Last laugh for French and Saunders

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, Britain's greatest female comedy double act of the last three decades, are bringing their partnership to a close. Today JAMES RAMPTON talks to the funnywomen about the end of an era.

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, Britain's greatest female comedy double act of the last three decades, are bringing their partnership to a close. Today JAMES RAMPTON talks to the funnywomen about the end of an era.

AFTER 30 years together spent making the nation roar with laughter, they are finally calling a halt to their sketch-show.

Time to reach for the hankies.

But it's not all doom and gloom for the pair's legions of fans; Dawn and Jennifer are embarking on a nationwide farewell tour entitled “Still Alive 2008” which is coming to Ipswich's Regent theatre for two nights on March 28 and March 29.

They will be treating us to one last rattling good night out.

Dawn and Jennifer are feeling very emotional about the prospect of performing as a double act for the last time. When the curtain finally falls on this widely-loved duo, it promises to be a highly charged occasion. “I'm sure I'll be a blubbering wreck on the last night,” Dawn predicts.

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“But we felt the time was right to stop. We've got lots of other things we want to do together - we jointly run a production company and we will still write and act together. But as a double act, we wanted to quit while we were ahead.”

Jennifer chimes in that, “we'll never stop working together, but we're stopping the sketches - otherwise we'd end up just doing sketches about old people. We've done decades of stuff about young people, but I don't think we can still pretend to be Britney Spears!”

They are certainly living up to old showbiz maxim and leaving their armies of aficionados wanting more. The pair are still immensely popular and in polls are regularly voted the funniest women in the country. Thanks to their TV sketch show, which has run on the BBC for the 20 years (for the first time ever on March 10 all six series of French and Saunders will be released on DVD in a six disc box set) and individual hits such as The Vicar of Dibley and Absolutely Fabulous, they have long since acquired the status of national treasures.

Taking a break from their intensive rehearsals for the tour, Dawn and Jennifer are rare examples of comedians who are as entertaining off stage as on it. They are, by turns, warm, relaxed, intelligent and, above all, effortlessly funny and it is a real privilege to spend time with them. An hour in their company simply flies by on a cloud of unforced laughter.

Dawn, 50, explains why they were eager to take their show on the road for one last hurrah. “As this is the final time we're going to appear as French and Saunders, we thought we'd like to do it live. It's what we've always enjoyed most and it's how we started. Our telly work only came out of our stand-up. It seems like the right way to go out.”

Having collaborated since meeting as students at London's Central School of Speech and Drama in the 1970s, they can now almost read each other's minds - one frequently completes the other's thoughts. At this point, Jennifer chips in, underscoring the enormous thrill the pair still elicit from performing live. “You do get a great buzz - there is really nothing like it,” enthuses 49-year-old Jennifer, who is married to comic Adrian Edmondson and has three daughters.

“It's especially exciting because you know everyone there has actually paid to see you. If you're on a bill at a comedy club, people may not have come specifically to watch you, so you feel like you have to win them over and can get a bit hyper. When you're on tour, you don't have to behave in the same way - people have chosen to come to the theatre just to see you and they are very happy to be entertained by you and we absolutely love that.”

Jennifer, who has also enjoyed big hits with such series as Jam and Jerusalem and The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle, reckons that the fun she and Dawn generate on stage is infectious. “If we're having a good time, then the audience do, too. People come to our shows wanting to have a good laugh, and when they see us having a great time, they just get swept along by it. We always do stuff that makes us laugh and hopefully it makes other people laugh as well!”

So what material will Dawn and Jennifer be making us laugh with in “Still Alive 2008”? “It's about 70 per cent new stuff and 30 per cent old favourites,” explains Dawn, who has recently starred in BBC1's highly-successful period drama, Lark Rise to Candleford, as well as delivering an uproarious turn as Vicky Pollard's mum in Little Britain. “For instance, we'll be performing the original Ab Fab sketch. We don't normally do old sketches word for word, but we thought this one would be interesting for the fans.

“We'll also be doing the two girls left at boarding school over Christmas and the first sketch we ever wrote. It's called 'Sex Talk', and it's about two teenagers discussing sex, even though they know nothing about it. They're supposed to be 15 so that might be hard to pull off!”

In addition, Dawn reveals, “we'll be doing quite a lot of French and Saunders stuff in the white room. That's a schtick about our lives: Who's the most popular? Who's got a future after this? Who'll be the queen? It's actually not a reflection of our relationship at all, because we're not in the least bit competitive!”

Today, the pair are about to head off for a lesson with Strictly Come Dancing's Anton du Beke - they are working on a hilarious-sounding dance spoof. “He's a very good dance teacher,” reflects Jennifer, before adding with a laugh: “but I can see his face fall at the sight of us mucking it up. I fully intend to fall over during the dance routine!”

One reason the double act has been so well loved for so long is that Dawn and Jennifer are so obviously best friends. That can't be faked, audiences are drawn to that deep, enduring chemistry. The duo, who have paved the way for such popular female comedians as Catherine Tate (who co-starred with Dawn in Wild West), Kathy Burke and Jo Brand, have an innate bond that audiences completely identify with. “We really do understand each other,” confirms Dawn, whose husband is fellow comedian Lenny Henry and who is the proud mother of Billie.

“Jennifer and I are so bonded - we've been through births, marriages and deaths together over the past three decades. We've never fallen out, and we can precisely gauge each other's moods. For us, the friendship will always come before the double act.”

Jennifer, who picked up the People's Choice Award for “Favourite Movie Villain” for playing the wicked Fairy Godmother in Shrek 2, reckons that they possess different qualities that complement each other very well. “If we're slightly nervous on stage, I say nothing and Dawn says far too much!

I noticed that happened when we did a warm-up gig the other night, and I thought, 'thank God for Dawn!' I know that if I freeze, she'll just keep on chatting. That has been the case for the past 30 years. And that's exactly why the double act still works, we both curtail each other's excesses.”

Finally, as they look back on one of the most adored, most ground-breaking partnerships in British comedy history, do the pair feel proud of what they've achieved?

“I know it's a great body of work,” replies Dawn. “I'm pleased we've kept working and done things we've pleased with. But I don't think we can't bring ourselves to say we're proud yet. Perhaps we'll do that when we turn 60!”

Are you a fan of French and Saunders? Who is your favourite comic? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or send an e-mail to eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk