‘The funniest stuff is just chatting’: Jennifer Saunders on coping with modern life and why family comes first

​Within the space of just 10 minutes, Jennifer Saunders has shared three anecdotes, and rather than the stuff of the anecdotes themselves, it’s their balance – of glamour, glee and Britishness – that paints a distinct portrait of someone quite happy to dip into stardom and showbiz just so long as they’re home in time for tea. The first is about the night Roseanne Barr took Saunders and Joanna Lumley to meet an ageing Richard Pryor in a Los Angeles comedy club. The second is about the time Goldie Hawn flew her to New York to read a script Saunders was meant to have written, when Saunders had fully intended (but failed) to write the whole thing on the plane. And the third is about her current hobby, riding an electric bike through the Cornish lanes near her home, in search of interesting postboxes. “Yes, interesting postboxes.”

We’re sitting at right angles to each other, Saunders, at 64, elegant in cashmere and clompy boots, stroking a dignified whippet called Olive. The placing of the sofas is such that she is able to avoid looking directly at me, and I think this is how she likes it. Previous interviewers have sometimes described her as cold, but I get the impression instead that she is reserved, maybe a little shy, which I respect in a multi-award-winning movie star.

“So I look at the postboxes and I think, ‘Wasn’t life simple,’” she says. She counts the ways, tutting: the unprivatised water, the lack of TV subscriptions. Now she moans about the recent necessity for superfast broadband,“in order to simply do our banking, because there aren’t any banks and/or post offices left and yet we’re supposed to think the world’s getting easier? All this money going to big corporations with billionaire owners. So, I like the postboxes. They’re not going to send me an email saying: ‘How was your experience?’ Then, ‘You haven’t answered the survey.’” She continues in a threatening voice: “‘CAN YOU ANSWER THE SURVEY, PLEASE?’ It drives me nuts.” She cackles at her grumbling.

There is more grumbling to come, but her trick is to grumble using very funny voices and then to move on quickly. We’re meeting to discuss her role in Allelujah, a starry ensemble comedy set in a Yorkshire geriatric hospital, based on the stage play by Alan Bennett, to be released just before the 75th anniversary of the NHS. “If it hadn’t been Richard Eyre directing it, I might have thought twice, because it looked quite difficult to me. Quite active ‘acting’ – whereas I feel I’m a comedian.”

‘I get offered really nice things, bits and bobs, little films – I couldn’t be happier’: Jennifer Saunders wears dress and coat by uk-store.isseymiyake.com; heels and bag by schiaparelli.com; and earrings by lovenesslee.com.
‘I get offered really nice things, bits and bobs, little films – I couldn’t be happier’: Jennifer Saunders wears dress and coat by uk-store.isseymiyake.com; heels and bag by schiaparelli.com; and earrings by lovenesslee.com. Photograph: Jason Hetherington/The Observer

The daughter of an RAF captain, moving between eight schools before settling in Cheshire in her teens, Saunders met Dawn French on a drama-teaching course in the late 1970s. They formed a comedy double act, first called the Menopause Sisters, then French and Saunders (she posted a picture of a flyer for an early gig on Instagram, a “revue of zany humour, sophistication and vulgarity” – £3, supper included) and went on to work solidly as a comedian for the next 30 years, making era-defining shows like Absolutely Fabulous, with brief intervals to marry The Young OnesAdrian Edmondson, have three daughters, turn down an OBE (she didn’t feel she deserved it, simply for being silly) and become a national treasure.

But in the last couple of years, she has dipped a toe into “active acting” with roles in a Harlan Coban drama, The Stranger, on Netflix, and Kenneth Branagh’s recent adaptation of Death on the Nile (in which, thrillingly, she and French played secret lovers). In France, Richard Eyre tells me later, they “have this distinction between comédien and acteur which is basically a class distinction – oddly the comédian is thought to be superior to the acteur. We have it the other way round.” He sees Saunders, though, as both. “She’s a wonderfully funny comic actor, but she is funny and truthful because she doesn’t comment on the characters she plays. Self-aware without being self-conscious.”

‘I’m quite unengaged sometimes’: Jennifer Saunders wears dress, trousers, nail polish, shoes, all loewe.com; and earrings completedworks.com.
‘I’m quite unengaged sometimes’: Jennifer Saunders wears dress, trousers, nail polish, shoes, all loewe.com; and earrings completedworks.com. Photograph: Jason Hetherington/The Observer

In Allelujah, a story about the NHS and social care, Saunders is Sister Gilpin, “the ultimate pragmatist,” she smiles, “with a unique solution to the NHS’s problems.” There is a twist to the story, and for a film sold as a comedy, it is profoundly sad. When she watched the film for the first time, Saunders admits, she “howled” with tears.

