Bonkers: My Life in Laughs - Jennifer Saunders (2013)
A couple of years later, Dawn and I are at the BBC. We have been given an office here, to write our second series.
The first series went out on BBC2 and was met with mixed reviews, as they say. But thankfully, in those days, the powers-that-be held their nerve and gave you a second chance. We were still learning, and the chances of getting it right first time were slim. Especially if, like us, you thought you knew it all and were not going to be told.
We had developed the French and Saunders characters, which was a plus. I was the misguided, bossy and generally cross one, and Dawn was the cheeky, subversive upstart. I was the one who thought she was a star, and Dawn was the one who managed to upstage me at every given opportunity. (Nothing has changed.)
We had decided to base the first series in a studio, as if we were producing our own variety show. ‘Let the variety begin!’ we would say, before introducing a troupe of dancers - led by the superb comedienne Betty Marsden - who would flap their way through a clog dance to the tune of ‘Windmill in Old Amsterdam’, accompanied by our house band, Raw Sex.
Raw Sex was Simon Brint and Rowland Rivron. They played a father and son, Ken and Duane Bishop. Ken (Simon) played the keyboards and was deaf, and Duane (Rowland) played the bongos and acted hideously drunk (often he was actually drunk). After they had been seen live, The Stage described them as ‘musicians of almost indescribable sleaziness and technical incompetence … who reduced electronics to the status of the bow and arrow’. They were perfect for our show, which, we had decided, should be us looking like we didn’t know what we were doing and producing something that didn’t look like television.
We succeeded on both counts. It wasn’t awful, but we knew it could be a lot better. In trying to make it simple, we overcomplicated it. There were some good sketches and characters, plus we had managed to persuade Alison Moyet and Joan Armatrading to be our musical guests. But there was also way too much faffing about and way too much bad dancing.
Still, we were learning.
For the second series, we got Bob Spiers on board to direct. Bob really knew what he was doing. Bob was a legend at the Beeb. He had worked on everything from Are you Being Served? to Fawlty Towers. He knew the studios inside out and, on a studio record evening, could genuinely boast that if we started at 7.30 p.m. we could be in the bar two hours later. As well as French and Saunders, Bob went on to direct most of Absolutely Fabulous, and rare was the time we were not necking a bevvy by 9.30 p.m. He was fast and really clever. He never missed a shot or left a joke uncovered.
So, we are in our little room. Our little office room. I have arrived late, which is customary. Mobile phones haven’t been invented yet, so I haven’t been able to ring in with an excuse. Even if they had just been invented, chances are that Dawn wouldn’t have one.
It took quite a long while to persuade Dawn to the mobile and I have never been able to persuade her to the computer. She doesn’t use one. You can’t email Dawn French off the teleovision. She is untouched by Google, Facebook and Twitter. I envy her that. My computer is the friend who knows I have to work but tries to tempt me to bunk off. It’s the girl sitting next to me in class that puts her desk lid up and is trying to distract me with pictures of David Cassidy.
Stop it, computer! I know there are funny things on YouTube with kittens, and I know you have solitaire. And sudoku. And Angry Birds. But I have work! I have to do this thing. Leave me alone, or I will be forced to go back to the typewriter. That at least cuts out the printing stage. Printers who refuse to print and won’t let you know their name. Printers who can’t come online and run out of ink, even when there is ink in them. You know there’s ink in them because you bought that ink, and it cost more than caviar. It has a cartridge of beluga fitted and it still refuses to print anything but light grey, so you end up just hitting it and hating it as it takes four sheets of paper through at a time and then gets jammed.
Yes, I might go back to the typewriter.
So, we are sitting trying to think up ideas.
Every journalist asks, ‘How do you think up your ideas?’
And the answer is … You just think them. I suppose the real answer is by talking (not writing), and largely by playing. We play until we have something that works and makes us laugh. We play. We make up characters and voices and use people we have seen and lines we have heard, and then we play them into a sketch.
How comedy works is often misunderstood by some writers and producers. The phrase we most often hear is ‘Can you two just stop messing about and get down to some work.’
They can’t see that we are working! You don’t just get there by working comedy out on a piece of paper and behaving yourselves. You have to take it as far as it will go, and then rein it back into something broadcastable. This is the fun of it. This is the point of it. You have to find the lines that don’t just serve a purpose in the plot and are, to all intents and purposes, a ‘joke’. You have to find the thing that really tickles.
I think Ken Dodd’s tickling analogy - the idea that laughter tickles - is a very good one. It is that feeling that makes you laugh. The laughter is in the expectation as much as in the actual sensation. When Tommy Cooper came onstage, the expectation of the tickle was so intense that people would have to leave the room in paroxysms before he had even spoken a word.
I’m not saying that we ever achieved such heights, but that was always our ambition.
In our years working with various guests on French and Saunders, we soon came to realize that there are people with funny bones, those with none, and those who are simply nervous of being funny.
The guests with funny bones would always almost certainly accept the part, which was why we had wanted them in the first place. They understood the tickle. If someone hesitated, or wanted to see a script, we would be slightly dubious. When you have so little time to produce a show, the last thing you need is high maintenance. You want someone who wants to be part of the gang. That is why we so often had repeat guests: Alison Moyet, Kirsty MacColl, Lulu, Patrick Barlow, Kathy Burke, to name but a few. And Raw Sex, of course.
We particularly loved Lulu (who went on to be a regular on Ab Fab as well). Lulu was an old hand at the variety show and had the right attitude. An extraordinarily great and uncomplaining attitude, for which we were particularly grateful on the day that we shot her.
Yes, dear reader, we shot her! We shot Lulu! We did mean to shoot her, but we didn’t mean to actually shoot her.
This is what happened. Dawn and I were in the White Room, dressed as John Travolta from Pulp Fiction. Black suits, slicked-back black hair, sideburns and machine guns.
We had invented the White Room in the second series, as a place where French and Saunders could live. Why did we make it white? Well, dear reader, we wanted it to allow us to be anything. We also wanted my character to be so anal and uptight that she couldn’t have possessions. If I’m totally honest, we couldn’t really be bothered to think up what those possessions might be. We settled on a white sofa covered in bubble wrap and a white armchair which was high enough so that when Dawn sat in it, her feet wouldn’t touch the floor. Apart from that, there was a white-painted fireplace and a door with a letter box in it. Some of my favourite moments ever were in the White Room.
Not the shooting-of-Lulu moment, though. That wasn’t funny at all.
So. We were holding Lulu hostage (as per the film), but Lulu was annoying us somewhat by constantly singing the opening to her big hit, ‘Shout!’. She did it once too often, so we turned our guns on her. We blew her apart with major Tarantino-esque bloodiness.
Of course we didn’t, silly reader! She just had twenty or more blood charges taped to her skin inside her white blouse. As we pretended to fire, they would explode. The only instruction Lulu had was not to have her arms by her side. If she did, she would stop that charge exploding, and it would then backfire into her skin.
No problem, silly reader! All very safe, dear.
But the truth is, you can’t practise this sort of thing. It’s a one-off. There was only one blouse, so we went for it.
So. Lulu sang ‘Weeeeee … heeeeee … heeeeeee’ once too often and we machine-gunned her. The pops went off and were fairly frightening and Lulu, at one point, kept one arm too close to her side.
At first, nothing seemed wrong. Laughter, laughter. Look at Lulu covered from head to foot in blood!
And then Lulu slightly wincing. Something not good. And then Lulu rolling up her shirtsleeve to reveal hole in arm.
It was a perfectly round hole, the same size as the charge. Like a £2 coin, but twice as deep. It hadn’t started to bleed yet, as the charge had cauterized it for the moment. But it was shocking. Nobody quite knew what to do.
Producers, of course, were panicking and seeing an expensive court case ahead. The Special Effects guy approached her timidly with a J-Cloth, which we said wouldn’t do. We took Lulu to her dressing room and called for First Aid. It turned out that the only First Aid available on a studio night was the doorman, who had been casually made aware of the fact but had very little training. He arrived at the dressing room with a small box of cotton wool and plasters, to be greeted by the sight of Lulu head to toe in wet blood.
He dropped the box and had to sit down.
The poor man eventually had the situation explained to him and thought we should take her to hospital. He was right. Jon Plowman, the producer, took Lulu to hospital.
