Bonkers: My Life in Laughs - Jennifer Saunders (2013)
Dawn and I are sitting in Maureen Vincent’s office. Maureen, who has been our agent for ever, and still is. Maureen, to whom we owe the longevity of our career, who kept us in the marketplace both singly and as a pair and who, by never overpricing us (or indeed underpricing us), has kept us in the swim.
It is 1986 and she has called us in to go through a contract, a contract that is the most important of our career. We have been offered a series of French and Saunders on BBC2. Already, Dawn and I think we know everything about television, having done a series of the Comic Strip and a show called Girls on Top.
We wrote Girls on Top with Ruby Wax. It was our first attempt at writing a series.
Ruby had come from America and studied acting before joining the Royal Shakespeare Company and then becoming a comedy writer. She is probably one of the funniest people alive. I can’t remember speaking in the first few years of knowing her; just listening and laughing, afraid to interrupt for fear of being English and dull. Her life was being worked into a stand-up routine, and her brain was always ticking. Ruby on a roll is a wonder to behold; her take on life and people spins everything on its head. Her brain works so fast that sometimes she starts a story halfway through, as her mouth tries to catch up.
‘Rubes, you have to start at the beginning. We don’t know who you’re talking about.’
‘Didn’t I tell you that already?’
‘Your brain thought it, but your mouth didn’t say it.’
When Dawn and I wrote with her, the characters that developed were just exaggerated versions of ourselves in that room: Dawn (as Amanda Ripley) trying to wrestle some kind of control and curb Ruby’s excesses; Ruby (as Shelley DuPont) with no idea of political correctness whatsoever (and not really caring); and me (as Jennifer Marsh) saying very little, working out some comedy business I could do in the background while they fought it out. Jennifer Marsh was basically a moronic version of myself when I was twelve. She wore my twelve-year-old uniform: V-necked jumper, jodhpurs and jodhpur boots. I was very happy.
Ruby taught us a lot about writing, but the biggest lesson we learned was never to leave Ruby with a script overnight, or by the morning every line would be scrawled over and changed.
We taught Ruby how to say thank you.
To waiters, even though she would have sent the food back twice. ‘Ruby, say thank you.’
To shop assistants and runners. ‘Ruby, say thank you.’
Ruby wasn’t really rude, but sometimes her brain didn’t stop long enough for pleasantries.
Girls on Top was commissioned for Central Television and we filmed it in Nottingham. Tracey Ullman starred in the first series (as Candice Valentine) and Joan Greenwood played our landlady.
If Ruby taught us how to write funny, then Tracey was a lesson in how to act funny. She was by far the most famous of us, having starred with Lenny Henry in Three of a Kind. She was the first person we ever met who had Ray-Ban dark glasses. Proper Ray-Bans. The most desired dark spectacles of the eighties. She would arrive at rehearsals in a quirky hat and those Ray-Bans.
I don’t think Tracey could ever quite distinguish me from my character Jennifer Marsh. And when she greeted me it always felt like a verbal pat on the head.
‘Hello, Jen! Aaaah! Isn’t she sweet?’
We made two series of Girls on Top, and somehow in that time I got married and had one or possibly two children. I contributed almost nothing to the writing process for the second series; I was pregnant and away in my head on baby planet. Eventually, Dawn told me that if I didn’t say anything, then I wouldn’t have any lines, which I accepted happily. In Series Two, Jennifer Marsh was a bemused spectator of the battles between the other two, while I planned a nursery.
The show was regularly watched by 14 million people, which is staggering compared to today’s ratings. But then there were only four channels and it was put on at prime time. It is also possible that remote controls hadn’t been invented then and people were trapped, sofa-bound, with no choice but to watch it. In certain episodes, however, it did have rather a stellar cast. Ruby would rope in all her chums from the RSC, and the likes of Alan Rickman, Suzanne Bertish and Harriet Walter had small parts. Ian McKellen only escaped by the skin of his teeth.
Home for me and Ade was a top-floor flat above Luigi’s Italian delicatessen on the Fulham Road.
We had a basic rule: whichever one of us wasn’t working was at home with the children. We have always made a point of not interfering with each other’s work. And we never get jealous. That’s the thing. If I work a lot, Ade thinks it’s great, and vice versa. We keep the reason why we are working at the forefront of our minds. Making sure our kids are happy and having a nice life is always more important than anything, really.
From the beginning, the girls have always come first. But equally there has never been any question that Ade and I would put our careers on hold for them; we have always made a real point of keeping our home life and our working life separate. We don’t take our work home with us. I mean, that would be quite hard anyway. We’re not like actors who have to live apart for months and can’t drag themselves out of character. We just mess about, make jokes and fall over to make ourselves (and hopefully others) laugh.
We have worked really hard to make sure that the girls live as normal a life as possible, and I hope we have largely achieved that. Though some things slip through. Once I took the girls to the cinema. When the film had ended and we were getting ready to leave, Beattie looked weary and said, ‘Do we have to go backstage?’
I thought they liked going backstage, and always tried to make it possible if we knew someone in the cast of a show. We had gone backstage at Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, but I realize now that having actually seen the show, they couldn’t help but find it a bit dull.
‘This is the stage!’
In their heads: Yeah, we just saw that when we were in the audience.
‘These are the costumes!’
Yeah, we saw those.
‘Do you want to meet Phillip Schofield?’
‘Will Gordon the Gopher be there?’
‘Can we just go home?’
When they were little they didn’t watch us on television, simply because they were too young. Even once they were old enough they didn’t see many of our shows, because we didn’t sit down and watch them often. We were just Mummy and Daddy.
One of them came home from school one day and was looking at me strangely.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Are you Jennifer Saunders?’
‘Yes, sometimes I am.’
‘Because someone at school said that’s who you were, but I said you were just Mummy.’
Ella told me the other day that when we went off to work or said we were going to the office, they always thought we were going to work at the Star and Garter Home for Retired Servicemen. We passed it every morning on the way to school and it looked like offices.
You don’t realize how little you tell them. We really didn’t talk about it at home.
In 2000 I was touring with Dawn. Our opening gig was at the Blackpool Empire. It’s a massive theatre in a town that has seen better days. Growing up in Cheshire, we used to spend the odd day on Blackpool beach but mainly on the rides and in the arcades. I will do speed at a fairground, but I won’t do height. I won’t do the high roller coasters or anything designed to make you poo your pants, but I will sit on a wooden horse pretending to win the Grand National, and go on generally jiggly things, and the ghost train.
High rides and aeroplanes are the same to me. I look at them, and all I see is the things that could go wrong. Most of us have to go on aeroplanes sometimes – high rides you do not.
I once took my three girls on a waltzer, and the skinny rogue spinning the carts decided to give us extra spin. We were the only ones on the ride, so he gave us his full attention – spinning and spinning at such a rate. It was relentless. I started to panic and scream as I felt my little girls being pulled out of my grasp, but could do nothing as my brain was now flat against the back of my skull with the centrifugal force. It was only when he spotted a group of pretty girls waiting to get on that the nightmare ended.
So now I have crossed waltzers off the list. I am very happy on the ‘It’s a Small World’ ride at Disneyland, and the spinning teacups. I’m also willing to look after everyone’s bags and play slot machines.
So Dawn and I are in Blackpool starting the tour. First nights are always the most nerve-wracking. We had a very technical show which was two hours long and didn’t have a support act. In order to give ourselves time to change, we had pre-recorded footage that came up on big screens (we also interacted with footage on the screens, so if something went wrong with the projectors we had had it). At the end of the show I was attached to a wire and had to run backwards up a screen showing a film of a huge Dawn. It looked as if I was being eaten by her. (I will do wires. I do like a bit of flyin’. Comedy flying is one of my favourite things. I think it ranks up there with a neck brace for funniness.)
As you might imagine, Dawn and I were nervous. We were getting ready in our dressing room, which was full of cards and flowers, and just after one of my frequent visits to the toilet my phone rang. It was a call from home. How sweet, I thought. They’ve remembered it’s our first night. It was Beattie.
‘Mummy, where’s the Sellotape?’
The great thing is, I knew. I have an almost superhero-ey X-ray visiony way of finding things, and I will never give up. I will still be looking for the passport/keys/shoe/tiny-screwdriver-set-we-got-in-a-cracker-for-fixing-spectacles when others have fallen by the wayside or gone to bed.
I am really quite a tidy person now. You have to be once you have kids. For years, though, I was hideously untidy. My rooms always looked as if a huge laundry basket had exploded, and I dressed as if I had just been hit by the shrapnel. Once, when Dawn and I were sharing a house in Acton, we had a robbery and the police had to be called. On entering my room the officer was shocked and said it was one of the worst ‘turn-overs’ he had seen; all my possessions were scattered over the floor and mattress and it looked squalid – just as I had left it. He asked me if I thought that they had taken anything, and I had to pretend to take stock.
Had they taken the bed?
No, I didn’t have a bed. Just a mattress on the floor.
The truth was, they hadn’t been in there at all.
On the whole, you have to grow up when you have children. Ade and I would do the washing-up every night and were tidy and, above all, calm. My family was never noisy. Nor was Ade’s. So we both like a bit of silence and calm; it doesn’t frighten us at all. We would manage to get the kids up and off to school with relatively little fuss and then run the gauntlet of other mothers and escape before being press-ganged into a coffee morning or fund-raiser.
I always found it extraordinary how many women turned up late and in a panic, huffing and puffing, blaming the five-year-old, with a martyred air.
‘Come on, come on, have you got your bag? No, well that isn’t my fault. You should remember it. And now we’re late!’
And then knowing looks to other mothers as if to say, Nightmare, isn’t it? Bloody kids!
I mean, how hard is it to get two small children up on time, dressed, breakfasted and in the car without getting into a lather and dragging them into school as if you’ve just escaped Nazi occupation? And I’m not talking overstretched single mothers here, I’m talking Range Rover-driving women who obviously have a nanny!
I never enjoy going into schools. Ade is very good at it. Even as an adult, I would get butterflies in my stomach if I had to go in and speak to my girls’ teachers, especially the head teacher. Best behaviour and say all the right things.
My own school life had been head down and get away with it. Don’t get noticed, try not to cause trouble. I was generally quite afraid of getting into trouble.
One of my girls once said, ‘Mummy, I don’t know why you’re so afraid of the teachers. They should be nervous of you.’
I don’t think I ever recovered from Miss Dines. Miss Janet Dines.
Miss Dines was the headmistress of Northwich Grammar School for Girls. She ruled in a climate of fear.
She was tall and thin, always wore a black gown and had a large goitre (a swelling of the thyroid gland) in her neck. Her hair was kept short and neat. Being called to her office was a terrible thing.
One fateful evening, I had been to hockey practice and was outside school waiting to be picked up by my mother. Miss Dines and her sidekick, Miss Kirkpatrick, were just setting off from school together (rumours were rife) to do their regular drive through Northwich to catch girls misbehaving, or not wearing the regulation red beret. Not wearing the beret was a crime punishable by death. She policed us in and out of school.
They saw me and – horror of horrors – I was still wearing my games socks. I stammered that I didn’t know the sock rule. But I had to report in the next day.
Outside Miss Dines’s office were two chairs. Girls wandering by would look sympathetically at you, crossing their fingers and wishing you luck. Those unfortunate enough to be sitting on the chairs had to wait for a green light to go on before entering. When it did, you had to be in pretty sharpish.
Miss Dines was sitting behind her desk, underneath which were the two black Labradors that would patrol the school playing fields at break-times.
– Why did I think that the rules existed? Particularly the uniform rules?
– Was I very stupid?
– Did I have eyes?
– Did I have a brain, because my silence on these matters would suggest otherwise?
– What was I going to do in future?
I felt sick and afraid. The school felt sick and afraid, and nobody seemed sicker and afraider than Miss Barnes, the deputy head. She was an older woman who behaved like a frightened budgerigar.
Every morning, there was Assembly. The whole school would gather in the hall, and often Miss Dines would be standing near the door, watching every girl go in – each of us hoping that the claw hand wouldn’t land on our shoulder and pull us aside for some misdemeanour (laughing, untidy pigtails, whispering, inky cuffs, or just because you happened to catch her eye. You never wanted to catch her eye).
When we were all in, Miss Barnes would walk on to stage and ask us all, in her tiny, frightened voice, to stand for Miss Dines, who would then stride down the side of the hall with her gown flying out behind her for effect. Once she was on the stage, she would say ‘Good morning’ and we would do a ‘Good morning, Miss Dines’ back. She would then sit down, and then, and only then, could Miss Barnes squeak for us all to sit.
One day, in the middle of lessons, the bell went. All classes were ordered into the hall. Nobody knew what was happening, not even the staff. Once the whole school was in, Miss Dines came on to the stage.
