Jennifer Jane Saunders is a BAFTA and Emmy Award-winning English comedian, screenwriter and actress.
She first came into widespread attention in the 1980s and the early 1990s when she became a member of The Comic Strip after graduating from the Central School of Speech and Drama. Along with her comedy partner Dawn French, she proceeded to write and star in their eponymous sketch show, French & Saunders, and received international acclaim for writing and playing the lead role of Edina Monsoon in the BBC sitcom Absolutely Fabulous.
In her other work, she has guest starred in the US-made sitcoms Roseanne and Friends, and won the American People's Choice Award for voicing the wicked Fairy Godmother in DreamWorks' animated Shrek 2. More recently, she has written and starred in Jam & Jerusalem and The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle.
Saunders was born and raised to a middle-class family in Sleaford, Lincolnshire, of French and English heritage, in 1958. Her mother worked as a biology teacher, and her father served in the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a pilot and reached the rank of Air Marshal. He then went on to work for British Aerospace. Because her father was in the armed forces, Saunders moved to different schools many times. She was educated from the age of five to eighteen in boarding schools. After school, she worked for a year in Italy as an au pair.
She later received a place at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London on a drama teachers' course in 1977, where she met her future comedy partner, Dawn French. Both came from RAF backgrounds. They had grown up on the same base, even having had the same best friend, without ever meeting. At first, as far as Saunders was concerned, French was a "cocky little upstart". The hatred was mutual; French considered Saunders snooty and uptight. The comic duo originally did not get on well as French actually wanted to become a drama teacher, whereas Saunders loathed the idea and had not understood fully what the course was about; thus, she disliked French for being enthusiastic and confident about the course. Saunders was shocked to find that she was studying to become a teacher as her mother had filled out the application form. Her mother however, was saddened when Saunders chose not to apply for an Oxbridge university education.
After the initial dislike, both Saunders and French shared a flat together whilst at college. French has remarked on Saunders' messy habits when sharing a house, stating "When we lived together in Chalk Farm she had a room at the top of the house. We got broken into and the police said, 'Well, it is quite bad, but the worst is that room at the top.' And, of course, nobody had been in there." The two later performed together after graduation, working the festival, cabaret, and stand-up circuits. They formed a double-act called The Menopause Sisters. Saunders described the act as "cringeworthy", which involved wearing tampons in their ears. The manager of the club where they performed recalled, "They didn't seem to give a damn. There was no star quality about them at all."
Rise to fame
Saunders and French would eventually come to public attention as members of the informal comedy collective The Comic Strip, part of the alternative comedy scene in the early 1980s. What brought them ultimate success was when they answered a 1980 advert in The Stage newspaper for female artists to become part of the unknown The Comic Strip Presents. They commented that they walked into the audition and they immediately said "You're booked".
Both Saunders and French became founding and ongoing members of The Comic Strip, along with many of the comedians who were to become their generation's most well-known comedy performers, including Peter Richardson, Rik Mayall, and Robbie Coltrane, as well as Saunders' future husband Adrian Edmondson. The group performed at Soho's Raymond Review Bar with regular guests Jack Nicholson and Robin Williams. By the time Saunders and French became members of The Comic Strip, French was already working as a drama teacher, whilst Saunders was on the dole and spending a lot of her time sleeping in bed.
Her first exposure to a wider audience occurred when comedy producer Martin Lewis recorded a Comic Strip record album in Spring 1981 and featured skits by French & Saunders. The album was released on Springtime!/Island Records in September 1981. It was the first recording to feature Saunders and presented her and comedic partner Dawn French to an audience outside London. In 1980, Julien Temple filmed a documentary-style film on The Comic Strip, starring Saunders playing a coy, upper class, vulnerable girl looking for her fame-hungry and attention-seeking prostitute sister.
The comedy group appeared on Channel 4's first night on air, in the first episode of The Comic Strip Presents: Five Go Mad In Dorset, broadcast on 2 November 1982. In the episodes "Bad News" and "More Bad News", Saunders plays a trashy rock journalist touring with the fictional heavy metal band Bad News. In 1985, Saunders starred in and co-wrote Girls On Top with French, Tracey Ullman and Ruby Wax, which portrayed four eccentric women sharing a flat in London. Saunders also appeared in Ben Elton's Happy Families where she played various members of the same family, including all four Fuddle sisters in the six-episode BBC situation comedy. Dawn French, Stephen Fry, and Chris Langham also appeared.
Saunders starred with her future husband Adrian Edmondson in a Comic Strip film called The Supergrass, a little-known parody of slick 1980s police dramas directed by Peter Richardson. She also appeared twice as guest on The Young Ones, in which Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson were two of the main stars.
In 1987, she and French created French & Saunders, a popular sketch comedy series for the BBC, which is still shown sporadically to this day. By the end of the 1980s, the show was an established comedy programme and became a staple in BBC viewing. In their vast amount of comedy sketches, they have parodied many well-known figures such as Cher, Madonna, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and films such as Alien and Titanic. Saunders has appeared in Amnesty International's The Secret Policeman's Biggest Ball live benefit in 1989, along with Dawn French and others.
