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French and Saunders

French and Saunders is a British sketch comedy television series written by and starring comedy duo Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. It is also the name by which the performers are known on the occasions when they appear elsewhere as a double act. The show was originally broadcast on BBC Two from 1987 to 1993, and was given one of the highest budgets in BBC history to create detailed spoofs and satires of popular culture, movies, celebrities, and art. French and Saunders continued to film holiday specials for the BBC, and both have been individually successful starring in other shows.

In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, the duo were voted among the top 50 comedy acts ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders. Their last special, French and Saunders Christmas Celebrity Special, aired on 27 December 2005 on BBC One. In 2006, both French and Saunders announced their sketch show was now dead, and that they had moved on to more age-appropriate material. Their last time performing as a duo, the Still Alive tour, ran initially until late 2008, then resumed in Australia in summer 2009. In 2009, the duo were jointly awarded the BAFTA Fellowship.

Background (1978–1987)

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders met in 1978 while undergraduate students at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and began their career to collaborate on several comedy projects. They came to prominence in the early 1980s for performing at the London alternative comedy club The Comedy Store, which also gave its name to its television series The Comic Strip Presents... and the informal grouping of so-called "alternative comedians". French and Saunders were featured on the live comedy album of The Comic Strip recorded by comedy entrepreneur Martin Lewis for his Springtime! label and released in 1981. The duo made their first mainstream television appearance in The Comic Strip Presents..., appearing in approximately 30 episodes each and writing material for the show.

French and Saunders began to establish themselves in what was referred to as the "underground comedy" scene, along with many other prolific actors and comedians whom they would work with during the next twenty-plus years. In 1983, they starred in an edition of Channel 4's series The Entertainers, and later went on to appear as comedy relief on the weekly music programme The Tube on the same channel, for which French received her honour of being the first person to use the word "blowjob" on British television. In 1985, French and Saunders collaborated on the programme Girls on Top, which they once again (with Ruby Wax) wrote and starred in. Co-stars Tracey Ullman and Ruby Wax rounded out a set of four oddball roommates, and the show ran for two series. In 1986, French and Saunders made their first of many appearances on Comic Relief, and they signed a long-term contract with the BBC.

In 1987, French and Saunders created their eponymous sketch show, which carried over six series and nine specials until 2005, with compilations of previous material appearing until 2017. The show began humbly, but established its own niche.

The first series was intentionally set up to look like a low-budget variety show in which the duo were constantly attempting grandiose stunts and often failing miserably. Often a "famous" guest star would be brought on but then treated badly. Also featured during this series were a troupe of geriatric dancers, called The Hot Hoofers, and a bongos/keyboard music duo called Raw Sex, actually Comic Strip collaborators Simon Brint and Rowland Rivron in character as stepfather and stepson Ken and Duane Bishop respectively. Alison Moyet and Joan Armatrading each appeared in one episode. The dancing and music were included to fulfill the series' mandate as a light entertainment series to include "a certain amount of variety" rather than pure comedy.: 95  The show-within-a-show premise was dropped with the second series in 1988.

As the show progressed, ratings skyrocketed, eventually prompting the BBC to move it from BBC Two to BBC One in 1994. French and Saunders received higher and higher budgets with which to create elaborate parodies of mainstream culture. These ranged anywhere from re-creations of films (e.g., Thelma & Louise, Misery, Titanic, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) to spoofs of popular music artists including Madonna, Bananarama, ABBA and The Corrs. Certain spoken phrases and sight gags that referenced previously performed sketches (often from years before) were incorporated for loyal fans. In particular, there is a running gag suggesting French and Saunders are unable to accurately affect accents: this first appeared in their spoof of Gone with the Wind when they break their character in the middle of an elaborate and expensive parody to argue about the authenticity of their Southern accent. Saunders goads French to try the accent by saying: "How are you?", and French responds with an interpretation sounding more like a strong Northern Irish accent. Since then, the duo often break character in the middle of elaborate sketches to do an "accent check" and repeat these lines.