A girl had apparently been rude and sworn repeatedly at her.
This girl was dragged up onstage with a washing bowl and a bar of soap. Whereupon Miss Dines proceeded to force her to wash her mouth out.
There were some girls who didn’t care, and faced her wrath. In my class, it was a girl called Jana Stenhouse, whose greatest triumph was running her knickers up the flagpole at the end of term. But generally, the girls and the staff were compliant.
On Sports Day, Miss Dines would take to the cricket pitch in full whites and a cravat (covering the goitre). We didn’t play cricket at the school, but this was the traditional opening of the day – girls against staff. Miss Dines would stride out to the crease like a pro, patting down the odd divot, checking out the fielders, planning her boundaries and asking Miss Barnes (who was the umpire) to hold her jumper. One year she was facing a second-year girl who had been roped in to bowl. The very first ball left her hand at speed, went straight to the stumps and hit them hard. Everyone froze. The crowd was silent. Miss Dines made no move to leave the pitch. Under the pressure of Miss Dines’s stare, Miss Barnes eventually piped up in a shaky voice, ‘No ball!’ and the match continued.
Shortly after I left, Miss Dines was taken to court by a pupil. This is part of the report. What is so bizarre is what was considered to be serious misbehaviour on the part of the girl.
Daily Mail, London, 13 November 1976
THE CLASSROOM TERROR
Head cleared as caned girl sobs in court
By James Golden
THE REIGN OF LYNNE SIMMONDS as a classroom terror ended when she was caned by the headmistress, a court heard yesterday.
Lynne, who had a history of bad behaviour, was sent to Miss Janet Dines for eating crisps during a maths lesson.
But the three whacks given to 14-year-old Lynne on her bottom landed Miss Dines, head of Northwich Girls’ Grammar School, Cheshire, in court.
Lynne’s parents brought a private assault and beating charge. They claimed that Lynne was punished unreasonably.
But after Lynne broke down weeping as she told of her classroom antics, the case was withdrawn and Northwich magistrates dismissed the charge against the middle-aged headmistress.
Lynne, who passed her 11 plus to go to the school, admitted a catalogue of misbehaviour when cross-examined by Mr John Hoggett, counsel for Miss Dines.
She said she told rude jokes in the scripture lessons while discussing moral and ethical questions.
She made remarks about teachers behind their backs and blew raspberries at them.
She told lies about having lost homework which she had not done and took a classmate’s book without permission.
She stole a teacher’s pen off her desk and offered it to a friend for a pound, and she disrupted the class.
Lynne was suspended for half a day by Miss Dines for the pen incident and her father gave her the strap.
She also admitted handing in a school project done by another girl, claiming it was hers.
But the girl – in hospital and temporarily blind – returned and Lynne was found out.
Then she was caught eating in a lesson and was sent to Miss Dines. The headmistress entered the punishment in the official book and told her she would be writing to her parents.
Lynne said that after the caning her bottom was sore for several weeks and she had been unable to sleep properly.
I knew girls who were caned so hard that the cane would strike the knuckles of the hand holding up their skirt. It beggars belief that a person was allowed to do this with no other adult present.
Dines was eventually removed from the school. My mother sent me a small article from the Northwich Guardian announcing her departure. The photograph was of three sixth-formers presenting her with her leaving present: a shotgun. How very appropriate.
In those days you got through school without much parental involvement. There was the odd parents’ evening, but apart from that, parents were thankfully not encouraged on to the premises. That is how it should be. I wouldn’t want to go home from school and have my parents know exactly what my homework is and how I’ve been in school that day. I wouldn’t want my teachers to email my mother. I wouldn’t want the school to send notes directly to my parents. I used to read all the notes from school on the bus and decide what they should and shouldn’t see. I wouldn’t want to go home and talk about school. For me, it was bus home, into house, throw down bag, eat sliced white bread and Flora marge, drink cup of tea, feet up in front of telly, then go and feed the animals. Clear head and do homework on bus the next morning, if listening to records had taken over in the evening.
I get the feeling nowadays that parents are expected to attend school more than the children. And why and what and where and why do some parents want to start up schools? Can you imagine if your parents started up a school? Would you – as their child – want to go to that school? No. You go to school to get away from your parents.
