Bonkers: My Life in Laughs - Jennifer Saunders (2013)
I am inside an egg.
Everyone on my course at the Central School of Speech and Drama is inside an egg. These are eggs that we have made from newspaper and Sellotape. All sixteen of us are inside our own eggs on the floor of one of the studios.
We are told to remain inside the egg until we feel ready to hatch. When we hatch, it will be into an unknown world where we can be anything we like. We may have to learn new methods of communication. We may be frightened. We may be aggressive. We must take our time and do it as it comes naturally.
The lights are dimmed.
There is silence.
Nobody wants to be the first to come out of the egg. It’s quite nice in the egg. I think I may have a little sleep.
I am trying to study for a BEd in Drama and English, and, I think, Speech as well. We do have speech training and have to move around a room, breathing from our buttocks and rolling our voices along the floor and then saying, ‘Arr ay ee ay arr, bar bay be bay bar, car cay cee cay car’ (continued for whole alphabet), in order to get some mouth movement and find our embouchure. Mine is still missing.
I have an immobile top lip. I blame it on playing the flute, but it could just be my reluctance to move my mouth at all when speaking. (I took up the flute as it was the grown-up instrument to play after the recorder, and I had been excellent at the recorder. I mean, really excellent: I could even play the treble! But the flute is a very different kettle of fish, and I was found out when I had to join the school orchestra. It was a pretty scratchy old orchestra, but you were required to read music, which I could, and keep time, which has never been my strong point. So I would mime, vaguely follow the other flute, and move my fingers up and down randomly. Unfortunately one day ‘lead flute’ was ill and there was only me. Let’s just say that during the flute solos there was silence, and a lot of tutting from the oboes.)
So, I’m on a teacher training course. Yes, I’m surprised too. This has never been part of my Plan – if indeed there has ever been a Plan. Plan or not, this was certainly not part of it. Everything in my life has been fairly random, happened by accident or just fallen into place.
That I am at college at all is something of a miracle. I left the Northwich Grammar School for Girls in Cheshire with three very average A levels in Geography, Biology and English, with no idea of anything that I particularly wanted to do, and no sense of having to do anything at all particularly urgently. The school careers officer (who was actually just the RE teacher earning a bit on the side) told me, in no uncertain terms, that I had chosen a strange mix of subjects and should apply immediately to become a dental nurse.
I, however, thought I should apply to some universities. Both of my parents had been to university, and my older brother, Tim, who was full of brains, was about to go to Cambridge to study Engineering.* Thankfully, this had taken the pressure off me a bit. My two younger brothers, Peter and Simon, were still at school.
I went to quite a few interviews at various universities – Leicester, Nottingham, Coventry – but wasn’t accepted at any of them. Reluctance to open my mouth when talking, or even to talk at all, could have been a contributing factor. I couldn’t really raise any enthusiasm about myself, so they didn’t stand a chance.
‘Why do you want to do Combined Studies here in Nottingham?’
‘Er … because … (Damn, I should have prepared this) … erm … because I … like them?’
‘Why do you want to come here to Leicester?’
The truth was, I didn’t.
‘What makes you particularly suited to Archaeology and Anthropology?’
Nothing. Nothing at all. I just liked the sound of it and imagined digging about in ancient tombs wearing khaki. And they knew it too. For them, it must have been like interviewing a bowl of porridge.
I have always thought I’d quite like to be an archaeologist. Actually, I’d still quite like to be an archaeologist. Or a psychiatrist. Or a casting agent. Did drama or performing feature in my life as a schoolgirl? Not really. Apparently, I once did quite a funny turn as a fortune teller in a school revue when I was in the sixth form, but I don’t remember much about it.
The thing that Central had to recommend it over and above all of the others was that it was in London, and I wanted to go to London. I didn’t particularly mind what I studied, I just wanted to study it in London. I had been to London only a handful of times in my life – mainly to attend the Horse of the Year Show, so only really to Wembley – but the thought of it excited me.
When I returned from my seven months in Italy not making a porn film, they asked me for an interview. I was instructed to bring a black leotard with me. A leotard!
