Bonkers: My Life in Laughs - Jennifer Saunders (2013)
1991. The year we started making Absolutely Fabulous.
I had given birth to my daughter Freya the October before. When I was pregnant, Dawn and I hadn’t really worked together much, and she had made Murder Most Horrid.
We have always felt that working apart is a good thing to do. I think that a lot of double acts have trouble because they rely too heavily on the partnership. If one wants to go off and do something, the other one gets bitter and jealous and unemployed. That has never happened with us.
Well, the unemployed bit has. And generally, that would be me. Mainly because Dawn has always been very employable - being the fine actress that she is - with a fierce work ethic. Plus, she gives very good presents.
I am always content ‘resting’. I think it’s my natural state. Never happier than when just pottering or daydreaming, and relying on Ade to bring in the beans.
I have been to auditions only a very few times, and found them to be cringingly embarrassing. I freeze up and become, frankly, moronic. You see, I’m not trained, and I have nothing to fall back on. I turn into the me who went to interviews at universities: silent and dull, with absolutely no prospects.
For film auditions, they now do a very modern thing of getting you to come in and put yourself on video, which can then be shown to producers in America. It’s horrible. Acting out some nebulous lines, with all the other lines being read by the work experience child, to blank faces and a tiny camera (or probably nowadays someone’s phone), for them to then ask you if there are any other ways you could do it.
Yes, there are lots of other ways I could do it, you idiots. Why don’t you tell me what you want?
And all this for the chance of playing an English nanny, or witch, or ‘best friend of’, in a film that nobody will ever hear of.
I have friends who still suffer the humiliation of auditions. The stories they tell make my jaw drop. One was sitting waiting to go into an audition when the young director came out, talking on the phone, and said, ‘I think we’ve basically already cast the part, but we’re still seeing some people.’ He then looked at her and indicated for her to go in.
Luckily, I have now done enough that people tend to know if they want me or not. Of course, auditions are necessary - yes, casting agents and directors, but treat people nicely, I beg of you. And young directors, please don’t let your fear become rudeness.
(Oh, and of course do bear me in mind, dears, for any award-winning work you might have in development. Not the shit, just the award-winning stuff, please.)
Anyway, in 1991 Dawn and I had planned to do the fourth series of French and Saunders at the BBC. Studios had been booked for the end of the year, with director Bob Spiers in place. Bob Spiers - ‘His Bobness’ - was a comedy veteran, who had directed several of the Comic Strip films. He was a brilliant director and a hero.
Just as we were about to get down to writing it, Dawn and Lenny got the call they had so desperately been waiting for. There was a baby ready for adoption. This joyful news of course meant that Dawn would have to put work on hold. I imagined that the studios would be cancelled, and we would wait for a suitable time to get the whole thing up and running again. Whenever Dawn felt ready.
Then Maureen rang.
‘Now, love, I’ve been putting my heads together and thinking vis-à-vis the studios and wondering if - rather than cancel them - there might be anything that you could possibly do?’
‘Write? On my own?’
I was thrown into confusion. Write on my own? How could that happen? I had some gardening and some important sweeping planned, and possibly a holiday. But I could tell from her tone that this was serious.
I had a think. I had never considered writing on my own. I had a really big think. I told Ade what Maureen had suggested and he seemed to think it would be a good idea. I was aghast.
So I started to think seriously …
In desperation, the idea for Absolutely Fabulous gradually dawned on me. I thought about the character I had enjoyed the most on French and Saunders, the character for which I had done the most writing. She was the mad ‘modern’ mother that we had done in a sketch the series before; the ex-hippy with the sad, straight daughter. I could speak her easily, which would make the writing simpler (indeed possible). It was a starting point, at least. I mean, the sketch was about ten minutes long. So, I thought, it’s only got to be another eighteen minutes and it’s a show …
‘Is it a sitcom?’
‘Yes, Maureen. I think so.’
‘Well, write a treatment and we’ll get going.’
And that was it. We were on a roll. I wrote a few pages and showed it to some people. Jon Plowman liked the idea, and then I was sent around the Beeb to talk to various script people, who looked pretty confused and suggested that the characters should be more sympathetic, somehow.
Yes, of course I’ll put some men into it, and yes, the daughter might need a friend. OK, I’ll write it so normal people can relate to it.
But the great thing about a producer like Jon Plowman is that he ignores everybody: ‘Just go and write it how you want to write it.’ It was going to be on after the watershed on BBC2 anyway, so it was expected to have a bit of a kick in it.
I wrote the pilot in an A4 notebook and handed it in. That was the only time (in a show that ran for thirty-nine episodes) that I wrote a complete script on time. But then I didn’t really know what I was doing. Various folk read it and suggested things: Perhaps something should happen? Perhaps it should have more of a story? But I had never written a story, or a plot. An ‘emotional arc’ was, and largely still is, a mystery to me. I had written sketches, so I suppose what I wrote was an extended sketch, with as many laughs as I could pack in over half an hour.
Half an hour isn’t long, especially if you have to introduce the characters. A BBC half an hour is luckily the full thirty minutes, and if you’re running over, you used to be allowed to run the titles over the last scene. Not any more! Now they seem to like to trail the next show about five minutes before the one you’re actually watching actually finishes. Apparently, this is to stop people turning over, in case - by watching credits for those twenty seconds - they might actually believe that the whole of television was over, and their life might end.
It’s not for me that I get pissed off. It’s for all those people who work really hard on that show: the vision mixers, the cameramen, the costume, set and make-up designers. These people put their heart and soul into a show, only to have their credit scrolled past at a hundred miles per hour, in the tiny strip of screen you’re allowed while the next show is being trailed.
I will stop now.
In the aforementioned French and Saunders sketch, my character’s name was Adriana, but for the series I chose to call her Edwina, known as Edina. Edina Ronay was a fashion designer, so I think I took it from there. I actually love the name Edina. Her surname was Monsoon, because Ade had an alter-ego called Eddie Monsoon - a breakdown of Edmondson, obviously - and I thought it would be funny.
I decided that the daughter shouldn’t have a friend, as that was the whole point. But I did want Edina to have a friend, and that friend would be Patsy. I just like writing two people. I’m used to a double act, and Edina and Patsy are the ultimate double act. They allow the other one to exist, they encourage each other’s behaviour, and it normalizes it for them. On their own they are rather sad characters. Together they are a force.
Much has been made, over the years, of whether or not Edina was based on the PR guru Lynne Franks. Well, yes, there are elements of her in Edina. In fact, there are elements of a lot of people in her, but mainly me. Writing Edina was like writing a long, late-night drunken rant; things you think but could never say. She has no brakes, only an accelerator pedal, and keeps going till she crashes.
For a while in the eighties Lynne had done some PR for Dawn and me. We had got to know her as a friend. She was extraordinary. She did fashion PR at a time when we didn’t really know about fashion or PR. Lynne PR-ed fashion on to the map; suddenly, it wasn’t just the property of Vogue and Harper’s. People were starting to get into designer labels, and many designers had their names emblazoned on the clothing, so everybody was aware of them. For years, we were all walking billboards. Lynne was into everything that was new: clothes, music, clubs. She was a whirlwind of zeitgeist.
PR was the perfect job for Edina because it meant that she didn’t have to operate in just one area. She could do PR for anything, even though fashion was her passion. I had learned from Lynne that, when fashion designers give out samples of outfits, they are generally a size 10 (a lot smaller now), so I thought that this would be what Edina would wear. She would always be wearing the latest thing, with it never quite fitting. It could be fabulous and ‘directional’, but a little bit painful. Cutting edge, but cutting in.
