Book review: Bonkers: My Life in Laughs - Jennifer Saunders
It's absolutely fabulous
Memoir, Bonkers: My Life in Laughs, Jennifer Saunders, Viking, €15.99, pbk, 256 pages. Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350
It's that time of year again, the pre-Christmas celebrity memoir bonanza, where everyone who is anyone in showbiz rushes out their biography in time for the annual present-buying frenzy. Shelves heave with the life stories of soap stars and singers, sportsmen and comedians.
Jennifer Saunders, one half of the comedy duo French and Saunders, the creator and star of Absolutely Fabulous and one of the writers of Girls On Top, is probably more entitled than most to write her autobiography. First of all, she is over the age of 50. Secondly, she has actually achieved something.
Anyone hoping for a kiss-and-tell, however, will be disappointed, and the closest she comes to a celebrity spat is in her criticism of the BBC, whom she recently called "an executive-run place for idiots".
Saunders is far too clever for all that. She does, however, offer (as the subtitle suggests) an endless stream of funny anecdotes about her life, from her childhood, which she is appalled to rediscover as perfectly well-adjusted, right up to her mother's recent stroke.
She writes about her celebrity experiences from the point of view of an outsider, gawping at celebrities at red carpet events and regaling the reader with entertaining (but never bitchy) stories from her own brushes with the world of celebrity.
Saunders grew up on military bases as the daughter of an RAF man (she went to seven schools in her young life), before finally settling down in Cheshire. She grew up shy, a horsey child who loved the outdoors.
We get a good insight into her decades-long friendship with Dawn French, from their initial meeting in drama teacher training school in London (they didn't like each other), to the success of their double act. Saunders recounts how both French, and later Joanna Lumley, her co-star on Absolutely Fabulous, had to take over in interviews to save Saunders from herself. She was liable to respond to journalists' questions with ill-advised answers like like "um, I don't care" if her more media-savvy and sensitive co-stars didn't step in and protect her.
Saunders has been married to the same man, Ade Edmondson (most famous for his role as the punk Vyvyan in The Young Ones), for the last 28 years. When she first met him, she was a 23-year-old amateur comic and she says there was no bolt of lightning. Indeed, he was still married to his first wife. But then the story whizzes ahead three years to their wedding day, with little explanation, which leaves the reader a little dissatisfied. But like I said, this is no kiss-and-tell.
Their wedding day story is another funny one, with the vicar so star struck by the celebrity guests in attendance that he gets sidetracked, pointing out the famous people in the congregation and Saunders' father, a committed atheist, can be heard proclaiming "stupid arse" at regular intervals.
Despite the glossing over of years and details, we do get a strong insight into Saunders' personal and family life. She has three daughters with Edmondson and her willingness to tell negative stories against herself is refreshing. She recounts how she and Edmondson drove away from their wedding, drunk and she was three weeks' pregnant. Of this she writes 'shut up, Mumsnet! My daughter was born happy and healthy – and still is.'
The real heart of the book, however, comes late, as Saunders describes how, in 2009, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She describes this part of the book in such a detached manner that you suspect she may still be in shock.
Despite this, it is the closest we get to a really personal story, not designed to make us laugh. That doesn't mean she still doesn't try to make us laugh, joking about her reconstructive surgery. Saunders traces her sense of humour back to her early family life, where comedy and humour were used to smooth over any awkward feelings or difficult situations, the original defence mechanism.
It's no surprise to find Saunders uses humour in the same way throughout this book, dazzling her reader with funny anecdotes about her life and career, and you're too busy laughing to notice that you're really being kept at arm's length. It's not that she doesn't share. The details are all here, it's more that the reader feels they are getting the 'stiff upper lip' version of her life. When she's talking about her post-cancer depression, which seems like a very black period, it's trivialised a little by the fact that she jokingly refers to her formerly depressed self as 'Evil Jennifer'.
What does come through very strongly is the quirky voice that most fans will be familiar with from her most popular character, Edina from Absolutely Fabulous. Reading this, you realise just how much of Saunders went into that character.
But you also get a sense of a very shy, very private person squirming under her own microscope and trying to escape the lens as much as possible.
What you're left with is a series of incredibly funny anecdotes, told in such a tightly controlled way that it suggests Jennifer Saunders is very much still the girl on top.