She never complained, she never moaned, she never sued. She was well behaved throughout and, despite having to have some minor plastic surgery, has remained our friend to this day.
There’s one more star I need to mention in passing. It would be weird not to. Madonna. She who has adamantly refused to have anything to do with us.
We started asking Madonna to be a guest on the show very early on. Someone knew her publicist, who assured us that she was a big fan.
We continually mentioned her in sketches and played her quite a few times. We were restrained at first, thinking that, hoping that - one day - she might be our friend (like Rowan Atkinson). After repeated snubs, we realized that our cause was hopelessly lost, and that, I’m afraid, made us quite cruel.
Madonna, Madonna, Madonna!
Why wouldn’t you come on our show? We aren’t crazies! We don’t want your skin!
Anyway, back in our writing room. We would spend half the day talking and reading magazines, generally getting vague ideas and ammunition together. Nothing written down. Series Six of French and Saunders is a fairly accurate recreation of our writing process. That is my and Dawn’s favourite series because it’s so dangerously close to the truth.
You see, ideas don’t just happen. You have to feed them. You can’t do a decent poo if you haven’t eaten anything. Apologies, dear reader, but it’s the best analogy. We had to feed ourselves with gossip and trivia. All our writing was always improvised. The hard thing was writing it down, which we had to do for the production team. We would always attach a note at this point, assuring them that, although it might not read particularly well, it would eventually be funny. We promise!
By lunchtime, having exhausted ourselves making a list and calculating how long each sketch might have to be, we thought we definitely deserved a treat. Some nice food or maybe even a trip to a theatre matinee. We particularly liked matinees, with their guaranteed audiences of two ladies and a dog.
Occasionally, however, we went a little more highbrow. We once took in a matinee of David Hare’s The Breath of Life - a two-hander, starring Maggie Smith and Judi Dench - at the Haymarket. Needless to say, the audience was full. We were particularly nervous because we were going backstage after the play to see Maggie; Dawn had met her doing a Dickens for TV, and they had got on well. We were so in awe of her and Judi that we were on our best behaviour.
DAWN: We must turn off our phones.
(It is the twenty-first century, dear reader, and I have only just persuaded a reluctant Dawn to the mobile)
ME: Yes, Dawn. I am turning off mine. It is off. If I can press any button, it will not come back on. Yes. Good. We are safe.
But such was our nervousness and the Power of the Dames that, a few minutes in, I leaned over to Dawn.
ME: I’m taking my battery out.
DAWN: Good idea. Look, I’m taking my battery out.
ME: My battery is out.
DAWN: My battery is out.
The play continued. In my head, I was still thinking about the battery and the phone.
ME: Dawn. I’m worried in case the electricity from the battery somehow transfers to the phone and switches it on.
DAWN: Yes, I’m worried about that too.
ME: I will give you my battery and you give me yours. Then I’ll keep yours in my pocket and you keep mine in your pocket. But not near the actual phone.
After the play, we went back to Maggie’s dressing room. She thought the show had gone quite well, apart from the idiots who were whispering most of the way through the first half. You can’t win.
Another treat we had lined up when writing was a trip to the Observation Room. ‘Ah ha, what’s that?’ I hear you cry.
Well, the Observation Room was a glass box in Television Centre that was set high above one of the biggest studios. From inside it, you could watch whatever was happening on the floor below. There was a TV screen where you could tune into whatever was happening on the Ring Main. The Ring Main was internal TV, where anything that was being recorded or rehearsed in any studio could be viewed. Anyone, at any time, could watch you when you thought you were having down time, messing about, looking rough or picking your nose. But for us, it was fantastic. We watched studios being set up, rehearsals, actresses talking when they didn’t realize that microphones were picking them up. It was a fountain of material. Oh, how we loved the Observation Room! We would take our sandwiches there. It felt naughty.
We once watched almost the whole of The House of Eliott (a period drama about the fashion industry of the 1920s) from the Observation Room and Ring Main. We couldn’t quite believe how funny The House of Eliott was. We particularly loved how overdramatic the storylines were: ‘How are we ever going to find any new buttons?’ We went on to create ‘The House of Idiot’ for French and Saunders with - I have to say - almost pinpoint accuracy. We knew everything! We knew what they said when cameras were on, and we knew what they said when cameras were off.
