Bonkers: My Life in Laughs - Jennifer Saunders (2013)
I am now sitting on a boat at sunset, floating down the River Ganges, looking back towards the ghats of Varanasi.
There are two musicians playing. One on a small, light drum, and one on some kind of oboe called a shehnai that is ear-piercing and playing music that would appear to have no melody or beginning. And, regrettably, no end.
Lying near the musicians is Goldie Hawn. She is politely tapping her hand along to the non-existent beat. Next to her is her assistant, Teri Schwartz, a tall, handsome American wearing a good pair of khaki chinos. Next to me is Ruby Wax. And this is all her fault.
It is October 1997. A few months before, I had received an overexcited call from Ruby.
‘Jennifer, we have to do it.’
‘Didn’t I tell you?’
‘No, Ruby. Start at the beginning.’
It turns out that Ruby had met Goldie in LA. She had already interviewed her for her TV show, so they knew each other, and Goldie had told her about a film script she had been trying to get written. The first script that had been done wasn’t right, and now she was looking for new writers.
‘We can do this, Jennifer. Jennifer, this will not take us more than a month. Not more than a month, Jennifer. Will you talk to Goldie?’
‘She’s calling you tonight.’
Goldie called. She explained the plot of the movie she wanted written; it was about a woman whose husband dies and who wants his ashes scattered in India. This takes the woman on a voyage of self-discovery at a time when everything is changing in her life and she has lost a sense of purpose. Goldie, at this time, had just turned fifty.
It was to be a comedy.
On the surface, this seemed like a piece of cake. The only thing that Ruby and I hadn’t introduced into the equation was that we had never written a film script before.
This was to be a factor when, a year later, we were still at it.
Even today, Ruby and I will meet and discuss writing the film. One day, it will happen. It will be done.
We met Goldie on one of her trips to London. We sat in her hotel suite and she regaled us with stories of India.
One story was about a disabled Indian journalist she knew and admired. He had once dived into an empty swimming pool and broken his neck and was now in a wheelchair. She told us the story of how she had once been at his house when his mother was there too. They were talking and a Barbra Streisand record was playing.
He then looked at her and said, ‘Goldie, will you dance with me?’
She said, ‘No, I can’t dance with you, I’m not strong enough.’
The mother said, ‘Yes, you are, Goldie. You are strong enough.’
And they lifted him to his feet and she held him up as they danced to Barbra.
Goldie was visibly moved as she told us the story. When she left the room to have a pee, Ruby turned to me with a look of disbelief.
‘Jennifer. I think she wants that story in the movie.’
She was right. And we did try.
We started writing. We worked out some good characters and a whole world for Goldie’s character to exist in, in San Francisco.
I had become obsessed with the idea of writing a film about the menopause, and so that became my focus. Ruby wrote about the modern-art world and the character’s youth in the 1960s. We wrote pages and pages, about characters upon characters, and it was the length of two feature films before the words ‘ashes’ and ‘India’ were even mentioned. Because the truth was, we didn’t know anything about India. Neither of us had ever been. We were quite happy in our little modern-art and menopause world, and couldn’t really see the point.
To this day I can’t believe we didn’t just write what Goldie wanted. She wanted a lovely film about a woman who goes to India, looks gorgeous and finds herself. We could have done that and it would have taken a month. What were we thinking?
Goldie’s frustration eventually turned into plane tickets. She, Ruby and I flew first class to India along with her assistant, Teri.
The trip was for ten days. Our first stop was Mumbai, where we would be staying with a friend of Goldie’s, who was called Parmesh.
She met us at the airport. As we queued to go through customs, we could hear a voice shouting and just see a hand waving above the crowd.
‘Goldie Hawn! Goldie Hawn! This way! Goldie Hawn!’
We eventually found Parmesh and Goldie explained that Ruby and I were travelling with her. From that moment on, we were ‘Goldie Hawn and her team! Goldie Hawn and her team!’
Mumbai airport was chaotic and hot, despite the fact that we had arrived late at night. I could see Ruby was suffering from culture shock. As we headed to the car, she gripped my arm.
