MIX together a conspiring mother, some underwhelming exam results and a gap year in Italy and you get one of the nation’s best-loved comedy partnerships.
Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, who would become two of the most influential people in British TV comedy, met by chance on a teaching course that Saunders had not signed up for.
Finally relinquishing ambitions to send her daughter to an Oxbridge college, her mother had secretly filled in an application form for the Central School of Speech and Drama on her behalf.
“When I got back from Italy I found out I had to go to an interview and I think they must have been so desperate for students that I got on the course,” laughs Saunders, 53, who as fate would have it is giving a talk at another higher education institution, Ormskirk’s Edge Hill University, later this month.
“Not in my wildest dreams would I have wanted to be a teacher but it was a fantastic course and I think it stood me in very good stead having to stand up in front of a class of fairly wild kids.
“I never could see it being my career just because I liked the kids but I couldn’t take staffroom politics.”
Lessons in tackling unruly, heckling audiences and a future writing partner – not bad for a course she had never intended to be on.
Without their meeting, which led to the formation of their early double act The Menopause Sisters and subsequent stand-up gigs, there would be no award-winning comedy career, no female input into The Comic Strip Presents, no hilarious spoofs of the films Titanic or Misery, no Jam and Jerusalem.
Not even Saunders’ non-French-related creations would have likely been written – no wildly misbehaving Edina and Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous and no Spice Girls stage musical on the way.
“I can’t imagine how I would ever have got into comedy,” she muses. “Well, I suppose if I had gone to uni I might have joined a dramatic society or done drama. I was always quite keen on writing so I might have been a writer.”
With her father in the Royal Airforce, the Saunders family seemed always to be on the move. The young Jennifer attended so many different primary schools that she’s forgotten the exact number – “eight or nine? Maybe not that many” – and two secondary, a comprehensive and a grammar.
“I think you develop a knack at it so you become quite self-contained,” says the mother- of-three. “I had a very happy home life so it all seems sort of normal. I don’t remember anything being traumatic.”
Her brother won a place at Cambridge but Saunders admits she lacked motivation to do well at school.
“I was told I could be a dental nurse – so I sort of lost interest in it really,” she explains.
“I didn’t get great results and I think I was quite introverted so I didn’t do very well in the interviews and I got turned down by every university I went to interview with.
“I sort of wish in a way I had gone to university but your life is what happens as you live it. So much else wouldn’t have happened.”
Her degree did finally arrive however, in the form of an honorary doctorate, presented to her last year by Edge Hill.
She was introduced to the university by its chancellor, the TV psychologist Tanya Byron, with whom Saunders became close friends while working together on BBC2 sitcom The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle in 2007.
“The reason I like Edge Hill is it encourages people like I would have been,” says the comedian, who is splitting any proceeds of the talk between the university’s students hardship fund and Devon-based children’s charity CHICKS.
“It has a really diverse intake and I think that’s very good for kids who might not have anybody in their family who has been to university before. The honorary doctorate only means something if I can help in some way.”
Saunders, who is married to fellow actor-comedian Adrian Edmundson, is squeezing the event at Edge Hill in between work committments – she is currently writing Viva Forever, a musical based on Spice Girls songs for Mamma Mia! producer Judy Craymer.
“It’s not a world I’ve been in before so it’s quite interesting,” she says.
“It’s a much longer process than other things I’ve worked on but it’s very good fun.”
After years of speculation, Saunders has finally confirmed there’s an Absolutely Fabulous movie on the way, which industry gossip states she is hoping to film on the French Riviera.
“I’m always hoping to go to the French Riviera – for any reason,” she jokes, dismissing the rumour.
“I am planning a film but that’s as far as it’s got. I haven’t started writing. It’ll be in 2013 probably.”
It’s 21 years since PR agent Eddy (Saunders) and blonde beehived bestfriend Patsy (Joanna Lumley) first stumbled drunkenly on to our screens in a continuous flow of fashion disasters.
Two specials screened over Christmas saw them six years older than their last appearance, for Comic Relief in 2005, but still as raucous as ever – hiding from drug dealers, chasing celebrity clients and, shock horror, collecting Patsy’s pension. A third Olympics-themed installment is to follow later this year.
“Because they’re so part of us now and because I’m always thinking like Edina anyway, it’s not like there’s been a big gap for me,” laughs Saunders. “She’s ever present.”
Unlike her self-centred creation, who lavishes the attention her problems generate, the comedian prefers to deal with hers privately.
In 2009, she was diagnosed with breast cancer but only went public about her illness after being given the all clear in July 2010. She believes the illness has left her outlook on life unchanged.
“If it has changed I haven’t noticed it, but that’s not unusual,” she says. “It’s made me a lot more confident in a strange way. I feel much less nervous about doing things.”
Liverpool Post, 19/1/12