Jennifer Saunders, seriously: How the queen of comedy is reinventing herself at 61

Ageing? Fine apart from the chin hairs. Marriage? It’s all about compromise. Friendship? Hours of nonstop yak. Jennifer Saunders tells Elizabeth Day what keeps her smiling – and why she’s ready for her biggest challenge at 61.

Jennifer Saunders recently found her five-year-old grandson Bertie staring at her oddly. ‘I said, “Is there something wrong? What is it?”’ 

Bertie kept looking at his grandmother, his gaze focused at a point just below her chin. 

‘Are you growing a beard?’ he asked.

Jennifer Saunders
Shirt, Loewe, Image: Matthew Eades

Jennifer breaks into laughter – as do I. Like all her jokes, this story has been perfectly timed for maximum impact. ‘I had one little black hair here,’ she points at the underside of her chin. ‘But I couldn’t see it. It made me laugh so much.’

At 61, Jennifer is strikingly gorgeous – chin fluff and all. She arrives at her Central London private members’ club with hair that looks tousled yet blow-dried, wearing trainers and a flappy jacket-cum-cardigan that fashion journalists would call ‘artfully draped’. It is 1.30pm and the first thing she does is order a gin and tonic, which arrives in a giant fishbowl of a glass. ‘Oh lovely,’ she says, taking a swig.

Her skin is so unlined and clear that although I wouldn’t normally start an interview by rhapsodising about a woman’s epidermis, I can’t help myself from asking for specifics.

‘I do as little as possible,’ she says. ‘I have always used Clarins cleanser and toner and a light moisturiser… I think it’s just genes and luck. My grandmother had very good skin.’ 

Jennifer Saunders
Coat, Ganni, from Image: Matthew Eades

Does she consider herself beautiful? ‘Oh. Um. Not really. I’m always frustrated with various bits and bobs. I actually don’t worry about being older. It catches you by surprise sometimes. You know, you’re walking towards the mirror going, “There’s an old woman! Oh, it’s me. This old woman who is coming towards me is me…”’

She was 29 when she and her comedy partner Dawn French started their sketch show French and Saunders which ran for 20 years on the BBC. Then, aged 34, she wrote and starred in the award-winning Absolutely Fabulous alongside Joanna Lumley, a blisteringly funny sitcom that was ranked the 17th Greatest British TV Show of all time by the British Film Institute and spawned a movie in 2016.

Throughout it all, she was raising three daughters on a farm in Devon alongside her husband, fellow comedian Ade Edmondson.

‘We had a nanny. Not a live-in; we never had a live-in. But we had lovely New Zealanders and an English girl who would come if none of us could do the school run or would be there in the day. But to be honest, in those days we could manage it: if I was on tour he’d be at home, if he was doing a show, I’d be at home. So there was very rarely a time when one of us wasn’t there.’ 

Jennifer Saunders Dawn French
Jennifer Saunders with Dawn French: ‘We still have the best time together’. Image: Getty Images/David M. Benett

Her three daughters – Ella, Beatie and Freya – are now 33, 32 and 29 respectively, with families, partners and homes of their own. These days, Jennifer finds she can say yes to work whenever she feels like it. ‘I think, “Might as well have a go” if it appeals because I’m not tied into anyone else’s calendar or schedule any more,’ Jennifer says. ‘And as you get older things matter less. Not so much rides on it… So most of the time I do [work] now, I do it to have a great time and try something new.’

Her latest role is no exception. For the first time in her professional life, Jennifer is playing a non-comedic part in new Netflix series The Stranger – adapted from the psychological thriller by bestselling author Harlan Coben – in which a man’s world is shattered when a stranger tells him a secret about his wife. What was it like playing straight drama? ‘Well, it’s only difficult in prospect, not when you actually do it.’

But she admits to nerves on her first day of filming, joining a cast that includes Downton Abbey’s Siobhan Finneran and Spooks star Richard Armitage. ‘There was literally a point when I thought, “Oh my God, I’m feeling a bit faint.” I went, “No. Breathe. That’s what you’ve got to do, breathe.” But everyone was just terrific and professional and lovely.’ She pauses, having caught herself in the act of sounding too serious. ‘I mean,’ she adds, sipping on her gin, ‘you’re just aiming to try to look real and say the lines in a believable fashion.’

Jennifer Saunders the stranger
Jennifer with Callie Cooke, who plays her daughter in The Stranger. Image: Netflix

Apparently Coben wrote her a letter begging her to take the part. ‘Weirdly, he was an Ab Fab fan,’ she says, shaking her head at the unlikely thought of a male writer of chilling mystery novels enjoying the travails of a booze-soaked PR maven and her promiscuous, drug-addled magazine editor friend. But then Jennifer’s work has always had a broad appeal. She was once listed as one of the 50 Funniest Acts in Britain and was also named the 93rd Sexiest British Star by entertainment channel E! And Good Housekeeping magazine put her at number 18 in its list of Best British Role Models.

A funny, sexy role model, I say, but if she had to choose just one, which would it be?

‘I have no intention of being a role model or a sexy thing. I’d like to be a funny act.’

The other gift that age has given her is the ability to speak her mind. ‘You have the confidence to say to someone, “No, I think this is better.” It’s the confidence to get what you want rather than what the consensus is.’

She remembers, in the early days of writing Ab Fab, being ‘pushed around by a lot of script editors at the BBC who told me this would work and that wouldn’t work and maybe she should have a dog…’ It was why Jennifer started handing in scripts late, because ‘if you deliver them ahead of time, everyone starts giving you notes… so you don’t control the sense of what is for yourself.’

Jennifer Saunders
Jennifer with her dog Olive. Dress, Tibi, from Shoes, Rupert Sanderson. Image: Matthew Eades

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about imposter syndrome, I say.

