Life's never been so good! She’s fought breast cancer and battled depression, now, Jennifer Saunders reveals why she’s feeling fabulous
22:26 GMT, 6 April 2012
Jennifer Saunders is running late. At the last minute, her filming schedule had been postponed so she thought she had the day to herself.
Then she suddenly remembered our breakfast meeting and hurtled across London. She arrives at the Goring Hotel – from which Kate Middleton sallied forth to marry her prince – a little flustered but glowing with good health. Her short hair is punkish blonde and there’s barely a trace of make-up.
She’s wearing a black leather jacket, red T-shirt and drainpipe trousers with high-heeled ankle boots.
It’s a look that says, ‘Take me as I am.’ At 53, she seems entirely comfortable in her own skin and you don’t need to dig deep to work out why.
In October 2009 Jennifer Saunders was diagnosed with breast cancer, undergoing a lumpectomy and gruelling sessions of radiotherapy and chemo
In October 2009 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, undergoing a lumpectomy and dealing with gruelling sessions of radiotherapy and chemo which resulted in the inevitable loss of her hair, which she kept from the world with a succession of stylish bandanas. It wasn’t until the following July that Jennifer went public about her illness, appearing with a crop of soft new hair.
For the next four years, she must take Tamoxifen every day to reduce the chance of the cancer returning.
‘It also reverses your metabolism,’ she explains, ‘which means that, whereas I once used up 70 per cent of the calories I consumed, my body now stores that amount. So I have to eat less and exercise more. I walk the dog, both in London and Devon where we have houses, and I take fewer cabs.’
Another effect of the drug was to precipitate the onset of the menopause.
‘And nor did it come gradually,’ she says, with a wry smile. That, in turn, induced depression although it took her friend, therapist Tanya /04/05/article-2125473-127A01E8000005DC-940_634x466.jpg” width=”634″ height=”466″ alt=”Family support: Jennifer with husband Ade Edmondson and daughters” class=”blkBorder” />
Family support: Jennifer with husband Ade Edmondson and daughters
She’s beaming as she starts telling me about her daughters by her comedian and actor husband, Ade Edmondson, 55. The eldest, Ella, 26, was a singer/songwriter who now works with her husband Daniel in their building business.
‘The big news is she’s pregnant,’ says Jennifer. ‘The baby’s due in August.’
And the prospect of becoming a grandmother
‘I can’t wait. I want it to happen now!’
Middle daughter Beattie, 24, is in a comedy group of five called Lady Garden. And the youngest, Freya, 21, has a place studying fashion at a London college.
‘So I have a comedian and a fashion designer. I’m sure Edina (her comic creation Edina Monsoon from Absolutely Fabulous) would approve.’
The result of the girls flying the nest has been that work is becoming more of a priority.
‘I turned things down when they were growing up. But now I’m saying yes to pretty much everything.’ She’s currently snowed under.
Most recently she’s been seen in a new TV ad campaign for Choccy Philly, a mix of Cadbury’s milk chocolate and Philadelphia Light cheese. ‘Sounds disgusting, doesn’t it’ she says. ‘But it’s delicious, a bit like chocolate cheesecake.’
I put on weight with the drugs I was
taking for the cancer. That put things in perspective. Life’s there for
living. Frankly, I can’t be a**ed how much I weigh any more.
A new episode of Ab Fab is already in
the can and will be shown in the run-up to the Olympics.
she’s going to be renting out her house to Michael Douglas.
would. Bubble spends the whole episode dressed for various sporting
activities; there’s a lot of Lycra involved.
'And there’s a big fantasy
sequence at the end, though the trouble with that is it’s hard to get
hold of current athletes to be in it because they’re too caught up in
running or jumping or whatever. You can get former athletes, but they’ve
usually got a limp, so that’s not so good.’
There’s even going to be Ab Fab, the movie. ‘I’ve said it now so I’m going to have to do it, aren’t I’
It will turn on Eddy and Patsy in search of la dolce vita. They’re looking for what they imagine a glamorous life should be; the perfect place to sit or that perfect pair of sunglasses. In the meantime, they take Saffy’s daughter – and then manage to lose her.’
Jennifer will start writing in the autumn and hopes to release it in time for the Oscars in 2014, ‘If I do it for no other reason,’ she says, shaking with laughter, ‘I’ll do it so Joanna and I – as Patsy and Eddy – can walk the red carpet. Wouldn’t that be a dream’
Nothing gives her greater pleasure than Ab Fab.
‘I adore being Edina. It’s a total escape. If I think of Edina now, I can’t help smiling. She’s so scatty. When I’m Eddy and Joanna’s Patsy, there’s no happier place to be. It must be for us like meditation is for other people.’
Jennifer will start writing Ab Fab, the movie in the autumn and hopes to release it in time for the Oscars in 2014
Meanwhile, she’s been working on the
keenly anticipated stage musical Viva Forever, featuring the songs of
the Spice Girls woven – la Mamma Mia! – into a completely unrelated
‘My agent, Maureen Vincent, was having a meeting with Judy
Craymer, who created Mamma Mia!. Judy started talking about a possible
Spice Girls project and my name came up. I’d just begun chemo but as
soon as I was told of the possibility, I said, “Look, Maureen, if I
don’t get this, I’m going to be so cross.” Jennifer didn’t know Judy.
‘I’d only ever sent her up rotten in a sketch Dawn and I did about Mamma
Mia! for Comic Relief. And she was so good about it: she sent me a
lovely letter saying how much it had made her laugh.
daughters related to something in the Spice Girls that made them feel
better about being female. They truly started to believe girls could do
anything. They could be fat, thin, anything they wanted to be.
Girls were fantastic. They pitched it just right for girls of a certain
age. So I wanted to give my story that sort of spirit. It’s about a
girl group who have huge success but then get separated from one
Jennifer and Dawn met the Spice Girls when they were still unknown. ‘
Dawn and I were having lunch opposite a big recording studio in south-west London. During a break, these five slightly strange-looking girls suddenly appeared. We had no idea who they were but they recognised us. “Oh look, it’s French and Saunders!” they squealed and came across to chat.’
This was the summer of 1996 and it
turned out the Spices had been recording their first single, Wannabe.
‘And we kept crossing paths with them throughout their huge success.
Dawn got to know Geri quite well, while I’ve become close to Emma
because of her appearances in Ab Fab. Victoria’s gone off in a different
direction. I admire her so much for what she’s achieved.’
Comedy duo Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders
Viva Forever, which is expected to open in late autumn, onto the stage
is a complicated business, she explains.
‘It’s half dialogue and half
music in a two-hour show. So I have to tell quite a complicated story,
interspersing it with songs relevant to the action, in an hour.’ During
the process, she became increasingly admiring of the Spice Girls’ hits.
‘I realise now that the songs are remarkably good. They’re generally on a
theme that runs from the excitement of early success/love right through
to the downside of fame/relationships. I’ve had ten out of ten for
enjoyment on this project,’ she says.
can’t wait for the first night. All the Spice Girls will be there.
Before I started writing, I chatted to Emma and Mel C together because
they live in London. I later talked to Geri, while Judy Craymer spoke to
Mel B and Victoria.
'Geri was the one who wanted to know most about how
the girls in the fictional group got on. What was lovely was explaining
which song went where, and then they’d share memories of what was
happening when they’d recorded the individual songs. They have real
affection for each other and it’s also clear that this was a very
special time of their lives. Whenever I see any of them, they’re totally
behind what I’m doing.’
Although French & Saunders hasn’t
been on TV since 2005, the duo still make forays into radio broadcasting
together and their freewheeling Radio 2 shows – ‘We pop up on high days
and holidays’ – have a cult following.
‘We always try and get someone
famous and their mum. The best was Tracey Emin, whose mother is just
wild. The most difficult thing is timing. For some reason, Dawn can’t
read a clock to save her life so she often cuts off a guest five minutes
Will she write a new vehicle for herself and Dawn one day
‘Oh yes,’ she says. ‘At one stage, we toyed with the idea of co-hosting a chat show.
'The trouble is, she so loves living in Cornwall, it may be hard to wrench her away. There are moments I really miss working with her and doing the sketches. I’ll see something like Upstairs Downstairs or The Iron Lady and think, “I wish we were still doing all of that” because we could have so much fun sending up those things.’
Much has been made of Dawn’s dramatic weight loss. Indeed, Jennifer is on record as saying that now she’s the fatter of the two. It’s not true, as it happens. ‘Actually, weight is no longer an issue with me,’ she insists.
‘Like all girls, when I was growing up, I always worried about this bit of me being too fat or that bit. But I look back at pictures of me when I was young and I was thin and gorgeous. Then I put on weight with the drugs I was taking for the cancer. That put things in perspective. Life’s there for living. Frankly, I can’t be a**ed how much I weigh any more.
It might sound like a clich but we’re a
happy family. We don’t shout.
Why waste time being horrid to each
‘I remember my mother drinking something
called PLJ which was meant to break down the fat. And then an
appetite-suppressant called Ayds came along which was advertised as
slimming toffees. Ridiculous! And I remember she had a cheeseboard that
was also a calorie counter. It seems that, from the 70s onwards, we’ve
been bombarded with a succession of “miracle” diets.
‘Everyone thinks Dawn’s had a gastric band fitted, but it’s just not true. Now she watches what she eats and walks for miles by the sea. It’s sheer discipline – and look how it’s paid off. She looks sensational.’ Often accompanying Dawn on those walks is the new man in her life, charity boss Mark Bignell. Has Jennifer met him yet ‘I certainly have,’ she says, with a broad smile. ‘He’s delightful, completely delightful.’
Jennifer’s rock throughout her cancer ordeal has been her husband of 26 years, Ade. He recently said their shared propensity for laughter is the reason they’re still together.
‘I occasionally shout at the computer but we don’t shout at each other or at the kids. It might sound like a clich but we’re a happy family,’ he said.
Jennifer agrees. ‘That’s right. We don’t shout. Mind you, we’re both sulkers. Why waste time being horrid to each other And yes, we do make each other laugh.’
We’ll next see her on TV this month as a ‘psychotic prison governor’ in Dead Boss, which pokes fun at shows like Bad Girls and Prisoner: Cell Block H.
‘My character is sexy and certifiably bonkers. I order the guards to dress up in a variety of outfits so I can paint portraits of them. I’ve almost always written my own roles, so it’s nice to be speaking somebody else’s words for a change.’ Around the time it goes out on BBC3 she’ll be in Ireland for four weeks filming Blandings from the PG Wodehouse stories opposite Timothy Spall.
When she’s not working she does what she
can for charity. On 12 May she’ll take part in the annual Moonwalk and
can be sponsored online raising money for breast cancer charities.
a half-marathon that begins and ends in Hyde Park. I’ll have a funny
bra on outside my clothes.’ She also supports Country Holidays For Inner
City Kids which takes deprived children on their first holidays.
Jennifer grew up in a happy family that
moved around according to her RAF father’s different postings.
‘He was a
bit of a daredevil so I think I inherited my love of speed from him.
I’m a total petrolhead.’ She’s still the fifth fastest celebrity to race
around a track on Top Gear. ‘My three brothers and I used to ride
scrambling bikes in the field near where we lived. We all liked cars.
I’ve always loved the smell of an engine.’
And the sibling rivalry made her very competitive. ‘Sometimes I can’t go in for things in case I don’t win. It’s why I’d never accept an invitation to appear on Strictly Come Dancing. I don’t want to be the stiff old lady guided round the dance floor by Anton Du Beke. In my head, I’m Emma Bunton. I’m loose and I’m supple. I’m not a middle-aged woman with a thickening waistline.’
For all her charity work, she – and Dawn – turned down an OBE in 2001. ‘That’s true,’ she concedes, ‘but we didn’t do it publicly so we were cross it got out. At the time, we both felt we hadn’t really done anything to deserve it, so we said, “Thanks but no thanks” and they said, “Fine, no one will ever know,” and yet it got out. And we became known as refuseniks.’ A look of mock horror crosses Jennifer’s face. ‘I do hope that won’t affect my Damehood.’
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