‘Jennifer, don’t look, half-man, half-skateboard coming up fast behind us.’
Parmesh was extremely rich. We were taken from the airport in an air-conditioned Mercedes to her beach house. The house was heavily guarded and fenced, and we were greeted by an army of servants. Cases were taken to rooms, and Goldie and her team were served drinks. In her manic way, Parmesh could not do enough for us. At one point she decided we should have caviar. She snapped her fingers.
‘Caviar for Goldie and her team! Caviar!’
One of the men serving shook his head, but Parmesh wouldn’t relent; she knew that she had caviar left over from her daughter’s wedding, and we were to have it – at four o’clock in the morning. Now! Caviar!
The staff went off shaking their heads, but duly arrived back ten minutes later with a huge lump of the stuff. Parmesh invited us to tuck in. We tried, but the spoons wouldn’t enter the fish eggs. The caviar was deep-frozen. Parmesh tried, but it was like concrete.
‘I’m sure it’s fine. We’ll just wait. I’m sure it’s fine. It’s fine. We can eat this. It’s fine. I’m sure it’s fine.’
Thankfully, Goldie was tired, and we were eventually allowed to go to bed.
Next morning we were woken by loud acid-house music which the staff had thought we might like, and for the next few days we were given the Parmesh air-conditioned tour of Mumbai. It seemed a source of annoyance to Parmesh that Goldie could not be separated from her team. We were taken to Bollywood sets and air-conditioned hotels where she had arranged for Goldie to be sold some jewellery. We drove past slums and mind-rasping poverty, past (and I’m sure sometimes over) thin dogs and thin people scraping a life from the streets.
We once asked a woman who was travelling in the front of the car how she felt about the poverty. Did she feel awkward, being so privileged?
‘No,’ she said. ‘You see, the problem is they are just lazy. They could work if they wanted to, but they don’t want to.’
At one point Ruby said to me, ‘I never thought it would be like this, Jennifer.’
‘What did you expect?’
‘I thought it would be like the Caribbean.’
One night there was a party at Parmesh’s. She had invited the rich and famous of Mumbai to meet Goldie (not her team). It was a hot night. Every night was a hot night. A few nights before, we had been invited out for dinner in a nearby house. We were expected to get there at midnight and food was not served until two o’clock in the morning, when it was about half a degree cooler.
Back at Parmesh’s party, Ruby and I – dressed in almost nothing – were sweating. When we went out to join the party around the pool, we were amazed to see nearly all the guests in designer clothes. We weren’t shocked because they were designer; we were shocked because most of them came from the winter collection. Leather jackets and trousers and high leather boots. Why weren’t they expiring? Ruby and I were losing hydration at gallons a second and these people appeared cool and calm, done up head to toe in Dolce & Gabbana.
Parmesh smothered us with hospitality, but by the time we had got over our jet lag and it was time to leave, Ruby and I were glad to go. We needed to lose the air-conditioning and smell India. Our next stop certainly opened the nostrils.
We flew to Varanasi, a city further north in Uttar Pradesh. It is one of the oldest cities in India, and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It is also the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism, and Hindus believe that if you die in Varanasi you will achieve salvation. It is, in effect, its spiritual centre.
If we wanted culture shock, this was it. Varanasi is a riot of colour and smells; it buzzes like a beehive. The streets are jammed with rickshaws and taxis, and the alleyways leading down to the river are crowded and alive. Because it is traditional to burn dead bodies on pyres by the river and then scatter the ashes on the water, there is always a slight whiff in the air of barbecued corpse; often we would pass families in the streets carrying a stiff relation down to the water’s edge. I saw a corpse strapped to the roof of a car that was driving towards the town; the blanket that was covering it had blown free and just the dead old feet were poking out over the windscreen. (I think there’s something rather good about that. My grandmother Gan Gan always said she didn’t want any fuss at all when she died and would be quite happy to be put on the bonfire.)
In Varanasi we began to understand India a little, and Ruby became smitten. After an awkward moment with some lepers on our first day, she was hooked. One day, she and I were in a taxi being taken back to the hotel when the driver stopped at a crossroads. He turned and spoke to us.
‘OK, if we turn left, we go to Rajasthan and Pakistan, and if we go right, we go to Nepal. Where are we going?’
We chose straight on, back to the hotel, please. But at that moment I could understand how so many hippies and travellers get stuck in this place and never come home. We could have gone anywhere. And the truth is, it somehow felt very safe.
Now we are on the boat, and it is one of our last nights in Varanasi. Goldie’s assistant, Teri, is not looking well.
Teri came to India with all her own food. She had a large suitcase full of ready-made meals. She was, she said, on a diet – but I suspect she was actually just a little unwilling to eat native. She was tall and robust but also a little nervous.
One day, when we were having our palms read by a man down by the ghats, I picked up a bottle of water that I assumed was mine and took a few big swigs. When I looked at it, I realized that it wasn’t mine. It was water, but murky water, and the inside of the bottle was green with algae. I had drunk Ganges water; water that contained every kind of human and animal excretion, dead bodies, spat-out toothpaste and soap. Plus anything else that might have slopped in upstream.
I showed Ruby.
‘Jennifer, you are going to die.’
I stayed calm, but was dreading the night ahead and what might come out of either end. It seemed inevitable that something would occur. Then, as we were all walking back to the street to find a rickshaw, an extraordinary thing did occur.
Ruby and I were walking some way behind Teri and Goldie. We saw them stride past a thin slip of a dog that was coiled up at the side of the road like a snake. As they passed, it stirred, uncoiled and, in one quick movement, leaped up and sank its teeth into Teri’s bottom. Having committed this act, it then sauntered off down the street, leaving Teri in shock.
She had been bitten by a dog. IN INDIA.
We rushed back to the house of the fortune teller (who had somehow missed this event on Teri’s palm). Teri took down her trousers and let us examine the wound. Yes, it was a bite, but no, it had not broken the skin. Trousers up, we went in search of a rickshaw to take us to our hotel, where we could get more advice. My drinking-of-the-Ganges-water had taken back seat to this full-blown emergency.
We could only find one rickshaw and the driver told us all to pile in. He was a thin man pedalling an ancient rickshaw with four very well-fed women in the back. Uphill. The journey got slower and slower, until eventually Ruby got out and decided to push. And now another extraordinary thing occurred. A passing cow, with exceptional hornage, butted her up the bum. I mean, what are the chances?
Back at the hotel, Teri – who had grown paler and paler on the journey – went to her room and took medical advice. This was a woman who previously would never even take a headache pill.
I, meanwhile, went to my room and drank a bottle of whisky. My mother had always said it was good for killing things, so I took her advice. Apart from a cracking hangover, I never suffered any repercussions.
I was quite pissed when we were summoned to Teri’s room later. She was standing there with a Sikh doctor who had been recommended by the hotel. Teri came towards us and whispered, ‘Does this guy look like a doctor to you?’
When we had all agreed that he did in fact look like a doctor, she was happy and proceeded with the consultation.
The doctor was going to order the anti-rabies drugs, and for the rest of the trip, poor Teri had to inject. That evening, she wasn’t well. I think she was in shock. India had risen up and bitten her in the ass, Ruby pointed out.
Goldie told us that she had given her some of her own antibiotics in case it helped.
‘Antibiotics for what?’ we asked.
The world had, for one day, gone totally bonkers.
To get to our next stop – Delhi – we took a small Sahara Airways plane from Varanasi. It was a rickety old plane, and because neither Ruby nor Goldie is a happy flier, I was forced to be strong. Ruby gripped my hand with a tight claw, and I told her it was going to be fine. The turbulence was strong and we started bouncing, but no one else seemed particularly concerned. I think it’s always a good idea to examine the face of stewards for any flicker of nerves. But everyone seemed happy.
