Jennifer Saunders: ‘I’ve always wanted to do an Ab Fab musical’

Comedy superstar JENNIFER SAUNDERS tells Julia Llewellyn Smith about her enduring friendships with Dawn French and Joanna Lumley, the key to her 37-year marriage – and why she’d love to drag Patsy and Edina on stage in the Instagram age

PHOTOGRAPHS: CHRIS FLOYD FASHION EDITOR: SOPHIE DEARDEN

Jennifer Saunders is chatting about her clothes-shopping habits. ‘It’s so awful; I buy something, thinking “I will wear this when I’m thinner”, and it never happens. I end up having to cut labels out before I give it to charity because it’s too embarrassing to have them know I’ve never worn it…’ Suddenly she breaks off and leaps to her feet, shouting, ‘Oh God, she’s going to be sick!’

Before you can say ‘sweetie, darling’, the woman behind two of our most beloved comedies – French and Saunders and Absolutely Fabulous – is throwing herself across the room to hold a bowl under her 12-year-old whippet Olive’s snout. As a colleague offers to help take over the cleaning, Jennifer insists on washing up. ‘It must have been the treat she had this morning,’ she says, returning with a much perkier-looking dog. ‘Poor thing.’

This incident says a lot about Jennifer, 63: she is not remotely starry, in a crisis she’s both decisive and calm, and the woman with a rapier wit is – at heart – a softie.

You hear that sweetness again in her voice when she talks about her grandchildren. There are five of them – two girls and three boys, aged between nine and a few months old. ‘They’re just divine,’ she says. She and her husband of 37 years – Ade Edmondson, 65, of The Young Ones and Bottom fame – have them to stay at their Devon home (they also have a London bolthole) whenever possible.

What’s it like wrangling boys, after bringing up three girls (Ella, 36, Beattie, 34, and
Freya, 31)? ‘Boys are absolutely gorgeous. They’re outside a lot, in shorts in the middle of winter. They just don’t feel the cold. They’re incredible. And they’re so emotional. They need you to watch them doing things, they really like your involvement. While girls are slightly more: “No, we’re fine. You can go.”’

Jennifer Saunders
Jennifer wears coat, Palmer/Harding. Trousers, Ganni, from theoutnet.com. Shoes, Manolo Blahnik. Ring, Monica Vinader. Necklace, Tilly Sveaas

Family life is clearly everything to Jennifer. She and Ade strove to give their daughters as grounded an upbringing as possible. ‘We keep why we are working at the forefront of our minds. Making sure our kids are happy and having a nice time is more important to us than anything.’ The couple never brought work home with them nor watched themselves on telly. ‘I’ve never wanted to do that,’ she says. ‘It takes a sort of Kardashian mindset to want to look at yourself and go, “Oh, if only I’d moved my head that way. Next time remind me I must do this…” If you think that way you just become idiotic.’

As for the secret of her long marriage? ‘We’re lucky, neither of us really likes arguing,’ she laughs. ‘We just mess about and make jokes. I’m very unconfrontational.’

Jennifer Saunders

She’s equally mellow with her friends. In more than 40 years of knowing Dawn French, her long-term comedy partner, the two have never had a row. ‘There’s no point,’ she shrugs. ‘We both know any good friendship is about compromise. If you dig your heels in, what’s the point? What do you want so badly it’s worth risking the career and the friendship for?’

This laid-back approach was instilled in Jennifer and her three brothers by her father Tom, an RAF pilot whom she lost to cancer several years ago, and mother Jane, a biology teacher, who – Jennifer tells me with a grimace – died just before Christmas. ‘She was in her late 80s; she lived near me in Devon, my brothers and I were able to look after her during Covid, we all managed to avoid the dreaded bug. She was very easy-going and my father was very funny. Humour was a big thing growing up. When I got home from school I would imitate someone from my class, or someone I’d seen on the bus. Making someone laugh was always a good thing.’

In Dawn French, she found a kindred spirit. The pair met at drama school, and although first impressions weren’t great (Jennifer found Dawn ‘a cocky little upstart’; Dawn thought Jennifer was ‘posh’), they’ve remained friends ever since. ‘We’ve always just enjoyed messing about together. It’s a myth that every time two women are in something together, they have to be bitchy about each other.’

