No other British comedic double act has lampooned film and TV genres so uniquely, and with such resonance. Seamlessly inhabiting characters with uncanny impressions (with the aid of lavish production values probably not afforded to sketch comedy these days) while breaking the fourth wall with witty meta references to the art of pastiche, there are layers of cleverness in their spoofs that go beyond impressive wigs and costumes.
So here, in descending order, is our own countdown of the 10 best times Dawn and Jennifer poked fun at your favourite movie or TV show…
10. Harry Potter
“I think I’ve grown out of my invisibility cloak…”
In ‘Harry Potter and the Secret Chamber Pot of Azerbeijan’, young Harry (Dawn) is told by Dumbledore the life-changing truth about who he really is – a middle-aged female comic who needs a bra. There are also alternative takes on Hagrid the giant (played by Ronnie Corbett) and Dobbie the house elf (a cameo from Basil Brush)
9. Thelma and Louise
“It’s going to look like exactly what it is – Dartmoor in the middle of winter”
The girls swiftly break off from a note-perfect recreation of the classic feminist road movie to pull over to the catering van, grumpily freezing their wigs off on location as they try to rescue an ailing sketch. “If wasn’t for the fact that I look exactly like Geena Davis this wouldn’t be working as a parody at all,” huffs Dawn.
“It’s about all these old people on a boat that sinks”
Sending up the James Cameron epic’s famously troubled shoot with a mock behind the scenes documentary, Ade Edmonson (Mr Jennifer Saunders) guests as maniacal director ‘James Macaroon’ and swears orders through a megaphone while an exhausted cast battle with hypothermia and anachronistic dialogue. And the iceberg refuses to come out of its trailer.
“You dirty bird – you’ve written a show all for yourself!”
French makes a terrifyingly convincing Kathy Bates as she ties Saunders to the bed, forcing her to write new material in a deserted log cabin for the pair of them as revenge for Jennifer daring to go solo. The gory violence of the original gets a ribbing, especially the ending where it takes a typewriter to the face and a bazooka to finish off the baddie.
6. The Silence of the Lambs
“I ate my Baftas – with a nice chianti…”
You’ll never see Hannibal Lecter in the same way. Trainee comedy agent Saunders is sent to unpick the mind of incarcerated light entertainment legend Dr Dawn French (held in comedy prison with the likes of the Krankies and Bernie Clifton), leading to a tense mind game of cat and mouse – with Dr French bargaining to be moved to a decent dressing room with a view of the Blue Peter garden.
5. In Bed With Madonna
“If I don’t eat this chocolate soup I am compromising my artistic integrity”
The duo’s obsession with Madonna reaches its peak with their take on the pop icon’s backstage tour movie that pokes fun at the pretentiousness of fame. An incident from the original where Madonna’s concert is threatened with cancellation due to complaints of indecency is reworked as Dawn and Jennifer are told their show may meet the same fate as the BBC have deemed it’s not funny enough.
4. The House of Elliott
“I’m just so worried about the missing buttons!”
This affectionate tease of the 90s period favourite about two sisters running a 1920s fashion house takes general swipes at mid-budget BBC costume dramas. Cheap sets wobble, modern-day cars and walkmans drift into shot and the same props are recycled from scene to scene. Kathy Burke cameos as Tilly the cockney seamstress, and the real stars of The House of Elliott turn up to show what good sports they are.
3. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
“Try getting a laugh without your head!”
The classic tale of bitter showbiz rivalry perfectly plays into French and Saunders’ stage dynamic of professional conflict and constant one-upmanship. Flashbacks show young Jennifer in the shadow of comedy partner Baby Dawn French, before an accident makes Jen wheelchair bound and she’s held captive for years by drunken, jealous Dawn as they argue about who the funny one is. The uncanny takes on Joan Crawford and Bette Davis give Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange in Feud a real run for their money.
2. Gone With the Wind
Jennifer seizes her moment as Scarlett O’Hara in a superbly accurate take on one of the most famous films of all time, and definitely one of the pair’s best-looking of all their parodies, but Dawn struggles with the southern belle intonations and sounds more Belfast than Baton Rouge. “Are you going to do the accent?” became something of a catchphrase.
1. Lucky Bitches
“It’s hot, it’s steamy, and it’s coming to your screens soon”
The life stories of Jackie and Joan Collins, two sexy English sisters who swapped Maida Vale for Hollywood, are hilariously told in the style of a glossy made-for-TV adaptation of one of Jackie’s blockbuster racy novels set among the rich and famous, and all the trashy trappings that come with it. Lurid melodrama, cranked-up camp, terrible ageing make-up and soft-focus close-ups to show the passing of time – anyone who recalls watching the mini-series of Lucky Chances in the 90s will appreciate the attention to detail.
300 Years of French and Saunders is showing on Monday 25 December at 10:35pm on BBC1