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Tuesday 07 September 2021

Interview: The Absolutely Fabulous Jennifer Saunders Talks About Her Comedic Career & Role In Blithe Spirit @ Harold Pinter Theatre

Inventive, witty and Noël Coward's own favourite play, Blithe Spirit is set to visit Harold Pinter Theatre this month, with comic actress, Jennifer Saunders staring as the eccentric clairvoyant Madame Arcati.
Credit Nobby-Clark

Q/ What appealed to you about taking on the role of Madame Arcati?

Jennifer Saunders: It's one of those classic comedy roles for a woman of a certain age, which are few and far between, so it was a no-brainer. 

I've never worked with the director Richard Eyre before and he has such a fantastic reputation and he"s such a brilliant director, so I thought it'd be great to do it. 

Q/ Madame Arcati has been played by many formidable performers over the years. How are you making the character your own?

Jennifer Saunders: I think I must have seen Margaret Rutherford in the film but a long time ago so I don't have any other influences. 

It just sort of happens as you go through the text and think 'Ooh, let's do that'. And everyone has their own different way of doing comedy. Every actor is different.

Q/ Do you have anything in common with her?

Jennifer Saunders: I haven't noticed any commonality, no! She does like a good sandwich so I think we're quite similar in that respect. A dry martini and a sandwich is her idea of heaven and actually mine too.

Q/ What challenges does the role present?

Jennifer Saunders It goes into different energies. There's a time where they think she"s a fool and you think she's a fool, then you realise she isn't at all. 

It's quite hard to allow that to come across. She goes through a lot of different phases in the play and it"s not pure comedy either. 

The first time I read it I thought 'That"s quite nice' and the second time I read it I thought 'It's rather good' and now I think 'It's a terrific play'. 

It's about so many things. He (Noel Coward) makes it look easy because the dialogue is quite easy but actually it"s so dense and there's so much in it.

Q/ You've played your share of eccentric characters. Are they more fun to play?

Jennifer Saunders: They're terrifically good fun to play and it's nice that you don't have to play any vanity to them at all. 

Making people laugh is honestly the best fun in the world and I like people who make me laugh so it's like doing a job you appreciate.

Q/ Edina Monsoon is probably the most famous of your eccentric characters but what do the public recognise you from?

Jennifer Saunders: It depends where you are really. I could meet anyone under thirty who wouldn't know who I was from Adam. 

There's so many different things. I'm always amazed when people come up and go 'Ooh, I loved Girls On Top' and I'm thinking 'Bloody hell, even I've forgotten about that!' 

Q/ How will your Madame Arcati be dressed?

Jennifer Saunders: She's somewhere between Hilda Baker and Barbara Woodhouse, I would say. She's quite tweedy. She's quite jolly and gung-ho so she's fairly tweedy.

Q/ Do you believe in the supernatural?

Jennifer Saunders: I think there's probably a scientific explanation for everything ultimately and also there"s something in our brains, you know? 

I don't think it's supernatural, I think it's probably natural.

Q/ Is this your first time doing a Noel Coward play?

Jennifer Saunders: It is, yes. I've only done two plays before this - Me And Mamie O"Rourke, which I did with Dawn in the early 90s, and Lady Windermere's Fan in 2018. 

With Noel Coward the language is easy and it's so close to our present-day language but they invert words. 

There are also times where you think 'What was that word again? Is it dreadfully rather than fearfully?' 

I panic about learning lines but the other characters in the play - God, they've got an enormous amount of lines. 

I take my bits out of the script and I look at the great wadge that's left that they have to say and I think 'Honestly, I really shouldn't complain. They take the brunt of it'. 

Q/ What do you think makes Blithe Spirit so enduring?

Jennifer Saunders: Because it can be set anywhere at any time. It's about love and relationships and death and grieving and the supernatural and it's funny. 

It's also got a small cast, which is always useful, it means people can put it on a lot, and it's set in one room. It's a perfect little play really.

Q/ You mentioned you hadn't worked with Richard Eyre before. How is the experience?

Jennifer Saunders: Oh, he's fantastic. Like anyone who's brilliant, he just makes it seem very comfortable and easy as if they're doing nothing at all but they are. 

It's quite good to want to impress someone so you're thinking 'Come on, be better, be better!' 

You never get over the idea of being a bit nervous and wanting to make someone laugh. 

Q/ Having done Lady Windermere's Fan in the West End and now Blithe Spirit, do you have a new love for theatre?

Jennifer Saunders: What put me off before was when the kids were growing up the last thing you wanted was to get them home from school, do all the stuff at home and then go off to the theatre. 

Just when normal people are sitting down to a gin and tonic you start work!

Q/ When it comes to theatre, do you have any pre-show rituals?

Jennifer Saunders: I've noticed that I have to stop looking at my iPad an hour before I go on stage. 

It's very tempting to go 'I'll just read some emails or play a game or something" in that hour before but you absolutely can't, otherwise everything goes from your brain and you"re thinking 'Hang on a minute, what's that word? What's that speech?' 

So for me it's a matter of getting in there and starting to go through the lines, relaxing, making your mind concentrate. 

We never used to have all these modern technology things. You used to read a paper or listen to some music but I think screens are very bad.

Q/ Do you find it easy to shake off a character when the curtain falls?

Jennifer Saunders: Before the curtains falls! No, I'm joking! Absolutely joking. But gosh, yes - it's comedy!

Q/ You've worked in comedy for more than three decades. How do you feel the landscape has changed?

Jennifer Saunders: It's just different now, I think. It's harder to make jokes. People seem so sensitive about everything. 

You say the wrong word and people are down on you whereas before you could generally make fun and everyone realised you were making a joke. 

I don't think we could make half of Ab Fab nowadays, with all the sensitivities and the 'Ooh, do you think you should be doing this or saying that?' 

Q/ Do you think the levity and fun of Blithe Spirit is something audiences need now?

Jennifer Saunders: Yes, absolutely. It's very much a period piece and of-its-time, but even though it was written in 1941 it doesn"t mention the Second World War so you could actually set it whenever you like. It's sort of in its own world.

Q/ You've had such a varied career. What have been your highlights across stage and screen?

Jennifer Saunders: The second series of Ab Fab because we'd gotten into our stride and were thinking 'We've gotten away with it!' and we had the best fun ever. 

Then there's most of French And Saunders and the second series in particular. 

The second series is always the best so the second series of French And Saunders, second series of Ab Fab. 

And I loved doing Jam & Jerusalem. It was one of the nicest things ever. 

Also I love being on stage. I love live work. We've done lots of tours of just me and Dawn and I've always loved that. 

I like doing the shows but I also like the rehearsals, I like working something up. 

Collaboration is always a joy. Like working with the cast of Blithe Spirit now - it's just so much fun and we have such a laugh.

Q/ Do you have any dream theatre roles?

Jennifer Saunders: Well, I hear they're making a musical of The Devil Wears Prada so I'm thinking the Meryl Streep role would be a good one. 

I heard about it and thought 'Gosh, I'd lose a few stone for that!' 

Blithe Spirit transfers to the West End's Harold Pinter Theatre from 16th September 2021. CLICK HERE for tickets.

by: Mike Cobley


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