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By Jacky Hyams
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2012 Jacky Hyams
All rights reserved.
Cheshire, in the north of England, is one of the country's most beautiful counties. Tiny, picturesque, 'blink and you might miss it' rural villages where time seems to have stood still. Small communities taking pride in maintaining their annual 'best-kept village in Cheshire' status. Big landowners. Farms. True blue Conservative – and likely to stay that way.
On the north Cheshire boundary lie small rural areas just outside the town of Northwich; villages such as Hartford, Weaverham, Cuddington, Acton Bridge and Crowton; pretty, mostly flat country just a short drive away from Cheshire's biggest woodland area, Delamere Forest, popular with horse riders and cyclists and a haven for wildlife. The area around here is not as flashy or bling as the money-belt Cheshire suburbs of Prestbury or Wilmslow with their expensive footballers' homes, but, nonetheless, this is a desirable place for anyone to grow up in.
This rural, bucolic area, around Crowton and Acton Bridge, is where Jennifer Saunders spent her early teenage years. Until the age of 11, she would lead a peripatetic life with her parents and three brothers. Her father's career as an officer in the RAF took the Saunders family all over the country, and, at one point, overseas to Cyprus and Turkey for short periods of time.
Jennifer's mother, Jane, like all the other RAF officers' wives bringing up their children on RAF bases or stations, would have become accustomed to having to move frequently and to swapping one family home for another, the usual upheavals and changes involved in a post-war RAF life of two-year, or even shorter, postings.
Nowadays, provision is frequently made for officers' children to be sent off to boarding school. Back then, however, it was often the case that children lived on or around the base and had to make the best of the 'chopping and changing' situation, adjusting to each new move and set of faces as they came along, yet always armed with the knowledge that they would be moving on again soon anyway.
So as a Forces child, Jennifer went to many different primary schools. And over time she developed her own coping mechanism for always being 'the new girl', often arriving at the new school just a little bit later than the others.
'It was never at the beginning of term, always midway,' she recalled in an interview with The Sunday Times Magazine in August 2007. 'So you'd work out where to sit. You'd think: "Oh that's that kind of gang, that's that one. Why is there a place left next to this person?" You learn to observe and fit in without being noticed. Odd, as I've chosen this career.'
Jennifer Jane Saunders was born in Sleaford Maternity Hospital, Lincolnshire, in July 1958. Her family was based in the area during her father's posting to nearby RAF Cranwell, one of the RAF's largest officer training units.
Each step up the RAF career ladder for Jennifer's father meant another posting, a fresh move. And he had a very successful career until 1970, when Group Captain Robert Thomas Saunders (known to friends as 'Tom') left the RAF for good to step back into civilian life and a job with British Aerospace. Only then could Jennifer's family settle down permanently into life in a rambling Victorian house in rural Acton Bridge. And her mother, Jane, began working as a teacher at The Grange, a private day school in the nearby village of Hartford.
Curiously enough, this background as an Air Force child is something Jennifer has in common with some of the most significant people in her adult life: Dawn French's father was an RAF sergeant; Absolutely Fabulous close cohort Joanna Lumley's father, a major in the Gurkha Rifles, was posted to Kashmir in India, where Joanna was born; and, perhaps most significantly, the father of her future husband, Adrian Edmondson, was a teacher working for the British Army and the RAF.
Sheer coincidence or a bond shared with those who had also known a childhood constantly on the move? It's difficult to be certain. But Jennifer has never denied the fact that moving around all the time as a child did help with her powers of observation as a comic writer and actor.
'You do learn how to fit in quite well. A lot of that is just watching. And actually not having much of a personality,' she told the Guardian in June 2004.
'I think you develop a knack, so you become quite self-contained. I had a very happy home life; I don't remember anything being traumatic,' she revealed to the Liverpool Daily Post in an interview a few years later.
In 1969, with the family settled in the Cheshire countryside, Jennifer was sent to a local grammar school, Northwich County Grammar School for Girls in Leftwich, just south of the town of Northwich.
At the time, many people in the Northwich area worked for the former ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries), which had offices and industrial plants nearby. Some of Jennifer's classmates were the children of ICI staff, bright working-class kids who had passed the 11-plus exam. Even in the late 1960s, Northwich County was a very strictly-run girls' school, a 1950s-style educational establishment governed on old-fashioned, super-strict lines. The peace and love revolution might have started elsewhere, but at Northwich County, with 1,000 girls completing their secondary education, revolution and rebellion were definitely not running amok.
'You had to wear gym shorts six inches above the knee,' recollected one former pupil of the time.
The schoolgirls' navy blue uniform included a maroon beret. 'If you were caught without it, you had to wear it in school all day. The head and her associate would drive around the local bus station spotting beret-less heads.'
