Jennifer Saunders interview transcript

Interview Rupert Smith

The new series is as much old stuff as we can squish into the time, plus about a third new material. We went through all the old tapes and decided what we definitely didn’t want to show, then more or less left it up to the directors to edit it. Most of the sketches are too long – people don’t have the same patience now, they don’t want to hang around that long. It’s been compacted. We went through every sketch and put them into categories – very funny, not that funny, absolute disaster.

Not much of the French and Saunders stuff is available on video, they’ve only ever released best ofs. So a lot of this hasn’t been seen for a long time. But looking back over it, even the old stuff, it seemed very familiar, because Dawn and I are still in the same mental space. It’s still just messing about with your best friend. Some of it seems cringingly naïve, but it’s quite jolly because of that.

We’ve come a long way in some ways, and in other ways not at all. When we did the first series, we really thought we knew it all. We came along thinking “God, isn’t TV boring, and aren’t we clever?”. We were so amazingly wrong. We imagined that we were taking the piss out of old fashioned variety shows; it was meant to be a sort of backstage show, taking the piss out of the whole light entertainment industry. We didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t know about monitors, or editing, or anything really. We learned a lot, very quickly.

French and Saunders started out on BBC2, then it went to BBC1 and got much bigger budgets. The kind of budgets that you can only dream of nowadays. We could never make anything that looked so good now – we couldn’t afford the sets or the film stock.

We didn’t really have a double act at first; we were just two girls who were doing character comedy. We had to give ourselves a name, and we had to find characters to go with that. Dawn has always been the cheeky, naughty one, and I have always been the straight one, because basically I find it a lot easier to look cross.

My favourite sketches are the white room things. They’re quite surreal. I loved the fact that we could do that on BBC1 at primetime – that we could basically do a BBC2 show on BBC1, doing exactly what we wanted to do. We always started off with what made us laugh, whether it was flicking through Hello! Magazine or talking about people that we’d seen in the street, and we managed to make other people laugh about it as well. It didn’t always work, but when it did it was great. Those white room sketches were always recorded live, and that’s my favourite way of working. The big movie and TV spoofs don’t have the same spontaneity.

When we were doing the movie and TV spoofs, we knew that everyone would have seen the things that we were parodying. Now, people don’t watch the same things at all. You can just about get away with doing something on The X Factor, and maybe with Big Brother, but there’s nothing else that everyone knows.

I love the Fellini parody, because Dawn was so funny in it – although of all our movie parodies it’s probably the one people like least. And I love the Bergman one. How did we have the fucking nerve? But somehow it encapsulated the impression everyone had of a Bergman movie, even if they’d never seen one in their lives.

We never really got into trouble at the BBC, even when we were taking the piss out of BBC shows like Noel’s House Party. People don’t really talk to each other at the BBC, which can be a good thing sometimes. So I don’t think there were many complaints, or if there were we never heard about them. The only person who did take offence was Amanda Burton, when we did a parody of Silent Witness, called Witless Silence. I don’t think she was very amused. But we generally ask people to come on and be with us, to be part of the joke, and usually they really enjoy it. Look at Helen Mirren. I think putting her in a really bad sitcom gave her career a bit of a leg-up.

Our gay audience is fantastic. I can’t honestly tell you why we’re so popular with gay people. I hope it’s because we’re a bit different. Being gay is not an issue for us, and generally we like to have camp fun. And maybe it’s because we don’t give a shit. Dawn and I are obviously just gay men in disguise: look at the people we’ve had on the show, or that we’ve impersonated. Your Lizas, your Dustys. We’re totally in love with all gay icons. I’ve done Marlene Dietrich. I mean, she’s one of my favourite performers. How gay is that?

The material in the shows, the subject matter, is whatever we talk about when we meet. When we’re doing a show, we get together and talk for three days solid. We have lunch, we flick through magazines, we talk about whatever is happening in our lives, and that’s what goes into the shows. We’ve gone from remembering our own youth to observing the youth of our own children. And Dawn really can’t get away with playing a teenager any more. The definition on TV is so harsh now.

What’s changed most in the years we’ve been doing the show is celebrity culture. Celebrities are what we all know about now, not films of TV shows. They’re the common currency.

I don’t know what the future is for French and Saunders. We’re looking for new things to do. We won’t be doing another sketch series.

My new series, The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle, is coming out in October. It’s written with psychologist Tanya Byron. It’s an unusual sort of comedy drama – I don’t know what to call it really, but it hasn’t got a laugh track. I play a TV talk show host, a person who takes herself quite seriously. It’s a little examination of someone’s life. Miranda Richardson is in it, and a lot of other great actors.