Jennifer Jane Saunders (born 6 July 1958) is an English comedienne, screenwriter, actress and teacher. She has won three BAFTAs (including the BAFTA Fellowship), an International Emmy Award, a British Comedy Award, a Rose d'Or Light Entertainment Festival Award, two Writers' Guild of Great Britain Awards, and a People's Choice Award.
She first found widespread attention in the 1980s when she became a member of the Comic Strip after graduating from the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. With her comedy partner Dawn French, she wrote and starred in their eponymous sketch show, French and Saunders, for which she and French received a BAFTA fellowship in 2009. She received worldwide acclaim through the early to mid-1990s for writing and playing the lead role of Edina Monsoon in the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous.
She has guest-starred in the American sitcoms Roseanne and Friends, and won the American People's Choice Award for voicing the evil Fairy Godmother in DreamWorks' animated Shrek 2. In 2015 she voiced Queen Elizabeth II in the animated comedy film Minions.
Jennifer Saunders was born in Sleaford, Lincolnshire, England on 6 July 1958. Her mother, Jane, was a biology teacher, and her father, Robert Thomas Saunders, served as a pilot in the Royal Air Force (RAF), reached the rank of Air Marshal and later worked for British Aerospace. She has three brothers. Because her father was in the armed forces, Saunders moved to different schools many times. She was educated from the age of five to 18 in boarding schools and then at St Paul's Girls' School, an independent school in west London. After school, she worked for a year in Italy as an au pair.
She later received a place at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London on a drama teachers' course in 1977, where she met her future comedy partner, Dawn French. Both came from RAF backgrounds. They had grown up on the same base, even having had the same best friend, without ever meeting. The comic duo originally did not get on well, and as far as Saunders was concerned, French was a "cocky little upstart". The distrust was mutual: French considered Saunders snooty and uptight. French actually wanted to become a drama teacher, whereas Saunders loathed the idea and had not fully understood what the course was about; thus, she disliked French for being enthusiastic and confident about the course. Saunders was shocked to find that she was actually taking courses to become a teacher, as her mother had filled out the application form. Her mother, however, was saddened when Saunders chose not to apply for an Oxbridge university education.
After the initial friction, while at college Saunders and French shared a flat together. French has remarked on Saunders's messy habits when sharing the house, stating, "When we lived together in Chalk Farm she had a room at the top of the house. We got broken into and the police said, 'Well, it is quite bad, but the worst is that room at the top.' And, of course, nobody had been in there." The two performed together after graduation, working the festival, cabaret and stand-up circuits. They formed a double-act called The Menopause Sisters. Saunders described the act, which involved wearing tampons in their ears, as "cringeworthy." The manager of the club where they performed recalled, "They didn't seem to give a damn. There was no star quality about them at all."
Saunders and French would eventually come to public attention as members of the informal comedy collective the Comic Strip, part of the alternative comedy scene in the early 1980s. They answered a 1980 advert in The Stage newspaper looking for female comedians to perform at the Comic Strip, which until that point, only had male performers. When they walked into the audition they were immediately told "You're booked. When can you start?".
Both Saunders and French became continuing members of the Comic Strip, which included Peter Richardson, Rik Mayall and Robbie Coltrane, as well as Saunders' future husband Adrian Edmondson. The group performed at the Boulevard Theatre, above Soho's Raymond Revuebar, and gained a cult following, with visiting audience members including Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson and Robin Williams, who once joined in the performance. By the time French and Saunders became members of the Comic Strip, French was already working as a drama teacher, whilst Saunders was on the dole and spending a lot of her time sleeping in bed after the dole office closed for the day.
1980s and 1990s
The comedy group appeared on Channel 4's first night on air, in the first episode of The Comic Strip Presents: Five Go Mad In Dorset, broadcast on 2 November 1982. In the episodes "Bad News" and "More Bad News", Saunders plays a trashy rock journalist touring with the fictional heavy metal band Bad News. In 1985, Saunders starred in and co-wrote Girls on Top with French, Tracey Ullman and Ruby Wax, which portrayed four eccentric women sharing a flat in London. Saunders also appeared in Ben Elton's Happy Families where she played various members of the same family, including all four Fuddle sisters in the six-episode BBC situation comedy. Saunders starred in a Comic Strip film called The Supergrass, a little-known parody of slick 1980s police dramas directed by Peter Richardson. Saunders also played Meryl Streep playing Arthur Scargill's wife in Strike, a Comic Strip spoof on the 1984 Miners' strike. Saunders also appeared twice as guest on The Young Ones.
In 1987, she and French created French and Saunders, a popular sketch comedy series for the BBC, which aired until 2007. By the end of the 1980s, the show was an established comedy programme and became a staple in BBC viewing. Saunders has appeared in Amnesty International's The Secret Policeman's Biggest Ball live benefit in 1989, along with Dawn French and others.
Saunders and French followed separate careers as well as maintaining their comedy sketch show. Saunders' biggest solo success has been Absolutely Fabulous. The comedy was in fact based largely on a fourteen-minute French & Saunders sketch called "Modern Mother and Daughter". Saunders and French were going to star in the comedy together, but just as the studio had been booked, French received a long-awaited phone call confirming that an adoption agency had a new baby for her to adopt. Saunders proceeded to star in the comedy. The series, which she wrote and starred in as the irresponsible fashion PR agent Edina Monsoon alongside Joanna Lumley, who played Patsy Stone, brought her international acclaim and attention. The show ran for five full series, a two-part film and three special episodes over the course of thirteen years from 1992 to 2005. The series is also known as Ab Fab and was broadcast in the United States on Comedy Central and BBC America, becoming cult viewing. Rumours emerged that new episodes would be produced later in the year.
Saunders has appeared on the American sitcoms Roseanne, playing Edina Monsoon in the episode "Satan, Darling", and Friends as Andrea Waltham, the step-mother of Emily, Ross Geller's fiancée, in the episodes "The One After Ross Says Rachel" and "The One with Ross's Wedding". In 1999, she appeared alongside French in Let Them Eat Cake.
|“||I wanted to write something about the sort of community I was living in, why it works and how different it was. How life in the country didn’t have to be sinister.||”|
— Saunders on her motivations for creating Jam & Jerusalem
Saunders wrote and starred in a comedy drama about a Women's Institute entitled Jam & Jerusalem, also known as Clatterford in America. The first series aired in 2006, the second in 2008 and the third in 2009 on BBC One. The show starred David Mitchell, Sally Phillips and Sue Johnston as well as Dawn French and Joanna Lumley.
In 2007, Saunders and psychologist Tanya Byron wrote BBC Two's The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle about a neurotic daytime talk show host. Saunders played the eponymous character whose programme features crude headlines such as "Wife a slapper? Lie detector reveals all" and "I want a vagina".
Also in 2007, the final series French & Saunders series aired. A Bucket o' French & Saunders featured a compilation of old and new sketches and aired on BBC One in September 2007. It was the third show she had written in a year. In 2008 and 2009, French & Saunders completed their final live tour, French & Saunders: Still Alive.
Saunders appeared on the "Star in a Reasonably Priced Car" segment of BBC 2's motoring show Top Gear, posting a lap time of 1:46.1s, making her the fifth-fastest guest ever in the car that was used at that time. A self-confessed petrolhead, she has a passion for Alfa Romeos, and has so far owned four.
In 2011, Saunders wrote and appeared in "Uptown Downstairs Abbey", the Comic Relief parody of the critically acclaimed historical television dramas Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs. Playing the Dowager Countess, she starred alongside Kim Cattrall, Joanna Lumley, Victoria Wood, Harry Enfield, Patrick Barlow, Dale Winton, Olivia Colman, Tim Vine, Simon Callow, Michael Gambon, and Harry Hill.
In 2012, Saunders guest-starred in Dead Boss, a BBC Three comedy set in the fictional Broadmarsh prison where she plays the cruel and work-shy governor, Margaret. The show's creator, Sharon Horgan, stated that she 'begged' Saunders to take the role, having been a fan of Saunders' previous comedy work.
She also wrote the script for the Spice Girls-based jukebox musical Viva Forever! which received some of the worst reviews of 2012 (and "arguably of all time"). It closed after only seven months with a loss of "at least £5 million".
Saunders has also appeared in several films, such as In the Bleak Midwinter (1995), Muppet Treasure Island (1996), (1999) and also made cameo appearances in the Spice Girls' film Spice World (1997) and Absolument fabuleux (2001), a French film based on Absolutely Fabulous.
She most notably appeared in the internationally successful DreamWorks animated movie Shrek 2 in 2004, voicing Princess Fiona's evil Fairy Godmother and sung the songs "The Fairy Godmother Song" and "Holding Out For a Hero". Her part took only four days to record. The sequel broke the first Shrek's own box office record in the U.S in just a fortnight, and it proceeded to make $353 million in just three weeks in the U.S. Her role won the American People's Choice Award for the best movie villain in 2005. She also voiced Miss Spink in the animated film Coraline, in which Dawn French also voiced a character called Miss Forcible. In 2015 she voiced Queen Elizabeth II in the animated film Minions.
Saunders married Adrian Edmondson on 11 May 1985 in Cheshire. They have three daughters: Eleanor "Ella" Rose (born 22 January 1986, Hammersmith, London), Beatrice "Beattie" Louise (born 19 June 1987, Kensington and Chelsea, London), and Freya Domenica (born 16 October 1990, Wandsworth, London).
On 27 August 2012, Saunders and Edmondson became grandparents when their daughter Ella gave birth to a boy, Fred. They became grandparents for the second time in February 2014 when Ella gave birth to another son, Albert Rafferty.
Saunders published her autobiography, Bonkers: My Life in Laughs, in October 2013.
She has volunteered for Dress for Success, a non-profit organisation which gives free clothes and advice about job interviews to women who are unemployed.
Awards and recognition
Along with Dawn French, Saunders declined an OBE in 2001. In 2003, she was listed in The Observer as one of the 50 funniest acts in British comedy. Saunders placed 93rd out of E!'s 100 Sexiest British Stars. She also came 18th for Best British Role Models for teenage girls in Britain according to Good Housekeeping magazine. Saunders was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Exeter in July 2007. In July 2011 she was awarded an honorary doctorate by Edge Hill University. In 2005, she was named the fourth funniest woman in Britain in a poll of 4,000 women. To date, she has been nominated for and received many awards, including:
- 1991: Writers' Guild of Great Britain Award for TV Light Entertainment - French & Saunders
- 1993: BAFTA Television Award for Best Comedy Series for - Absolutely Fabulous (shared with Jon Plowman and Bob Spiers)
- 1993: Writers' Guild of Great Britain Award TV for Situation Comedy - Absolutely Fabulous
- 1994: International Emmy Award for popular arts - Absolutely Fabulous
- 2002: Honorary Rose Award - awarded with Dawn French
- 2005: People's Choice Award for Best Movie Villain - Shrek 2
- 2009: BAFTA Fellowship - awarded with Dawn French
- 2012: BAFTA Television Award for Best Female Performance In a Comedy Programme - Absolutely Fabulous
- 1993: BAFTA Television Award for Best Light Entertainment Performance for - Absolutely Fabulous
- 1993: British Comedy Award for Best Comedy Actress - Absolutely Fabulous
- 1994: British Comedy Award for Best TV Comedy Actress - Absolutely Fabulous
- 1995: BAFTA Television Award for Best Comedy Series for - Absolutely Fabulous (shared with Jon Plowman and Bob Spiers)
- 1996: BAFTA Television Award for Best Comedy Series for - Absolutely Fabulous (shared with Jon Plowman and Bob Spiers)
- 1997: BAFTA Television Award for Best Comedy Series for - Absolutely Fabulous (shared with Jon Plowman, Bob Spiers and Janice Thomas)
- 2016: Sing...
- 2016: Ab Fab: The Movie ... Edina
- 2015: Minions (voice) .... Queen Elizabeth II
- 2013: Blandings (TV) ... Connie
- 2012: Dead Boss (TV) ... Governor Margaret
- 2011: Uptown Downstairs Abbey, Red Nose Day 2011 (TV) .... The Dowager Countess/Herself
- 2011: The Hunt for Tony Blair (TV) ... Margaret Thatcher
- 2009: Red Nose Day 2009 (TV) .... Meryl Streep
- 2009: Coraline (voice) .... Miss April Spink/Other Spink
- 2008: French and Saunders Still Alive (V)
- 2007: The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle .... Vivienne Vyle (6 episodes, 2007)
- 2007: .... Various Characters (5 episodes, 2007)
- 2006: Jam & Jerusalem .... Caroline Martin / ... (16 episodes, 2006–2009)
- 2006: .... Gwendoline McFarlane
- 2005: (TV) .... Edina 'Eddie' Monsoon
- 2004: Fable (VG) (voice)
- 2004: Shrek 2 (voice) .... Fairy Godmother - People's Choice Award for Best Movie Villain
- 2003: (TV) .... J.K. Rowling / Ron Weasley
- 2002: Pongwiffy TV series (voice) .... Sharkadder
- 2001: Absolument fabuleux .... Une spectatrice du défilé
- 2000: Mirrorball (TV) .... Vivienne Keill
- 2000: (V) .... Various roles
- 1999: (TV)
- 1999: .... Roanna
- 1999: The Magician's House TV series (voice) .... The Rat
- 1999: Let Them Eat Cake .... Colombine (6 episodes, 1999)
- 1998: (V) .... Edina 'Eddy' Monsoon
- 1997: Spiceworld .... Fashionable Woman
- 1995: In the Bleak Midwinter .... Nancy Crawford
- 1995: (TV) .... Lady Hester Stanhope
- 1993: Muppet Treasure Island .... Mrs. Bluberidge
- 1993: (voice) .... Fairy
- 1993: (V) .... Various roles
- 1992: Absolutely Fabulous .... Edina / ... (38 episodes, 1992–2012)
- 1991: (1 episode, 1991)
- 1990: The Tale of Little Pig Robinson (TV) .... Dorcas
- 1990: .... Jennifer (1 episode, 1990)
- 1990: Rita Rudner (1 episode, 1990)
- 1988: The Storyteller .... Badsister 1 (1 episode, 1988)
- 1987: French and Saunders .... Various Characters / ... (48 episodes, 1987–2009)
- 1988: Eat the Rich .... Lady Caroline
- 1986: (V) .... Anita Harris (segment "How to Get off with a Lady")
- 1985: The Supergrass .... Lesley Reynolds
- 1985: Girls on Top .... Jennifer Marsh (5 episodes, 1985)
- 1985: Happy Families .... Granny Fuddle / ... (6 episodes, 1985)
- 1984: The Lenny Henry Show (1 episode, 1984)
- 1982: The Comic Strip Presents... .... Anne / ... (28 episodes, 1982–1998)
- 1982: The Young Ones .... Helen Mucus / ... (2 episodes, 1982–1984)
- 1981: The Comic Strip (TV) .... Jennifer
- 1996: Roseanne in the episode "Satan, Darling"
- 1998: Friends in the episodes "The One With Ross' Wedding" (part 2) and "The One After Ross Says Rachel"
- 2016: Ab Fab: The Movie (writer)
- 2012: Viva Forever! (writer)
- 2006: Jam & Jerusalem (16 episodes, 2006–2009)
- 2008: French and Saunders Still Alive (V) (writer)
- 2007: The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle (6 episodes, 2007)
- 2007: (5 episodes, 2007)
- 2001: Absolument fabuleux (creator: TV series Absolutely Fabulous)
- 2000: Mirrorball (TV) (writer)
- 2000: (V) (writer)
- 1999: (TV) (writer)
- 1998: (V) (writer)
- 1998: (V) (original idea)
- 1996: Roseanne (1 episode, 1996)
- 1993: (V) (writer)
- 1992: Absolutely Fabulous (38 episodes, 1992–2012)
- 1991: Comic Relief (TV) (uncredited)
- 1987: French and Saunders (38 episodes, 1987–2005)
- 1986: Comic Relief (TV) (writer)
- 1984: The Comic Strip Presents... (2 episodes, 1984–1986)
- 1985: Girls on Top TV series (unknown episodes)
- 1981: The Comic Strip (TV) (writer)
- Absolutely Fabulous: Continuity
- Absolutely Fabulous (scripts from the show)
- Absolutely Fabulous 2 (more scripts from the show)
- A Feast of French and Saunders (with Dawn French)
- Bonkers: My Life in Laughs (Viking, 2013)