On arrival, all us candidates were ushered into one of the studios and the girls were told to go off to put on our leotards. The horror! We didn’t know each other and were having to strip down to bra and pants and put these things on. Mind you, I was glad of my tan. The boys had to wear T-shirts and tights and were confused about whether to wear the jockstrap outside or inside them. The results were not pretty.
We then had to show we could move and were put through some exercises by a movement teacher (‘Swing your arms, touch the floor, skip about’). We were all lumpen and slightly confused, and luckily no one shone. I was still in with a chance, and after about fifteen minutes of sweaty hell and hitching up of jockstraps, it was over. After that, it was all pretty simple: a short interview, during which I actually spoke. They asked what theatre I had seen recently, and I told them I had seen Dostoyevsky’s The Rivals at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. It was an obvious lie, but they didn’t question it. The truth was that I had only ever seen Charlie’s Aunt at a rep theatre in Worthing, but they must have been desperate to fill the course. We then had to sit near a piano and show we had an ‘ear’ by recognizing whether notes were higher or lower as they were played.
That was it.
A few days later, much to my surprise and my mother’s joy, I got a letter of acceptance. I moved to London in the autumn of 1977.
Back in the egg.
I can hear someone inside their egg, crying with laughter, and I know this must be Joanna Bowen. JoBo.
JoBo and I had quite quickly become friends at college. She was tall and dark with extraordinary legs; legs that, she told us, featured in the Pretty Polly posters that were all over Tube stations. We never knew if she was telling the truth. About anything, really. JoBo even had us believing, at one point, that she had been raised by wolves in Africa. (It was entirely possible, although I have since discovered that she was raised by a very nice family in Hertfordshire, whom I have got to know quite well over the years.)
JoBo had a car. This was the greatest thing. JoBo drove me everywhere, at breakneck speed.
Up until then, my preferred mode of transport had been my shiny red bicycle. It was a solid, postbox red – I painted it myself – and shiny because I used thick gloss paint. There were a few drip marks here and there, and marks where my trousers had stuck to it before it had fully dried, but otherwise I was very pleased with the result. It had a basket on the front for my bag and was the picture of a good, old-fashioned bike. But it was a tough pedal: the gears often crunched into each other without any notice and, if I wasn’t careful, my trousers would get stuck in the chain. Or the chain would fall off altogether.
Thanks to my bicycle, I arrived late every single day for my first term at college. Quite regularly I would arrive just as everyone was packing up their folders to go home. My problem has always been (and still is) that I believe I can get anywhere in London in twenty minutes. This has simply never been the case.
An awful lot of my life has been spent thinking up excuses for my lateness. My husband, Ade, has taken to giving me false timings, usually subtracting an hour, in the hope that I will be ready to leave the house on time.
JoBo made it her mission to shock me, or make me laugh, at every given opportunity. In those days, I generally appeared quite serious. Apparently it could be intimidating. I was the girl who never got wolf-whistled when passing building sites. Instead, they would stop and look puzzled and shout, ‘Cheer up!’ Even now, I get the odd ‘It may never happen, love!’, which fixes my face into an even grimmer state. People often think I’m frightening, when the truth is, I’m just really quite frightened myself.
A journalist once commented in an article, ‘Why doesn’t Jennifer Saunders smile more? She’s got a lovely smile when she tries.’ There is nothing more designed to make you not smile than someone telling you that you should. Just as there’s nothing more likely to stop meaningful conversation than someone saying, ‘I’m so glad we’re talking.’
JoBo’s favourite trick was to take her top off while driving. Next to her, I would be wracked with embarrassment and nervous laughter, panicking if we stopped too long at traffic lights and keeping an eye out for the police. She once pulled the car up next to a man and a woman who were walking along the pavement, got out and ran up to the man, kissed him, and then said, ‘Darling, darling. Listen, I don’t want you to worry about what happened last night. I asked the doctor and he said it’s perfectly normal.’
We drove off, while the couple were left standing confused and slightly unsettled. It was JoBo’s nerve that made me laugh.
Another time, she pulled the car up next to a pedestrian, pretended to be blind, and asked for directions. And could they be specific, please, because she was driving using only her Braille A–Z.
JoBo’s fearlessness once almost killed us both. The novelty of the tits out was obviously wearing off and she needed more laughter from me. So she decided to steer the car with her legs. I laughed, so she went one near-fatal step further and pushed one of her legs through the steering wheel. This meant that she couldn’t steer at all. She had to try madly to find the brake pedal with her accelerator foot while extracting her leg from the wheel, as we hurtled out of Hyde Park towards Queen’s Gate, missing the Royal Geographical Society by inches before she finally regained control.
Back in the egg, nothing much is happening. I’m not aware of any hatchings. I can hear some whisperings and some chick noises, but no ripping paper.
Dawn French is in one of the eggs. Dawn French, later to be ‘off the teleovision’ and my comedy partner.
Much has been made (mainly by me, I suspect) of the fact that, when Dawn and I first met at college, we hated each other on sight. This isn’t true. We were indifferent. She had come with a purpose, which was to learn to be a teacher. She actually wanted to teach. I had arrived not really realizing that it was a teaching course at all. A few terms in, when they sent us all into schools, I was genuinely shocked. I was hanging with the posh girls, as far as she was concerned, and she had her own gang.
To be fair, I was also actually living with posh girls. A friend of mine from Cheshire, Belinda Pritchard-Barrett (quite posh), was in London sharing an attic flat in Kensington with two other girls, Fiona Pelham-Burn (posh) and Charlotte Kennard (extremely posh).
I got on well with Belinda, who has a big laugh and a great sense of humour. She had done a cordon bleu cookery course and was now cooking directors’ lunches for a firm in the City. The other two were secretaries.
I was a mystery to them. They never could quite understand what it was that I was doing, but they thought it terribly clever. They wore grown-up clothes, lipstick, court shoes and had drinks parties with young officers from the Welsh Guards. They had already become their mothers.
Occasionally I would be present at a drinks party wearing cord jeans, an army surplus shirt and a pair of bright red Kickers. I had to be explained.
‘This is Fer. She’s living with us. She’s a student, doing something very high-powered. What is it again, Fer?’
(I should explain, dear reader, that close friends and family call me Fer. I never liked Jenny, so it’s either my full name, or Jen, or Fer. Except for JoBo, who has always called me Foffy. Onwards.)
‘Drama. I’m doing drama.’
At which point there would be general mutterings of ‘Marvellous’, ‘Terribly high-powered’ and ‘Well done, you’, before they returned to their general chatter and G&Ts.
Eventually I moved from that flat because, in my second year, a place closer to college came up. It was on the top two floors of a house in Steele’s Road. There were six of us living in it, and Dawn was one of them. She shared a room with Angie, her friend from Plymouth, and I had a small room to myself. On the surface we had little in common, apart from the fact that both our fathers had been in the RAF. She listened to John Denver and Dean Friedman, and I listened to Elvis Costello and Patti Smith.
Dawn and I would walk to college together most days. I can’t remember what we talked about,* but I remember enjoying it more and more. We laughed a lot. We laughed about everything, but mainly about people.
We became obsessed with an older actress who lived on the same street. We thought we’d seen her on television. We started inventing a life for her and hung out of the window to watch her comings and goings. I like to think of it as character study. I suppose it was our equivalent of animal study, which was done by the actors at college. This involved going to the zoo, choosing an animal, watching it for a bit and then going back to the studio and spending hours as that animal. We used to walk past and look in. Strange how many actors chose very slow animals that didn’t do much at all – sloths, owls, etc. Occasionally you’d see an actress that regretted the decision to choose a flamingo and having to stand on one leg all day. Hilarious viewing for us.
Dawn and I can now both do vague approximations of an actress.
It is the best feeling when you find someone who isn’t just a good audience, but who can actually add to the funny and keep it going longer. If you are doing an impersonation of someone or telling a story, there are people who will interrupt and stop your momentum and there are people who can make comments and observations that keep the plates spinning. We became great plate spinners.
I had never considered myself funny before. Was I the class clown? No. One of my school reports, when I was seven, refers to my ‘unusually developed sense of humour’, but this surprises me. I feel like I was largely mute.
I had changed schools a lot, by virtue of the fact that my father was in the RAF. In my first thirteen years of life, we moved seven times. My first six years were spent abroad – initially in Nicosia in Cyprus and then in Ankara in Turkey. I remember the smell of pine trees and the heat. There are hundreds of photographs of this time, as my father and grandfather produced boxes and boxes of slides. We always look happy and are generally in a paddling pool.
I was rather accident-prone, and I like to think of this period as early training for physical comedy. My first memory, aged three, is of a swing to the head.
I am at my kindergarten in Nicosia and I am running, running, consumed by a sense of panic, a mixture of homesickness and abandonment. I am trying to get to my older brother, Tim, who is in the junior school. A small picket fence separates our two parts of the school, but I don’t let that stop me. Oh no. I climb over that forbidden fence and run towards where I think he might be. The next thing I know is a bang on my head – boom. I’ve been floored by a swing.
From that moment, my early life was punctuated by a series of accidents. There was the brick that my brother threw in an alleyway that knocked me unconscious. The fall from a balcony wall down into a cactus bed, resulting in months of boils and cactus-spine removal. Then the plastic golf club that ended up rammed down my throat when I decided that leaping from chair to chair with it in my mouth might be fun. I was blue when my mother found me, and only choked back to full health once she’d pulled it out.
There was also the time I found myself sitting quite calmly at the bottom of the swimming pool. I remember looking up at the surface and being able to identify the rubber ring that I’d slipped through. I knew I shouldn’t have been in the pool, so I just waited to be pulled out, which I was, eventually.
If you can avoid serious injury or death, then the odd accident can be a learning experience. Childhood seemed like quite a bloody affair. It’s always nice to have a great big scab to pick at.
On returning from abroad we had a series of postings – Colerne, Camberley – and I also lived with my grandmother in Littlehampton when my father was posted abroad on his own. Our final Air Force posting was Melksham in Wiltshire. I was ten and we stayed there till I was thirteen, when we finally settled in Cheshire, where my father got a job near Manchester working for Hawker Siddeley (later British Aerospace), selling commercial aircraft.
By this point I had attended seven different schools – two of them twice. Changing schools that often had pushed me the other way from being the class clown; it had made me a great blender-inner. It becomes instinctive in you to position yourself so that you very quickly feel settled, and home life is always the most important thing. I don’t ever remember moving house or there being a fuss when I left school or friends.
By the time I arrived, aged thirteen, at my final school, the aforementioned Northwich Grammar School for Girls, I had it down to a fine art. I was presented at the front of the class by the teacher; I was the only girl in the room wearing a shiny new school uniform and feeling sick with nerves.
‘This is Jennifer …’
I hated my name at this point. Nobody was called Jennifer except ‘Jennifer Eccles’, and that song followed me round the playground. Later it would be ‘Jennifer Juniper’, sung to me by French boys on foreign exchange trips. They only ever knew the words ‘Geniver Gunipair’ and would sing it over and over again in their silly French accents, never knowing when to stop. I preferred Jennifer Eccles. And yes, I did have freckles.
Anyway, anyway …
‘This is Jennifer Saunders. Now let’s find you somewhere to sit.’
I looked round the class. Girls sitting next to each other shuffled their chairs closer together to show there wasn’t room near them – the good girls at the front, the bad girls at the back. There was only one girl sitting on her own. This was the not-popular girl. I was sent to sit next to her at the front. I could hear mean sniggers from the back.
This girl was sweet, but I knew I couldn’t stay her friend. I needed to be nearer the sniggerers to stand any chance of survival. Which, over the next year, I did. I blended myself into the the group at the back and became the bad girls’ pet. Never doing anything to ruffle feathers.
I learned much later in life that laughter is a great method for breaking the ice and easing your way in socially. Which is strange, because the default setting in my family was laughter. That was where we all instinctively headed to; being in on a joke was absolutely the best place to be. And we had a cast of characters and a roster of in-jokes that could be enjoyed over and over, time and time again.
My father, Tom Saunders, was brilliantly deadpan and easily amused.
There was a Golden Rule in our family, decreed by my father: you can be serious, but you must never, ever take yourself seriously. Most things could be tolerated except pomposity.