Girls attending Northwich County at the time recall a disciplinarian running the school: a headmistress with a scary reputation. There were rumours of corporal punishment. And there were frequent stories of teachers being seen leaving the head's office in floods of tears.
'Whatever you did, you were in the wrong as far as she was concerned,' remembered another ex-pupil.
Oh dear. You can picture a 13-year-old Jennifer in her school uniform: navy pinafore dress to the knee with white shirt and red tie, sitting in class, staring out of the window, bored out of her mind with it all – but not daring to react against the day-to- day discipline with rebellion or cheek. Definitely not a wild child.
'I was an apathetic, quiet kid – that's how I'd have described myself,' recalled Jennifer of those early years to More magazine.
'I wasn't interested in much at school – except biology. I liked dissecting! It was an all-girls school so the only flirtations with boys were on the bus. And they were just embarrassing.'
'I used to be very shy which exhibited itself in morose, non-communicative behaviour,' she admitted to the Sunday Express. 'I grew up thinking whatever I said would sound stupid. So you end up saying nothing.'
'I was into horses and the occasional disco,' she told Tatler. 'It wasn't like I had lots of friends around. I would love to have been wild, but I could never do it. I never got into drugs or anything. I could never lose control.
'I hardly raised my eyes. I was endlessly blushing. It was biological. I just didn't want the attention, but I daydreamed a lot.'
'I was mad on horses. Completely,' she revealed in a BBC Radio 4 interview with Sue Lawley for Desert Island Discs in December 1996.
'My big ambition was to become a three-day eventer until I was about l6.
I got my first pony in Wiltshire – I had a friend who had a farm.'
Her school reports tended to be of the 'could try harder' variety. Yet there was one area where Jennifer's teenage shyness was somehow put aside and she ended up attracting a bit of attention: as a performer, though a somewhat low-key one.
'She didn't have much of a profile at the school,' recollected another former Northwich County pupil, who also claimed that Jennifer didn't make a great impression on many of the pupils.
'She was ordinary, really, she never stuck out in any way. And she wasn't always in all the shows – there were other people in her year who were the "acting" ones.'
The school was divided into houses – each one named after a different area in Cheshire. Jennifer was in Farndon House. And it was in a Farndon House comic sketch one afternoon during a Northwich County three-day arts festival, rather than in formal drama classes, where the 16-year-old Jennifer's talent for comic acting and improvisation surfaced.
'The house stuff was self-initiated – the staff weren't involved in it at all. Jennifer played the part of a fortune teller and the material in the sketch had been written by the girls. And she was really, really funny. She was a year above me but I can still remember sitting there, laughing, looking at her makeup – which made her look like an old hag. She was definitely not one of the "stars" of the school as far as the general perception of her was concerned. But that day we all realised that this girl was actually really funny.
'That someone came through that Colditz place and achieved what she's done in comedy ... well, it's amazing.'
Rosalind Fifield has lived in the Acton Bridge/Crowton area for most of her life and was a neighbour of the Saunders family for many years.
'My two boys went to The Grange and Jennifer's mother, Jane, taught them. She was a very good teacher,' she recalled.
'Jennifer and her family lived about two and a half miles away from us. At one point, when she was about 16, Jennifer would babysit for me and my sister Diana. Jennifer rode a lot – there's lots of riding around here. My sister and I knew her parents through the local Conservative fundraisers. They were a very nice family, very unassuming. And Jennifer was very quiet and well mannered – a good babysitter.
'But she wasn't at all outgoing. You'd never have believed that this girl would end up playing someone like Edina in Absolutely Fabulous.'
Rosalind's sister, Diana Mather, a former BBC TV presenter, remembered Jennifer's father Tom as 'a very witty, charming man'.
'Maybe the sense of humour comes from her father. The family were very close – and very private. That's probably given her a very good "rock" on which to build her own family life and career.'
It's often at university that talented performers or writers start to really spread their wings. Not surprisingly, given her solidly middle-class background, Jennifer's parents were keen for her to head off to university after leaving Northwich County with three A-levels. One brother won a place at Cambridge, but Jennifer didn't seem to be destined towards heading in the same direction.
Approaches were made to various universities, including an application for a course in combined sciences at Leicester. But Jennifer, while intelligent, just didn't shine in the university interview rounds. In today's language, the shy girl, who until that point had been mostly interested in horse riding, had poor presentation skills.
'It was a cause of some frustration all round,' Jennifer told the Daily Mail in November 1992. 'The problem was always the same. I wasn't really interested in any interview. I would sit there, apathetic and morose, not caring either way.'
'I got turned down by every university I went to interview with,' she told the Liverpool Daily Post in 2012. 'I sort of wish I had gone to university but your life is what happens as you live it. So much else wouldn't have happened.'
