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French and Saunders (1987-)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of French and Saunders (1987-)
BBC, 9/3/1987-(continuing)
38 x 30 min in six series, plus eight specials
WritersDawn French
 Jennifer Saunders
 Adrian Edmondson
Directors includeBob Spiers
 Geoff Posner
Producers includeJon Plowman
 Geoff Posner

Cast: Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders

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Sketches, songs and spoofs from the titular Dawn and Jennifer.

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For all its right-on, anti-sexist rhetoric, the alternative comedy scene was slow to promote women comics. By the time Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French joined the line-up at the Comic Strip club, their male co-stars Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson and Alexei Sayle were on their way to cult status. Similarly, the two women had to make do with small parts in others' shows before finally winning a series of their own, with Girls on Top (ITV, 1985-86) and, subsequently, French and Saunders.

The series displayed the wilful amateurishness of much alternative comedy, but shunned both the violence and scatology of Mayall and Edmondson and the strident politics of Sayle or Ben Elton. The duo's humour was distinctively female, but without the aggressive feminism favoured by some female comics of the time. Men came in for some criticism, notably in the recurring 'two fat men' sketches, in which a pair of obese chauvinist grotesques leer at women and brag implausibly about their sexual conquests. Most of the jokes, however, were at the expense of themselves or each other, with sketches frequently falling apart and the partners routinely breaking out of character to bicker and criticise.

Early series took the form of a low-rent variety show, a set-up tailored to the performers' studied clumsiness, and featured support from the similarly gauche Raw Sex, a cod-cabaret keyboard/bongos act comprising Rowland Rivron and Simon Brint. As audiences and budgets grew, however, the structure loosened, and the pair increasingly favoured elaborate spoofs of pop acts - notably Madonna and Bananarama - and movie blockbusters. The latter became an enormously popular feature, to the extent that, however hilarious were their shambolic takes on the likes of Titanic, Silence of the Lambs and Aliens, they risked eclipsing the duo's other strengths.

Success may have been a while coming, but when they made it, they really made it. The pair became something like a Morecambe and Wise of the alternative comedy generation, winning a mainstream acceptance well beyond that offered to their peers, excepting Elton and, latterly, Hugh Laurie. As they increasingly concentrated on other projects - Saunders with Absolutely Fabulous (BBC, 1992-2003), French with Murder Most Horrid (BBC, 1991-99) and The Vicar of Dibley (BBC, 1994-) - the gaps between their collaborations grew wider, with the result that each new special or series was greeted as a television event.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. Dressing room (3:53)
2. Spectacular trick (4:06)
3. The New New Avengers (4:00)
Complete episode (29:56)
Girls on Top (1985-86)
French, Dawn (1957-)
Saunders, Jennifer (1958-)
Spiers, Bob (1945-2008)
Alternative Comedy
Funny Women on TV