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Evening Standard

Absolutely Fabulous
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Friday 17th October 2003

She's Fab and she's back

By Tim Randall, Evening Standard
17 October 2003

She' back - with a lap-pool bath and a panic room.

      Outrageous Edina returns tonight in a new series of Absolutely Fabulous, anxious about her pregnant daughter, Saffy. Her creator, Jennifer Saunders, talks about her own, much more sober, family life in a Devon farmhouse.

      Jennifer Saunders is sitting on the floor opposite me, wearing hot pants that are two sizes too small, fluorescent tights, a bomber jacket, and a shiny Dolce & Gabbana porkpie hat atop her fine features. It is, of course, her latest look for her Ab Fab character Edina; her filming schedule is so hectic that she hasn't got time to change, let alone meet me anywhere but her dressing room at BBC TV Centre.

      Unlike her publicity-seeking alter ego, Saunders is behaving as though she hopes she's invisible, despite her attire. She greets me by glumly looking me up and down, before turning her attention once more to her lunch, a plastic box of limp-looking salad. She is notoriously publicity shy. So why is she putting herself back in the public eye with another series? "I needed the money, to be absolutely honest," she says flatly, staring at her lettuce. A few more questions are met with a similarly disheartening response. Her arms are wrapped protectively around her chest, her lips barely move, her eyes, when not fixed to her lunch, are fastened on me with a narrow stare. It's all rather unnerving. According to her long-time collaborator, Dawn French, she's hilarious in private, but she's not prepared to let me see this side at the moment.

      You suspect that, if Saunders could afford it, she'd like nothing better than to stop working altogether. She has certainly cut herself off from the media and showbiz world by, last year, moving to a large, 400-year-old farmhouse in Devon. There, she lives with her husband, fellow comedian Adrian Edmondson, and their three children, Beatrice, 18, Ella, 16, and Freya, 13, plus several cows, horses and rare-breed sheep. While the rest of the world may be falling at her fabulous feet, she admits it's harder to win over her own children. "Their only ever comment to me [about the series] is, 'Why are you smoking? Why are you smoking?' That's all I ever get asked," shrugs Jennifer. "They love Ab Fab but I think they are quite unimpressed by me ..."

      The marriage is famously happy: they have been together for 18 years without a breath of scandal. Edmondson and Saunders met while working for the alternative comedy revue the Comic Strip, but they were both seeing other people and it took them six years to get it together. Saunders credits French for the eventual romance - "Neither of us did anything about it until Dawn said we should go out together, which we did."

      Edmondson, who made his name playing various comedy slobs in programmes such as The Young Ones, turns out to be the domesticated partner, doing all the cooking and ironing, while his wife earns most of the money. When she's not working, she spends her time pottering around the garden, helping with the parish council and riding on Dartmoor.

      ANATHEMA to her Ab Fab character Eddie Monsoon, of course, but this is the lifestyle to which Saunders is accustomed. The daughter of an RAF captain, she was born into a Cheshire family of high-achieving Oxbridge types. She was something of an academic disappointment, though; her careers officer suggested she could end up as a dental assistant. Saunders herself always planned to work with horses, but was put off by the hard work involved. "The idea of mucking out when it's really cold ... somehow you're just not going to do that."

      Having failed to get into university, she spent a year in Italy as an au pair, then returned and was persuaded by her mother to go to the Central School of Speech and Drama and train as a drama teacher.

      It was there that she met Dawn French, whom she hated on sight. "She had gone to drama classes as a child. I thought she was cocky and she thought I was snotty." By their final year, though, they were sharing a flat together and in 1980 the pair answered an ad in the showbiz trade paper, The Stage, for female acts to join the Comic Strip. At the time, French was working as a drama teacher and Saunders was on the dole and spending much of her time in bed, depressed.

      They were paid 5 a night to perform their routine, but it was well worth it. It was there that they met Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle, Nigel Planer and Adrian Edmondson. Then, the Comic Strip was signed up by Channel 4, and soon French and Saunders were stars in their own right with their eponymous series.

      It was French's decision to adopt a baby that gave rise to Ab Fab. The pair were seven weeks from recording another French and Saunders series when French was told that a baby had become available. She had to pull out, and didn't want anyone to know why. To cover for her, Saunders told the BBC that the planned series wasn't going well, but she had another idea for a sitcom based on a sketch the pair had once done. And so in 1992 the Bolly-guzzling fashion faux-pas phenomenon was born out of necessity.

      This new series, the fifth, sees many changes in the Monsoon household. Good girl Saffy (Julia Sawalha) returns home pregnant after travelling in Africa, giving Eddie nightmares about becoming a grandmother, while Edina's mother (June Whitfield) has difficulty remembering why Saffy is fat. Edina is working from home - or "cocooning", as it is now called.

      "I've tried to keep it much more domestic this time," Saunders explains. "I think when you go out and about and film on location too much it can dilute everything. It's at its best when Patsy and Edina are in the house, totally overreacting." Eddie is now a celebrity PR, whose only clients are Queen Noor, Emma Bunton and the cast of Cutting It. Otherwise she is keeping busy with her celebrity book club, her lap-pool bath and new panic room, fully stocked with spliffs and champagne.

      Meanwhile, for pill-popping Patsy (Joanna Lumley), things couldn't be better. She has somehow been promoted to manager of a highconcept fashion store - a boutique so exclusive ("You can't come in, you're too fat - get out!") and pretentious, it makes Voyage look like Etam. "It's just a dazzling white space with nothing in it. One blouse hanging on one side and a handbag on the other," explains Saunders, laughing.

      There's a splendid cameo from Minnie Driver, sending herself up as a money-grabbing Hollywood star who is working it for every freebie she can get. "Minnie was terrific. There was no behaviour. She came in, only had two days to rehearse and just got the whole joke of it. She was absolute gold dust," enthuses Saunders, wiping her mouth with a napkin. Other guest stars include Kristin Scott Thomas as bulimic health journalist Plum, Emma Bunton as Saffy's friend, and Elton John - as himself - pounced on by the grotesque duo at a recording studio bash.

      Saunders has had a few problems with Eddie's customary appalling wardrobe: she says it's getting harder and harder to find the outrageous when it comes to fashion and fads for the show. "Nothing is very extraordinary any more, because within seconds everyone is doing it," she complains. "There are very few things that are bizarre." She's done her best, especially with Eddie's Gaultier combo of denim matador jacket and trousers "where the waist is above your tit level and the shoulders are over your head".

      Saunders herself is not much of a fashionista. "I don't do the shows. They are a complete bloody nightmare. I only ever go to Betty Jackson because she is my very good friend. There's some really poor clothing around. You can't really tell the difference between Topshop and designer any more. Most of it, I don't get at all. The Eighties throwback stuff is just because that's what designers feel safe doing - that's what they grew up with, watching Charlie's Angels. I'm sorry but a ruched trouser is not my idea of fun."

      These is a certain lassitude in her attitudes. Saunders is always announcing the death of Ab Fab, then resurrecting it in response to public demand. But you won't be too surprised if this time she really does kill Eddie off - drowning her in the lap-pool bath perhaps? Retiring her to the country, where her creator couldn't be happier, would be far too implausible.

• The new series of Absolutely Fabulous starts tonight on BBC1 at 9pm.

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