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June 6th 2004

 

The Mail On Sunday, June 6th 2004

Jennifer Saunders is one of Britain's most talented comic actresses. In a rare interview, she reveals why the part of an animated Fairy Godmother was her toughest challenge yet.

'Being in a film with the girlfriend of Justin Timberlake is just about as cool as you can get'

      It's not the most obvious connection to make, but the prospect of Jennifer Saunders appearing in Shrek 2 meant just one thing to her three daughters: Justin Timberlake. 'This is definatly the project that has made me go up in the estimation of my children,' says Saunders with a sardonic half-grin. 'Not because it's the chance to be part of one of the best animated films ever, or because it's the start of a major Hollywood career for their mother. No. It's the fact that I'm going to be in a film that also stars Cameron Diaz, who is the girlfriend of Justin Timberlake, and it might possibly mean that Cameron will invite Justin to the British premiere and my children will come with me, so they are clearly, absolutely definatly going to get to meet him. And that is just about as cool as you can get.'

      She leans back and adds, with one eyebrow raised: 'I have, of course, pointed out that Cameron may not be bringing him to the premiere because he may be busy touring, singing or generally being Justin Timberlake. That is a small fly in the ointment, but still they are clinging like limpets to the chance that it might happen.'

      We are sitting in the aqua-blue office of Saunders's office at BBC Television Centre, west London. As production offices go, it is not, in any way, terrifying or grand. It is smaller than you would imagine and rather invitingly haphazard and messy, with yellow Post-it notes stuck everywhere, magazines, sandwich wrappers and a selection of biographies from Madonna to Dylan Thomas, and Dorothy Wordsworth to Samuel Beckett, spilling from various metal shelves.

      Saunders herself is also much smaller and less intimidating than you would expect. Dressed in jenes and a blue denim jacket, her blonde hair sticking out at all angles because she is, it transpires, a woman under pressure. There are fewer than three weeks before filming starts on an upcoming series of French and Saunders, and clearly several deadlines have been and gone already. The show's producer, Jo Sargent, is by Saunders's disorderly desk telling her - very nicely, but very firmly - to buckle down and start writing the scripts.

      Saunders immediatly goes into procrastinating-college-student mode, pulling and twisting her hair, looking down at her cowboy boots, muttering all sorts of vauge excuses for not having finished her assignment. 'We've got all the ideas,' she says, 'but they're in my head. I've got this terrible fear that once i commit them to paper, they will die on the page... and we still haven't sorted out our guests. I need to have a kind of idea and Dawn hasn't arrived yet. I'm waiting for her.'

      One of the Post-it notes has the name Madonna scrawled across it in felt-tip pen. Sounds promising. Jo leaves the room, Saunders pulls a mock anguished look, then glances up at the note and grins, 'We always say we've got Madonna,' she says. 'Dawn and I have asked Madonna to do our show ever since we first got a gig on the telly two decades ago. She always says no, but every year we ask again. Dawn and I now ring up her agent just to hear her say "Sorry she's touring, sorry she's out of the country," or whatever. So we just put her name down anyway. It's become a little tradition.'

      And if Mrs Ritchie ever said yes? Saunders's deadpan face twists in sudden horror. 'We'd be terrified. The only reason we ask is because we know she'll say no.'

      Saunders, 45, is a showbuisness conundrum. She is probably the most talented female comedy writer in British TV history, but she behaves as if she hasn't got it in her to pull together one single funny line.

      The creator and star of Absolutely Fabulous - and Dawn French's comedy partner for the last 25 years - is like one of those girls at school who never handed in homework, fell asleep in lessons and then got straight As when it came to the exams. Indeed, while she may come across all vauge and scatty, the bitingly funny, cleverly observed characters such as Ab Fab's ultimate fashion victims, Edina and Patsy, illustrate the super-sharp brain that lurks beneath. Saunders's eye misses nothing - she is a comedic anthropologist extraodinaire.

      However, Saunders, who is married to the comedian Adrian Edmondson, is much more comfortable in the laid-back, lackadistical world of her own creation. She freely admits she'd never bother to work if she didn't have to. Part of her wishes that no-one had ever found out that she had a talent. 'I only do things when I know I absolutely have to and I can't get out of it.'

      The couple have recently moved from Richmond, Surrey, to Devon, and the country life couldn't suit her better. 'I spend hours at the bottom of the garden making bonfires,' she says. 'I can be there for such a long time Ade has to send out search parties. I like a long, slow burn, lots of wet leaves on top, no sudden bursts of flame. Actually, it's when I'm tending to bonfires or sweeping - I'm big on sweeping too - that I do most of my thinking. Ade knows a new show may be coming up if there's suddenly a spate of bonfires.'

      She insists she needs a rocket put under her bottom before she gets round from the thinking process to doing any work. Her nails are bitten to the quick because, she explains, she's always putting off what she's meant to be doing, and that makes her worry. 'Dawn and I are the absolute worst,' she says. 'We sit around talking for days on end and then all of a sudden we've got a few weeks left to put a show together. I have a panic attack when she wheels her chair around and sits next to me at the computer because I know that means we really have to do some work.