Partly because, “when I was growing up, 70 was old”. She looks at me with wide ‘can you imagine’ eyes. “But now we’re all living an extra 20 years, which means a lot more people in the NHS and it’s not a matter of just coping with it. I think everything’s really got to be re-thought from the bottom up.” Does she mean the NHS, or politics itself? “Well, both actually! There used to be the idea that politicians would have integrity. Pride. And now it seems it’s all personal ambition. Money-oriented greed. And I don’t know how you get back from here.” Since social media, most of us supposedly “can’t say anything”, she says pointedly, remembering a recent interview where she discussed the “sensitivity” of today’s comedy audiences and it was reported widely, much to her dismay, as an old lady groaning at “wokeness”. “And yet, politicians get away with anything! Having offshore accounts, being seen to basically steal or lie. It’s just shameless. But people still seem interested in listening to Liz Truss and Boris Johnson. Why are we still even mentioning their names? I find that unbelievable. Seriously, it’s just beyond me now. But then – a lot of things become beyond you. You know, you start to think is it the world? Or is it just me?”

Here is how Saunders spends her days: she wakes around 7.30am (her daughter’s family are living with them at the moment – their grandchildren call her “Jam Jar”), makes a coffee and begins the serious work of puzzling. She begins with Wordle, then Worldle (where you must guess the country) – “It’s 200 miles from Chad, I must know this!” – then Quordle (there are four words to guess), then the New York Times’s Spelling Bee, then the Guardian’s Wordiply. Is this a mindfulness thing, I ask. “No, it’s really just that I’m very competitive.” And that she is trying to avoid becoming sucked into Instagram, before lunchtime at least. It’s social media that made her realise, “The world’s become very petty and at the same time desperate to pick up on pettiness.” And this is one of the things she grumbles about, except again, it’s presented like a little skit, and the effect is charming.

‘I’m good at moving on’: dress by tallermarmo.com; shirt by uk-store.isseymiyake.com; and necklaces by viviennewestwood.com.
‘I’m good at moving on’: dress by tallermarmo.com; shirt by uk-store.isseymiyake.com; and necklaces by viviennewestwood.com. Photograph: Jason Hetherington/The Observer

“I recently saw an entire restaurant of people taking pictures of their plates – you think, are you ever going to eat the fucking food? It’s like a different way of being isn’t it? Having to… see yourself.” She shakes her head, slowly. “My Instagram is all, how to lose belly fat and how to do pilates against the wall and I must have watched a car crash at some point, because now it thinks I want hundreds of trucks driving into bridges and jackknifing and crashing, and… oh God, when will it end?”

In a recent podcast with French, the two of them landed upon the idea of pitching a sitcom set at one of their houses that would allow them to just sit on the sofa having a chat. “A bit like what Pete and Dud used to do, put on their silliest bits of clothing and make each other laugh, you know? But yes, Dawn and I must seriously think about this.” What would they call it? She considers. “Elasticated Trousers? I think often the best stuff is just conversation, isn’t it? A little bit of talking, rather than the big movies with six buildings being blown up. I’m always thinking about the people inside and how much is that going to cost?”

Thinking back to the early days of French and Saunders, when they spoofed The Silence of the Lambs, and Baywatch, and themselves, she snorts. “Honestly, I don’t know how they allowed it.” Because of the jokes? “No, because each one goes on forever! I’m always amazed when I look back, that just because something silly made us laugh we were allowed to put it on BBC One. Absolutely bonkers!”

Jennifer Saunders standing, wearing a white leather trench coat, with black shirt and trousers showing underneath
‘It was always, let’s not go to bed. Let’s have another drink’: Jennifer Saunders wears white leather trench coat by whistles.com and black shirt and trousers, both by serenabutelondon.com. Photograph: Jason Hetherington/The Observer

Absolutely Fabulous came to be when French and Saunders took a break while French and her then husband, Lenny Henry, adopted a two-week-old baby. What started life as a sketch with French, Modern Mother and Daughter, evolved into five series with Joanna Lumley, who emailed me her memories of recording the cult show, including the fact of Saunders’ generosity – “she spent more time shopping for cast presents than she did on rehearsing” – and her “rock star tendencies” and her inability to keep up with Lumley’s drinking due to her “very weak head. Easily,” said Lumley, “one of my favourite people of all time.”

