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Saunders, Jennifer (1958-)

Actor, Writer

Main image of Saunders, Jennifer (1958-)

One of the most influential women in British television comedy over the last twenty years, writer and actress Jennifer Saunders first found success as one half of the double act French and Saunders. However, it was writing and starring in the landmark sitcom Absolutely Fabulous that confirmed her status as a leading player in British comedy.

She was born in 1958 in Sleaford, Lincolnshire into an RAF family perennially on the move. In 1977, while studying to become a drama teacher at London's Central School of Speech and Drama, she met future comedy partner Dawn French; they soon became friends and flat-mates. In 1980, prompted by French, they answered an advertisement in The Stage, which led to their performing comedy sketches at The Comic Strip Club. Holding their own in a very male world alongside the likes of Adrian Edmondson, Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle, Peter Richardson and Nigel Planer, they found themselves at the core of the emerging 'alternative comedy' scene.

Along with the rest of the team, Saunders appeared on Channel 4's first night on air in 'Five Go Mad In Dorset' (tx. 2/11/1982), the first episode of The Comic Strip Presents... (Channel 4, 1982-88; BBC, 1990-93; Channel 4, 1998-2000), a series of parodic comedy plays. Both Saunders and French appeared regularly.

Saunders also appeared in the Ben Elton-scripted sitcom Happy Families (BBC, 1985), in which she played assorted members of the same family, and, with French, in Girls On Top (ITV, 1985-1986), which she co-wrote and in which she played a dense resident of an all-female London flat-share. She made guest appearances in The Young Ones (BBC, 1982-84) with her Comic Strip colleagues, and starred, again alongside French, in the disastrous revolutionary France sitcom Let Them Eat Cake (BBC, 1999).

1987 heralded the duo's self-penned show French and Saunders (BBC, 1987-), a landmark in female-led television comedy which showcased their devastatingly sharp observations on both femininity and masculinity and made a recurring feature of their characters' entertaining bickering. An increasingly dominant ingredient as the series wore on was a string of parodies of Hollywood blockbusters - notably Titanic and the Alien films - which, though entertaining and often spot-on, began to edge out their more imaginative comedy. French and Saunders provided opportunities to other female performers such as Mel and Sue, paved the way for Smack The Pony (Channel 4, 1999-), and featured notable guest appearances from the likes of Joan Bakewell, Jane Asher and Kirsty MacColl.

A sketch in the third series of French and Saunders inspired Saunders to write Absolutely Fabulous while French was taking a break from television. Garishly colourful and defined by her own deliriously over-the-top performance, Ab Fab (BBC, 1992-93; 1996; 2001-03) became a vast international success and proved that she could thrive without French. She created a genuine TV icon in the chronically irresponsible fashion PR agent Edina Monsoon, a constant burden to her more mature teenage daughter, Saffron (Julia Sawalha) and bewildered mother (June Whitfield). The show was another triumph for female-centred comedy, and revived the careers of co-stars Whitfield and Joanna Lumley, who played Edina's chain-smoking, permanently sozzled best friend, Patsy. The Ab Fab cast also teamed up for the Saunders-written one-off comedy Mirrorball (BBC, 2000).

Her slimmer film credits include In the Bleak Midwinter (d. Kenneth Branagh, 1995) and Spice World: The Movie (d. Bob Spiers, 1997), and most recently she voiced the distinctly Edina-like Fairy Godmother in Shrek 2 (US, 2004).

She is married to her former Comic Strip cohort Adrian Edmondson, with whom she has three daughters.

Hannah Hamad

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Absolutely Fabulous (1992-2003)Absolutely Fabulous (1992-2003)

Hugely influential sitcom about a ghastly PR executive

Thumbnail image of Comic Strip Presents..., The (1982-2000)Comic Strip Presents..., The (1982-2000)

Long-running film showcase for the alternative comedy generation

Thumbnail image of French and Saunders (1987-)French and Saunders (1987-)

Sketch show featuring longtime partners Dawn and Jennifer

Thumbnail image of Girls on Top (1985-86)Girls on Top (1985-86)

Flatshare comedy with French, Saunders, Tracy Ullman and Ruby Wax

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Alternative ComedyAlternative Comedy

The new broom of early '80s humour

Thumbnail image of Funny Women on TVFunny Women on TV

Comedy with a female slant

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of French, Dawn (1957-)French, Dawn (1957-)

Actor, Writer