      'I'm horribly lazy. I never quite believe I can do it and then when I do, I can never quite believe it's funny enough.'

      When last summer she was asked to be the voice of the Fairy Godmother in the new Shrek 2, rather typically, she assumed nothing would come out of it. 'I said yes right away, but I never actually thought I'd get to do it. I just thought an awful lot of people must have turned it down.'

      'I loved the first Shrek - I thought it was absolute genius,' she continues. 'The girls [she has three daughters, Beattie, 18, Ella, 17, and Freya 14] loved it. It's like the whole Toy Story idea where it's animation, but it's also a really clever story and it appeals to all age groups. My children are teenagers, but they love these movies.'

      Saunders didn't meet any of the other members of the cast before doing her voiceover, which was recorded at a west London studio. She had to be crammed into a very small polystyrene box throughout the sessions and with a camera focused on her face to capture every expression on a film. The tape was then sent to the animators.

      For a performer so used to being part of a double of act (French and Saunders) or a team (Ab Fab, The Comic Strip), it must have been an extrodinary experience. 'I spent all these weeks inside a box with a very nice man from Dreamworks guiding me through exactly what I had to do,' she says. 'You know what, I think it was the most difficult, the most amazing, and the most enjoyable thing I've ever done.'

      'I have all these theories about my voice,' she says, shaking her head. 'It's very flat and rather boring, so I never normally get asked to do voiceovers - unlike Dawn who has a very expressive, warm voice. So I had this vauge idea to "do" the Fariy Godmother as Edina, as obviously my own voice wouldn't do, but I was told very nicely and ver repeatedly just to speak as myself.

      'My greatest fear, however, was singing. I can sing reasonably well, but I always sing as somebody else. Again, they wanted my voice. Me singing as me, and I had a big panic about it. I knew my voice would not just be heard, but listened to in massive cinemas, amplified to nightmare proportions, so in the end I had a few singing lessons. And then I realised I could do it. The point is, it's not a Disney aminmation - Shrek's producers want the reality with all its imperfections.

      'The people who make these animations are a particular breed. They are so amazingly laid-back, clever and encouraging. I actually learnt a lot about myself, I learnt that with a bit of effort I can do things a lot better than I think.' She breaks off suddenly, as if to ponder the point she's just made. Then she laughs just as suddenly in case she's now sounding too self-important.

      As a comic performer Saunders couldn't possibly take herself too seriously, How could she, when most of her comedy comes from lampooning the self-importance of others?

      After initially vowing to kill off Edina and Patsy, she was persuaded to ressurect them after a five-year break - to poor reviews - and then once more a year ago, to ecstatic reviews. The challenge now is to keep it going. Saunders does one of her Mona Lisa half-smiles.

      'The thing is they're getting even older. That's what i want to focus on next. Joanna Lumley has always had this idea in her head that Patsy is actually 72 years old and held up with embalming fluid. Thats how she's always played her, but it's time for age to really hit.'

      Saunders herself has no time for Edina's main obsession: fashion. The major downside of the celebrity age, she says is not that stars are expected to look like supermodels but, most hideous of all, that they have to know how to handle their 'red-carpet moment'.

      She twists her body into a full feotal cringe. 'I can't bear it. The worst thing about having to go to Cannes for the premiere of Shrek 2 was having to think about what I was wearing.

      'I had millions of people asking me: "Who are you wearing?" (outfit). "Are you going to get a St Tropez?" (tan) and "Are you going to get a full body?" (wax). All these ridiculous questions.'

      Her attitude to clothes is similar to her attitude to work. With a fine bone structure, smooth skin and a good figure hidden beneath her baggy shirt, she could glam up well, but it all comes down to effort and inclination. You can't help liking her all the more for it.

      'In the good old days, you could turn up in a reasonably smart outfit or even a pair of jeans and no one would take a blind bit of notice. Now it's every inch of flesh on show, a very small bit of spangly fabric, a few ribbons and the prospect of appearing in a celebrity magazine under "Worst Dressed". God help us!

      'I've got no fears about dying, but I don't want to die of stress and the idea of all this pressure about what clothes to wear does my head in. It's insanity.'

      And unlike Patsy or Edina, the idea of borrowing a dress from Gucci, Prada or Armani - the usual celebrity route - practically brings her out in hives. 'I'd far rather just buy my own clothes.' she says. 'There's no such thing as a free lunch. You borrow a dress from Gucci, then they start sending you a pair of shoes with an invite to the staff party. You can't say no, and you have to wear the shoes and find something to go with them. Then it's a free skirt and an invite to a shop opening. The whole thing is just a stress-fest.'

      A message from Jo arrives, telling her to get back to work. She looks slightly woeful. Her excuse for not writing is about to be over. 'I'd better make a start,' she says. She asks if Dawn has arrived (she hasn't) and then reluctantly starts up her computer. You know - as does Jo - that she is guaranteed to come up with the goods. Hers is a talent worth any wait.

*taken from the Mail on Sunday magazine: Night and Day*

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