A large part of her success has hinged on these friendships, on the way she and French, or she and Lumley, appear to invite an audience into their in-jokes and let us roll around there with them for a while. Though she must have told her showbiz stories a thousand times, she chuckles drily through them once more for me, transported. Like the one about Goldie Hawn hiring Saunders and Ruby Wax to write a film for her, and Saunders arriving in New York pretending she’d finished it and it was fabulous, but oh dear her computer had broken. “She threatened to take it to a mender! God, the poor woman had paid us all this money and we blamed her for us not writing it. Awful. I regret that. We thought we knew better.” Hawn locked Saunders in her Manhattan apartment while she wrote for five days solid, and still the script did not come. Hawn forgave her, of course, “because she is a proper Buddhist.

Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley in Absolutely Fabulous
Oh, darling: with Joanna Lumley in Ab Fab, 1992. Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy

Lulu was another one, a great ray of sunshine.” Yes, in a Pulp Fiction-themed French and Saunders sketch, the plan was that they would shoot Lulu with a machine gun for singing too loudly. Unfortunately, Lulu suffered a wound to her arm the size of a £2 coin and twice as deep, and had to have minor plastic surgery to fix it. Saunders looks sheepish. “I am quite good at moving on from grudges, too, though. Better than Dawn. I’m quite…” she pauses to find the word, “unengaged sometimes. But other times I panic. Being with Goldie made me anxious, because I knew that we’d never get this thing done. Can you believe I would get on to an aeroplane not having written anything?” What did she do? “I just got drunk!”

She and Lumley used to have a pact where they’d always say yes to a job, as long as it involved a first-class flight and champagne. Once, they turned up in New York in character as Ab Fab’s Edina and Patsy to receive the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Award, only to find they had misjudged the affair terribly and were mortified to find a crowd of politicians in suits, their award sandwiched between eulogies for the dead, while they gamely made jokes about shoes. Another time they were invited over to LA to be on Roseanne’s show, but arrived to find no script and no Roseanne, “And Laurie Metcalf was looking at us, like, Oh, thank God, you’re here. And this went on for days and days, with a small Asian woman standing in for Roseanne. That was the end of ‘always say yes’.” Before that, though, they found many thrills in the luxury hotel rooms of LA. The idea was, “To get the maximum value out of the room. It was always, let’s not go to bed. Let’s have another drink. Let’s swim in the pool one more time…”

Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French in Death on the Nile, 2022.
Big screen: with Dawn French in Death on the Nile, 2022. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

And today, the thing that propels her, far more than the work itself, is still the having fun. “I get offered really nice things, bits and bobs, little films, and honestly, I couldn’t be happier.” Part of her would like to direct one, but, “I’m too lazy. Because what I really enjoy is just being with actors and friends and having a good time on set. And then being able to go home at the end of the day, or to the pub.”

Married to Edmondson since 1985, it seems she has organised her life quite perfectly, nipping between London and Cornwall, leaning blissily into grandmotherhood, appearing in the odd blockbuster. “It’s sort of organised itself, in a funny way. And I mean, not everything’s perfect. You have your ups and downs.”

Jennifer Saunders in Allelujah.
‘Now we’re all living an extra 20 years’: in Allelujah. Photograph: Photo Credit: Rob Youngson/Rob Youngson

In 2009, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, but insisted Edmondson carried on working (he was performing in a pantomime in Canterbury) while she underwent chemotherapy in London, and has maintained a brisk stoical attitude to life ever since. “Everything’s copeable with, isn’t it? But also, people aren’t always happy. I think we all have to learn that.” Olive trots over, mournful and glorious. “Happiness is a treat on top of everything else and life is hard work sometimes. As long as you remember what your priority is – for me and Ade that was always the family, because that was always the most fun – I think you’ve just got to take a deep breath and… plough on.” She smiles, glamorously content, and it’s clear she has worked out how to get the best value out of everything, not just LA hotel rooms but work, family, friendship, how to stay up, and have another drink, and swim in the pool one more time.

Fashion editor Jo Jones; photographer’s assistants Alfie Bungay and Thomas Lombard; fashion assistant Roz Donoghue; hair by Ian McIntosh at Arlington Artists using Dryer Hair; makeup by Charlie Duffy using Dior Forever Foundation and Capture Totale Le Serum; manicurist Robbie Tomkins at LMC Worldwide using Essie

Allelujah is in cinemas from 17 March

The Guardian