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Fabulous Jennifer Saunders

Julia Llewellyn Smith / 24 May 2022 ( 07 June 2022 )

The comedy queen, 63, is set to star in a musical despite saying she can’t really sing. Here she reveals whether she curtseys to former Ab Fab co-star Joanna Lumley now she’s a dame, and how Wordle helps her ease into each day.

Jennifer Saunders portrait.
Matthew Eades/KINTZING

Jennifer Saunders’ approach to life is all about minimising stress. ‘It’s the most ageing thing,’ says the 63-year-old who gave the world two comedy classics, French and Saunders and Absolutely Fabulous.

‘As you get older everything becomes a bit more of a trial. So you can’t be too hard on yourself. Don’t seize the day, ease into it gently with a cup of coffee and Wordle in a warm bed. You’ve got to enjoy life.’

That’s why – after decades of writing her own material – Jennifer has happily decided to leave creative strife to others. ‘When Dawn [French] and I were writing scripts, we just got on with it. Nowadays, there are so many fights, so many more hoops to jump through, it’s just endless. Honestly, life is too short. It’s so much easier when someone else has written [a show] and is directing it. You just turn up and say your lines.’

That philosophy seems to have done Jennifer’s acting career no harm at all. She’s as busy as she’s ever been, with all sorts of projects and having a blast, ‘with no responsibility’.

She says she and Dawn, 64, her friend since meeting at drama school in 1978, ‘had the best time we’ve ever had’ making Death on the Nile, Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel with an all-star cast including Annette Bening and Branagh as Hercule Poirot.

‘We just never wanted it to end. If I could have a Groundhog Day thing [when the same day is repeated over and over] that would just be me and Dawn being picked up in a bus, heading off to set surrounded by all these film stars, laughing and laughing and laughing, having good catering and going home. It was like a perfect life.’

Similarly, she loved making Allelujah, the upcoming film version of Alan Bennett’s play set in a geriatric ward with another star-studded line-up including Dame Judi Dench and Sir Derek Jacobi. ‘Working with proper actors was a bit intimidating, but it was rather good fun.’

Jennifer’s character is a nurse with a penchant for euthanasia. ‘So, I got to knock off some of Britain’s finest actors,’ she says, chuckling mischievously. ‘Julia McKenzie.’ She shakes her head mournfully. ‘Had to go!’

Now, Jennifer is about to start rehearsals for the stage musical Sister Act in which she will star as Mother Superior during the show’s Manchester and London runs. Given she has never done a musical before it doesn’t sound a stress-free option to me, but she seems unfazed.

‘It’s just the same as other work,’ she shrugs. ‘You go along and you do your bit. By the time I’m really used to it, it’ll be finished. So, I’ve got to make sure I enjoy every single second because I do love a musical and I don’t think I’ll have a second chance. There aren’t really that many opportunities in huge musicals for people who can’t really sing.’

Jennifer originally accepted the role because she wanted to perform alongside Whoopi Goldberg, who had been cast as Deloris van Cartier. ‘Then Covid happened so it was postponed a year, then the second year Whoopi wasn’t very well, and they couldn’t sell tickets anyway [because of the pandemic], so now we’re four years down the line but by now I’m hooked.’

Now Goldberg has been replaced by Beverley Knight, while another musical legend, Clive Rowe, is co-starring. ‘We’re talking people who really can do it, so I’m not even going to attempt to go there,’ says Jennifer. ‘Mine’s a comedy part and I’ll bring it a different energy.’

Wearing black-framed specs and a black top, sitting in an armchair, her elderly whippet Olive snoozing in the corner, Jennifer is talking at her Devon farmhouse where she has lived for 20 years with her husband, actor Ade Edmondson.

She is reserved, but still laughs a lot, with a deadpan delivery that makes everything she says sound funny, even when it isn’t. For someone renowned for sharpness, she is surprisingly gentle and softly spoken. ‘I don’t like to get into a conflict. I don’t want to argue with anyone,’ she says.

I’d guess her calmness is one reason she and Ade, 65 – star of shows such as The Young Ones and Bottom, whom she met when both were part of the 1980s Comic Strip collective group of comedians – have practically a showbiz record of staying married for 37 years. Clearly family is a priority for Jennifer who says, ‘Ade and I have worked so we can have a lovely family life.’