The pair keep in touch mainly on WhatsApp and still occasionally perform together – most recently in Kenneth Branagh’s film of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. Could she imagine her and Dawn perhaps sharing a house in their dotage? ‘It wouldn’t be an awful thing at all. Probably we’d be fine, as long as we had carers. We’d need carers. Otherwise I think I’d drive Dawn mad because we’re quite different personalities: she’s more organised, I’m more sleepy…’

Jennifer Saunders

On the day we meet, Jennifer is relaxed and cheery, and looks… well, absolutely fabulous. Her blonde hair is perfectly highlighted and her skin is amazingly peachy. It’s easy, then, to forget that she was struck low with breast cancer in 2009. Characteristically, for one who hates fuss and bother, she simply got on with it, refusing to allow the illness to take over her life. After the ‘all clear’ she has continued this way, making few changes to her lifestyle as a sop to the cancer; her exercise regime, for example, is the minimum she can get away with. ‘I just do a bit in the garden and take the dog for walks, to try to stop the stiffness,’ she says.

Those walks have recently been enlivened by Jennifer’s singing – as she warms up for her latest starring role as Mother Superior, in this summer’s stage production of the musical Sister Act during the show’s Manchester and London runs.

Jennifer Saunders
In Sister Act with Beverley Knight

‘I’ve never done a musical before, so when I met the other stars [Beverley Knight, Clive Rowe and Keala Settle, who sang The Greatest Showman’s ‘This Is Me’] I did think “Blimey”. But Keala said, “Singing’s nothing. Singing’s just shouting in pitch.” So I thought, “There you go.” Now I’m going on a lot of walks and doing a lot of shouting in pitch in places where no one can hear me.’

What does she sing? ‘[Songs from] Evita. It’s always been my favourite musical. But while once I sang Julie Covington’s part [Evita], now I sing David Essex’s [Che] because my voice has dropped so much.’

Jennifer’s a lifelong musicals buff. ‘I’ve always wanted to do an Ab Fab musical,’ she admits. She and her co-star, Dame Joanna Lumley, 75, who played acerbic Patsy to Jennifer’s daffy Edina, have been discussing the idea for years.

‘We were talking about it again just the other day. I love the idea of Patsy breaking the fourth wall [acknowledging the audience], and being just fascinated by the crowd throughout, which no one else on stage can see. We’d do songs from the 60s and 70s and, as neither of us can really sing, we’d do a bit of drag-queen lip-syncing.’ Jennifer chuckles gleefully at the prospect.

‘But I think we’ve decided we’re too old. Someone was telling me their kids were now watching Ab Fab and enjoying it and I thought, “If we [do the musical] and they see how old we are, it would ruin it for a whole new generation.” Also I couldn’t have all the surgery Edina would have had by now.’

Jennifer Saunders
Jennifer with Joanna Lumley in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, 2016

Last year, Jennifer said she wasn’t sure if Ab Fab, which first aired in 1992, and shamelessly celebrated Eddie and Patsy’s drunken hedonism, would work in today’s politically correct climate. ‘The difference now is everything you say goes everywhere on the internet and people pick things apart and take things the wrong way. They’d say, “How can you be mean about Twiggy?” People just don’t get the joke any more. I mean, Patsy and Eddie are not role models, for f***’s sake. They’re idiots! So you think, “Oh God, is it worth it?”’

However, Jennifer can’t shake the idea and her lips twitch with mirth as she imagines a 21st-century Patsy and Eddie. ‘Edina would be addicted to Instagram. Everywhere she goes, she’d be asking her assistant, “Bubble! Photograph me here. Do I look good? Thin me! Take that bit out! Patsy, get out, I’m doing a TikTok!” It would drive everyone mad.’

Whisper it, sweetie, darling, but I think that terrible twosome will be causing offence again very soon.

JEN IN TEN

Patsy or Eddie? Patsy

Agatha Christie or Scandi noir? Agatha Christie

Cat or dog? Dog

Flowers or plants? Flowers

WhatsApp or phone call? Phone call, but these days they almost never happen

Champagne or tea? Champagne

Bach or Beatles? Beatles

Netflix or nightclub? Netflix

Luddite or techie? Techie

Cheese or cake? Cheese

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