SAUNDERS, JENNIFER

British Actor

Since the early 1980s, Jennifer Saunders has been a popular and influential figure in British television comedy. Her success stems from her involvement as both a performer in, and writer of, several comedy shows which have been heralded as innovative by critics and received as hugely entertaining by audiences.

Saunders established her career as part of a double act with Dawn French on the live comedy circuit in the late 1970s. She and French, who have remained collaborators on many projects since, made their initial impact whilst on tour in 1981 with The Comic Strip, a group consisting of several young comedians performing an alternative, innovative form of comedy. The group were rapidly transferred to television, appropriately making their debut on Channel Four's opening night in November 1982. Throughout the 1980s the original members appeared in The Comic Strip Presents... in which they wrote, directed, and performed a series of narratives satirising a variety of genre themes. The programme set a precedent for the so-called alternative comedy of the 1980s, won critical approval, and was awarded a Golden Rose at the Montreux Festival.

Saunders' and French's role within this group was particularly significant in that the two succeeded in providing much more complex and interesting female characters than had been hitherto been offered by television comedy. They placed their characters in opposition to the traditional representations of women in British television comedy--such as the sexual accessories of The Benny Hill Show, the domesticated, subservient wife of The Good Life and the nag of Fawlty Towers. Saunders' and French's very presence in The Comic Strip Presents... was a timely intrusion into a realm of comedy previously the exclusive domain of male performers, from Monty Python to the double acts of the 1970s: Morecombe and Wise and Little and Large.

The autonomy women were gaining was confirmed in French and Saunders. This show, the first series of which was screened on the BBC in 1987, presented the pair as partners combining stand-up and sketches. French and Saunders offered a uniquely feminine version of British comedy (unique, with the notable exception of Victoria Wood As Seen On TV, first screened in 1985). Their writing and acting focused directly, and with hilarious results, on a female experience. Many of the scenes worked to reinforce the centrality of women's talk and to parody the position and representations of women in the media.

It was out of a French and Saunders sketch that Jennifer Saunders conceived of and developed possibly her most prolific work, Absolutely Fabulous. Saunders has written and starred in three six-part series of Absolutely Fabulous (BBC, 1992, 1994 and 1995) which have achieved uniformly high viewing figures as well as critical acclaim. In some respects a domestic sitcom, Absolutely Fabulous satirises the matriarchal household of fashion P.R. executive, Edina Monsoon (Saunders) and the women around her, including her unruly best friend, Patsy (Joanna Lumley) and long-suffering daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha). Because Absolutely Fabulous remains an unusual example of a peak-time situation comedy written by women, with a predominantly female cast and a specific address to a female audience, it provides rare viewing pleasures of self-recognition and humour to women. In addition to having feminist concerns at the core of its structure and themes, it stresses the artificiality surrounding "womanliness," and celebrates gender as a complex social and cultural construction.

In terms of her writing and performance, Jennifer Saunders may be considered to have had some influence on raising the profile of female comedians in television, leading the way for others such as Jo Brand and Dawn French in her solo series, Murder Most Horrid. Saunders took on her first non-comedy role for a BBC drama, Heroes and Villains (1995), a period piece based on the true life of Lady Hester Stanhope, an eccentric 19th century traveller. As well as revealing a further talent for dramatic acting, the show crystallises Saunders TV persona, and arguably her role in British television, as an independent and powerful woman.

-Nicola Foster

 


Jennifer Saunders
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Saunders

JENNIFER SAUNDERS. Born in Sleaford, Lincolnshire, England, 12 July 1958. Attended Central School of Speech and Drama. Married: Adrian Edmondson; children: Ella, Beattie and Freya. Formed cabaret partnership with comedian Dawn French, the Comedy Store, London; appeared in the Comic Strip series, early 1980s, and subsequently in French and Saunders sketch show and, without French, in Absolutely Fabulous. Address: Peters Fraser and Dunlop, Fifth Floor, The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, Lots Road, London SW10 0XF, England.

TELEVISION SERIES

1982-92 The Comic Strip Presents (Five Go Mad in
             Dorset, Five Go Mad on Mescalin; Slags;              Summer School; Private Enterprise; Consuela;
             Mr Jolly Lives Next Door; Bad News Tour; South
             Atlantic Raiders; G.L.C., Oxford, Spaghetti
             Hoops, Le Kiss, Wild Turkey, Demonella,
             Jealousy; The Strike)

1985 Happy Families
1985-86 Girls on Top (also co-writer)
1987- French and Saunders
1992-96 Absolutely Fabulous

FILM

The Supergrass, 1985.

PUBLICATION

Absolutely Fabulous. New York: Pocket, 1995.

 

See also Absolutely Fabulous; British Programming; French, Dawn; Wood, Victoria