He and my mother, Jane, always made each other laugh. They had first met on a date arranged by their respective mothers, Margaret (Maggie) Saunders and Jenny Duminy, who had been best friends at school. Despite the forced situation, they got on; they amused each other and they shared an adventurous spirit. When they first started courting, so the story goes, my father flew his plane upside down under telegraph wires, to impress her. At the time he was posted in Jordan, teaching pilots (including King Hussein of Jordan) how to fly. On one of his trips home on leave, they got engaged. Everyone suggested they wait until his posting was over before they got married, but my mother was adamant. She is very brave, my mother – still is – and the thought of going out there with him was too exciting a prospect to turn down.
My father had been born in Cambridge in 1926, the younger son of John Tennant Saunders and Margaret Saunders. Although my father’s father had been christened John, he had come to be known as Fanny while at university in Cambridge, by virtue of the fact that he bore an uncanny resemblance to the college cleaner, Fanny.
Fanny (my grandfather, not the cleaner) was a brilliant academic who, by the time I was born, was a biology don at Cambridge and had written several books on practical vertebrate morphology (still available on Amazon!). My father himself went to Cambridge to study languages. During the Second World War, he joined the Air Force very young, and he didn’t look back. He was a very good pilot and had a lifelong passion for flying. When the war ended he decided to remain in the Air Force for that reason, and was extremely good at his job. He helped to set up an Air Force base in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, and in 1969 was awarded a CBE.
The morning of the CBE ceremony we got up early and set off for London in our car. My mother was adamant that we shouldn’t travel in our best clothes, just in case they got mucky or crumpled, so we got changed in a car park near Buckingham Palace. I was wearing a tartan cape and a Beatles cap. The most exciting thing of all was the palace toilets. When you pulled the chain, a flap opened at the bottom of the bowl – like the loo in a caravan, but very, very smart. When I’d finished, a person in some sort of livery escorted me back to where we were sitting. When he went up to get his CBE, my father looked like he had a good joke up his sleeve for the Queen.
He told us that she had said to him, ‘So where are you now?’
And he had replied, ‘I’m here in the palace shaking hands with you, Your Majesty.’
Always playing to the gallery.
My father left the Air Force as a Group Captain, but he never used his titles once he entered civilian life. He loathed men that retained their rank: Major so-and-so-up-the-road who hadn’t been in the Army for twenty years. There was a man called Commander Cox who lived nearby and would occasionally come over for a drink with his wife. We knew my father – who had done impressions of him for us – didn’t particularly like him, and when he arrived at the house my father would play up for us. He would go to the door to greet him with all the appearances of the perfect host.
‘Ah, Commander Cox! Commander Cox is here, everybody! Do come in, Commander. Now, Commander, what can I get you to drink? Jane, Jane, Commander Cox is here!’
Commander, Commander, Commander Cox.
It was all for our benefit. My father loved nothing more than making people laugh. Deadpan face, silly hats, he was a great clown. During his early days in the RAF, he had done an act in the British Council Revue – the man who can’t put up his deckchair. I wish I’d seen it.
I think my love of physical comedy must have been inherited from him. He was never happier than when he was slouching in his favourite chair, gin and tonic in hand, watching Harry Worth or Morecambe and Wise on the television. Not Charlie Chaplin. We all thought Charlie Chaplin was an idiot. Too sentimental and not funny at all. Not funny like Dave Allen, Dick Emery, Victor Borge, Laurel and Hardy or Tommy Cooper. Or Mr Pastry! Mr Pastry was my absolute favourite. I think it was while watching Mr Pastry that I properly first found the joy in real panto-ish physical comedy. I used to think I’d made up Mr Pastry, as nobody else seemed to remember him, until I met Miranda Hart, who said that he had inspired her too.
Nowadays, children are only allowed to look at young people being funny on the television. All the presenters are basically newborns. The crazy bowler-hatted Mr Pastry, otherwise known as Richard Hearne, was quite old, but then so was Doctor Who in those days. Mr Pastry would dance around a room, or fall through a wall, and usually ended up covered in flour, or twisted up in a tuba. Along with Lucille Ball, Mr Pastry was my greatest comedy influence.
