and I remember him looking languid in the coffee bar and generally refusing to take anything seriously until he was expelled. Rupert always looks as if he has just thought of the wickedest thing to say and is about to spill the beans. Which he often is.
We get a break occasionally and have a look around the other tents. Julie Andrews is being lovely and gracious in her slightly larger cabana. Rupert shouts in, ‘I hope you’re asking her how she got here. She travels by umbrella you know!’
Eddie Murphy seems to have the biggest tent and is surrounded by an enormous entourage of agents, family, security, PRs and children. I saw him arrive. A convoy of people all trying to organize other people, who are trying to be important and organize the organizers. And there are some people who don’t seem to know why they are there at all. They may have just got swept up in the crowd at the airport and found themselves there by accident.
I arrived at the Eden-Roc with nobody and immediately regretted it. I had a beautiful room with a balcony set over the rocks, and a view of nothing but sea. As soon as I saw it, I thought, What an idiot! This was going to be amazing and I had no one to share it with. I called Ade and said he had to come immediately. But he was busy, so I told Ella, who was just sixteen, to get on a plane, and she did.
Sometimes you need someone to walk around staring at people with. Plus, the fact that she was sixteen gave me a great excuse to walk up to actors I’d never met before in my life and tell them that she was their biggest fan.
I mean, Jack Black was there. And Cameron Diaz, with Justin Timberlake as her date. What’s not to stare at? Melanie Griffith, Angelina Jolie. HELLO?
It was all a glamorous fantasy.
Out of my window, I would spot the occasional paparazzo scuttling like a crab across the rocks, trying to get pics of the stars. Long lenses were trained on the swimming pool in the hope of catchin’ a famous pair of breasts. Mine, it turned out, were of no interest at all. I could have walked totally naked on to the balcony and shooken me booty, but all lenses would have remained pointing at the pool in the hope of catchin’ Jennifer Aniston in a bikini.
‘My name is Olga.’
‘Miss Saunders, what was it like singing in the film?’
PR: ‘Your time is up!’
A word about singing here. I can sort of sing, but what I’m better at is impersonating singing. Actually, they are not impersonations. They are impressions. I can give the impression that I am singing. I can basically sound like someone singing. I can sound like Cher or Mary Hopkins or Alanis Morissette. I can’t sound like Celine Dion, but did once try and, I have to admit, it was one of the worst impersonations EVER.
For Shrek I knew it would require slightly more than an impression. I had two songs to sing. I wondered if I could get away with a Rex Harrison-ish talking-singing. But no. They wanted The Works.
They had sent me a guide for the two songs, sung by a professional singer. She was really very good. She could easily have passed for a Disney heroine - Mulan or Pocahontas, perhaps. She could even have been Ariel in The Little Mermaid. Class.
And the song - ‘Holding Out for a Hero’, made famous by the gravelly-voiced Bonnie Tyler - was terrifying. It had a couple of notes that were mountainously high.
I had a singing lesson. Just the one, but it taught me one invaluable thing, which I shall now impart to you. When thinking of a scale of notes, don’t think of the high notes as being ‘up’ and the low notes as being ‘down’. Think of the whole scale as a road ahead of you with the high notes further away and the low notes closer. Use more breath for the further away ones and don’t stick your face in the air to sing higher. This was a revelation and gave me some confidence, at least. Talent would always be limited.
Singing lesson down, I knew that there was only one other thing that I required and that was Simon Brint. He had done all the music for all our shows, live and on TV, and had somehow made me and Dawn sound good. He had told us when to come in and when to stop singin’, when to sing higher and when to sing lower, and was always tactful, even if it was disastrous.
I asked for Simon, and he was allowed to stand near me on the recording day.
When the backing track started in my earphones, I would look to Simon to start me singin’.
‘Somewhere after midnight in my wildest -’
He stopped me.
‘Jen, I think perhaps you’ve started just a little flat.
We practised some more.
‘Somewhere after midnight in my wildest fantasy, somewhere just -’
I was stopped again. Not actually singing the right tune this time, and a little late in.
And so it went on. With the patience of a saint, Simon saw me through the whole song line by line. And sometimes word by word. The geniuses in the booth somehow stitched the whole thing together and, lo and behold, I COULD SING.
Simon is no longer with us. Very sadly, we lost him in 2011 and I miss him every day. He was a beautiful soul, a quiet genius and a very dear friend.
Thanks to him, everyone seemed happy with the singin’, but I didn’t see the results until the screening in Cannes. Sitting in the booth with Rupert, I could talk about the process, but having not yet seen the film, I was getting a little nervous. The rest of the cast had already been to premieres in Los Angeles and New York. The thing you realize about a job like this is that people are not paid a fortune for the work. They are paid it for the endless publicity. They will take up to a year out travelling the world, promoting a film. The fact that I didn’t is probably the reason that ‘I’ll be back!’ never made it into the final cut.
