Jennifer Saunders
Friday, 09 September 2016

A DATE WITH LADY LAUGHTER

We all love her comedy sketches, but who is the REAL Jennifer Saunders? Richard Barber talks to her about battling breast cancer, weight loss, becoming a grandmother – and the return of Ab Fab

Written by Richard Barber

Jennifer Saunders’s comic creations are so successful, it’s easy to lose sight of the woman herself. So meeting her over a coffee in a central London hotel is something of a revelation. At 53, she’s a strikingly good-looking woman, a real beauty with translucent skin, a full mouth and those sparkling, slightly mischievous eyes. It’s also good to be able to report that she feels very well at the moment (her words) after being diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2009.

A lumpectomy was followed by debilitating chemo, radiotherapy and a drug that suppresses oestrogen to prevent the cancer returning, which she has to take until 2015.

‘It [the drug] also reverses your metabolism,’ she says, ‘which means that, whereas I once used up 70 per cent of the calories I consumed, my body now stores that amount. It means I have to eat less, which I’ve combined with walking the dog as often as possible, both in London and Devon, where we have houses. I take fewer cabs. And I’ve recently bought a Power Plate, which also relaxes and stretches your limbs.’

Someone told her that Billy Connolly is planning to write the shortest weight-loss book ever which, in its entirety, would amount to four words: Eat less, exercise more. She chuckles. ‘He’s dead right. It’s exactly how Dawn [French] has done it. Most people believe she’s had a gastric band fitted but it’s just not true. For the first time in ages, she’s been watching what she eats and walking for miles by the sea near where she lives in Cornwall.’

Jennifer has deliberately stopped weighing herself. ‘I know if I’ve put on weight. You can tell from the clothes you wear. But my priorities are different now. I refuse to obsess about a pound here or there. You can think you’ve done really well and then you get on the scales to discover you’ve lost no weight at all.’

No, her priority now, apart from her husband and children, is her work. ‘I used to turn things down when the girls were growing up. But now, I’m saying yes to pretty much everything.’

You can say that again. She much enjoyed playing the unhinged prison governor in BBC Three sitcom Dead Boss, and has just spent the last four weeks in Ireland filming Blandings, based on the PG Wodehouse stories. ‘Timothy Spall plays Lord Emsworth and I play his bossy sister, Connie. Ab FabJennifer and Joanna Lumley as Edina and Patsy, in Ab Fab

‘I love Wodehouse’s language, his comedy. And I love working with Tim. Dawn and I were once in a TV production of Beatrix Potter’s The Tale Of Pigling Bland with him – in which we all played pigs.’

There’s a new, Olympic-themed edition of Ab Fab already in the can, which is scheduled to be shown this summer, and Jennifer has just been nominated for a BAFTA for her role as Edina Monsoon. ‘And now I want to do a film following the antics of Edina and Patsy,’ she says.

However, in the meantime, she has to complete the script she’s working on for the stage musical Viva Forever, which features the songs of the Spice Girls – set in an unrelated story – in the same way that the musical Mamma Mia! has nothing to do with Abba, whose hits intersperse the action.

‘I used to take my daughters to Spice Girls concerts where they’d get their picture taken with them. Dawn and I had got to know them around the time of their first hit, Wannabe. My three girls would be wearing their mini-Buffalo shoes with the massive platform soles. It was all such a thrill for them.’

Most recently, Jennifer has featured in an ad campaign for a new Philadelphia Light cheese spread, blended with Cadbury chocolate. ‘I know it sounds revolting,’ she says, ‘but I was sent some samples and the girls and I devoured them all at one sitting.’

Underpinning this unbroken run of professional success has been her marriage of 26 years to actor and comedian Ade Edmondson, father of their daughters, Ella, 26, Beattie, 24, and 21-yearold Freya, who is about to take up a place to study fashion at a London college. Beattie is part of an all-female comedy group called Lady Garden, while eldest daughter Ella and her husband Daniel, will become firsttime parents this August. ‘And I just can’t wait to be a grandmother,’ says a broadly beaming Jennifer.

The only black cloud in an otherwise clear blue sky is the prospect of the publication of an unauthorised biography. ‘On principle, I think it’s a bit cheap. I mean, who’s she talking to? Certainly not me. It will just be a load of newspaper and magazine articles cobbled together.’

I suggest to Jennifer that she could always write her own autobiography. ‘Oh, but I couldn’t, because I can’t remember very much and I don’t keep a diary. If I ever did write a book, it would be a mix of the Ab Fab years and the French and Saunders sketches,’ she replies.

Can she imagine the two of them collaborating again? ‘Absolutely,’ she says, without hesitation. ‘When Dawn has finished writing her next novel, we’re going to sit down and talk about it seriously. The trouble is, it’s increasingly hard to wrench her away from Cornwall. But I’m determined to pin her down. We’ve always had so much fun working together.’

And so say all of us. 

For information on Kraft Light Philadelphia cheese spread with Cadbury, go to www.facebook.com/philadelphiauk




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