The legendary and world famous comedienne Jennifer Saunders doesn’t often give interviews, but magazine ‘Humo’ managed to get hold of her for their well-known ‘’seven sins’’ column. She made it work for two decades with Dawn French, and her biggest success became Absolutely Fabulous with Joanna Lumley: a show she wrote on her own, and in which she crossed all the borders of decency. By kicking, bragging and shouting she made way for all the female violence that has followed her ever since. As Edina, there’s no sin unfamiliar to her. In ‘the Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle’ - the comedy show about a meaningless talk show that is now available in stores – she has strangely not attempted to cross, nor sharp these borders again. Has generosity made entrance? Her looks don’t reveal the fact that she’s already half a century old: she’s tender and very famine, qualities you wouldn’t immediately associate with her, bearing her characters in mind. And she’s especially kind and very modest. So modest, that she prefers not doing any interviews at all. But if it’s about the seven sins, she’s willing to make an exception.
Jennifer Saunders: ‘’Anger and frustration are the main ingredients of British comedy’’. All humor grows from deep embarrassment. English people are very shy: about being English, about their manners, about sex… There is so much deep rooted anger in our country, just because the English people can’t, neither dare to say what’s bothering them. On the outside, the Brits seem quite simple people, but inside there’s a hurricane of anger going on that has quite a lot of comic potential.’’ I’m not very quick-tempered myself, but I do understand the urge not to say what one’s thinking: I suffer from that too, haha. Tanya Byron, with whom I wrote the Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle, is very different. As psychologist, she pointed out to me that I’m always trying to be too kind, avoiding confrontations. I’d rather stay friends with everyone.
while your characters…
… are constantly beside themselves. Yes.
But with your image, you could tell just people to ‘bug off’ anytime?
I know. That’s the reason for me doing this kind of work. Because it gives me the opportunity to do and say everything I would never dare to in real life. Being in actress is actually being a child: it’s Ok to keep on playing and you’re allowed to dress up, shout and rage.
You hate being looked at as soon as you walk out the door. That is so typical about entertainers: if no one would you, you’d probably try to get the audience’s attention ‘till they’d notice you.
Yes, maybe. That’s actually the only thing about being famous that I don’t like: people start to behave differently when you’re around. They look at you, they’re curious while you try to conceal yourself. I often don’t even dare to look up when I’m in the supermarket, that’s why I end up in the shelves occasionally, because I don’t see where I’m walking.
To the question: ‘’what are you most proud of?’’ most people respond with “’my children’’…
Of course, so do I. I was surprised when my second-eldest daughter decided to go to drama school. She’s now touring with a company entirely existing of young girls: they’re television channels who have offered to work with them! Yes, I’m very proud of her. And no one knew she’s the daughter of… My eldest daughter’s a folk singer, she’s very good. And my youngest is still at school, she’s studying French. She’ll be editor of the Vogue: the French Vogue, obviously. But on the creative side I’m especially proud of some television programs I’ve produced. Especially the ones which everyone’s satisfied with in the end, I love getting calls straight after filming with a request for doing it once more. I try to create an atmosphere of a party at my place when I’m on the set. During the filming of Vivienne Vyle, I considered my task to be as the hostess, and I really did my best to make everyone feel comfortable. A relaxed actor is two times better you know.
Your most recent show, Jam and Jerusalem, was harshly criticized in the media. How do you cope with that?
The reviews from the press were mixed. But the audience was very enthusiastic: I’ve hardly ever received higher viewer’s ratings. And never before was I approached by so many fans in the streets. I wanted to address a different audience, the kind, sympathetic type that has never been shown on television before. I’m fed up with the everlasting negativism . And there’s the image I ended up with as a result of AbFab, the press expects me to always vent my bile…
And Joanna Lumley is also involved…
I only asked her to do the pilot initially, because it's fantastic to work with her. She's better at playing old people than real old people are. Great as she is, she agreed to play an old woman driving her bike - it was so funny that I wrote her in all the episodes of the first series. While she had to endure horrible pain in the make-up, for every episode. When the first season ended, she looked at me with pleading eyes and said: ''Darling...'' Before we went on, I put her out of her misery. ''I know, I know, I've used you, I won't do it again.'' Alas. Because she's so irresistibly funny, I could devote a whole show to her character.
3. Speaking of laziness…
I’m terribly lazy.
You’re exaggerating. Acting might be good fun, but writing is hard work.
Very hard work. When I sit down behind my computer, I always start with a game of Solitaire, to put off the confrontation. I do actually everything to distract myself. It runs in the family, I think. We’re all great at vegetating, I think we derive from plants…
So how do you explain the amount of stuff you’ve written then?
Once I start writing and get into the swing, I can’t stop. It’s like the step between standing still and walking, I just have to keep on moving. Nearly all my work is written with a full dose of adrenaline that helps me to get through it. I usually wait until the last moment to come into action. I often finish stories we have to film later that day when I’m in the train to London. I need a audience in order to be funny, then I can see whether jokes work or not. I’m actually more more of a performer than a writer.