The show also contained numerous meta references: an awareness that the viewer was actually watching a parody. Unlike many parodies that are done in a straightforward manner for effect, French and Saunders uses the viewer's awareness of what is going on to further stretch out the joke. For example, in their parody of Peter Jackson's fantasy film epic The Lord of the Rings, an encounter between Frodo and Galadriel is thrown off after Saunders delivers her line: "I have passed the test, and now I will diminish, and go to the West and remain Galadriel". French responds, "You will what, sorry?", to which Saunders replies: "I will diminish... I don't understand, it's in the book!" Other characters that make a recurring appearance are the bald, fat, perverted old men ("Begging for it, she is!"); two perpetually overacting extras; and Star Pets ("What a lovely dog, Lady Fortescue: I bet he do's tricks").

The sixth and final series aired in 2004, and returned to the metafictional premise of the first series. In this series, the two lampooned themselves as incapable of getting any work done: Saunders later characterised it as "a fairly accurate rendition of our writing process", but asserted that, while they appeared to others to be procrastinating, they were actually generating writing ideas.: 100, 103  The series also starred Liza Tarbuck as a heavily fictionalised version of herself, forced to be the fictional show's producer despite her actual career goal of creating and producing game shows, and Lorna Brown as the production assistant, Abba. Maggie Steed appeared in two episodes as the duo's agent, Mo, based on their real agent, Maureen Vincent, while Eileen Essell and Brenda Cowling appeared briefly in several episodes as Abba's imagination of French and Saunders, respectively, as old women. The show ended with a final Christmas special in 2005. A compilation series, A Bucket o' French and Saunders, aired in 2007.

Post-show developments (2007–present)

In Christmas 2010, French and Saunders are featured in three two-hour radio shows on BBC Radio 2. This was followed by further specials in 2011 for Easter and the Bank Holidays.

In 2020, the duo debuted French & Saunders: Titting About on Audible. The podcast features the pair in relaxed, often nostalgic conversations about a new topic in each episode. Series 2 was released in 2021 and French has used social media to announce that a third series was in production.

In 2021, it was announced that Gold had commissioned a new one-off special titled French and Saunders: Funny Women. The special, which was filmed on the set of their original sketch series, features a discussion by French and Saunders and focuses on the history of women who have contributed to comedy. It was broadcast on Gold on 17 July that year.


In addition to French and Saunders themselves, the sketch series featured several regular and recurring cast members, who were chosen for their "funny bones" and willingness to "be part of the gang".: 100–101 

Although the amount of music in the show decreased over time, Raw Sex remained regular cast members through series 4. Betty Marsden also appeared in series 1 as "Madame," the show's choreographer. Singer Kirsty MacColl appeared in one episode of series 2 and five episodes of series 3, sometimes performing jointly with Raw Sex.

For series 5, Mel and Sue served as assistant writers and appeared in four of the seven episodes. In series 6, the show returned to the show-within-a-show format of series 1, with Liza Tarbuck appearing in each episode as the fictional show's producer and Lorna Brown as the PA.

The show also featured dozens of guest stars. Notably, Saunders' Absolutely Fabulous co-stars Joanna Lumley, Julia Sawalha, and June Whitfield all guest-starred as themselves, with Whitfield appearing on the show three years before the beginning of Ab Fab. The spouses of French and Saunders, Lenny Henry and Adrian Edmondson, both appeared on the show, while the producer, Jon Plowman, made occasional uncredited cameos. Recurring Ab Fab actors Patrick Barlow, Harriet Thorpe, Helen Lederer, and Kathy Burke also appeared, as did French's The Vicar of Dibley co-star Gary Waldhorn, and Jam & Jerusalem regulars Maggie Steed, Rosie Cavaliero, and Pauline McLynn.

French and Saunders first broadcast on 9 March 1987 on BBC2, with the first series consisting of six episodes. With its popularity and high ratings, a second series commenced on 4 March 1988, followed by a Christmas special in late 1988. The third, fourth and fifth series, which broadcast from 1990 to 1996, consisting each of seven episodes, relied heavily on movie parodies, and some music parodies, alongside their own material such as the sketch "Modern Mother and Daughter", which spawned Saunders' popular sitcom Absolutely Fabulous in 1992. Notable films parodied on the show included What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Exorcist, Misery, The Silence of the Lambs, Thelma & Louise, Pulp Fiction, and Braveheart. A second Christmas special was screened in 1994, between the fourth and fifth series. For the next several years the series included only Christmas and Easter specials; in 1998, a new special, "The Making of Titanic", was broadcast at Christmas and featured a spoof on the behind-the-scenes and making of James Cameron's 1997 film Titanic, with Dawn French as Jack and Jennifer Saunders as Rose. Five further specials, including spoofs on the films Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace and Love Actually, had been broadcast from 1999 to 2003, before the sixth and final series in 2004, and an additional Christmas special in 2005. A total of 48 episodes (not including the compilation episodes) have been broadcast between 1987 and 2005.

The series additionally included compilation specials, starting in 1995 with the two-part "French and Saunders Go To the Movies", which highlighted their movie parodies from the series. A second two-part compilation special, "I Can't Believe it's Music" and "I Can't Believe it's Not Music" from 2005, showcased their classic music parodies from singers such as Alanis Morissette, ABBA, The Corrs, Guns N'Roses, and Björk. In 2007, the compilation series "A Bucket o' French and Saunders", which featured a mixture of new material and old clips, was broadcast to highlight the 20th anniversary of the series. However, this proved unpopular with viewers and the initial seven-part series was edited down to six episodes. On 25 December 2017, a new compilation special, "300 Years of French and Saunders", marked the 30th anniversary of the series, and again consisted mainly of old clips, while new material featured spoofs of Gogglebox and Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

Live shows

French and Saunders toured rarely, with UK tours in 1990 and 2000. They began what was announced as their final tour at Blackpool Opera House on 29 February 2008 in the UK. The first leg of the show concluded in May 2008, before moving to Australia. The tour ended 9 November, in London. The tour included a selection of their favourite sketches, as well as new material written specifically for the show. The tour was directed by Hamish McColl, set design by Lez Brotherstone, lighting, video and visual effects by Willie Williams.

Lananeeneenoonoo was a British spoof all-girl group consisting of comedians Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders and Kathy Burke. The group, and its name, was a spoof on the popular group Bananarama and was introduced during the 1988 Christmas special of "French & Saunders", in which Burke was a guest.

In 1989, along with Bananarama, they created a charity single called "Help!", to raise money for Comic Relief. It was a cover version of the Beatles' song, and was released on the London Records label, entering the UK Singles Chart on 25 February 1989 and reaching a high of No. 3. It remained in the chart for nine weeks.

The Sugar Lumps

French, Saunders and Burke returned for Comic Relief in 1997 as the Sugar Lumps, along with Llewella Gideon and Lulu, to parody the Spice Girls, with whom they performed a version of Who Do You Think You Are.

Side projects and other appearances

Saunders won an international acclaim for writing and playing Edina Monsoon in her sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, based on the French and Saunders sketch "Modern Mother and Daughter". She also guest starred in the American sitcoms Roseanne and Friends, and voiced the wicked Fairy Godmother in the DreamWorks animated film Shrek 2. Saunders wrote and starred in another two BBC sitcoms, Jam and Jerusalem and The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle. Her other work includes being the face of Barclays Bank and BBC America.

French starred as Geraldine Granger in the highly successful sitcom The Vicar of Dibley, which received great critical acclaim. She also starred in four series of the comedy/crime show Murder Most Horrid, and voiced Mrs. Beaver in the film adaptation of C. S. Lewis' fantasy novel The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. French starred in another BBC shows Jam and Jerusalem and Lark Rise to Candleford. For many years, French has become popular for her appearances in the Terry's Chocolate Orange adverts by saying her famous line: "It's not Terry's, it's mine!", and voiced the W H Smith and Tesco adverts. In 2009, French released her autobiography Dear Fatty, referring to Saunders, to whom she gave the nickname "Fatty". In 2021, French starred as a little ornament fairy for a M&S Christmas food advert along with its confectionery products character, Percy Pig.

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