British Comedy Series with Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders

Two of Britain's funniest women, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders met and became friends when they were studying at Central School of Speech and Drama in London. The two discovered that they made a great pair, both were equally adept at writing and performing comedy. Their 20-plus year partnership led to Absolutely Fabulous, the Vicar of Dibley and much more ... but before all of that, there was French & Saunders.

This comic duo put together a sketch comedy show for BBC television, starting in the late 80's and running for many, many years, counting the subsequent specials which keep on being produced and (BBC willing) will do so for a long time. The result stands as one of the funniest things ever to grace the tube on either side of the Atlantic.

French and Saunders are:

Dawn French–Women were very uncommon in the comedy scene of the late 1970s. Ms. French, frequently working with Ms. Saunders, took British audiences by surprise on stage, then on TV shows such as Girls on Top and The Comic Strip Presents. Dawn French constantly asserted her position in comedy. When some of her cronies from The Comedy Store decided to create the series The Young Ones, French was there, playing the Easter Bunny. Dawn French was well-known to audiences across the UK by 1987, when French and Saunders was first conceived. She has since gone on to co-write Absolutely Fabulous (with Jen Saunders) and to star in a number of television shows and films, most notably Murder Most Horrid and her wonderful lead role in The Vicar of Dibley television series.

Jennifer Saunders–Ms. Saunders worked with Dawn French many times before 1987, including her own appearances on Girls on Top, The Comic Strip Presents and The Young Ones. She was a well-known comic before French and Saunders and has gone on to work with Ms. French on Absolutely Fabulous (and many French and Saunders re-unions). Ms. Saunders has also appeared on a huge number of television shows, and several movies, including In the Bleak Midwinter and Mirrorball, and voice work for The Magician's House and Shrek 2 (she was the voice of the Fairy Godmother!).

What is this so-called French & Saunders, anyway?

Like Monty Python's Flying Circus and Kids in the Hall, French & Saunders' sketches tend to be short, although they almost always have one longer piece (often a movie parody) which is broken up into segments with other sketches between.

These women shred everything from Madonna to the British Royal Family. French and Saunders perform sketches, movie and TV parodies, monologues, dialogues, period pieces and other assorted insanity. Their choice of material ranges widely: pretentious artists, dirty old men, social mores, the BBC, actors, life in Britain, life in America and more. Their humor is as varied as their subject matter, running the range from off-color or rude cheap laughs to far headier satirical fare. The writing is exceptionally clever and often requires repeated viewings to catch all of the jokes.

One of the wonderful things about these shows is their consistently (very) high production values. Good sets, costumes, makeup and cinematography augment the ladies' already strong material–the effect is that their skits are often a joy to watch, and their movie parodies look almost like real movies. French and Saunders are both masterful mimics–playing suburban housewives, boarding school girls, Madonna, Jayne Mansfield (French) and Marilyn Monroe (Saunders), a pair of filthy old men, Qui-Gon Jinn (Saunders) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (French), Galadriel (Saunders) and Frodo (French) and Gandalf (Saunders), Rob Roy MacGregor (Saunders) and William Wallace (French), Björk (French), Thelma & Louise, Hannibal Lecter (French) and Clarice Starling (Saunders) and so many more parts that the mind boggles. It is extremely rare to see female comics do male drag, but these two do it with conviction and craft that makes for some screamingly funny moments. Jen Saunders does a frighteningly authentic Liam Neeson!

So They Made This Show. What Happened Then?

French and Saunders were well-loved even before French & Saunders. As two of Britain's only female comics*, quite a few people found their uniquely female perspective on humor refreshing. They were even considered (somewhat reluctantly) as feminist icons. Once French & Saunders came out, critics and audiences were delighted. The raving was not unanimous, some of their racier material was seen as highly inappropriate for women to be performing. Still, most viewers were amazed and amused by the quality of this show.

One of the sketches in French & Saunders involved Ms. Saunders as a hopelessly inattentive, immature, self-obsessed mother and Dawn French as her studious, school-age daughter. This, of course, evolved into Absolutely Fabulous, which premiered in 1992, written by French and Saunders. Saunders starred as Edina Monsoon, a lost soul with very bad parenting skills and the very funny Joanna Lumley starred as the remarkably flaky, fashion-obsessed Patsy Stone. Julia Sawalha played Edina's long-suffering, intelligent daughter, Saffron.

French & Saunders is out on a four DVD set (as well as in VHS format, I am informed). The discs are quite good, with each 'season' (or series) being its own disc, and several extras (such as specials) on each disc. One of the most interesting things about the discs is that they have edited the seasons down into an hour-plus straight through entertainment show.

And What do I Think, You Ask?

These shows have it all, wit, intelligence, British people making fun of Americans, silliness, women dressing up as men, British people making fun of British people, jokes at the expense of the high and mighty—there is almost too much to see at one time! On the DVD set, as with the series, the sketches fly by with such speed that the audience may be left struggling to remember all of the best bits.

In 2001, the British government offered both of these women the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) "for services to comedy drama." The two comediennes turned down the title, but I still think they should be declared national treasures.

*An old Vaudeville saw purports, "Women just ain't funny"—okay, maybe SheTV just made this 'old chestnut' up, but it certainly reflects the thinking of many people. Ms. French and Ms. Saunders disprove this axiom handily, I think.


References:
Need Coffee dot com, DVD reviews: http://www.needcoffee.com/html/dvd/fasaunders.html
imdb, entries for the show and both of the ladies
and, of course, owning the DVDs and watching them a lot!
Absolutely Jennifer, biography online: http://jsaunders.alexicon.org/bio.html
Dawn French: Girl on Top - a TeleTronic Biography: http://www.teletronic.co.uk/dawnfrench.htm

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