Why do you work so hard? You’re happily married, you’ve got three children and you could live upon the interest of your money until you’re 180 years old...
Believe me, I’m bone lazy. My productivity seems more impressive than it is. A show is something you produce with a team. Writing is something I don’t do on my own either. On top of that, someone else can put your work into perspective. Everything you do on your own, is something you’ve done before already.
What did Tanya Byron, co-producer on Vivienne Vyle, add that you couldn’t have done yourself?
Tanya is a psychologist: I met her on the set of French and Saunders. She came up with the idea because she had noticed that a lot of psychological advise on daytime talk shows is given by people who know as much as psychology as a dog knows about cat food. Vivienne Vyle is comedy, but with a very double meaning. We try not to go for the immediate loud laughter: we even work without a laughing track.
On the other hand, it is again based on a empty-headed media monster. Is Vivienne perhaps a bit like Eddie Monsoon?
I've tried to stay far away from Eddie. Vivienne is much more presumptuous – you’ll probably know that type of people. They listen every day to other people’s problems while nodding understandably, while you can hear them thinking: ‘’is my hair still looking good?’’ It’s sad and funny at the same time to see how someone can be so ambitious that one’s prepared to offend other people.
But why choosing a more serious character? Are you fed up with comedy?
I love comedy, but for once I wanted to play a part without any resemblances to Edina. Whether it be conscious or not, you always tend to fall back on the same jokes, so you have to find a part that doesn’t allow you to use the same old tricks. And Edina’s ‘’trick box’’ became so heavy that it wasn’t easy to get rid of it.
Like John Cleese, you work with a psychologist. Is it also necessary for a comedian to focus on the human mind?
No matter how outrageous your characters are, they’ll only become believable only when they react like real people would do. Psychology has always fascinated me – finally you realize that nothing’s stranger than reality. A good comedian must understand what’s going on in people’s minds, even – and especially – in the strange ones.
Everyone’s guilty when it comes to this sin, even if they deny so. I’ve also heard myself saying that I felt very happy for someone else’s success while I secretly though: ‘’I’d suffer three days on the toilet with heavy diarrhea to see her screwing something up for once.’’
… who was that about?
People from a far past, who I couldn’t stand or I was slightly jealous at. But I’ve never suffered much from jealousy – when someone writes something that is really cleaver I will think: ‘’I wish I had written that’’ at the very most. When my children were still young, I envied people without kids: they could bloody go on holiday whenever they wanted and they were free. I was especially jealous at single gay’s, they had everything: no responsibilities, no mother-in-law and no obligation to run a family. It’s like a kid’s dream of having no parents: you’d be a lonely orphaned child, but free nevertheless. But that’s just a dream, in reality you don’t want it to be like that. When life gets a little hard , you look around you and you always see someone whose life appears to be a lot nicer.
In your case I assume that won't be that easy any longer?
True, yes. I’ve come to a point in my life where I’ve reached so much, and all my children have left home. Initially, I was very sad when they moved out of house, but now I feel like I’ve started a whole new life. Suddenly I’ve got all time to myself and I can do everything I used to dream of. However, you realize that you’ve lived half of your life already, but that there’s still a lot to be done. You should be finished doing everything at sixty I guess, so actually I’ve got plenty of time, while lacking it on the other hand.
You don’t envy anyone. Are there any people you admire then?
Oh yes. Especially those who are different or who have the courage to do something that differs. When it comes to acting or comedy, I can usually see where someone’s heading to, but I - for instance - can admire those American shows that run for years. I’m exhausted after a few episodes, but they keep on going. Jerry Seinfield is a genius: for ten years he kept on making fantastic episodes, without losing strength.
But they can make use of an army of writers…
… that is also admirable. They constantly replace writers but still they manage to keep up the quality. I once made a guest appearance on Roseanne: the filming took place in one of the biggest studio’s – it was like a little city – where three other television shows were filmed at the same time. When a writer left a show, he could just move on to an other. Ideal trainings camps for writers: we should have something like that here too... When it comes to comedy, you need to focus on the joke, I learned that from Ben Elton, who used to read over our scripts. I can still hear him saying: ‘’well ladies, again a lot of missed opportunities’’. And he was right. I worked on Absolutely Fabulous with Ruby Wax, the funniest person in the world. She taught me how to make people laugh while being interesting in the mean time. Playing a certain type of character is something I’ve always managed to do myself, but Ben and Ruby taught me how to compose and work out an idea, and how to make it surrealistic and funny at the same time.
So it really is a profession then?
Absolutely, there are techniques. But if you apply those, you don’t necessarily have a good joke. It’s like fishing: there’s no guarantee you’ll catch a fish if you know HOW to do it.