After a fairly brief period working as an au pair in Italy: 'They were horrible, rich brat English children,' she recalled to OK Magazine in 1996, she returned home to Cheshire to find that her mother, Jane, determined to get her daughter's further education resolved somehow, had a list of degree courses waiting for Jennifer on the kitchen table.
Jennifer opted for a BEd drama teaching course at London's Central School of Speech & Drama in Swiss Cottage, north London. Not because she had an overwhelming desire to teach, far from it.
'I thought it would be cool to go to London,' she recalled.
So the application went off and she got her interview at Central, even though she had little real experience – or knowledge – of drama itself. Writing a comic sketch with other girls was one thing. Serious theatre was another.
'I think they were desperate for people on this course. I hadn't done any plays at school. At the interview I had to lie and I said I'd seen Dostoevsky's The Rivals as I remembered seeing a poster at the Royal Exchange in Manchester.'
Then the interviewers asked what she thought of the play. (Little did they know that Jennifer had only ever seen one play in her entire life, and that was Charley's Aunt).
'Oh, very good,' she said, deadpan, not realising that Dostoevsky had not written The Rivals – the author of the play was Sheridan.
Perhaps her examiners saw through the bluff – this was the Central School of Speech & Drama, after all, the UK's most prestigious drama school, so they probably would have realised that Jennifer was winging it. But they were sufficiently impressed by her exam results – you needed only one A-level to get in – and her improvisation routine – with a broom – to accept Jennifer. She was in.
Many of theatre's and television's greatest names have trained at Central. Judi Dench, Sir Laurence Olivier, Vanessa Redgrave, Lindsay Duncan, Rupert Everett and Kristin Scott Thomas all studied their craft there. So she was following in the footsteps of the great and the good.
But there was no grand plan, no ambition, no overwhelming desire to forge a career in show business or to act on the stage. The three-year drama teaching course just seemed like a good idea at the time and a chance to live in London – far more exciting to a 19-year-old girl than the prospect of quiet rural life in Cheshire. And it would turn out to be exciting. But not in any way Jennifer or anyone who knew her would ever have imagined ...
The Central School of Speech & Drama is located on the border of Swiss Cottage and Belsize Park, north London, just off the traffic-clogged streets of Finchley Road and on the site of the old Embassy Theatre.
Today, it directly faces a streamlined, ultra-modern, sprawling community area complete with library, gym complex and the prestigious Hampstead Theatre. The houses in the surrounding streets are expensive and very upmarket: not much change from half a million pounds just for a small flat.
But back then, in 1977, the area itself was totally different: quite scruffy, large but very shabby and rundown nineteenth-century villas and houses alongside post-war blocks of local authority flats and concrete high rises.
Students at Central who shared the mostly grotty flats in the peeling stucco houses in the area were likely to be living with mice, ever-complaining ancient landladies, toilets on the landing and kitchens boasting a bath – with a lid on it. The Thatcherite property renovation frenzy that took over London in the 1980s was still in the future.
And those students, like Jennifer, who were starting their drama teaching course that year, in the class called T80, were a mixed bag: mostly quite young, out to have fun above all else, all sorts of backgrounds.
The course itself was quite new. And the drama teaching students were very much seen as the 'poor relations' to the more exalted drama students on the acting course, who mostly ignored the teaching students' very existence. Boys wore tights and ballet shoes. Girls were issued with a regulation black leotard, thick black tights and a full-length practice skirt to wear in rehearsals and dance classes.
The routine at T80 was 9am to 5pm five days a week, something that Jennifer initially struggled to keep up with.
'Some days I would cycle to school, get there too late and then just ride home again. I couldn't quite get into gear for about a year,' she said of those Central days.
For the drama teaching students, there was a busy schedule. Each day consisted of classes for voice, movement, teaching of drama and poetry, and regular sessions where students learned more about stagecraft, skills such as building sets or making costumes. And, of course, there was teaching practice. And this bit came as a huge surprise to Jennifer, who, for some reason, hadn't actually taken on board the fact that the course was aimed at ... training teachers of drama.
'It was a shock when I discovered I'd been put on a teaching course. It never occurred to me they'd eventually throw me into a school with real children,' she recalled.
But it was in the daily movement class, in the autumn of 1977, in the school's big training room-cum-studio with its huge mirrors and barres along the walls, when fate stepped in for Jennifer in that first year at college.
The new teaching students, all shapes and sizes, clad in the most unforgiving garment known to man – the black leotard – were reluctantly going through their paces doing warm-ups, exercises, swinging their legs, when a new 19-year-old girl stepped into the class, a couple of days late and, unlike Jennifer, desperately keen on the idea of learning how to be a drama teacher.
Excerpted from Jennifer Saunders by Jacky Hyams. Copyright © 2012 Jacky Hyams. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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