Out shopping for Edina’s costumes, the costume designer Sarah Burns and I would be in Harvey Nichols or Selfridges and the assistant would ask, ‘What size are you?’ We would have to answer that it wasn’t relevant, because the clothes didn’t really have to fit. That it was better if they actually didn’t fit. Edina’s wardrobe was either made or bought, because no designer would have really wanted to lend anything for it to look so hideous. I thought it was a miracle that any of them let us into their shops at all. The first time I met Christian Lacroix, I actually apologized to him. He appeared in one episode and allowed Edina to fall at his feet and then walk away with her still attached.
Edina’s daughter, Saffy, and their relationship owed nothing to Lynne. That came from other people. Saffy is the bedrock of the show. She is the audience. She is the one who catches Patsy and Edina out and makes them feel ridiculous occasionally.
We auditioned for the part of Saffy (for the record I was extremely lovely and professional to everyone who came in, and provided Hobnobs). Jane Horrocks came in to read. She was brilliant, but completely wrong for Saffy. And when you find someone that funny, you don’t want to let them go. I knew that Jane had to be in the show, so I adapted the part of Bubble, Edina’s secretary, to accommodate her genius. Bubble was originally going to be a tall, blonde posh girl - clueless, but posh. Jane took it to a whole other level of stupidity that I could only ever have dreamed of. I know a lot of people wonder why Edina would put up with someone so stupid, inefficient and insulting, but, truth is, she needs someone to blame. And when you find someone that hilarious, you just make it work. Who cares? It isn’t real.
Bob Spiers had worked with Julia Sawalha on a series called Press Gang. He really rated her, so asked her to come in. Julia is a fantastic actress with a level of concentration and focus that is frightening. From the moment she read the first line of a scene between Edina and Saffy, I was terrified. I found myself not being able to look at her. And I made Edina more and more ridiculous, just to deflect the fear. She was hired on the spot.
The casting of June Whitfield as Edina’s mother was a no-brainer. In the pilot, she only appeared in a flashback, but I knew it had to be her. It had to be a character that was straight and normal and lovely on the surface, but with an edge. Just a little bit of madness. And this, to me, was what June had been playing all those years in Terry and June. The slightly downtrodden housewife, with a twinkle of knowing.
Edina was the result of a rubber-gloved, hands-off upbringing; delivered by forceps and raised in 1950s sterility. She was an only child who was deprived of attention and had been seeking it ever since.
All that was left was Patsy.
In the original script, Patsy was very different from what she eventually became. I had written her as a hard-nosed, hard-drinking journo. I had based her character on my friend Harriet Thorpe, who had been at college with Dawn and me. Harriet is the perfect supportive friend. Whatever I tell her, she tells me that I am right, because I know best, and that I mustn’t ever let anyone tell me that I don’t.
If I’m having trouble writing - which is always (and I’m amazed she hasn’t got bored of me yet) - she will say, ‘Well, you shouldn’t feel guilty, darling. And you know why? Because you’re brilliant. And you’re better than them. And they are bloody lucky to have you. Don’t they understand that this is how you work? You can do this standing on your head. Don’t listen to them. It will happen, because it always happens, and that’s your genius. Fuck ’em. You don’t need this! Just write it now. Write it and get it over with. Well done, darling.’
This became Patsy’s purpose: to support Edina, no matter what. To tell her that she was right, and wonderful, and to hell with the rest of the world.
We offered the part to an actress who would have been brilliant as a hard-nosed journalist, but she couldn’t do it, so we were stumped. Until someone - I think it was Ade - came up with the genius idea of Joanna Lumley.
I knew Joanna from The Avengers and Sapphire & Steel, of course, but she had recently been on a Ruby Wax show playing herself as an alcoholic actress at the end of her career. A ‘has-been’. And she was hilarious. Jon Plowman had seen this too and his instincts are nearly always right. I rang Ruby, who confirmed that Joanna was brilliant and that I HAD to have her.
So a small room was organized, and Joanna came in to read a scene. This was really for her benefit, so she could see what she might be getting into, and have the opportunity to choose not to.