So, in Dawn – who is truly a great physical comedian – I had found someone to play with, someone who was in on the joke. For me, comedy is about being allowed to be a child, to make things up and be silly. To play pretend and not be embarrassed in front of the person that you’re playing pretend with.
Imagine you were eight and playing hospitals with dolls, teddies and trolls. As you were listening to Sindy doll’s heart with a plastic stethoscope, the friend you were playing with said, ‘What are you doing? That’s just a doll. It doesn’t have a heart. None of these toys is alive. You’re just doing the talking for them. You’re not actually a nurse. And look at the scale of these toys! Teddy is the same size as baby squeaky doll, but Sindy doll is tiny, and I don’t understand where the trolls fit in. Are you mad? Look at yourself. What are you doing? Grow up!’
It just wouldn’t work. Making up characters and scenarios is basically playing. I knew that I couldn’t embarrass myself in front of Dawn and vice versa. We encouraged each other’s silliness. On my own I would have struggled to find a voice, but when I was with her there was always somewhere to go with a joke – and that was wherever she took me.
The crucial element in our double act, then and now, has been our friendship. For us, the friendship has always mattered more than the career. And this, in a way, has fed into the career; people enjoy watching us, I think, because they enjoy how much we enjoy each other.
Our first act was called the Menopause Sisters. Actually, to call it an act is probably going a bit far. It was me and Dawn and a guitar. We had no idea what the menopause was, but thought it was probably something to do with periods. We dressed up as punks and had a song about a hamster that got trodden on, which we sang at parties (not always by request).
The Menopause Sisters then became the Menopazzi Sisters, who were an old Italian circus act. The sofas in the flat would be pushed back against the wall and whoever was there would be our audience (again, not always by request). They would have to sit through me and Dawn in black leotards and red swimming hats miming a series of circus tricks, like walking on big balls, or simply doing forward rolls followed by endless bowing. We would then exit into the hall applauding ourselves while the audience pushed the sofas back and continued to watch television.
We laughed and laughed. We didn’t drink much in those days – wine was disgusting and gin rather expensive – so our thrills came from messing about. We were short on money, but long on free time, and whiled away many hours just being childish. Activities included:
· Dressing up as punks and seeing if we could scare people on the Tube.
· Hiding in the laundry basket and popping out to try and frighten our flatmates.
· Making severed heads out of cabbages and banging them on our friends’ windows.
· Hanging out in Honest John’s record shop in Camden, making ourselves laugh by seeing who could buy the naffest record. It was then that we discovered ‘Kinky Boots’ by Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman, which was to become our favourite record of all time. Along with smatterings of Barbara Cartland, William Shatner and Gracie Fields, it was always played to the audience before live and studio shows.
· Debating whether or not to write to Rowan Atkinson, whom we didn’t know, to ask him for tea.
DAWN: Do you think we should write Rowan Atkinson a letter and ask him for tea?
DAWN: Because I bet no one ever does.
ME: Yes, and I bet he’s just really normal, and since he’s become famous I bet no one ever, like, just says, ‘Come round and have a cup of tea.’
DAWN: We should do it.
ME: I bet he would come. I mean, I bet some people would find that weird, but it’s actually just a nice, normal thing to do. We wouldn’t ask him about being famous or anything, because I should think he’s pretty bored of that now.
DAWN: And he seems like a really nice person.
Despite continuously convincing ourselves that, if we actually asked him, he would actually come, we never actually asked him. I told this story to Richard Curtis recently, who had worked with Rowan since the beginning of his career. He said, ‘You know, I think if you had asked him, then he would have actually come.’
We were fools.
Back in the egg, I can hear some hatchings.
Paper is being ripped and I can hear the noises made by people taking it seriously. I think I’ll stay put for a bit and let them get it out of their system. This whole thing was an exercise that we might be expected to take into schools and use in a lesson. Really? Well, I suppose those who actually wanted to be teachers might, but I couldn’t imagine it at all.
I hated teaching practice. I have never really liked schools. It’s bad enough being in a classroom, but being in a staffroom was even worse. All the teachers seemed depressed, chain-smoked, and if they spoke to you after lunch, there was always a whiff of cider on their breath.
The first school I was sent to teach in was an Ursuline convent in Wimbledon, which was an unremarkable experience. My last school was in Peckham Rye, which wasn’t. It was quite a rough school in quite a rough area. As a student teacher, I was given some of the roughest classes, the remedial groups who were told to take drama as a way of not having them in another lesson that they would disrupt. There was very little I could actually teach, and my main job was just to keep them in the room by whatever means possible.
For one group, I had a lesson plan that somehow involved post offices (don’t ask), in which they had to set up a post office for themselves. I knew this class and I knew it was going to be tough. They knew I was a student teacher and ruthlessly took advantage. As I walked into the classroom, I noticed that they had set up a record player.
‘What’s that for?’ I asked.
‘We’re not doing dancing.’
‘Yeah, but when we have this lesson, the teacher lets us bring our records in and do dancing.’
I decided to negotiate.
‘OK. You do some work and then, at the end, you can do dancing.’
By now, we were halfway through the lesson anyway, and after a short spell of ‘work’ the records began to be played. There was nothing I could do. After about ten minutes, they got bored and turned to me.
‘Why don’t you dance, Miss?’
‘No, no. I don’t dance.’
‘Yes you do. Come on, Miss, DANCE.’
So I danced and danced, to cries of ‘Dance, Miss! Dance!’
It took me a moment to realize that the classroom door had opened and standing in the doorway was Miss Dawn French. She had witnessed the whole thing. Her school had closed that day and she had decided to pay me a visit. Everything she had thought about my commitment to teaching was confirmed, and to this day I haven’t lived it down.
Dance, Miss! Dance!
Still in the egg, and I can now hear that, outside, the hatchers are starting to form some sort of primordial society. Squeaks and gibbon noises and grunts.
I open my egg, just enough so I can have a look. I was right. Quite a few are taking this very seriously indeed; some are gathering the newspaper shells of other people’s eggs, and fights are breaking out. I can see JoBo’s egg, and she is watching me. The look in her eye says, Really, Foffy, do we have to?
I shake my head. Not yet …
At the end of term every year at Central, there was an actors’ cabaret where actors and actresses could show off their special skills – singin’ and poncin’ about. Dawn didn’t like most of the actors because they really didn’t want to be seen mixing with the teachers. We were considered slightly beneath them, and only the secure ones would ever break the pose. She still feels the hurt, and if you ask she will give you a twenty-minute rant on the subject. So she decided, out of sheer bloody-mindedness, that we should perform at the cabaret. The Menopazzi Sisters had their first gig. By now, we had embellished the leotards by sewing nipple tassels on to the back, as if we were wearing them back to front, and had put white make-up all over our faces. We put flour on our hands and feet, to represent resin. You have to use resin for grip if you’re performing a dangerous circus act. And believe me, this was dangerous.
The actors’ cabaret was invaded by student teachers on our course, who came to watch. After a couple of guitar strummers and singers and poetry readers, we were on. And, I have to say, I think we stormed it. We got our first real audience laughs, and that is the greatest feeling. Like the nicest tickle. I like that tickle. I’ve always liked that tickle. And once you know you can get a laugh, it’s absolutely addictive. It’s a very nice feeling, making someone laugh. It kind of makes everything OK. And even the actors laughed! We could afford a bit of a swagger next time we walked through the lobby.
When the next cabaret came along, we had really worked up an act: a reprise of the Menopazzis, followed by two American characters we wrote a sketch for. Double stormer. Dawn had had her revenge on every actor who had ever spurned her advances in the coffee bar. You know what? You may be actors, but you are just not funny!
So, there we were, at the end of the third year, poised for a comedy future – but it didn’t happen immediately. We had never actually considered taking it further. Dawn went off to become a teacher, while I moved into a house in Chelsea with JoBo. Dawn and I kept in touch, but we believed that that part of our lives was over. And it was, for a while.
I have hatched and deserted my eggshell, and am watching from the sides.
There are the grunters, and the softly weepingers, and the completely-no-imagination-at-allers, just sitting still. It’s silly, but not at all funny, and eventually it winds down. No one is quite sure where we are supposed to go with this.
We look around. The teacher who set the whole experiment has pissed off. He has gone to the pub.