I don’t like flying. Never have. This is odd, mainly because I am the speed-junkie daughter of an RAF pilot. But the truth is, I simply don’t understand how an aeroplane stays up in the air. And I feel slightly afraid that every negative thought I’m having will be unscrewing a small rivet in the engine. Positive thinking, positive thinking. Dawn has a different method of keeping herself alive: she imagines a pair of hands holding the plane up all the way to its destination.
About half an hour into our journey, the turbulence seemed to be getting worse. I looked out of the window and all I could see ahead of us were mountains of monsoon clouds. Huge grey mountains.
Plane very bouncy by now. Ruby drawing blood.
The pilot came over the speaker to reassure us in a jovial and calming manner.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, as you are aware, we are experiencing some strong turbulence. I have been trying to divert, but I’m afraid that there are monsoon clouds in front of us and monsoon clouds to the side, so (small chuckle) we must just carry on and resign ourselves to our fate.’
There was a moment’s kerfuffle from Ruby and some shouting, but all settled down and we bounced our way to Delhi inside a storm cloud.
I have never been a fan of people who applaud when a plane lands (it is mainly done by Italians, I think), but when that pilot landed that plane, we were cheering and giving a standing ovation.
We stayed a few days in Delhi. At the hotel, I got faxes from Ade and the girls. I don’t know what Beattie had been reading about India.
27 October 1997
It’s quite cold in Devon. Nothing is really happening and it’s quite boring.
It took us six hours to get from London to Devon!! There was lots of traffic and daddy got very angry. I bet it’s very hot in India with all the cows walking around eating people’s potatoes.
We are going down to Chagford today so we can see how Eddie is getting on.
(p.s. I miss you) xxx love Beattie xxxxxxxx
And from Ella:
27 October 1997
I am missing you loads! Daddy is missing you to.
Beryl was sick in the car on the way down to Devon, I’m not really surprised though because it took 6 hours to get to Devon, because of some stupid road works. We were patient and entertained our selfs with sweets.
I hope you are having fun and aren’t to tiered. And I can’t wait to see you again. Floppy is going to have his teeth clipped soon. But whisky and beryl are fine.
Keep in touch
Lots of love from
Eλλα (in greek)
Ade sent a fax explaining that he hadn’t really been that cross in the car.
I did miss them. And Whisky and Beryl are dogs, by the way, the Border terriers we had at that time. Whisky was named by Ade, and Beryl was named after my comic-strip heroine, Beryl the Peril. Beryl was often sick in the car. We used to try to cover every available surface in old towels, but she would still manage to throw up down the back of a seat, or once into the holes by the automatic gearstick. She was probably more afraid of messing up the lovely clean towels.
After Delhi, we took a train north to Rishikesh, ‘the gateway to the Himalayas’. Rishikesh was where the Beatles hung with the Maharishis, and it is considered the centre for all types of yoga and indeed yogi.
We visited Hindu temples and Buddhist temples. It felt so different from the chaos of Varanasi and the smog of Delhi. The Ganges powers through the town, fresh and cold, and there is little traffic. Mainly, the whole place is overrun with monkeys and cows.
Our job on this trip was to take in the atmosphere and come up with ideas for the film. We tried. We really tried. On the surface, it all seemed so simple. We had a story, and now we had the basis of plenty of funny material, and Goldie was pretty straightforward. I still can’t believe we made our lives so complicated. We were already two months past the month that Ruby said it would take.
From Rishikesh we drove for one night further up into the Himalayas, where we stayed in a small hotel. It had a few rooms and beautiful views out over the white water of the Ganges in the valley below. No other guests.
In the evening, Ruby and I joined Goldie in a moment of reflection and meditation in a beautiful room overlooking the gardens. Now, I like a bit of reflection and meditation and I’m not impartial to a bit of yoga, occasionally, but Goldie wanted us to ‘ommmmmmmmm’.
Ruby ‘ommmmmmmmmed’, but I just couldn’t find the ‘om’ in me.
Ruby looked at me.
I look back on it and wonder why I couldn’t ‘om’. I feel the whole project would have worked if I could just have raised one decent ‘om’.
Poor Goldie Hawn.