The couple decamped to Devon from London (though they still have a city pied-à-terre), to give their three daughters, Ella, 36, Beattie, 34, and Freya, 31, a country childhood. All three have followed their parents into acting. The eldest two are married with one living in South Devon and one in London, where Freya is also based with her partner. Jennifer has five grandchildren who are aged between nine and five months.

‘Being a grandmother is absolutely lovely. They’re terrific. But you forget how exhausting it is when they’re babies and toddlers. Lockdown was hard, we could only Zoom them, and it was really disappointing because little kids just sort of wave at you and wander off. We really didn’t see enough of them.’

I came quite early to Instagram and got fed up with it. Who has time for this rubbish?’

Jennifer and her three brothers were the children of a Royal Air Force group captain who moved constantly, meaning she attended eight different schools before the family settled in Cheshire in her teens.

The family’s golden rule was ‘you can be serious, but you must never, ever take yourself seriously’, something that’s informed her whole life, including being diagnosed with breast cancer at 51, news of which she received with stoicism. ‘The cancer was caught early enough, and I had doctors I trusted,’ she says. ‘I just had to make it easy for the doctors to do what they had to do, by doing what they told me and behaving myself.’

If anything shook her, it wasn’t the chemotherapy or radiotherapy she endured, but being plunged into menopause, the result of taking the drug tamoxifen. ‘I did crash into menopause a bit. It was quite brutal, especially because no one had warned me. Doctors deal with their own specialty and if you face cancer, they deal with the cancer. But if you go on tamoxifen it stops you having any oestrogen and I don’t think they quite understand how that mentally affects you. You don’t quite know what you should feel like, so you think, “Is this depression? I don’t know. I just feel angry”.’

The drugs were incompatible with hormone replacement therapy, and it took Jennifer a while to find a doctor who made her menopause ‘deal-able’ with. ‘You can get all this other stuff you’re not told about, little antidepressants to see through bad moments – you don’t have to be on them for ever. It’s definitely an odd time but when you’re over it, it’s quite nice, you feel comfortable in yourself. It’s the moment of change that is hard, because you’re changing a lot of things you took for granted. My friends and I would talk about how it aches to get out of bed because everything is adjusting, your muscles and your bones. But take a couple of paracetamol and a few months in it’s going to stop. Still, it’s the first time you think, “Oh! This is what ageing is”.’

Generally, Jennifer is characteristically sanguine about time’s passing. ‘Sometimes you look in the mirror and you think, “What happened?” It is… odd. When you hit your sixties, it becomes all about maintenance, rather than trying to get fit. I’m trying not to hurt so much, so I work in the garden and try to stretch a bit.’

During lockdown, which was spent in Devon with Ade, Freya and Freya’s partner and their flatmate, Jennifer made one rule: ‘I said, “No one in this house is allowed to sigh any more.” Because the moment you get up from a chair and go, “Ooh, aah” you feel tired. That’s what I believe anyway, and I think it works.’

What’s heart-warming is how the decades haven’t affected her friendship with Dawn, who lives in Cornwall, not far from her, and with whom she still works regularly, recording podcasts and acting (they’ve just done a BBC Radio 4 sitcom, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane Austen?).

‘Dawn’s recently become technically abled, so now she WhatsApps me, which is totally new. It’s the same with all social media, I came quite early to Instagram and got fed up with it. Who has time for this rubbish? But Dawn’s always a few years behind, so now she’s really enjoying Instagram.’

Jennifer is also close to her Ab Fab co-star Joanna Lumley, 76, who was recently made a dame. Does Jennifer now curtsey to her? ‘I refuse to acknowledge it,’ she quips, before adding. ‘Actually, Joanna, more than most people, really deserves [a damehood]. She does so much work for charity, and not just when it’s convenient for her. She really puts herself out. Whenever I say, “I’m in town, do you want to go out for a drink?” she’ll be on a train going up north to do a speech for a good cause.’

I feel Jennifer and Dawn should be peers of the realm, but it’s unlikely since both turned down an OBE in 2001. ‘We hadn’t done anything of any worth. Give me an OBE for being on telly and making a bit of money? There are people that get these things for lifelong service to nursing. They bloody deserve it.’ I’d argue it’s just as invaluable to make people laugh, but since Jennifer hates conflict, we’ll amicably agree to disagree.

Jennifer Saunders appears in Sister Act The Musical at the Palace Theatre, Manchester (27 June-9 July) and London’s Eventim Apollo (19 July-28 August); sisteractthemusical.co.uk

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