Jennifer Saunders on starring in Sister Act, her pick for PM and why ‘wokeness’ should take over

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·4-min read
Jennifer Saunders on starring in Sister Act, her pick for PM and why ‘wokeness’ should take over
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One look at Jennifer Saunders’ Twitter account will tell you she is no fan of our current government, but she does have a preference when it comes to the next Tory leader and therefore our prime minister. “I’m hoping it’s Liz Truss, for comedy reasons,” says the creator of Absolutely Fabulous and one half of sketch-comedy legends French and Saunders. “She is just a very funny person. She has so many faces.”

Saunders, 64, is speaking to me over Zoom from her dressing room at Hammersmith’s Eventim Apollo, where she’s playing the Mother Superior in Sister Act, the musical based on the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg film. The show was supposed to happen in 2020, with Saunders’ old pal Goldberg reprising her role as a gangster’s moll hiding out in a convent. But Covid changed everything and now she’s playing opposite singer Beverley Knight and a cast of stage musical stalwarts.

Saunders had previously only sung in French and Saunders spoofs and as the Fairy Godmother in Shrek 2, but her live technique is “getting better. In the beginning I couldn’t keep time and I was singing a tune that was only in my head. The band would start playing and one of us would finish first.”

Her first musical caps a four-year period when she’s branched out from TV, film and stadium comedy tours into what we might call “proper” theatre, first in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s fan for Kathy Burke (another friend) in 2018, then in Coward’s Blithe Spirit for Richard Eyre before and between lockdowns in 2020 and 2021.

Jennifer Saunders (right) with Lesley Joseph at the after party for Sister Act the Musical (Dave Benett)
Jennifer Saunders (right) with Lesley Joseph at the after party for Sister Act the Musical (Dave Benett)

Saunders trained as a drama teacher at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, where she met Dawn French, and in 2012 wrote the script for the Spice Girls’ ill-fated jukebox show Viva Forever. Had she always craved straight roles, or aspired to do a musical? “Not really,” she says – her default response to most questions.

“I was just lucky enough to be asked. It came at a time when all the kids were grown up [she has three daughters with her husband of 37 years, Ade Edmondson] so you are not so tied to the home. I am not driven at all and I never miss working, though Ade does: we always used to take jobs so one of us would be at home. Now it’s a matter of feeling you will be happy: I can’t see the point at my age of doing anything that is going to be a trial.”

Saunders’ life looks pretty enviable, professionally and personally. She’s helped shape British humour since she and French joined alternative comedy troupe the Comic Strip in the early Eighties, which was where she met Edmondson. Their long relationship (“the secret is not to talk about it,” he told me in 2016) is mirrored in enduring professional partnerships and friendships with French (they started a podcast, Titting About, in 2020) and Joanna Lumley, Patsy to her Edina in sitcom phenomenon Absolutely Fabulous.

She and Edmondson divide their time between London and Dartmoor and are enthusiastic grandparents to five grandchildren aged between nine years and four months, courtesy of their elder daughters Ella and Beattie. “It gives you more life because you are doing all the young stuff again, jumping in the sea and messing about, though it is more tiring than I had ever imagined,” she says. Youngest daughter Freya joined them in lockdown in Devon, where Saunders’ own mother died last November.

“It wasn’t too grim, to be honest,” she says. “It was her time and she was ready to go. She’d had a few strokes and gradually slowed down, but she wasn’t bedridden for too long, and we were all bubbled together so my brother and I could do a lot of the caring for her.” Saunders’ pilot father died of cancer some years back, and she had a nasty brush with breast cancer herself in 2010, but this is one of many things she refuses to make a fuss about.

And unlike many comedy greats, she hasn’t grown sour with age. She remains fulsome in praise of the BBC, who backed French and Saunders and Ab Fab. And she has no time for those who claim that cancel culture or (dread term) ‘wokeness’ is killing comedy.

“I don’t think it is,” she says decisively. “Maybe the fear of [being cancelled] has stopped someone having a go at someone else, but maybe that’s a good thing. If I look back on some stuff we did, I think we were terribly mean. Now we are old and [have become] the establishment. So let ‘wokeness’ take over and let’s see what happens. If you think of it as kindness, or considering who you might hurt, it’s a good thing.” And with that, she’s logs off to don her costume for Sister Act. Our interview ends not with a bang, but a wimple.

Sister Act runs at the Eventim Apollo until August 1; buy tickets here

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