French and Saunders

 

Highlights-

  • Dawn French & Jennifer Saunders
  • Made their first mainstream television appearance in the sketch comedy show The Comic Strip Presents…
  • Recorded ‘Help’ as Lananeeneenoonoo with Bananarama for Comic Relief in 1989
  • Starred in the 1987 video ‘Love Letters’ by Alison Moyet

 

French and Saunders is a British sketch comedy television series written by and starring comic 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.

Widely popular in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, the show was given one of the highest budgets in BBC history to create detailed spoofs and satires of popular culture, movies, celebrities and art. The duo continue to film holiday specials for the BBC, and both have been successful starring in their own shows.

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders met in 1978 while they were students at the 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 Comic Strip, which also gave its name to its eponymous television series 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 was released in 1981. The duo made their first mainstream television appearance in the sketch comedy show The Comic Strip Presents…, where they appeared in approximately 30 episodes each as well as 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 go on to work with for 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 their programme Girls on Top, which they once again 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 years. 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 has carried over six seasons up until 2007. Their show began humbly, but immediately established its own niche as a spoof on other types of shows. In the first season, it 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 then treated badly. Also featured during this season was a set of geriatric dancers and a bongos/keyboard music duo called Raw Sex, actually long-time collaborators Simon Brint and Rowland Rivron and the vocal talents of Kirsty MacColl.

As their show progressed and ratings skyrocketed, French and Saunders received higher and higher budgets with which to create elaborate parodies of mainstream culture. These ranged anywhere from recreations of films (Thelma & LouiseMiseryTitanic, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) to spoofs on popular music artists (MadonnaBananarama, ABBA and The Corrs being favourites). 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 that 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 are thrown off when Saunders delivers her line: “I have passed the test, and now I will diminish, and go to the West and remain Galadriel”, in which French responds: “You will what, sorry?”, and 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!”); Star Test (most memorable character is Sonia, played by French: “What car do you drive?” “Brookside“); and Star Pets (“What a lovely dog Lady Fortescue I bet he dos {sic} tricks”).

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 between 1990 and 1996, and all 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. Classic movies parodied include What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?The ExorcistMiseryThe Silence of the LambsThelma & LouiseBraveheart, and Pulp Fiction. 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 consisted of 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 new material, aside from the classic 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 classic clips, while new material featured spoofs of Gogglebox and Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

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 “Help!”, and was released on the London Records label, entering the UK Singles Chart on 25 February 1989 and reaching a high of #3. It remained in the chart for nine weeks.

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