Bonkers: My Life in Laughs - Jennifer Saunders (2013)
‘Are you filming this, Fer?’
I am in my mother’s garden and we are laughing as she is being strapped on to a stretcher and put into an air ambulance. I am filming it on my phone. We are amazed that the helicopter managed to land in her garden. She made me film that too, as it landed and the rotor blades blew all her plants flat.
It is August 2010. I had a phone call less than an hour ago. I could tell it was her, and that she was distressed, but I couldn’t make out what she was trying to say to me. It seemed like nonsense. I tried to calm her. Somehow, I knew it must be a stroke.
‘Mummy, I think you’ve probably had a stroke. You’ve had a stroke, Mummy. Sit down. I’m coming now. Just sit down.’
I ran to my car and drove fast to her house. I probably should have called the ambulance then and there, but I just wanted to get to her. She was waiting at her door when I arrived a few minutes later. I took her inside and made her sit down.
Once she was sitting down, she became calmer.
I called 999 and described her symptoms over the phone. She seemed to have lost some movement in one arm, but her face wasn’t lopsided and she could manage a smile when asked. But her speech was decidedly all over the place.
While we waited for the ambulance, she tried to speak. She slurred words that had nothing to do with meaning. But, rather than get frustrated, my mother began to laugh. Family default mode.
Every time she tried to say something, it became like a game of charades, and every time I tried to guess the word, we laughed.
‘Mummy, the ambulance is coming and I think we should pack a bag for you. Where are your nighties?’
She pointed upstairs.
‘In the donkey.’
HUGE laugh. The donkey turned out to be the chest of drawers.
We laughed until the tears streamed down our cheeks. When the first medics arrived, they must have thought we were mad. Either that, or that I was incredibly heartless.
How old was my mother? they wondered.
I am afraid that I have always been bad at dates and ages and birthdays. I barely know how old I am. I couldn’t think how old she was, and nor, at that stage, could my mother. We settled on seventy-eight. This was wrong. She was actually seventy-seven.
They decided to call the air ambulance and save my mother the long road journey to Exeter. Somehow, it managed to land on a small stretch of lawn between her vegetable garden and shrubbery. The crew was amazing and my mother incredibly brave. I realize that I have inherited her ability to be an unfussed, uncomplaining patient. The only thing she can’t tolerate is being treated like a fool.
She was loaded into the helicopter, smiling at the paramedics. When it had left, I went and got all her necessaries from the donkey and sped to the hospital in my car, where my mother had been disembarked and was now in the Emergency Department.
I have come to rather like hospitals. I like the fact that there are definites in hospitals. That there are lots of people there, all knowing what they can do and what they should be doing. I used to think BBC Television Centre was like that, but don’t let me get started on that again. I think that the only similarity between the Beeb and the NHS is the number of bad management decisions that have caused them to lose sight of their original purpose. In the BBC’s case, making TV programmes. In the NHS’s case, saving lives and making people better. I’ll shut up now.
My mother had many tests and scans, all of which were inconclusive. No one seemed to know how or where it had happened. No clot was visible. We thought it might have had something to do with the fact that, when she had been mowing her lawn on a ride-on mower a week or so earlier, she had become trapped under a low branch that had pushed her head back as the mower moved forward. It had taken her a while to get her foot off the accelerator. This theory was dismissed, although I personally think it’s still a possibility. One moment she was sitting on the sofa watching the racing, the next she had woken up and realized she couldn’t speak. She had had little movement in one arm but had managed to press a speed-dial button on her phone that had put her through to our house. Thank goodness we were there.
They kept her in hospital for a week or so while they completed more tests. She was then sent home. At home, she made a remarkable recovery. The thing that takes the longest time to return is confidence, but she is now back to her old self, with a little bit of forgetfulness thrown in. There is still the odd ‘donkey’ - which causes convulsions of laughter - and numbers occasionally elude her. When she first came home, we realized that the only number she could remember was twelve. She would get up at twelve, meet people at twelve, have supper at twelve, and everything cost twelve pounds. She wasn’t allowed near a chequebook for months.
She is a strong and remarkable woman, my mother, and I thank God that I was in Devon, that she managed to press the one button on her phone that rang me and that I was in to take the call. I could have been sweeping. There have not been many times when she has ever asked for help, and even now I know she doesn’t actually use the stairlift that we put in for her, because it takes too bloody long.
A month or so before this, Ade and I were in our kitchen in London and got the greatest, happiest phone call from Ella. Her boyfriend, Dan, had asked her to marry him, and she had accepted. Little ‘Ella Bella Bing Bong Fish Can Fly’ was going to get married. The girl who had arrived looking like a little cross kidney bean had grown into a beautiful young woman and was going to get MARRIED! The girl who had once just wanted to wear a kilt and do Scottish dancing very, very fast, the girl who frightened us slightly in her Marilyn Manson phase, the girl who still bounces on the trampoline with her sisters, who has her own version of how the world works - Ellapedia, where all the facts are made up by herself - was going to marry the best person she could marry. Dan Furlong. Ade and I love Dan. He is a builder and a joiner and a man who can put his mind to anything. He is also a brilliant washer-upper. That makes him actually perfect.