‘Oh, is there?’ Jennifer asks. ‘What is it?’

It’s the feeling that you don’t belong where you are, that someone is going to find you out and discover you’re a fraud.

‘Oh, that’s every actor!’

Does she feel it as a comedian? ‘No. I think you get to where you are and you deserve your place there. To be honest, if you can make people laugh, you hear it. You know it’s there. If you get to the stage where you don’t get laughs you think, “Blimey, I’m doing something wrong.” You get immediate feedback.’

As a child, Jennifer and her three brothers moved around a lot. Her father Robert was a pilot in the RAF and her mother Jane a biology teacher, and the family were posted to different air bases around the world. Jennifer changed schools frequently, and I ask her if she developed her comedic skills as a way of making friends quickly and being accepted in each new place. ‘No,’ she says. ‘I don’t think I was ever a performer. I just detached myself. I never felt lonely. I was often more happy in my own company than with a big gang. I think it makes you clever at sussing out who to be with and it sort of makes you good at being friends with quite a lot of people… just moving between the groups without necessarily making a huge fuss.

‘I was always in a dream world. I used to love getting the bus to school because it meant you could just get into your own little daydream. The best thing was just being on your own.’ 

Jennifer Saunders
Coat, Marina Rinaldi. Image: Matthew Eades

Does she think she’s an introvert?

‘Yes. I think I’m more introvert than extrovert. I think as life goes on you cope with social situations better and I find I talk a lot more these days. I mean, 20 years ago I’d have jammed up by now,’ she grins – she used to hate interviews. ‘But as you get older you just get chattier.’

In fact, when Jennifer first met Dawn French at the Central School of Speech and Drama, where they were both students, Dawn found her aloof and uptight. Jennifer, for her part, had Dawn pigeonholed as ‘a cocky little upstart’.

Jennifer snorts when I remind her of this.

‘Yeah. I probably was… I wasn’t particularly fussed about anything.’

Still, they managed to overcome their initial antipathy and became close – later forming a double act and joining the informal comedy collective The Comic Strip, which until that point had consisted of only male performers. One of the male stand-ups was Ade Edmondson; he and Jennifer were friends for six years before they became romantically involved. 

The couple have been married for 34 years. When I ask her what the secret is to staying together, she jokes that it’s ‘moving a lot’ – the couple have two bases: the Devon farmhouse and a London pied-à-terre in Bayswater. Jennifer’s favourite pastime is ‘shopping for houses on the internet without ever thinking I’m going to move. I just go, “Ooh, that’s quite nice! I wonder what sort of life that would be…” You know? I’ve sworn to Ade we’re not moving again.’

Jennifer Saunders
Coat, Emporio Armani, Shirt, Joseph. Trousers, Marina Rinaldi. Necklace and ring, Deborah Blyth. Image: Matthew Eades

For someone with such a sharp sense of humour, Jennifer is far more gentle in person than I’d anticipated. As a couple, do they tend to avoid conflict? ‘We do. I think compromise is one of the great things in life… just forget it, just move on. Ade loves stoicism. He’s a great stoic and reads a lot of books on it. I think it’s a fantastic thing, which is if you can’t affect it, move on. 

‘There’s this constant idea that we all deserve something. You know, “Oh, I deserve to be happy.” Do you? I don’t think any of us deserve anything. I think we make our lives and we make them happy or sad, or things happen that make them that… There is a danger in thinking that life owes you. Because it will come back and slap you in the face, always.’

When Jennifer was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, it was this attitude that saw her through. She underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy and had a chemically induced menopause during treatment. But to hear her talk about it now, you would be forgiven for thinking it was a mild bout of flu. ‘My mother is very, “Just get on with it. Come on. Pull your socks up,”’ she says. ‘And the doctor is telling you, “It’s going to be fine, and here’s what we’re going to do.” And you think, “All right, fine, here we go.” And it becomes your job for about six months. You just do it, you get through it. The worst thing is coping with other people’s reaction. It is what it is. You get on with it. So your hair falls out! Worse things happen.’

But she was also helped through it by her female friends – she still refers fondly to Joanna Lumley as ‘me old mucker’ and she and Dawn are currently filming an adaptation of Death on the Nile, directed by Kenneth Branagh.

Jennifer Saunders Joanna Lumley
With her ‘old mucker’ Joanna Lumley at the 2017 TV Baftas. Image: David Fisher/REX/Shutterstock

‘It’s lovely,’ Jennifer says. ‘I’m having the best time because a van picks us up – Dawn then me – and takes us into Longcross Studios [in Surrey, where they are filming]. It’s an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening and we talk the whole way. Sometimes we repeat conversations we’ve enjoyed! We’ve had hours of travel and nonstop yak. The driver must be thinking, “Do they ever stop talking?” And this is from five o’clock in the morning. Even then we’re just like, “And, anyway…” It can be Michelle Visage on Strictly to personal problems… anything. Just yak, yak, yak. 

‘Female friendship is really important to me. I love my friends. Most of my life is spent with women, talking with women. I also have three daughters, who I see a lot. I think women get on with women in a very untricky way and it’s not often presented like that.’

Why does she think that is? ‘It’s a way of keeping women down. And also to set women against each other. Of course there are rivalries: men have rivalries, everyone has rivalries, but in most female friendships, they’re incredibly supportive of each other and they have an extraordinary amount of fun.’

And it’s true that an hour in her company has felt exactly like a gossipy, supportive catch-up with a thoughtful friend.

‘Bye, darling,’ she says when I leave, having knocked back the last of her gin and tonic.

As she would say: it’s been an extraordinary amount of fun.

The Stranger will start streaming on Netflix on 30 January. Blithe Spirit is on UK tour from 22 January and at the Duke of York’s Theatre, West End from 5 March to 11 April.