Wherever Rupert and I went, Julie was never far behind. We were the English contingent, and we clung to each other like barnacles. Every morning, when I was having my make-up done, I would get a call from Julie’s assistant.
‘Julie is wondering what you’re wearing today.’
I must admit that my options were limited. I had some tops and some trousers and some ill-advised shoes (polka-dot peep-toes) that I had panic-bought at the airport. Luckily, I discovered that Cannes is relaxed - I only needed smart things for the actual red carpet.
For me, as always, that meant Betty Jackson. Thank the Lord for Betty. She’s a fashion designer who has won every award going; she designs real clothes for real women; and she’s now a close friend, as I’ve said. If it weren’t for Betty, I would never go to anything at all.
If an event loomed, I would fax Betty at extremely late notice.
HELP! A charity fax for …
Dear Miss Botty Jockson,
I’m sure you must be fed up of receiving unsolicited mail - and now faxes - from deserving causes, but we feel ours is special. It deals with a very serious problem that simply won’t go away by ignoring it. So please don’t rip this up, please go on reading.
HELP! is a charity that is concerned with the problem of obesity and weight excess in performers and actresses who, through no fault of their own - other than overeating and having heavy bone syndrome - find themselves in possession of lovely clothes that simply do not fit and cannot be expected to fit in the very near future. ‘So what?’ you might say. ‘What the hell has that got to do with me?’, and you’d be right up to a point; but you can help. Many of these so-called actresses have important celebrity do’s and Royalish functions to attend in the next couple of weeks - occasions at which they, or someone very nearby, might be photographed by the paparazzi or better, and wouldn’t you like it to be your clothes on the edge of that frame? Imagine opening a Sunday supplement and seeing that inevitable full-page colour feature of Joanna Lumley with one of our beneficiaries wearing one of your sleeves just creeping into shot. Well, this could well happen.
There is one very needy case we have on our books at the moment and that is Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley’s wacky sidekick in Absolutely Fantastic (also known as Dawn French). She finds herself in the all-too-familiar and tragic position of having a pair of velvet trousers that are far too tight and a trip to Milan (as well as a subsequent fashion award ceremony) looming very large on the proverbial horizon. The government turned her down flat when she asked for assistance and no grant is available for one in her position, but that’s the world we live in! So we turn to you. Can you help her? Could she come to your shop and get a lovely new outfit (an HP scheme is presently being run by HELP!) for Cannes or have new trousers? You are our last hope, although of course there is always Edna Ronda or Jaspar Carrot, who have been very good to us in the past with Fergie.
Please call on 081 948 — or fax before 4 p.m.
We think you are marvellous and just sorry.
Yours in anticipation,
Betty would reply, horrified by the thought of having to dress such a minor star, but would eventually acquiesce.
HELP! A charity fax for …
Miss Backy Jettson,
Thank you for responding so promptly to our desperate request. Miss Saunders is thrilled that you are able to provide her with suitable outwear befitting a minor celebrity of her short standing. She hopes to be able to repay you in some way - a ticket to the next Torvill and Dean four-hour ice spectacular perhaps? - or simply an autographed postcard (for a small charge), whatever! - just let me know.
The tabard-style dress that you described over the phone sounds perfect and very befitting. She’ll look great in anything frankly, as long as it’s not a bias-cut Lurex boob tube with matching chaps and Beatle cap, but there are very few of us could get away with that these days. The ‘midi’ was always my favourite but that’s me (and ‘less about you’, I can hear you mutter). We trust you implicitly and know, of course, that you know best in most things.
Thank you. We think you are marvellous and are very sorry about everything.
Quick note from Jennifer Saunders (actress)
Dear Mrs Jickson,
Is it entirely necessary for me to be measured? I have a very good set of figures from the BBC that they took in 1984. I am an actress so ya must understand the fear that the words ‘total shaper’ and ‘tape measure’ induce in me. However, I suppose you have a job to do. Heigh-ho!
Betty always comes through, despite the fact that I know she sometimes despairs at my dress sense.
For this particular red carpet moment, I was wearing a lovely tiered black chiffon dress and felt great. It was a wonderful night. Everything was organized beautifully, without panic or fuss. We were all loaded into black limos, and snaked our way to the centre of Cannes.
Maureen had made it out for the screening, so I had an entourage of two.
We drove together to the carpet, but once out of the car, I was Rupert’s date. Having him on my arm meant that the photographs were basically of Rupert and the top of my head. He is ridiculously tall and, even with my high-heely spiky shoes on, I barely reached his shoulder.
Light bulbs, light bulbs, flash, flash, flash.
