Friday January 11, 2013
Unauthorised biography about British comedienne Jennifer Saunders
Review by SHARIL DEWA
Jennifer Saunders: The Biography
Author: Jacky Hyams
Publisher: Metro Publishing, 251 pages
It isn’t easy to write an unauthorised biography about a celebrity who has guarded her privacy fiercely throughout her life.
IN early 2012, British comedienne Jennifer Saunders made the unthinkable (and somewhat un-celebrity-like) announcement: “There is an unauthorised biography of me coming out. I urge no one to buy it!”
Despite the no buy-in and definite no support for the project from the subject in question, Jennifer Saunders: The Biography still managed to find its way to bookshops by the last quarter of 2012.
Like most unauthorised biographies of celebrities, Jennifer Saunders is essentially based on interviews that the subject had given over the course of her career, with some added insight and documentary-style explanation given by the author.
Jacky Hyams does not reinvent the biographical wheel. Taking the tried and tested route, Hyams documents Saunders’ life story chronologically, dividing the biography into nine chapters, with each chapter devoted to a specific era in Saunders’ life and career.
Saunders’ comedy partner Dawn French had a similar unauthorised biography written about her in 2001; unlike that one, though, Hyams frustratingly does not delve much into Saunders’ family life. The closest Hyams gets to shedding some light on her subject’s family background is informing readers that Saunders’ father was a pilot in the Royal Air Force (the same as French’s father), her mother was a biology teacher, and that Saunders has three brothers. My, how revealing ...
Trying either to meet the word requirement or defend her credibility, Hyams, like most writers of unauthorised biographies, peppers her book with descriptive writing that could perhaps be passed off as insight into the subject.
For instance, setting the tone for her subject’s early life story, Hyams writes: “Cheshire, in the north of England, is one of the country’s more beautiful counties. Tiny, picturesque, ‘blink and you might miss it’ rural villages where time seems to have stood still. 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.”
While the language paints a pretty mental picture, the passage does not provide much insight into the notoriously private Saunders’ life.
From Saunders’ childhood – which Hyams declares to be average, with a couple of former classmates maintaining that Saunders was dreamy and had no aspirations to be the star she is today – the biography trudges through to Saunders’ gap year and eventual enrolment into the Central School of Speech and Drama in 1977. Here, readers get a glimpse into how Saunders ended up at that school (her mother filled in the application form and gave Saunders no choice but to attend) and the much publicised first meeting between Saunders and French.
Saunders and French’s early years as stand-up comediennes in sleazy clubs in London’s Soho district, their time with alternative comedy troupe The Comic Strip and meeting their respective husbands (French married Lenny Henry in 1984 and Saunders married Adrian Edmondson a year later) have been publicised numerous times, and it is documented as part of the second chapter of Hyams’ book.
By the third and fourth chapters, the casual follower of Saunders’ career would be able to connect what they are reading with the television shows. Chapter three deals with the 30-year-long French and Saunders series, a superlative sketch show that pokes fun at the celebrity du jour and spoofs cinematic blockbusters and television shows, ranging from Titanic to Baywatch. Here, Hyams digs into the “golden handcuffs” deal Saunders and French signed with the BBC in the late 1990s, the first of its kind.
Chapter four, entitled More Bolly, Sweetie, chronicles Absolutely Fabulous, the comedy show that spawned the catch phrase “Sweetie darling” and made getting drunk in designer outfits that are too small a hilarity. While in French’s unauthorised biography author Alison Bower went so far as to claim that her subject was jealous of Saunders’ success with Absolutely Fabulous, Hyams does not dwell on how Saunders reacted to the phenomenon that was her creation. Instead, Hyams focuses on the interviews that Saunders gave from 1992-1996 while promoting the show and the slew of awards that Saunders and co-star Joanna Lumley picked up.
Little is said about the next solo Saunders project, The Life And Times Of Vivienne Vyle, except that the show, a clever spin on daytime television chat shows, was vastly underrated.
The closest Hyams gets to penetrating Saunders’ privacy is her subject’s decision in 2002 to relocate from the hustle and bustle of London to the idyllic countryside of Devon, where Saunders set her next sitcom, Jam And Jerusalem. Hyams observes: “The shift of focus, away from the urban, media-obsessed Ab Fab world, was a certain mirror of (Saunders’) own life in the country, where life was so different.”
As Saunders is a private individual, it comes as no surprise that Hyams was reduced to merely rehashing various media reports about Saunders’ breast cancer when news of her health scare became public knowledge in mid-2010, almost a year after Saunders was diagnosed with the cancer.
Surprisingly, the only post-cancer project that Hyams focuses heavily on is the Spice Girls musical, Viva Forever!, which at the time of the book’s publication had still to have its premiere. (The musical opened on Nov 27, 2012.)
Other projects, such as the television series Blandings And Dead Boss, are given the sketchiest of mentions, primarily because Saunders herself did not heavily promote these projects.
As a sideline to her public life, Hyams makes mention of Freddie, Saunders’ first grandson, whose existence came to public knowledge through Saunders herself while she was promoting Viva Forever!
To be fair to Hyams, Saunders is not an easy subject to tackle. Notoriously private, stories about Saunders falling about drunk in public after a night of clubbing are non-existent. Thus it is hard to paint Saunders as anything but a woman who cherishes her privacy and her life with Edmondson, their three daughters and now grandson away from the public glare. She just happens to be a comedienne who created a slew of genuinely funny shows that have stood the test of time.
I don’t think Jennifer Saunders: The Biography is meant to be anything more serious than the life story about a celebrity. Fans of Saunders will undoubtedly enjoy this book. For the casual follower, this sort of unauthorised biography makes a good starting point, as the book is an easy read and can be devoured within a day.