The great thing about parodying TV and films in those days was that there was a fairly good chance that, if something was popular, then millions of people would have seen it. TV was a common, shared experience. Big films were obvious, but we did occasionally parody a director or a genre. Our favourites were actually always the less obvious ones: Bergman, Fellini and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? We didn’t have to do perfect impersonations as we were always French and Saunders within the parody.
If there was trouble, Dawn could always ask in the sketch, ‘Are we going to do the accent?’
‘No. It’s just going to be my voice.’
Our parodies did cost quite a bit of money. Nowadays I don’t think the budgets would be there to do them. Misery, Lord of the Rings and Silence of the Lambs were all shot on film and on location, with as much care as the original. Bob Spiers would often match the films shot for shot.
In Bob we had the best director, and in Jon Plowman we had the best producer. We had the best make-up and wardrobe, the best camera team - nearly all had trained and grown up at the BBC. Creatively it was the best place that we could have been. Plus, in those early days, the budgets were agreed in-house and were much more fluid. If we were doing a particularly expensive parody, say, or if we needed more wigs here or a special effect there, the accountant would see if he could nip a bit off Russ Abbot.
The BBC was more than a channel. More, even, than a production company. The BBC was a national resource. It trained and produced the greatest technicians in television, most of whom then eventually went on to work in the film industry. It was a centre of learning and creativity, with an executive culture that trusted the creative staff to do their job. It was the place everyone wanted to work, despite the fact that you got more money on ITV. It was full of TV history. Dawn and I loved just to walk round the corridors and see what else was happening. Who was in the studios? Who was writing what?
It had great studios, totally made for purpose. Make-up rooms and dressing rooms were all perfectly placed to service each studio, and there were small tea bars between each one for snacks and refreshments. If you needed a proper lunch, you went to the canteen that overlooked the Blue Peter garden. If you wanted a posh lunch, you went to the silver service restaurant that was on the balcony above the canteen. Same food, but with a waitress serving your peas with two spoons. Executives would eat there with guests or stars. This was before the days when they all felt they had to get a limo to the Ivy and spend unnecessary amounts of licence fee.
Back then, if you wanted to speak to an executive about something, you just nipped up to the executive floor and popped your head around Michael Grade’s door. He was the Controller of the BBC, and his door was always open. Nowadays that would take two weeks of planning and scheduling. You’d have to have several meetings about it before you could actually meet him. And when you did finally have the meeting with him, you would have to go out for lunch to have it. In a car, with all the kerfuffle that goes with it.
(I’m afraid I’m on a roll and I may as well finish. It’s a bit of a rant, I’m afraid, but I think I’m old enough.)
I wouldn’t want to be starting out in TV today. The whole process of having a programme idea commissioned is mined with layer upon layer of executive decision-making, or rather lack of decision-making. Nobody seems to trust anyone to know what is funny, least of all the artists themselves. You have to write and rewrite until the gem of the original idea is lost and all you have is a script of executive notes that they then turn down, because it doesn’t seem to be quite what they were after. If you are lucky enough to get through that process, then you have to embark on a series of interminable readings and platform performances, played out to blank executive faces. Still, they are not quite sure. They need another round of rewrites and indecisions before they are.
My friend Abi went into a meeting with some production execs who had commissioned her to write a treatment of an idea, her idea, that they had loved. It was about a girl who was determined to live in a convent but suffered all the contradictions between modern life and convent living.
The executives loved it. ‘Love the character, yes. But … does she have to be a nun?’
Jon Plowman, who went on to become Head of Comedy (and produce Absolutely Fabulous) believed passionately that writers should write, and producers and executives should keep their noses out. I’m with Jon. I just don’t get it any more.
Mainly I don’t get why no TV executive ever seems to stay long enough in a post to make any difference. They are usually either fired or flaky, and move on within a year. In my dreams I would line up all the executives who accept a position, get paid a fortune and then suddenly leave, and give them a small rabbit punch to the nose. The BBC should simply curate the best shows possible with the best talent available and not be swayed by executive egos. These egos should be expected to stay for at least five years, and if they leave before that time, they shouldn’t get money or a bloody party.
End of rant. I thank you.
Where was I?
Oh yes! The joys of French and Saunders. And it was always a joy. We loved the BBC with a passion, and we were allowed virtually free rein.
