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"It's so completely liberating," Jennifer Saunders said of her role in Shrek 2, the animated hit for which she provided the voice for the bullying Fairy Godmother. "This job really has been one of my favorite jobs in the world. No one's looking at you." 

As Edina Monsoon, the idle-rich, shopaholic publicist of the hit British sitcom, Absolutely Fabulous, however, millions of viewers in Britain and the U.S. were looking at Saunders, delighting in her gaudy attire, loud and rude manner, and outrageous humor. The show only ran for 18 episodes, but its impact was lasting. The show won two Emmy awards, and, in 2004, was ranked 24th by TV Guide in its list of the "25 Top Cult Shows Ever." 

Saunders not only starred in the show, but wrote and produced it, as well. It was, the Museum of Broadcast Communications notes, "an unusual example of peak-time situation comedy written by women, with a predominantly female cast and a specific address to a female audience, it provides rare viewing pleasures of self-recognition and humor to women."

Born July 6, 1958 in Sleaford, Lincolnshire, Saunders' mother was a biology teacher and her father a pilot and later an Air Marshal in the Royal Air Force. Like many another child of military men, Saunders moved frequently during her childhood, and this rootlessness seems to have shaped and sharpened her comedic sensibilities.

"You do learn how to fit in quite well," she said. "A lot of that is just watching and actually not having much of a personality." Her observation of the strict regimentation and hierarchy of the military may have also influenced her comedic view which has been marked by a tendency to mock pomposity. As she later said, "You see, what I really like is being an observer. I'd just like a good old look."

Failing to be accepted at a university, Saunders entered the Central School of Speech and Drama in 1977 at the behest of her mother who hoped she might be able to become a drama teacher. It was there that she met Dawn French who would become her partner in comedy. Ironically, the two both had parents in the RAF and grew up on the same military base but failed to meet even though they once shared a best friend. The future comedians did not hit it off from the start, however. In fact, they disliked each other intensely. French thought Saunders "snooty and aloof." Saunders regarded French as a "cocky little upstart."

They may have sized each other up accurately, but those qualities proved compatible, especially on stage.

Saunders and French soon began sharing a flat. Following graduation, they began to share the stage, performing as the Menopause Sisters. As part of the act, they wore tampons in their ears. Saunders called her first foray into show business "cringe worthy," and the manager at one of the clubs at which they performed agreed. "They didn't seem to give a damn," he recalled, also noting that they lacked star quality.

The Comic Strip, an alternative comedy sketch revue, may not have given a damn either, at least not about star quality. They did care, however, about having female comics in their show. When Saunders and French appeared in answer to a newspaper ad in 1980, they were hired the moment they walked through the door. The group's members also included Nigel Planer, Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle, Robbie Coltrane, and the man whom Saunders would ultimately marry, Adrian Edmondson.

The group proved successful, and after performing on the festival circuit, made their television debut on Channel Four in 1982, later winning a Golden Rose at the Montreux Festival. The Comedy Strip Presents . . ., as the show was called, proved innovative, especially due to Saunders and French whose characters were groundbreaking on British television where women were either sex objects, as on The Benny Hill Show, or stereotyped wives on Fawlty Towers and The Good Life. Saunders and French brought a comic style to television that had once been exclusively male.

"It is easy to forget how groundbreaking French and Saunders were when they first appeared on television," wrote Decca Aitkenhead in The Guardian. "(T)heir heirs are easy to think of . . . their predecessors are not. They were the ones who legitimized jokes about tampons as well as nuclear weapons."

When Island Records issued an album of The Comic Strip's material, their audience expanded beyond the U.K. A documentary film by Julian Temple that was released in 1980, also broadened their audience.

Saunders branched out in 1985 by co-writing and starring along with Tracey Ullman and Ruby Wax in Girls on Top, then played all four sisters in Ben Elton's six-episode BBC series, Happy Families, in which French also appeared. In 1987, French and Saunders premiered on the BBC. In the popular show, the two stars appeared in a variety of sketches and parodied such pop culture icons as Cher and Madonna.

Absolutely Fabulous had its origins in a French and Saunders sketch called "Modern Mother and Daughter," but it was a solo venture for Saunders who claims she created the show only because French had taken a break to adopt a child. Saunders starred as Edina Monsoon, who, when asked by her son to explain what she does, replies, "I PR things. People. Places. Concepts. I make the fabulous . . . I make the crap into credible. I make the dull into . . ."

Her best friend, Patsy (Joanna Lumley), completes her sentence: "Delicious!"

The show follows the exploits of Edina Monsoon who owns her own PR business but rarely appears to do any work. Her life is instead devoted to overindulging in various bad habits (drinking, smoking, drug taking, shopping) and refusing to grow up. Her friend, Patsy, is even worse, and in some ways seems a stand-in for Edina's daughter who is more mature than both of them combined.

Delicious is as perfect a description of Absolutely Fabulous as the adjective in the title. Rude and outrageous, the show almost received a retooling for American audiences, ala The Office, but proved too risque due to its sexual and drug references. But the original series won over American audiences when it appeared on Comedy Central.

In Absolutely Fabulous, men are irrelevant, something the Museum of Broadcast Communications believes gives the show "a feminist flavor even as it portrays women in mostly unflattering terms. Edna and Patsy are certainly not intended as role models, and in presenting them as buffoonish and often despicable, Saunders ridicules not only bourgeois notions of motherhood and family life, but also media images of women's liberation."

Just as men are not a big factor in the show, Saunders doesn't think it would be possible to do a male equivalent. "Men would find it much harder because men have such odd personal relationships with each other," she said. "They don't really emotionally connect, whereas women do." 

Gay men, however, are among the show's biggest fans. "We had this party in New York, and there were a lot of gay men there dressed up as the characters. I showed up just looking like myself, but it was a real case of shame. They looked so fantastic. We could never live up to it."  

There is occasional talk of a big screen rebirth of Absolutely Fabulous, but Saunders is hesitant. "If we'd thought of a really good story, we would have done it . . . I love the TV show, and if you make a bad movie it means you've soiled it." As for retirement, she says, "Well, I would definitely give up performing," then adds, "No, I wouldn't give it up."

The media suspected she might give it up after she and her husband relocated from London to the country in a secluded 400-year-old farmhouse in Devon. "I am far from being a recluse," she said, but Saunders has shielded her family and her private life from the public enough that one of her three daughters once asked, "Mommy, are you Jennifer Saunders?" and was surprised to learn that she was.

Saunders is concentrating more on the big screen these days, even though her most notable film to date was the aforementioned Shrek 2 in which she was heard but not seen. She nonetheless won the People's Choice Award for best movie villain.

Despite her success ("I luu-uurve consuming," she told The Daily Mail), she apparently hasn't lost of her love of lampooning the pompous. That habit may be why she joined French in refusing to accept an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in 2001 for "services to comedy drama."

 

--by Brian W. Fairbanks



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