We read a scene that was set in a car, and so sat on two wooden chairs, next to each other. It was quite awkward. I couldn’t really explain the character to her and had entirely forgotten my character. I became mute. Joanna has a lovely voice and a natural elegance. All I could think of suggesting was that perhaps … I don’t know, but maybe … I don’t know … but maybe she could have not such a nice voice? Maybe? I don’t know.
For some inexplicable reason Joanna - and I thank God for this - accepted the part.
I rewrote Patsy for her almost immediately. Everything fitted into place. Joanna would talk about the sixties and her modelling days, and it became clear that Patsy had to be in fashion. I had no idea what a fashion director on a magazine did, but it seemed ridiculous enough that it was a possibility. A job that isn’t really a job. That just involved pointing at some clothes and then going out to play.
On our first day of filming we were doing all the little outside bits for the pilot, which you do before you go into the studio. This is always quite hard, because you don’t really have any rehearsal and haven’t a clear idea of what will go before, or indeed come after, because so much changes when you go into the studio.
Joanna and I were in a big Jag, filming a conversation as Patsy and Edina go to Harvey Nicks. It was a little awkward because we were both just getting to know our characters; it’s quite embarrassing acting in front of people sometimes.
Am I being funny, or does she just think I’m a fool?
Luckily, we had plenty of time to get through this because the supporting artist who had been hired to play the chauffeur had no experience at all of driving cars. At the beginning of every take, we would either go backwards or not move at all. If we did get going, halfway through a take he would jam on the brakes and we would fly off our seats. It broke the ice, and after a few post-filming drinks we never looked back.
Some of my happiest times have been sitting in the back of a car with Joanna, having conversations in character that just make us pee. She is a seriously funny person, and the joy is that she is not remotely precious. There was nowhere we couldn’t go with the characters. For someone so beautiful, Joanna has no apparent vanity. She also likes a drink and a fag, so she was perfect for the show.
As a person who doesn’t really smoke, I found it occasionally challenging. I had to smoke in a few rehearsals so that in the opening scene in the studio I didn’t take a great big nervous drag and pass out.
I used to steal cigarettes from my parents’ cigarette box. Yes, young reader, they used to have boxes filled with loose cigarettes that they would hand round at parties. I’d regularly grab a handful and go off with my friend Fif and smoke them. Well, puff them. I don’t think we ever inhaled. The first time I inhaled was on a school trip in the fifth form and I nearly died. My friends had noticed that I was just puffin’, and stood in a circle around me until I drew the smoke of an unfiltered No. 6 into my lungs.
We smoked my parents’ fags until there were no more left in the box. Then we took my dad’s pipe and had a go with that. To this day, I can’t believe my mother never noticed. I must have stunk of tobacco. But then she has always had the best attitude to discipline: if you are going to make a big fuss about something, it has to be important.
Anyway, anyway, back to Ab Fab.
We made the pilot and it went before the judges, who gave us a series. The only negative comment we got was from Robin Nash, then Head of Something at the BBC, who said that he didn’t like seeing women getting drunk. Well. You’re not really supposed to like them. I love them, and I love playing Edina, but I don’t like them.
What I love about Patsy and Edina is that they give you a chance to say and do all the things you never really would. Eddie and Patsy can say the unthinkable. Eddie and Patsy can park on pavements, shout at people who annoy them, wear inappropriate clothing and fall over drunk in the street. They can be as cruel and callous as they like. They can be rude about celebrities, fashion and niceness, and they can be wicked to Saffy.
And yet, Saffy tortures her mother as much as her mother tortures her. Because actually, without her mother there, Saffy has got nothing to shout about and no identity of her own. She’s defined by what her mother isn’t and hasn’t been, and in this way her mother gives her life a purpose, and that purpose is to be horrible to her.
The heart of the show isn’t the drinking and smoking and partying. It’s the painful ménage à trois of Eddie, Patsy and Saffy. The jealousies. The hatreds. And, most crucially, the need to be loved.