The White Room. Dawn at the door. Knock knock!
ME: Who’s there?
DAWN: It’s me.
ME: Who is me?
DAWN: It’s me! Your comedy partner, Dawn French.
ME: What do you want?
DAWN: Can I come in?
ME: Yes. Come in. What are you waiting for?
(It was the closest to a catchphrase that we ever had.)
She could be dressed as Pocahontas, or a vicar. And I could be wearing my BBC turban and sweatshirt or be Jackie Onassis.
Dawn can be very surreal.
ME: What have you eaten today, Dawn?
DAWN: All I have had - and this is the truth - is a piece of coal and a worm.
She once decided that she should enter with a huge human ear attached to her back, which she was growing for ‘The Giant’. I love it when she introduces ‘The Giant’ into the dialogue.
DAWN: Jen, Jen … JEN!
DAWN: You know The Giant?
ME: The Giant?
DAWN: Yes. THE GIANT!
ME: The one up the beanstalk?
DAWN: No, no, no, no. Not that one, you idiot! Not that giant, you fool! Why would it be that giant? Oh, I see what’s happened here … do you think there is only one giant?
ME: Well …
DAWN: Oh, Jen. Oh, Jen. Oh no, how very sad. Jen, there’s more than one giant. This one lives over the hill.
ME: The Jack and Jill hill?
DAWN: Yes. The Jack and Jill hill. Not the beanstalk giant, you fool. Oh dear. Sometimes you are very naive.
ME: Does the giant know about the Borrowers?
ME: The Borrowers.
DAWN: The …
ME: Borrowers. The little people.
DAWN: Oh, Jen. Oh dear. How sad! You don’t think there are little people, do you? Oh dear. They don’t exist.
For so many years, we were allowed this playground and this dressing up. We could be men, we could be ABBA, we could be aliens, we could be Thelma and Louise.
We also managed to sign a contract guaranteeing us a certain amount of programming at the BBC.
‘We know it’s full of stuff and everything.’
‘Yes, loves. You don’t want me to go through it, do you?’
‘No. No. It’s just, can you say what’s really important, which is … Please can we have a parking space in the doughnut?’
The doughnut was the BBC building at the heart of Television Centre. It was circular, with a hole in the middle, and there were a few car parking spaces near the stage door.
‘Do you actually want that in the contract?’
‘Yes, please. We do. We just want to be able to drive in and park there when we are in the studio.’
‘Right, loves. I’ll talk to the powers-that-be.’
And we got it! I don’t think Dawn and I were ever happier than on the day we were allowed to park in the doughnut. We were waved through a security gate and barriers opened.
It was notoriously difficult to get into the BBC, no matter how long you had worked there, no matter how well known your face was (unless you were a man in a white van, in which case you could enter at will, load up, and leave with an entire stock of props and costumes - with a friendly wave to see you on your way). But now we had parking rights. I never, ever tire of the thrill of entering the BBC.
It was the eighties. We had our own shows, got married, had children, wore shoulder pads, hung out with Bananarama, and consequently got fairly drunk on occasion. We wore baggy shirts buttoned up to the neck and high-waisted jeans. We discovered the Groucho Club and could actually afford the drinks. We took part in the Secret Policeman’s Ball and hung out with the Pythons. This was in the days before celebrities had been invented: people just did their jobs and got cabs home. No hangers-on. No PRs.
Just look at Band Aid. Band Aid! You wouldn’t be able to do that now. Bob Geldof just rang up a bunch of his friends, asked them to sing a song for starving Ethiopians, they said yes, put on a leather jacket, jumped in their cars, went to the studio or Wembley, had a few drinks, danced around a bit in the sunshine, had a few more drinks, had a laugh and then drove themselves home. But now, can you imagine? It would take about 4 million people about 4 million years to plan, and there would be absurd amounts of entourages and dressing rooms and Tweeting.
Not in the eighties.
In the eighties, life was bloody great.
In the words of Jackie and Joanie ‘San Angelo’ Collins, ‘It’s got lipstick, it’s got sex, it’s got men, it’s got women and it’s got more lipstick. It’s true, we know, for we were there. For we are those Lucky Bitches.’
And we certainly were.