The first series of French and Saunders, in 1987, was, writes Dawn French in her autobiography, “pretty shabby” (though it also “showed promise”). The BBC had taken a gamble on French and her comedy partner Jennifer Saunders, or in the words of the light entertainment boss Jim Moir “I’ve got my dick on the table for you ladies”, as French recalled. “Thirty years later,” French writes, “we still wonder occasionally if they want us.”
They do. This Christmas – 30 years after their first sketch show, 10 years after their last TV show and nine years after the live shows that marked their then-retirement as a double act – French and Saunders are back, for a one-off show at least. It promises classic French and Saunders material – old parodies (among them, the Silence of the Lambs) and new ones (The Handmaid’s Tale); spoofs of pop culture (they take on the Kardashians) and new sketches.
They did seven series over 20 years, as well as popping up together in Comic Relief sketches, at times going off to do their own hugely successful solo projects (Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous, which emerged from a French and Saunders sketch; French in the Vicar of Dibley). They paved the way for all sorts of comedy we take for granted now, says the comedian Lucy Porter who, as a teenager, would do French and Saunders sketches with her friend. They were one of the first to do film parodies, she points out. “What I always loved was they would do something big-budget and lavish, but there was always that slightly knowing wink to camera, so you felt like you were in on the joke. They always slightly undercut themselves.”
For women in comedy, especially, they were pioneering – everyone from Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins (who used to write for them) to Miranda Hart to Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer has cited them as an influence. Have they been underrated? “Yes,” says Porter, “in that way that anything that is made by women, immediately men presume they won’t get it, but sufficient numbers of men did get it that they were allowed to continue. They did probably have to work twice as hard as, say, Fry and Laurie.”
French and Saunders met at the Central School of Speech and Drama. They had in common a childhood growing up in RAF families. “It’s quite a peculiar existence,” French has said, “so you feel safe in the company of others who have been itinerant and slightly identity-less.” They saw an advert seeking female comedians for the Comic Strip, a Soho club, and got the gig; the other performers included Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson and Nigel Planer.
Their TV debut was in the Channel 4 show The Comic Strip Presents, before they did a sitcom, Girls on Top, with Ruby Wax and Tracey Ullman for two years. French and Saunders were given their own show on BBC2 in 1987. The producer Jon Plowman started working with them for their third series, and has worked with them ever since. What were they like? “Chaotic,” he says with a laugh, then adds: “No, that’s unfair. With comedy you expect that some scripts will arrive, you’ll talk about them a bit, get the designer going, book some studios. I remember our first meeting, the director and me, with them in a rather small office in Hammersmith. The wall was covered in Post-it notes. They weren’t even scripts, they were ideas.”
It was less than four weeks from filming, he says. “This is the way they enjoy [working], and why they are good. They were still kicking things around. You could say, although as a producer I’d be loth to, one of the things they are able to do is keep going until the last minute and not tie anything down.” This was true even when the camera was rolling. “I remember saying to the director: ‘Never say cut too early,’ because they’re really good at going on with the take.” Cut too early and “you sometimes won’t get the gold dust”.
The way they work, he says, is “they bounce ideas off each other, so they talk about the character, or [perform the character] at each other and see if it will go anywhere. Sometimes it won’t. Sometimes one of them will run with it and the one who runs with it gets to write it, and the one who didn’t run with it gets to write something else. They kick things between themselves and see what stays alive.” On set, he says, there was a “certain amount of laughing and messing around, depending on how long you’ve got in the studio and how tight your deadlines are, but they are professionals – they know what they’re doing and they have a reverence for what they’re doing.”
Their last TV show was a Christmas special in 2007, mostly a compilation of old sketches, with a small amount of new material. They had long done separate work. In Absolutely Fabulous, which started in 1992, Saunders played a badly behaved PR executive alongside Joanna Lumley. She also created the underrated series Jam & Jerusalem, set in a West Country WI-inspired women’s guild. Recently she has done more film work. French had starred in the much-loved comedy The Vicar of Dibley since 1994, as well as Murder Most Horrid. In more recent years, she has written several books.
Perhaps because they have been around for so long, they are beloved by many and well within National Treasure territory (something, Saunders has said, which “sounds far too sensible to me. I’d much rather be a national nuisance”). But this underestimates their bite. Their comedy “was madcap and silly”, says Porter, “but there was a sort of savagery to it as well”. She points to the sketches in which French and Saunders play predatory, lecherous men. “It was shocking and weird and brilliant.”
Mostly, though, they’re just gloriously ridiculous. “No barrier comes down that says: ‘We mustn’t do that,’” says Plowman. “They kind of know that being silly is what they do best.”
- 300 Years of French and Saunders is on BBC One on Christmas Day at 10.35pm