Bonkers: My Life in Laughs - Jennifer Saunders (2013)
Dawn and I are in a tattoo parlour. In Auckland. She is in another room and sounds in pain.
It is 2009, the last leg of our final ‘Still Alive’ tour. We’ve been driving past this tattoo parlour with its bright neon sign every night, en route to the theatre. I don’t know how it happened, but Dawn and I seem to have had the same idea at the same time. We had been trying to think of something to do to mark the end of the tour and, in effect, the end of the act.
For some reason - which on occasion we now regret - we had decided that, as we were ‘getting on’ and it was unlikely that any TV company would ever be able to provide us with a budget for another full French and Saundersseries, we should go out with dignity. We didn’t want to be trying to flog our wares to some embarrassing end.
French and Saunders has always basically been a live act. Even working in the TV studio, the majority of sketches were done in front of a live audience. I like the energy that an audience gives. I particularly can’t imagine Ab Fabwithout a studio audience. When you hear someone laughing, you just want to keep that going. So you heighten a performance. Some might call it overacting but, as long as it works, I don’t care if it is. The aim is just to make people laugh as much as possible. That is the whole point of comedy. Laughter. And the greatest feeling in the world is being able to create that.
By the time Dawn and I were on the telly in 1983, we could do proper tours and fill reasonable-sized theatres. The man initially responsible for our tours (‘Record-breaking’ … ‘Marvellous’ … ‘Curtain went up and then down at the end of the show’ - The Stage) was Mr Phil McIntyre and, latterly, Paul Roberts, who worked for him. They were northern, with a no-nonsense attitude and a lifelong commitment to Everton FC. Phil had toured The Young Ones, but wasn’t really a theatre man. Up until then he had just toured heavy metal bands, so we were a piece of cake. Just Raw Sex, a few props, and some bangers and streamers before the interval, please.
We had a fairly fantastic time. It felt a little bit like rock ’n’ roll. We had a coach and roadies. We stayed up late drinking, and keeping an eye on Rowland, who could be wild. In those days he drank a lot, but was banned from drinking (as I was) before or during a show. Afterwards he could get as pissed as he wanted.
He transgressed a few times. But only once did he make me so angry that I pushed him up against a wall with my hand on his neck and gave him an ultimatum.
‘If you ever, and I mean EVER, do that again, you are off this tour.’
We did sometimes have to lay down the law.
One morning, both boys were late getting on the coach, and Dawn and I laid into them.
Paul Roberts looked up.
‘Hey, lads …The bitches have turned.’
The bitches have turned. We had this printed on our tour jackets. It became the ‘The Bitches Have Turned’ tour.
Paul could always come up with a great phrase. One night on the 2000 tour he came into the dressing room a little puffed up and excited.
‘Well, can I just tell you ladies that we have a special guest in tonight. I think you’ll be rather pleased, as it is in fact The Cher herself.’
Indeed we were quite excited. We love The Cher. She actually once came to a recording of Ab Fab and I had had a feeling I had met her before.
‘Oh yes. The lady herself is in tonight. Shall I organize for her to come back for a little drink?’
‘Marvellous. Ho ho. The Cher.’
Paul is normally a cool person. He is good-looking and charming. But he kind of lost it with The Cher.
She came backstage after the show. She’s an old rock ’n’ roller who doesn’t mess.
Paul was ready with the Champagne, but Cher wanted a beer. This only increased his awe of her. He produced a beer, wearing a look of ‘There you go, chap’ on his face.
As we talked, he hovered, and we could tell he wanted to say something to The Cher. Probably along the lines of ‘I think you’re bloody great, and you’re so normal, and I’m a big fan.’ Eventually, he butted in.
‘Nice belt, lady!’
That then became the catchphrase of the tour.
NICE BELT, LADY!
I actually love being on tour.
Every night is different. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. Quite often something crucial goes wrong. But it is always funny. And the best thing of all is that it keeps your ego in check. Because you can’t ever expect or believe the applause. You have to earn it. You have to justify it. People have paid a lot of money and have often come a long way to see you; the very least that you can do in return is work hard for them. Because you are only ever going to be as good as your last show; and that, more than anything, keeps you on your toes.
The other thing about touring is that you are living in a little bubble. For weeks and weeks, everything is done for you. You are checked into hotels, your cases are taken care of, you’re fed and entertained and absolutely everything is done to ensure you get on that stage in the best possible nick. Or, at the least, that you get on that stage.
I used to think that it was odd how, on film sets and in studios, the actors are fussed over the whole time; they just sit and have teas, coffees, newspapers and food brought to them, and they are constantly accompanied by a runner. Now I realize that this is simply practical. The production team want all the actors in one place, where they can see them, so that if they are required on set they can be got at quickly. You can’t have actors wandering about, willy-nilly. They must be confined. And the same applies to being on tour: you have to be kept in sight at all times.
It is a strange life, and not one that partners or friends really fit into. A bubble. There was an unfortunate moment when Rowland brought his girlfriend of the time along. She was called Wendy, and she was the lead singer of Transvision Vamp. It threw us all into a spin. We had our nice routine worked out - who sat where on the bus, what we ate, what we talked about - and Wendy had her own ideas.
No, Wendy. Wendy, Wendy, Wendy. No. Lovely as you are. No.
It is hard when you go back to normal life too: it takes a while to settle back into family routine. Javier Bardem once said that the hardest thing about working away from home for months was returning home and being expected to fit back in straight away. You gradually acclimatize. It’s a bit like winning a goldfish at the fair. You take it home in its little bag of water, but you don’t immediately tip it into the tank. First you float the bag with the fish in it in the tank so that the temperature equalizes. Then, after an hour or so, you release the fish.
Often too much is expected of you when you are still in the bag.
To be honest, Dawn and I always did relatively civilized tours, and by the time we had children, we would organize small breaks and sensible travel arrangements so that we could get home as often as possible.
We did girls’ tours.
No, we won’t do Glasgow and then Swansea the next night, Paul. We would like to work our way down the country in a relaxed and pleasant manner, please, with a couple of nights off every now and then. (Crew love it though. They like nothing better than a ‘get out’ late, a drive through the night with no sleep, and a ‘get in’ the next day fuelled by Red Bull.)
So, I love working live. I love theatres. But with one exception: I just don’t like doing plays. I should point out, at this point, that I have only ever done one play. But it just wasn’t my thing.
Dawn loves plays, loves acting in plays, and is bloody good at it. It is just not for me.
The only play that I did was one Dawn and I did together. It was called Me and Mamie O’Rourke and was written by a friend of ours, Mary Agnes Donoghue, famous for having written the film Beaches.
It was a good play. It had Robert Ackerman directing - very good - and a designer called Ultz. What’s not to like? It was about two Los Angelean women who are both having relationship trouble. At one point they wonder if their deep unphysical friendship might not actually be repressing a secret lesbian desire for one another, and attempt a kiss. I kissed Dawn every night. Still. What’s not to like?
It was just the fact that, during the play, I never came offstage. Once I was on, I was on for two whole hours. The play was sort of funny, but not our kind of funny. It was theatre funny. And I had to be in the same place, night after night. I had to leave home just as the children were being put to bed and the possibility of a gin and tonic was being mooted, and go to the theatre.
When the play opened and the lights came up, I had to be standing there on the stage. My opening line was out across the audience: ‘Goodbye!’
It was a gift for the funnies in the stalls.
‘But we’ve only just got here!’
‘Goodbye! Will Dawn be on soon?’
I dreaded it.
During the performance - looking drab in bad dress and wellies for the WHOLE play - I had moments when I had to sit at a table and read magazines about guns and murder. Which I found interesting, to the point of actually reading them and not coming in on cue quite often. One night, I actually fell asleep and woke to find, not just the audience staring at me, but the rest of the cast as well.
Not my forte, it has to be said.
OK. Back in the tattoo parlour, Dawn and I have had some thoughts. I thought that perhaps we should have a tattoo of a gravestone with ‘F&S RIP’ on it. We could have it on our bottoms.
Dawn thinks maybe something a bit prettier. Something written, perhaps. We really can’t make up our minds, so the nice tattoo artist - who, it would appear, has practised mainly on himself - says he will work up some suggestions. He is young, with no idea who we are. I don’t think he can really understand why these two old people have come in. He sets to work, his piercings jingling as he does so.
He is back with a design. It is pretty. It is our names, multicoloured, in flowery writing. We both look at it, and then at each other.
ME: What do you think, Dawn?
DAWN: What do you think, Jen?
We both know what we think.
ME (to the boy): How long would that take to do?
BOY: A couple of hours.
DAWN: Mmm, it is lovely.
ME: But do we have that time, Dawn?
DAWN: No, Jen, I’m afraid I don’t think we do.
ME: No. Listen. I think we just want something a bit smaller, as we don’t have the time.
DAWN: But it is lovely, and if we had the time …
He brings us a hefty folder containing just about every design of smaller tattoos imaginable. We flick through it. They still seem quite big. Eventually, we turn a page and see a little star. A little dark star. We like the star. It is small.
ME: And Dawn, it is in black ink and my friend who removes tattoos says that black ink is the easiest to remove, should we ever want to.
We point to the star. We decide to have two stars each. We are going crazy now!
Dawn will have them on her wrist and I will have them on my ankle.
We are separated and worked on by different tattooists. Dawn is squeaking a bit in pain. Turns out the wrist is an even more sensitive place to be tattooed than the ankle. Some minutes (and quite a lot of blood, it seems) later, we are done.
We are pleased. We think we look quite cool.
We have tattoos. Who’d have thunk it?
Our very last night in Auckland was the end of the act.
It’s funny, but Dawn and I were actually less emotional than some other people were about it. You still have to go on and give your best.
As the show finished, we were bombarded with flowers and chocolate. It was kind and appreciative, and I know we are going to miss the thrill of that live work. And that feeling - that incredible feeling - when your audience are having fun. That they are enjoying you enjoying what you’re doing and - most crucially - enjoying each other.
I honestly think that that is what audiences have been buying into all these years: they have been buying into our friendship. They love that we love each other. And they love that we have fun together. The fact that we make each other feel good makes them feel good, which makes everybody happy.
Nowadays we have a show on Radio 2 that brings us together on high days and holidays and gives us the opportunity to sit together and think up funnies.
The real reason that Dawn and I were not so emotional when the act ended was because we knew that we would always have the friendship. And we do. If I want to have laughs and play, I just have to go to her house. We still have the same kind of fun that we always did, only without the audience. There is nothing I enjoy more than meeting Dawn for lunch and simply talking and talking. Death is the only time limit we have on that.