They wanted to be married in the local church and have the reception on the lawn in the house in Devon. They didn’t give us an awful lot of notice and we were quite glad of that, because it meant we just had to get on with it and focus on what was important. Church. Dress. Booze.
Like mother, like daughter.
OK, I might go a little bit Pippa Middleton on you now. We had a big tent on the lawn filled with tables and benches, and flowers done by a friend of Dan’s mum. Soft roses and wildflowers. And candles. Most of my preparation time seemed to be spent going backwards and forwards from IKEA and Trago Mills with car loads of candles, blankets (in case it got cold) and cheap umbrellas (in case it rained). Ade ordered all the booze and the band for the party in the evening, and the cars to and from the church. My brother Simon brought some barrels of beer to add to the booze and agreed to act as MC. Fittingly, my little butler-like brother grew up into a perfect publican. He is still the best host, not least because he has an encyclopedic knowledge of most things and is never short of conversation.
We had a posh hog roast, which was Ella and Dan’s request. I nearly insisted that they had posher food, but luckily most of my bossiness was squashed, and the whole thing was better for it. I concentrated on candles and pots of geraniums for the garden.
Ella and I went and found her a cool, glamorous dress in London that she wore with her battered cowboy boots. She looked sublime. Dan wore a tweed suit.
The vicar, Anthony Geering, who was the vicar from Chagford who had conducted my father’s funeral, came out of retirement to marry them. He definitely wasn’t a ‘stupid arse’. He was the very best of vicars. The Church of England should never have retired him without first cloning him and sending him out as an example of how vicars should be. (Bear in mind, I am talking as a hedging-their-bets agnostic.) He put the congregation at their ease and told them they were free to move about and get closer if they wanted, to see all the good bits. No one was confined to pews behind pillars. He made it inclusive and emotional, meaningful but never solemn, and we all left the church on a high.
The sun shone all day. We were lucky, because it had rained solidly the week before. Once the tent was up, the water had poured like rivers off the roof and on to the lawn. Again, lucky that there is almost no grass at all on our lawn and it is just thick moss, which absorbed the water like a sponge.
Back at the house, after the church, we continued on a high, fuelled by Champagne and beer and the sense that something wonderful had happened.
Ade made a speech that had us all in tears. He barely got through it himself. There is nothing more likely to make Ade emotional than talking about his daughters. He loves his girls with a passion, and they love him. He has been an extraordinary father.
Ella is a musician, which she gets from him, and he taught her guitar and piano. At home, the house is always full of music. Ade has taught himself to play virtually every instrument with a string, and the trumpet too, and Ella has his talent. He has a library of songbooks, and the music they play ranges between country, folk, rock and Christmas carols. There was a time when I attempted to play the guitar and sing along with them, but quickly realized I was majorly outclassed. Now I only do it if I am really sure of a harmony. I have seen the odd smile pass between Ella and Ade when I join in. They have pointed out that I can sing the tune that is in my head, which doesn’t always match the tune of the actual song, and that my timing has always been up the spout.
I think this must be where a lot of X Factor auditionees go wrong. When you’re singing along to a CD, you can’t actually hear what you are singing. Singing unaccompanied is a whole different kettle of fish and some talent is required.
Beattie is now a fully fledged comedy girl. She started doing comedy at university. She went to Manchester and did the same course that Ade and Rik and Ben had done all those years ago. In her second year, she invited me and Ade up to a comedy night. She was performing in a double act with her friend Rose Johnson. Yes. A female double act. We thought it was an amazingly brave move, and we sat in the audience not quite knowing what to think but just praying that she was funny. And, lo and behold, she was. They were both hilarious, and she has never looked back. The comedy group grew to be six girls called Ladygarden (explain that one to yer grandparents), and they took shows to Edinburgh and did gigs around the country and a bit of telly. Beattie now has an agent and a TV sitcom under her belt. She is still doing live gigs with the two remaining Ladygardeners, and they call themselves the Birthday Girls. The word ‘proud’ doesn’t even go halfway to expressing how we feel. She has a beautiful nature, is kind and self-deprecating, and a demon on the Xbox. So, so PROUD.
Freya is the youngest and is studying fashion at university. From a very early age, she wanted to do fashion. Although, if anyone asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would look them in the eye and say, ‘Gorse bush.’ That had the desired effect and shut them up. Her godmother is Betty Jackson but I don’t think that influenced her early years. From the age of five, every birthday or Christmas, Freya would gather up the wrapping paper and disappear to her room with a roll of Sellotape. Half an hour later, she would appear downstairs in a perfect outfit, a wrapping-paper outfit. Dress, hat and shoes.
