Jennifer Saunders

Jennifer Saunders

Date of birth: 06-07-1958

'The Americans wanted to subtitle Ab Fab'

...and other revelations as Jennifer Saunders discusses her long comedy career

It may have become a cult hit in America but US broadcasters weren’t immediately sure what to make Absolutely Fabulous, creator Jennifer Saunders has revealed.

She said that network executives were so confused by the accents that they ‘wanted to subtitle it so people would know what was going on’

‘Thankfully we persuaded them not do do that,’ she added.

Speaking as part of the BFI’s Comedy Genius strand in London last night, Saunders told how the show’s success was especially driven by  the gay community in New York.

But it also led to one of the most embarrassing moments of her career, when she and co-star Joanna Lumley went to Manhattan to collect the LGBT Pride Award in 2002.

The pair wore flamboyant costumes worthy of their Edina and Patsy alter-egos, with behaviour to match. Saunders admitted that they got drunk on the flight to the US, and she failed to write a speech assuming she could wing it.

‘It was hideous,’ she recalled. ‘The event was so serious you have no idea. Everyone was dressed in brown. It was all about issues. Someone sang a song about someone who died.’

‘They got Whoopi Goldberg to introduce us! And we were there with costumes with the Stars and Stripes all over it.’

But eventually he pair found an event more in tune with what they were expecting.‘Luckily, straight afterwards we were taken to a gay bar for a Saffy lookalike contest,’ she said.

Saunders also spoke of how some of the now-familiar Ab Fab characters came to be.

‘Patsy was originally a low-life journalist, real gutter press,’ she revealed, but that changed when Lumley came on board.

‘I saw Joanna on Ruby [Wax’s] talk show,’ she recalls. ‘She was great, with slapstick and full of self-deprecation. She brought all the Patsy stuff with her [to Ab Fab].’

Asked if she immediately knew that Lumley was perfect for the role, Saunders added: ‘She didn’t think so – but I did.’

Saunders also said she cast June Whitfield because she thought she had ‘always been slightly hard done by in TV,’ compared to her radio success.

‘She always played second fiddle to Terry Scott or someone else,’ Saunders recalled. ‘She always had to put up with their moods and temper. I thought she deserved a better part.’

And Jane Horrocks originally auditioned for Saffy, but Saunders didn’t think she was right for the part eventually taken by Julia Sawalha, not least because of her Lancastrian accent. So instead she rewrote the part of Edina’s personal assistant Bubbles to suit her. ‘We swapped a posh girl for an idiot,’ she said.

Saunders

The wide-ranging interview covered the 60-year-old star’s entire career and beyond, with Saunders describing her first encounters with comedy as a child in the small cinemas on the various RAF bases her pilot father was stationed, where Saturday-morning children’s programmes usually featuredNorman Wisdom.

‘Is he dead?,’ she asked the audience before confessing she hated his antics. ‘Norman Wisdom and Jerry Lewis were both lightly creepy, slightly aggressive,’ she said. ‘But Mr Pasty [the 1950s TV character created by Richard Hearne] was fantastic, when I was little he was my very first comic influence.’

And she recalled that her first encounter with Dawn French at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, where they were both on a drama teachers' course.

‘She thought I was a posh girl, I thought she was a bit bossy,’ she said. ‘We weren’t the perfect match at first.’

But they formed a partnership, performing on the nascent London alternative comedy circuit after responding to an advert in The Stage to join the Comic Strip, the troupe led by Peter Richardson who would go on to make so many TV movies.

She told of one night when Robin Williams came down to their Soho venue to try out new material. Her memory was that he sweated so much on stage that he needed another T-shirt after he came off, so Saunders gave him one of hers. A few days later he returned it, washed. 

French & Saunders got their own break thanks to Jim Moir, the head of light entertainment at the BBC in the 1980s, who admitted he didn’t quite get their sense of humour.

He told them: ‘Someone told me you are funny girls – let’s see. I’ll put my dick on the table and give you a series. Don’t let me down.’

His faith seems to have been well-placed since the series just celebrated its 30th anniversary.

Saunders spoke about some of the tropes in the series, such as revealing that the minimalist look of their ‘white room’ sketches came about because they wanted a place to be at home together, like Morecambe and Wise, ‘but we couldn’t agree on the furniture.’

And that the running joke of always trying to secure Madonna as a guest star meant ‘I got to the point where I wouldn’t start working on a a series until I knew Madonna had been invited.

‘I don’t think we ever even got a response,’ she signed. ‘We just always knew she would turn us down. In fact we would probably turn her down if she said yes - we wouldn’t know what to do.’

But one singer who always returned to the show was Lulu, even though the duo hospitalised her during the filming of one sketch, a Pulp Fiction parody when they machine-gunned her when she started to sing Shout.

‘She was loaded up with all these charges in her body that would blow the blood outwards,’ Saunders recalled – adding that the  singer ignored advice not to hold her arms by her side when they went off.

‘One of the charges in her arms imploded and it blew a disc of skin out, about the size of a 2p coin. I know! Lulu! She’s covered in [fake] blood so no one can see where the wound is.

‘This is the BBC. Everyone runs in case they are sued, Eventually a special effects man comes with a J-cloth. Finally they find the first aider, the guy on security at the front desk. He takes one look at Lulu and goes a bit faint because of all the blood.

‘Lulu was absolutely brilliant about it. She didn’t sue. Jon Plowman [the producer] took her A&E. But she came back for more. She always comes back for more. She’s a great sport.’

Asked the inevitable question about the representation of female comedians on TV, Saunders said: ‘It is better than it was – but there are a a lot of funny women who would be on TV if they were boys.

‘Women find it harder to be weird and surreal, though people like [Fleabag’s] Phoebe Waller-Bridge are getting through. And Julia Davis. If she was a  boy she would be much bigger.

‘In America they are much better. [In the 1980s] they had Roseanne, Ellen, Cybil - all the main sitcom stars were carrying on in the vein of Lucille Ball.’

Saunders also addressed her reputation for leaving her writing to the last-minute, confessing that she has been known to plan to work on scripts on the train from the West Country to filming in London… only for her laptop battery to run out en route.

‘I find writing so painful,’ she said. 

And she also said her biggest regret was the cancellation of her Women’s Institute comedy Jam and Jerusalem after three series in 2009, saying: ‘We had such plans, but it fell between departments: is it drama or is it comedy?’

She joked that she loved it so much she’d be prepared to work for free to bring it back, if any broadcaster was interested.

• The BFI's Comedy Genius season runs until January. Click here for all their activities in London, online and across the UK.

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Published: 6 Nov 2018

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