Both Saunders and French proceeded to follow separate careers as well as maintaining their comedy sketch show. Saunders' biggest solo success to date is Absolutely Fabulous. The comedy was in fact based largely on a fourteen minute French & Saunders sketch called "Modern Mother and Daughter". Saunders and French were going to star in the comedy together, but just as the studio had been booked, French received a long-awaited phone call confirming that an adoption agency had a new baby for her to adopt. Saunders proceeded to star in the comedy. The series, which she created, wrote, and starred in as the irresponsible and impossible fashion PR agent Edina Monsoon alongside Joanna Lumley who played Patsy Stone, brought her international acclaim and attention. The show ran for five full series over the course of about thirteen years from 1992 to 2005, with there being an additional two-part film and three special episodes. During Absolutely Fabulous, stars such as Elton John made guest appearances. The series is also known as Ab Fab and was broadcast in America on Comedy Central and BBC America, becoming cult viewing.
Saunders has appeared on the American-made sitcoms Roseanne and Friends. In the Friends episodes "The One After Ross Says Rachel" and "The One with Ross's Wedding" in 1998, she played the stepmother of Emily, Ross Geller's fiancée. Her character, Andrea Waltham, was not excited about the wedding, where she and her husband tried to get as much money out of the in-laws as possible. In 1999 she appeared alongside French in Let Them Eat Cake.
In less than a year Saunders has written three new series. She firstly began working on two series of Jam & Jerusalem, which is about a Women's Institute. Saunders stated "I wanted to write something about the sort of community I was living in, why it works and how different it was. How life in the country didn’t have to be sinister." The first series of Jam & Jerusalem started airing on BBC One on 24 November 2006, and later aired on BBC America in the United States as Clatterford.
As of 4 October 2007 she starred in BBC Two's The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle about a neurotic talk show host. Saunders played a horrific daytime host whose programme features crude headlines such as "Wife a slapper? Lie detector reveals all." and "I want a vagina". She wrote the new series with psychologist Tanya Byron. Also in 2007, after twenty years of Saunders and French being on television together, the last French & Saunders series aired. It featured a compilation of old and new sketches and was entitled A Bucket o' French & Saunders, which began airing on BBC One in September 2007. It was the third show she had written in a year. Saunders commented "We'll find a different way for French and Saunders to be on television, but the sketch format is a bit tired. There are plenty of other sketch shows on. We've done it, and we've done it well." In late 2008, French and Saunders took their final bow the last night of their Farewell Tour, French and Saunders Still Alive: 2008.
She appeared on BBC Two's Top Gear on 25 November 2007 in the "Star in a Reasonably-Priced Car" slot, and achieved 1:46.1s in a lap of the track in the Chevrolet Lacetti, placing her in second-place at the time of broadcast behind Simon Cowell, who had appeared just a week earlier and posted the then fasted lap time. She is currently listed in fourth, behind Jay Kay, Kevin McCloud and Simon Cowell.
Saunders has also appeared in several films during her comedy career, such as Fanny & Elvis in 1999, starring Kerry Fox and Ray Winstone. She is also in the minority of English actresses who appear in French films also. She made a cameo appearance alongside Catherine Deneuve in a French film based on Absolutely Fabulous in 2001, which also starred Petra Nemcova and Jean Paul Gaultier. She then appeared in In the Bleak Midwinter in 1995 directed by Kenneth Branagh, and in 1996 she had a role in Muppet Treasure Island. She also made a cameo appearance in the Spice Girls' movie Spiceworld in 1997. The Spice Girls returned the favour to her by appearing on French and Saunders, and Emma Bunton (Baby Spice) had a recurring role as herself on the fifth season of Absolutely Fabulous.
She most notably appeared in the internationally successful DreamWorks animated movie Shrek 2 in 2004, voicing Princess Fiona's evil Fairy Godmother and performing the song "Holding Out for a Hero". Her part took four days to record. The sequel broke the first Shrek's own box office record in the U.S in just a fortnight, and it proceeded to make $353 million in just three weeks in the U.S. Her role won the American People's Choice Award for the best movie villain in 2005. She will voice Miss Spink in the upcoming animated film Coraline, in which Dawn French will also voice a character called Miss Forcible.
Saunders married her Comic Strip partner Adrian Edmondson on 11 May 1985. They have three daughters: Eleanor "Ella" (born 22 January 1986), Beatrice "Beattie" (born 19 June 1987), and Freya (born 16 October 1990). Beatrice has followed in her father's footsteps and is studying drama at Manchester University., and Freya appears as Saunders' onscreen daughter in Jam & Jerusalem. Eleanor is a musician whose songs are featured in the show and has made a cameo appearance.
She currently lives in a £1 million property with five acres of land in Chagford, Devon, having moved from London. Edmondson and Saunders were estimated to be worth £11 million in 2002.
Awards and recognition
Along with Dawn French, Saunders declined an OBE in 2001. In 2003, she was listed in The Observer as one of the 50 funniest acts in British comedy. Saunders placed 93rd out of E!'s 100 Sexiest British Stars. She also came 18th for Best British Role Models for teenage girls in Britain according to Good Housekeeping magazine. Saunders was awarded with an honorary doctorate from the University of Exeter in July 2007. According to Forbes magazine, Saunders is the 26th most influential female British export. In 2005, she was named the fourth funniest woman in Britain in a poll of 4,000 women. To date, she has been nominated for and received many awards throughout her comedy career including: