Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders are reuniting to talk about funny women
By Simon Ward, Content Editor
“We could name every single other woman in comedy when we started out, which was about three others,” says Dawn French. It’s a landscape that has changed drastically since Dawn and her comedy partner Jennifer Saunders first broke through in the 1980s. “Now you can’t even name everybody,” she adds. “I’m delighted, because how many men would be able to name every single other guy in comedy? They can’t, there’s too many – and they wouldn't even stop to think about it.”
But French and Saunders are taking the time to stop and think about it. Only for them, it’s to explore the shift for women in comedy over the years. Although as their new special on GOLD shows, the word “shift” hardly does that long fight against attitudes and opportunities justice; it has been more like collectively pushing a large boulder up a steep hill while a group of men stand at the side tweeting them to explain why they’re not doing it right.
“In male comedy, a lot of women were the sidekicks, or were overlooked,” explains Dawn. And Jennifer agrees: “We also realised that a lot of female comedy was done by men. So you had Alastair Sim playing the headmistress in St Trinian’s, you had Dick Emery doing funny comedy, Les Dawson being Hylda Baker basically, and even the Monty Pythons had someone being a dolly bird, but the men took all the funny parts. I mean, come on!”
In this celebration of female comedy, the pair talk about the funny women who have influenced them and who they have admired – from Thora Hird and Barbara Windsor to Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin, via their contemporaries such as Victoria Wood (“she would absolutely feel like she’d failed if she didn’t give you loads of gags,” says Dawn), Ruby Wax (“she never stops reforming a thought in her head to make it funnier,” Jennifer says) and Jo Brand (“totally in control on the stage,” Dawn adds).
They also look at the next generation of critically acclaimed talents, such as Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Michaela Coel, who took home the Leading Actress gong (among other awards) for her series I May Destroy You at last month’s Virgin Media BAFTAs. “We’re quite bitter about them,” says Jennifer. More diplomatically, Dawn adds: “We’re just begging really for work, so we blow smoke up their arse.”
Ahead of French & Saunders: Funny Women, we look at just some of the new heroes of comedy, plus where you can watch their work right now.
The new all-conquering queen of stand-up, her transcendental Netflix special Nanette pulled apart the concept of stand-up comedy, and what it means to be the person making the jokes, as well as why they make those jokes. Uncomfortable and hilarious, but always true, Hannah creates shows that are bigger than comedy (one reviewer said as much for her follow-up show Douglas). Less a collection of jokes, rather the start of a movement.
Where to watch Hannah Gadsby
Find Nanette and Douglas in Apps & Games > Netflix
The creator of the most brilliant TV show of 2020, I May Destroy You. To explain it succinctly does the show an injustice because it’s so much more than a snappy plotline; liberation, exploitation, trauma, community, gender, sexuality, contemporary life, it’s about all those and so much more. Her previous series was the more comedic Chewing Gum. But whatever she writes next is already the most anticipated series of whatever year it drops.
Where to watch Michaela Coel
Find I May Destroy You in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer
Find Chewing Gum series 1 & 2 in Apps & Games > All 4
It has been an incredible few years for Aisling Bea. Her BAFTA-winning comedy This Way Up, which she writes and stars in, deals with rebuilding your life after – to quote – “a teeny little nervous breakdown”, and is now in its second series. Elsewhere, she also appeared in the brilliant Quiz on ITV, starred alongside Paul Rudd in Netflix’s Living with Yourself and will soon appear in the new Home Alone film (nothing to do with lockdown, we swear!).
Where to watch Aisling Bea
Find This Way Up series 1 & 2 in Apps & Games > All 4
Find Living with Yourself series 1 in Apps & Games > Netflix
Daisy’s CV reads like a series of Very Good Decisions: Green Wing, Psychoville, Doctor Who, Uncle, Episodes, and that’s just scratching the surface. She turned writer for Back To Life, a brilliant BAFTA-nominated comedy about starting again in a small community following a spell in prison, which returns for a second series soon. Plus, her starring role as Ally in Sky One’s Breeders alongside Martin Freeman is one of the great comedy performances.
Where to watch Daisy Haggard
Find Back to Life series 1 in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer
Find Breeders series 1 & 2 in On Demand > Box Sets
The all-conquering Fleabag, based on her one-woman play, became the defining comedy of a generation, making Phoebe one of the most in-demand writers/actors in the world. She followed that up with a little show called Killing Eve – you might have heard of it. She’s now filming the latest Indiana Jones film, working on a TV remake of Mr & Mrs Smith (alongside actual Donald Glover) and even had time to rewrite the latest Bond script.
Where to watch Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Find Fleabag series 1 & 2 in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer
Find Killing Eve series 1-3 in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer
Daisy May Cooper
As the co-creator and co-star of BBC Three’s This Country, Daisy’s legend is already etched into the patchwork of British comedy with one of the great characters, Kerry Mucklowe. But her star has continued to rise, with roles in space comedy Avenue 5 and recent film The Personal History Of David Copperfield. Soon she’ll be appearing in Cash Carraway, a dark BBC comedy about what it means to be working class in the UK.
Where to watch Daisy May Cooper
Find This Country series 1-3 in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer
Find Avenue 5 series 1 in On Demand > Box Sets
How to watch French & Saunders: Funny Women
Watch French & Saunders: Funny Women on Saturday 17 July at 9pm on GOLD HD (CH 124). You watch it after broadcast in Catch Up > Channels > GOLD.
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Image credits: Funny Women © UKTV / Laura Radford