Red carpet, red carpet, red carpet.
From my limited experience, the red carpet at Cannes is extremely civilized. Not like the nonsense you see at the Oscars. None of the ‘Who are you wearing tonight?’ and ‘Where are your jewels from?’
Joanna Lumley once pointed out to me that the red carpet is the new beauty pageant. Everyone must look lovely, behave, be polite and cry when they get the crown. But surely, despite this, these people are supposed to be grown-ups!
I saw an actor being interviewed on the red carpet at the Emmys who actually made the camera look at his Tom Ford socks. A rich man showing us his free socks. Thank God always for Helena Bonham Carter and Björk. Why is everyone forced to give such a shit?
Inside, it is just an ordinary cinema and you sit in ordinary cinema seats. I was sat next to Ella on one side and - for heaven’s sake - Julie Andrews on the other. I was nervous anyway about seeing the film. I was singing in it. And Julie Andrews wasn’t singing in it, on account of the fact that poor Julie Andrews can’t sing any more. Which doesn’t seem at all fair, really.
When my first song started, my palms were sweating. When it was over, Julie leaned over and said, ‘Well done.’
When my second song started, I was perspiring heavily and trying to make jokes all the way through. But Julie was extremely gracious. She patted my knee.
‘You did very well. Well done.’
I had the Mary Poppins seal of approval.
After that, it was mainly partying; not the ‘just get drunk and shout a lot’ kind of partying, but the ‘quite glamorous, wish I had a camera with me’ type of partying.
At one point we were all transferred to Paul Allen’s yacht.
Paul, by virtue of being one of the co-founders of Microsoft, is hugely rich. When I say ‘yacht’, I mean ‘super yacht’. Not a yacht with a sail. An oligarch yacht, times two. A Russian doll of yachts. Within the main bulk was contained every size of craft, from sailing boats and launches down to jet skis. I believe there was even a submarine on board. And a swimming pool as big as the sea that it was sitting in.
There were hundreds of staff in ironed shorts. There was a music studio and a cinema. And, when we eventually got on board, it had more seafood on it than I had ever seen in one place before. They had trawled the oceans and dumped it on silver platters, with a little piece of lettuce.
The party was in full swing. Ella and I toured the yacht and stared. It was one of those times when what you want to say - ‘This is too much. This is obscene. I mean, really’ - is different from what you actually say, which is, ‘This is bloody amazing.’
We saw a titchy person who turned out to be Angelina Jolie attempting an oyster. The oyster nearly ate her. She is very small. We met Melanie Griffith, who was guarding Antonio Banderas like a squeaky Rottweiler. She didn’t let him out of her sight all night.
All the decks were elegantly arranged with party people - some cool, some just gawping like us, but all slightly overcome by the sheer wealth.
I had met Paul Allen before.
Every year, before the world altered and even millionaires started to count their small change, Paul Allen would throw an enormous, extravagant party. Ruby went once - to Venice - and came back full of extraordinary stories of masked balls, tabs in every cafe in St Mark’s Square, and flotillas of gondolas full of the Great and the Good.
I had been invited too, it turned out, but had not understood why someone called Paul had sent me a weird box with a Venetian mask in it. I’d given it to one of my children to wear.
However, when the mini explorer’s suitcase with the Alaska invite in it arrived, I was more clued up. A four-day, all-expenses-paid trip to Alaska? Oh yes! Ade, we are going.
The flight - which left from Luton airport - was basically a big jumbo jet with a few sofas and a bar in it. And passengers who had very nearly all, at some point or another, been in Hello! magazine. Musicians, actors, film directors, Jerry Hall. We arrived in Alaska and were transferred to a giant cruise ship. It wasn’t pretty. It was a floating apartment building, but Paul had hired the whole thing. For four days we sailed past glaciers and whales, stopping occasionally for trips out on a canoe or to see bears. We paid for nothing.
His reason for this was to get people from different areas of expertise to meet each other and network. At breakfast, you could be sitting next to a conservationist or a geneticist, a singer or an actor.
Paul Allen, a geek with a tummy, would basically have much rather been a rock star than a computer genius. One night, there was a big party during which he got up and jammed with the assembled rock stars, the Dave Stewarts and co. It was like the whole trip had been a big old excuse for Paul to have a jam session.
Back at the hotel, Ella and I ventured into the Vanity Fair party, which turned out to be just like any other party. Low lighting, loud music and not much to eat. So we went back to the room and went through the goody bags. Shrekslippers, T-shirts, iPods. A decent haul.
I imagined what it would be like back on the yacht, the sun going down and Cannes twinkling in the distance like a small tiara. I considered myself very lucky. Shrek had allowed me to dip into another world and have a good old stare. Not a world I want to live in, but thoroughly worth the jaunt.