There is little more enjoyable than sitting having supper and getting Freya to do her impersonations of the girls she worked for when she did magazine internships. We are always on at her to write it down - ‘It’s funny, write it down’ - but I know that in her head she’s thinking, Yeah, yeah, that’s what you do, parents. I am different. And she is. She is determined to make her own way and has Ade’s work ethic to help her.
Just when you think life is good, it gets better. Ella announces that she is pregnant, and eight months later I am in the delivery room with her and Dan and the midwives.
When they called, it was because Ella had thought she was quite close and was having contractions at regular intervals. But when I arrive, she is still in bed talking coherently. I know - but don’t have the heart to say - that it might be quite a while yet. There is far greater pain to come. About eight hours of pain later, Freddie Furlong is born. I realize I am prejudiced, but Freddie was beautiful then and has grown even more divine since. I mean, even the midwife said he was ‘scrumptious’.
We are grandparents.
If we are not talking about Freddie, we are looking at pictures of Freddie. I now have pictures only of Freddie on my phone. If Freddie is in the room, we stare at him, and when he is taken out, we revert to looking at photos of him. He is a little king. When I look at him, I know with conviction that he will never be able to do any wrong in my eyes.
He has two doting aunts who both confess to having womb ache. Ade always said he never really wanted a son and was happy with his girls, but I’m sure that he has already ordered Freddie a season ticket for Exeter City Football Club and is planning boat trips. I imagine that one day, when Freddie is of age, he will come to town and take me to the Wolseley. I will have white hair, a stick and possibly some furs. I will introduce Freddie to the waiters and tell them that if he is ever in, they must furnish him and his chums with the finest Champagne.
So there you have it. Life moves on. The girls are happy. Ade is happy with his work and music. I am happy pottering about and have got back into the horsey world.
By sheer accident, I have become an Ambassador for British Showjumping. This happened because, on the Radio 2 show that Dawn and I have, Dawn mentioned that she had been invited to the Badminton three-day event with her daughter. That’s normally my sort of thing, and I was vociferously jealous. Maria Clayton at British Showjumping heard this and wrote to me, inviting me and a guest to Hickstead that year. I took Judy Craymer, who had in her youth been a showjumper. By the end of the day, having met most of our old heroes, including Harvey Smith, we were both made Ambassadors. We handed around the Ferrero Rocher and were thrilled.
It’s like stepping back into my sixteen-year-old self’s jodhpur boots. We have been to events with the Olympic gold medal winners Nick Skelton, Ben Maher, Scott Brash and Peter Charles. I carried the Union Jack ahead of the team at the international jumping at La Baule. I am actually almost living out a daydream.
Recently, I have bought a horse. This came about because I made a documentary called Back in the Saddle in which I took up riding again. In fact, it wasn’t going to be about me taking up riding again. It was supposed to be me just looking at all the horsey events pre-Olympics, but bloody Clare Balding interviewed me and asked me if I was going to give it a go, and because I can’t refuse a dare, I said yes.
Completely out of shape and not having ridden for years, I was put though my paces by showjumper Tim Stockdale and event rider Piggy French. Tim gave me a two-hour jumping lesson after which I thought I would never walk again. My privates had felt like they been sandpapered in preparation for redecorating.
Piggy put me over cross-country jumps that startled me at first. But they both gave me confidence, especially when they pointed out that I didn’t have to worry about the fence: the horse would jump it, they said, so I didn’t have to. Growing up, most of my ponies wouldn’t jump very well, and my friends and I had more fun pretending to be ponies and jumping the fences ourselves. I was a marvellous showjumper with my own legs.
At the end of the documentary, they arranged for me to jump a small course at a big event. I was nervous and therefore very bad-tempered about the whole thing.
‘Listen. I did not say that I would actually do this. AND, if I do this, I don’t want people watching. AND I don’t want it announced on the tannoy. AND all this is still only “if” because I might not actually do it …’
They had given me a lovely big horse called Jack, and eventually, despite the amount of people surrounding the ring, I went in. It was twenty jumps, but I had warned them that I might only do five. The buzzer went and I started jumping. Jack knew exactly what he was doing and had learned the course better than me. I was slightly encumbered by the amount of body protection I had to wear for the insurance - back protector and exploding jacket - and looked like the Michelin Man on horseback. After a few jumps, the tannoy kicked in:
‘AND IN THE RING NOW … JENNIFER SAUNDERS!’
From that moment on, I had a running commentary and cheers from the crowd every time I got over a jump. I couldn’t stop now. My plan had been foiled, and I had to go on and complete the course. Jack jumped a clear round with Huffy Puffy Sweaty Jelly Legs on his back. It was GREAT.
I felt that Jack deserved the huge amount of Pimm’s I consumed after that.
Back to the point. Making the documentary, I had been over to Ireland and met a horse producer, Richard Sheane, who buys the best young horses from all over Ireland and brings them on before selling them to the top riders. He knew Piggy. Some time later, he called me up and told me he had a horse I might like and that it would be a good horse for Piggy.
The thought of being a three-day-event horse owner was exciting. A bit like a grandchild. All the joy, but you don’t have to do the mucking out.
Piggy and I went to Richard’s place in Ireland, and he showed us some horses which Piggy tried out but wasn’t totally convinced by. So he took us over to his other yard where there were some really young ones and one that did catch our eye. He was called Aubane Boy. Piggy rode him and liked him, and I knew I had to get him when Richard told us that his stable name was Freddie.
He is at Piggy’s yard now, learning his trade.
I’ve been terribly lucky. I have a wonderful family and very nice friends. I AM lucky. I’ve had fun. So much fun. I’ve been paid to muck about. And the best thing is that it feels to me like there’s much more fun to be had. I hope so. I really hope so. And by fun, I mean work. Here comes my ‘old person’ rant. It amazes me how many of the young today just want to be famous. To be a celebrity. Because the absolutely very last thing anyone should want to do is end up in the celebrity swamp.
There are too many celebrities! The fallen, the has-beens, the lucky, the untalented, now all writhing around in the same shallow, stinking swamp, pissing in the same water. And yet we can’t take our eyes off them. We love watching the wallowing of the second rate. If those mags were full of brilliant minds, we wouldn’t care. We would have NO INTEREST AT ALL. We don’t want glamour; we mostly want the gutter.
You hardly hear anything from the talented ones any more. What ever happened to Juliette Brioche? Or Michelle Pfifferfefferfeff? Where are they now? And the one with all the gums? Meg Ryan! Are they too old now? Have Meryl and Helen cornered the market in wrinklies?
Can I also just say, while I’m at it, that I’m fed up of film posters of pretty girls and boys, running around with guns, being plastered on the side of buses? If they were holding cigarettes instead of guns and smoking nonchalantly, they would be banned. If they had a fag in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, they would be shot!
Where be the double-cream film stars of ye olden days?
They have been replaced by skimmed milk and yoghurt adverts.
What is it with yoghurt adverts? What is this strange yoghurt porn we have to put up with? Have you ever seriously got yourself into a slinky nightie, in the middle of the day, closed the curtains and reclined on the sofa with a pot of yoghurt?
It will take you, at most, two minutes to eat and that includes licking the lid. And then you will put the pot down on the floor with the spoon still in it, so it tips up and smears on your carpet. It’s over. What are ya going to do then? You are going to feel a fool. A great big silly, soppy, stupid fool. You’re going to hope that nobody, especially someone you know, comes to the door.
‘What are you doing? Why are you in your nightie? Why are the curtains closed?’
They barge past you into the sitting room, because they’re expecting to see a lover. How sad, when all that’s there is an empty pot of yoghurt.
Yoghurt and chocolate. That’s what women want, apparently. Oh yes. That’s what we all want.
‘Don’t tell my husband, but I’m seeing a yoghurt and he doesn’t know about it.’
‘A Müller Light?’
‘No. It’s a full-fat Fruit Corner.’
‘Jesus! Be careful.’
‘He’d have a fit if he knew.’
‘Is it serious?’
‘No, no … well, I don’t know.’
‘I had a thing with Cointreau once.’
‘Yes. I look back at it now and I don’t know what I was thinking. Have you ever been tempted by Baileys?’
‘No, never. The occasional chocolate mousse, but no, it’s the Fruit Corner.’
‘What would the kids think?’
‘Oh, I don’t think it would affect them. They know I’ve had the odd Petits Filous on occasion.’
D’you know, I think I might just be too tired to keep up.
I’m too old now to fool the world with a new profile. You’ll just have to take me or leave me. I have no Pinterest, no Instagram, no Facebook. I’m bored of Tweeting, but fear the baying mob.
That is my reality now. No virtual status. No avatars in virtual sites.
I DON’T WANT TO BE LINKEDIN. I have spent my whole life trying to be linked out.
I don’t want to have to get there first, see it first, be the first to have it, know about it before anyone else. It’s like the news nowadays. Why are they always reporting what people might be saying, what decisions might be made? Why can’t we wait? We’re not babies who need to be told that supper is nearly ready, or what’s going to be on the next page of the book. Shall we guess, children?
Everybody’s leaking these days.
I know I certainly am, but maybe that’s just my time of life.
So what else? ‘What’s next?’ I hear you cry. The truth is, I don’t know and, do you know what, I like it that way.
There is no Plan.
I’m off now, to do some sweeping. I thank you, dear reader, for your patience.