A first-hand account from Penguin’s Mari Yamazaki on what it was like to share a stage with the one and only Jennifer Saunders. In a word: Bonkers.
‘Jennifer Saunders has jabbed me quite hard in the chest. We’re in the middle of a busy Euston station on the way to Manchester. I’m not sure who else has witnessed the assault.
“You’ll have to come up on stage with me tonight.”
She is not joking. For once.
Rewind four days to Monday. I am in Jennifer Saunders’ house. I AM IN JENNIFER SAUNDERS’ house! It is uh-mazing. She kindly offers me a cup of coffee. I decline and stand still in the middle of the room – I don’t want to break anything.
I’m picking Jennifer up to go to the Rose Theatre in Kingston where she will be telling over five hundred people about her new book, Bonkers. It’s drizzly as we drive through the streets of London. Jennifer is wearing a chic black outfit and canvas trainers – she is one cool lady. She refers quite a bit to being a grandmother, which is frankly rather unbelievable. She makes various phone calls in the car to JoBo and Abi – people from the book! They exist in real life!
We arrive. During the day there has been a last minute panic with the visual tech for the powerpoint. Consequently, we have all turned up with a VGA adapter. There are three in the building. Lovely Viv Groskop, tonight’s host, is waiting in the green room. She regales us with stories of past events; I won’t mention any names (Germaine Greer). There are a lot of lolz.
Their laughter continues on stage. The audience is great – warm, receptive, and obviously all huge fans. At the signing afterwards there is a sea of hundreds of faces and camera phones. There’s no time to think as we get down to business. Jennifer is a machine; she also manages to forget her own name quite a bit. We note lots of unusual names in Kingston: one Ariel, two (two!) Skye’s, one Bryce. One kind woman says she hopes Jennifer will get better soon. “I didn’t know you were ill”, I say; “Neither did I” was the reply. Possibly, it’s because she is now “Brave Jen” since her cancer treatment, which she writes about brilliantly in the book. It must be very hard to be graceful and funny and kind to strangers after an hour of performing, but Jennifer is all those things and more.
Jennifer has more media commitments during the week, but I don’t go with her. I kind of wish I had as she might have found out earlier that she is due to go on stage on her own on Thursday night in Manchester. Fast forward to that Thursday afternoon in Euston, when she finds out. “But, I’m a double act!” she says. To be fair, she’s not wrong (French and Saunders? Absolutely Fabulous? Hello?!). A decision is made in one quite manic minute that I am to act as her interviewer that night – a decision rather hastily made in my honest opinion. I have two hours on the train to prepare. Jennifer gets down to business sorting it out like a pro; I also get down to business “thinking it through” but mainly I’m in shock and thinking how I wished my hair.
The train is delayed, which leaves us with about two minutes at our hotel before we have to head to the venue – enough time for me to change from a casual pair of trousers to a less casual pair. I didn’t know! In my excitement I jump out of the cab at the venue and forget to pay the driver. I laugh; he, not so much.
Backstage, Jennifer is a wonder – she takes going on stage seriously, as she loves her fans, but she is also calm, relaxed, funny. There’s no hint of nerves, although there should be as she’s going on with ol’ muggins here. Maybe she was but she hid it well. What an actress.
The next morning is a bright and early start to go to BBC Breakfast. Jennifer is early for the car, energetic, refreshed – in fact, she is glowing. She charms the driver, she charms the runner, she charms the make-up artist, she charms the BBC presenters, she charms the guest waiting to go on next. I wouldn’t be surprised if she managed to charm the chair, the door, the windows. I don’t know how she does it.
Last night, we ended up late at the hotel for dinner, where red wine was quaffed (I decline on account of a headache but end up consuming quite a lot). We are tired, after a very long post-event signing, where it seemed like everyone had at least three books each that needed signing. And, of course, the event itself – oh, did I not mention? It was a huge success, which was obviously all down to Jennifer (although one person in the queue afterwards asked me for a picture. I said no). Jennifer had the audience in stitches with stories of Podge (you’ll have to read the book, darlings), dressing up as punks and scaring people on the tube with Dawn French, the inspiration for Patsy, going on jaunts with Joanna Lumley. You’ll have to imagine an effervescent bubble next to a slightly pale, slightly sweaty wreck. Really, I carried that Jennifer Saunders – she has a lot to thank me for.
*Quick, sign me up! I’m available. Anyone?