I’m sure most people don’t want more choice. They just want a better school – a good school – that’s quite close to where they live, and to not be required to enter the premises every other day and bake endless fund-raising cakes. Or is that just me?
I’m not a panicker. I think I get that from my mother. In fact, if there is a crisis, an air of calm comes over me. You may laugh, but I actually think I would be very good in a war, or if aliens landed, or in an energy crisis which forces us to be self-sufficient. I think I am quite resourceful. I made lots of successful dens as a child, am a good shot and learned early in my life that there are few things that can’t be fixed with a piece of baler twine.
There is, of course, the possibility that I am a little bit too calm. When it comes to script deadlines and paperwork, I become rigid with the inability to tackle them. When I first met Ade, he was horrified that I would regularly put letters from the bank that had sat unopened for months straight into the bin.
A form of paralysis comes over me and I just can’t read them. In our marriage Ade has become a martyr to the paperwork, the bills, the letters, the insurance, the credit cards, the banks, and I know I never thank him enough for it. I think if I hadn’t met Ade I would probably be in prison.
I first got pissed off with the bank when the one I had my account with at college forced me to sell my red bike to pay off a £20 overdraft in my second year. If they’d just waited, I could have paid them! That’s because the following year I had a good weekend job at the fire station. I cooked Sunday lunch for firemen. It was a job I had inherited from my friend Gill Hudspeth, and it paid about £20 a week, which was an unheard-of wage. The downside was that you had to get there really early and cook their toastie sandwiches as they were all waking up. They slept in their clothes, so it was all a bit stinky. I used to long for there to be a fire so they would get out of the kitchen area with their fags. I was usually hung-over, so the whole thing was a challenge.
Please let someone have a chip-pan fire so I have the place to myself.
Please, cat, get stuck up tree, or child, get head stuck in railings.
Each watch would buy the food for the lunch and so, until I got there, I had no idea what I would have to cook. And I didn’t really know how to cook. Most things just got put in a roasting pan until they were the right side of burnt and then served up with Bisto.
But now, look, here we are in Maureen’s office and the contract is on the table.
Maureen attempts bravely to hold our attention while reading out the details of the agreement, knowing full well that she is fighting a losing battle. We interrupt.
US: Maureen, Maureen. Do we get a pass?
MAUREEN: Can I just finish going through this and then …
US: Yes. Yes. But, Maureen, will we get a pass?
MAUREEN: Let me just get through this, loves.
A few weeks earlier, we had been called into the office of Jim Moir, the then Head of Light Entertainment (later the great saviour and reinventor of Radio 2) and told that the BBC was going to take the plunge and give us a series.
Actually, his exact words were, ‘People I trust tell me you’re funny. I’m going to take their word for it. I’m going to put my dick on the table and give you a show.’
Jim ‘This is the wife, don’t laugh’ Moir was a lovely man from a different era. I don’t think he ever read a script or came to watch a recording. In those days, executives made decisions and then let the people who made the shows just get on and do it.
The only time he ever did come down to a studio, he made a brief appearance, took me and Dawn aside and said, ‘You two are my new Two Ronnies.’
As Head of Light Entertainment, Jim had the job of hosting the Light Entertainment Christmas party every year. This was always held in a conference room on the top floor of the BBC. It was an event not to be missed, especially if you were a newcomer. It was always filled with real stars: the casts of Dad’s Army, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and Hi-de-Hi!, Russ Abbot, the Krankies, Bruce Forsyth, Cilla and, of course, the Two Ronnies themselves. Everyone drank poor wine, ate appalling food and had the greatest time.
Light entertainment is different from comedy. Being commissioned by LE meant that there had to be a certain amount of variety, i.e. music, in the shows. So every week we would have a singer and a guest star to fulfil the remit. I think it was a good thing. The shows were essentially live performance in a studio, and having a music guest made it feel like a real show. Even The Young Ones had to have a music guest.
MAUREEN: Have you got any questions before you sign this, loves?
US: Will we get a BBC pass?
MAUREEN: A pass?
US: So that we can just walk straight into the building and not get stopped.
MAUREEN: A pass?
MAUREEN: Well, there’s nothing in the contract specifically about that, but I’m sure it can be organized.
US: OK. But we will need one.
MAUREEN: Yes, loves. Are you going to sign?
US: Yes. But we will need one. We will need a pass.
MAUREEN: Yes. Note made.