Jennifer Saunders chats to Stylist about internet porn, Madonna, dodging Botox and just how much fun it’s been bringing back Eddy...
The best friend I’ve had for 20 years still refers to me by my Ab Fab name, McQuoi (rhymes with Lacroix) – so much nicer than McQuoid (rhymes with avoid). It was coined years ago in front of a television set watching The Greatest Show On Earth. We took our personas so seriously that once, for her birthday, I taped her face over a seven-page Michelle Pfieffer spread in Hello. She was Patsy, I was Eddy.
I’m not alone. Stylist’s editor and her flatmate also temporarily changed their names to Pats and Ed such was their idolisation of TV’s greatest pairing, and, if I had the inclination, I bet an online poll would show an impressive number of you did too.
Ab Fab wasn’t just an influential nickname creator. Oh no, it was educational too. Things I learnt from Edina Monsoon include: what Botox was, exactly what a colonic entailed, and that Stoli is the only vodka to drink (with champagne, obviously).
It is for all of the above reasons, and countless others, that sitting down to interview the woman responsible for creating Ab Fab, Jennifer Saunders, has rendered me slightly delirious. This, after all, is a woman responsible for scenes including: the ideas meeting at Patsy’s magazine where the beauty editor suggests next season is all about skin: “I’m thinking eyes, nose, face”; lines like: “I was in labour so long they had to shave me twice”. That was all Jennifer.
The most impressive thing is that Ab Fab is far from the only high point in Jennifer Saunders’ career. Whose teenage years weren’t punctuated by the brilliant sketch show French And Saunders? Jennifer and Dawn – the first female comic duo to be given their own show – were the highlight of every Quality Street and turkey-fuelled Christmas, when they would rip apart the films of the year on Christmas Day. Remember their Titanic spoof? I was still laughing on New Year’s Day. I saw their Abba sketch (when they recreated the video for The Winner Takes It All) before I had actually seen the real Abba. As a result I always thought the band split because Anni-Frid (Dawn) was jealous of Agnetha’s (Jennifer’s) slimmer figure.
After 20 years of hero worshipping, I finally meet the 50-year-old comic genius in her London office. It’s pretty chaotic – Jennifer’s excitable whippet, Olive, is bounding over furniture; pictures of her old sketches from back in the day are scattered around the floor – and nothing like Eddy’s minimalist, feng shui, west London town house. Sat on a sofa in an oversized grey cardigan and jeans, Jennifer is, perhaps surprisingly, totally down to earth for a woman who hasn’t stopped working in three decades, whether it’s guest spots on Friends as Ross’ mother-in-law (she recalled her time on set feeling like a ‘big bear’ compared to the tiny frames of Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox), or the hit BBC series Jam & Jerusalem.
Since her diagnosis with breast cancer last year, Jennifer has come through treatment and is well on the road to full recovery; she’s written a musical, Viva Forever, due to hit the West End next November featuring the music of her old friends the Spice Girls – remember the Comic Relief where Jennifer, Dawn, Kathy Burke, Llewella Gideon and Lulu, starred alongside them as the Sugar Lumps? But she’s also decided to bring back Eddy for which we are eternally grateful. Stylist has seen an advance screening of the new episodes and can promise you it genuinely is just as good as you remember. There’s something about Saffy actually being in her early 40s (wasn’t she born that way?), Patsy coping with the recession (no swinging by Harvey Nicks for a StoliBolly) and Eddy navigating Twitter that already has us itching for more than the three specials lined up. And our prayers might have been answered. Whatever happened on that set this summer must have been magic because there is already talk of a film version in the works. For now, roll on Christmas Day...
The new episodes are brilliant. They’re almost like a return to the start of the show, when most of the action was based in the house…
I know. Julia [Sawalha] was really keen that she’d been on a bit of a journey, so she wasn’t stuck being the same old moaning Minnie. The opening set-up where she’s working in a post office just made me laugh so much. The thought of her little face… [laughs].
We noticed that Patsy doesn’t feature quite so much.
Hmm, I don’t think I served her well. That’s the one thing I missed, I think, the Edina/Patsy time…
Eddy’s fashion choices were always cutting edge. Almost grotesquely.. Does fashion interest you in real life?
Not really, no. But I do have some favourite moments. I have outfits I really love. I really love that one [she points to a picture of Eddy wearing a red leather trouser suit] and I think it’s because it’s one of the ones that actually looks nice on me because normally I ask to look hideous. She’s got to look like everything’s a bit wrong and too small and now she’s struggling because she’s much fatter than she used to be.
Were designers reluctant to lend their clothes to you?
Do you know what? They’re not that protective. It’s funny because [in this series] the joke is that Stella McCartney won’t ever let Eddy into her shop to get any clothes. Lots of people go in but the door is always locked and I can’t get in. And I’m like, “Stella! Why don’t you love me?” I fall at Stella’s feet at a drinks reception and go, “I’d look great in your clothes!” She treats me like her stalker, which I’ve become. But actually, in real life, Stella told me, “Oh, I’d love Edina to look really nice in my clothes. Can’t she have a Stella makeover?” And I said, “No, she can’t!”
Did you know Stella before this?
No. Just from this. She’s lovely. I said, “Don’t you mind being the new Lacroix?” And she said, “No. But he did go out of business, didn’t he?” But I was like, “Don’t worry. It’s not a curse.”
It’s two decades since the show started. Have things improved for women?
In a way, I think nothing has moved on for women, which is slightly shocking. I think it’s been a slightly stale time for women. I think the internet doesn’t help. The way certain men treat women is influenced by the internet a lot.
In what way?
The amount of disrespect. And I’m sure certain types of women haven’t helped either. I think they are having to re-educate boys on how to treat women in schools, because of the internet and the amount of porn they see. I think that’s a shame. If you wanted porn in my day, you had to walk into a shop and take it off the top shelf. And then it was just tits and stuff.
Did you ever buy porn? Because Eddy got quite excited over a copy of Razzle once…
No, never. But my brother used to have some by his bed, things like Playboy and Mayfair. Mayfair was quite rude, wasn’t it? But you never saw men. Now, on the internet, you can see everything. Boys must feel under-endowed and girls must feel hairy. Thank god I’m my age. We can allow a hair occasionally. I remember a time when girls were allowed to have a minge.
"I have to do everything before I'm 60 because that's just really old!"
Your daughters are in their 20s. They grew up in the generation where it seemed things were improving…
Yes. I haven’t had to control my girls. They’ve got their own paths. I never had to control what they liked or what they wore or listened to. When one of them dyed their hair jet black and started listening to Marilyn Manson, I was the sort of mother who would go, “I say! Marilyn Manson has got some awfully good tunes!” [Laughs]
There’s a different breed of pop stars to look up to now. How do you feel about the sexualisation of pop?
I don’t like it. I find the whole R’n’B sexual videos stuff really annoying. I think, ‘Why have you got to do that? Rubbing your arse against some boy’s crotch.’ I don’t get that. And I don’t think it helps society. [Laughs]. But I don’t! I’m a different generation and I don’t understand it. I don’t think my girls like it or have been particularly influenced by it. They tend to go more for indie stuff. But I don’t think things have moved on for women much in TV either.
No. I still have a feeling it’s a bit of a boys’ club and if you’re a boy you can do less and get further. I still feel that.
Did you feel that back in the early days, when you and Dawn were starting out?
You know what, I didn’t. I felt like we were all in this together. It was a very different executive culture then in television. It was the end of the old guard, who were kind of, “You seem jolly good. Let’s give you a few series. Off you go!” And the beginning of an era where they just wanted to get great television up and running. But now I think that’s gone. It’s just full of executive decisions and interference.
Which women make you laugh?
I love Victoria Wood but I think from the beginning it was Lucille Ball. She was my ultimate heroine. She invented the multi-camera sitcom. She was glamorous but she was also a clown and always making a fool of herself. She was a big influence.
We love your Madonna impression. Is it true you tried for years to get her on French And Saunders?
Oh, yes. Madonna always said no. I think we were under the mistaken impression that the person we were talking to was somehow her PR or her best friend and I don’t think she was. She kept saying [in American accent], “Oh, Madonna would love to do it!” I don’t think she even asked Madonna. She was aware of the show. She sent a nice note once. It became a sort of a joke that actually, if she ever did say yes, we’d probably say no!
Have you changed much as you’ve gotten older?
I’m very happy with getting older. Completely actually. On balance I think your 40s are great but in your 50s you’re learning and re-learning different things. And you have that anxiety you had when you’re 17; when you’re like, “I have to do everything before I’m 23 because that’s just too old!” Now I’m like, “I have to do everything before I’m 60, because that’s just really old!”
Have you ever really worried about what you look like in the same way that Eddy does?
Yes, I suppose. But it’s funny – people think you’ve had stuff done anyway. I once read a comment under a photo of something I was doing and it said, “God, how much work has that woman had?” and you go [shouting], “None! I’ve had none!” And then you think, “Well, I might as well then. Go and have a full peel and a lift…” I even got the name of someone once…
You’d really consider plastic surgery?
No, I haven’t had anything. Not even Botox. I could, couldn’t I? I just don’t want to get a droopy eye like Simon Cowell’s. Though I do feel a bit wrinkly.
You look pretty good to us…
Well, I drink lots, so I feel a bit puffy. But luckily I have a very flat forehead. Everyone goes to me, “Oh, have you had Botox?” and I go, “No, actually. I have an immovable forehead.” There is a line I could probably get rid of. I did think about it once but I couldn’t be bothered.
Has your recent illness changed the way you look at things?
People have much worse times and I feel very lucky to be clear. I don’t want to evoke sympathy: I got it, I took the medicine and I got better. End of story.
The first of the new episodes of Absolutely Fabulous airs on BBC1 at 10pm on Christmas Day