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French and Saunders on Titting About, their comedy careers and Death on the Nile

The beloved duo look back at decades in the industry, the ways in which comedy has changed... and big bottoms.

French and Saunders Big RT Interview

After sitting down for a (virtual) natter with Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, I am relieved to report that the comedy duo are exactly as you’d expect: funny, cheeky and warm. The same words can be used to describe their Audible podcast, which recently returned for a second series and goes by the name Titting About. The pair are taken aback when I admit I haven’t heard the phrase before, with Saunders insisting it’s very commonly used, albeit “not in the Oxford dictionary”. So, what made them settle on that for a title?

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“I think it was because we didn’t want anything too structured and we just wanted to have it quite loose,” explained Saunders. “So we’d find a vague subject matter, and then ‘tit about’ about it. So you just can go off piste a bit so no one’s saying, ‘Oh no, can you stick to the scripts?’”

French interjects: “And it is, after all, what we genuinely do in real life. If Jennifer and I are together, that’s what we do is just gossip about things and yap. We wanted to make sure that we didn’t do a podcast that we would dread, with lots of rules and silly things that we had to do. We just wanted to be as free as possible.”

While French and Saunders’ collaborations date back to the late 1970s – shortly after their initial encounter at London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama – Titting About is their first foray into the world of professional podcasting. The idea for the show was born out of their guest slot in fellow Audible project Locked Together, which saw several comedians chatting remotely from their respective homes amid the tight social restrictions of April 2020. After enjoying the experience, the duo worked with director Simon Nicholls to expand it into a series of its own.

French and Saunders Titting About 2 podcast
Audible

“The only rule he had was he kept saying, ‘can you just not be so grumpy about everything? Find some positives in life’,” reveals Saunders. “And actually, that was a great thing because it’s very easy just to moan about stuff, so instead we had to find the funny in everything.”

Each episode of Titting About focuses on an entirely different topic, with the second series covering everything from pets to life on the road – and French assures me there is plenty of scope for more, with each prompt offering abundant opportunities for humorous tangents. The show is undoubtedly light and fun, but its breezy discussions have paved the way for some genuine contemplation among its two hosts.

“‘Bucket List’ is one that we do this time around, which was something we could really get involved with because both of us are slightly against the idea of bucket lists,” French explains. “But it jogs you into thinking about stuff that you’d like to do before you die – not necessarily on a bucket list, but stuff that you might want to achieve – and how you can achieve things that are small and beautiful without feeling like you’ve failed by not swimming with dolphins.”

Another talking point that proved particularly noteworthy can be heard in the final episode of Titting About 2, ironically titled ‘If We Were Still Funny’, in which the duo toy about with ideas for a sitcom they could work on today. The conversation is entirely in jest, imagining a show built around comfort, convenience and the wearing of loose trousers, but sure enough it inspired a more serious off-air discussion of a possible new television project the pair might shop around in the future.

“Funnily enough, making jokes about a kind of sitcom that would have us in loose trousers and filming close to home and having plenty of snacks on demand started us thinking: ‘Well actually, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing,” French told RadioTimes.com. “And then we did have a conversation. We had lunch the other week and we were talking about what might be possible. But I think nowadays the thing that would be a priority for us is for it to be good fun. There isn’t really another reason for us to do something unless it’s fun.”

Today, French and Saunders are known as one of the most popular double acts this country has ever produced, but every comedy star has horror stories about their early days on the circuit and they are no exception. An early routine called The Menopause Sisters has since been branded as “cringe-worthy” by the duo, but I get a sense they wouldn’t do things differently if they had their time again. After all, it was an essential – if uncomfortable – part of every comedian’s journey.

“You can’t suddenly come in and be great at comedy,” Saunders states matter-of-factly. “You have to come in and be quite crap at it and then get better. People always say, ‘Have you got any advice for me? I want to start in comedy’. And you go: ‘Just do it’. There’s no other way of doing it. Nobody can advise you. You just have to do it and start crap and then realise that’s crap, so let’s do that better.”

French added: “You have to remember that your little failures are all part of it, that’s where you do your best learning. The cringe-worthy part of it is when you do something bad and nobody laughs or whatever, it makes your bum twitch… but you’ve just got to not care about that. Don’t go into comedy if you’re not prepared to be humiliated every now and again.”

French and Saunders in a publicity still for the Comic Strip Presents sketch 'Consuela, or, The New Mrs Saunders', 1986
French and Saunders in a 1986 publicity still for the Comic Strip Presents sketch ‘Consuela, or, The New Mrs Saunders’
Tim Roney/Getty Images

Things sped up for the pair after joining the Comic Strip troupe of performers in 1980, which also included Saunders’ eventual husband Ade Edmondson and the late, great Rik Mayall among others. French considers themselves “very blessed” that they were allowed that time to experiment both with live performances and a later Channel 4 show, while Saunders acknowledges that the landscape of the television industry has changed substantially in the years since.

I think executive-led stuff is everywhere now,” says Saunders. “They sort of prescribe rather than curate stuff and I think it doesn’t allow people to grow much. We sort of started in our early 20s on telly and nowadays I think most people are considered ‘young’ on telly if they’re well into their 30s. I think it’s very different.”

Not content to get bogged down in doomsday warnings, the duo are quick to point out reasons to be optimistic for the future of comedy. Saunders makes the valid observation that the rise in streaming services and digital channels will naturally create more demand for fresh content than there was four decades ago, while French takes a moment to highlight the “really great women” dominating the UK’s comedy scene today – with Motherland, Derry Girls and Ghosts being firm favourites.

“Whatever is happening, somehow the cream is still rising to the top without a doubt,” French assures. But in the early days of their self-titled sketch show, which first aired in 1987, she admits that neither of them had any reason to worry about executive interference as producers Paul Jackson and Jon Plowman “allowed us to just get on with doing the creative stuff”.

That approach clearly paid off as French and Saunders found themselves fronting one of the nation’s favourite comedy programmes for a number of years, building a particularly strong reputation for its parodies of films both popular and obscure. Indeed, while world-renowned franchises like Star Wars and Harry Potter were among the targets, the duo also tackled some lesser known material – some of which they weren’t entirely familiar with themselves.

We hadn’t seen most of those films,” reveals Saunders. “We did Dangerous Liaisons, we’d never seen the film. We did Ingmar Bergman, I’ve never watched a Bergman film in my life. What we were giving people was what they would imagine those films would be like, and we luckily had a director that could sort of replicate them perfectly… My favourite will always be the Fellini. I loved doing the Fellini because I thought: ‘Look at this! This is a BBC One comedy show and we’re doing Fellini! It was mad, it was absolutely mad.”

Of course, the state of comedy has also evolved since the show wrapped up, particularly over the past decade or so with the rise of so-called ‘cancel culture’. Several comedians have condemned the current trend, some of which claim it could lead to the death of all humour unless we urgently change course. In June 2021, Saunders found herself at the centre of the debate when a number of news outlets claimed she had come out firmly against ‘woke’ views, but these reports were an inaccurate representation of her actual opinion on the matter.

I was misquoted in something the other day and they all said ‘oh yes, cancel culture is cancelling comedy’, and I don’t think that’s true. I would argue against that in a way,” she explains. “And people say, ‘oh, but woke culture [means] you can’t say anything’. And actually, you can say anything… You mustn’t be bullying-ly offensive; you can offend people, but it mustn’t be bullying.”

Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley in Absolutely Fabulous
Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley in Absolutely Fabulous
BritBox

“And people said, ‘Oh, well could you make Ab Fab now?’ And I thought, actually no, you probably couldn’t,” Saunders continues. “And the reason you couldn’t is because awareness is different now, it’s a different era. We were called ‘alternative’ when we started and I think that’s what woke culture is now, and it changes with every generation – and that’s completely right… This is a different time altogether and we should be more sensitive to different things.

Of course, Saunders does push back against some of the more extreme suggestions, referencing an argument she recently heard that performers should not be allowed to do any accents apart from their own.

She adds: “That’s a bit harsh! You know, we have to be allowed to do some things or you can’t act. I mean, Jim Davidson doing a West Indian accent [as controversial character Chalky White] is offensive, but Brenda Blethyn doing a Geordie [for ITV’s Vera] is perfectly fine as far as I’m concerned.”

It’s no secret that the pandemic has been a difficult time for the arts as a whole, with theatres, cinemas and gig venues all suffering greatly from restrictions. French is palpably frustrated with how the government regarded the entire sector as “low priority” during the crisis, passionately advocating for it as not a luxury to indulge in, but a “basic human need”.

“I do believe that, after a year like we’ve had, honestly what we need is the arts more than any time before. This is always what bucks people up: the storytelling, the fun, the dancing, the music, all of it,” she began. “The arts are an important part of how we connect with each other, how we are civilised, if you like. And it’s how we take the piss out of each other and how we cope with difficult things like a pandemic. We need the comedians now telling us what a pandemic was like for everyone so that we can start to laugh about it and get through it all. It will be a fertile time, I hope, for the arts.”

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders in Death on the Nile (2022)
Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders in Death on the Nile (2022)
20th Century Studios/YouTube

It can’t be said that cinemas have bounced back from the pandemic just yet, with a number of major films underperforming at the box office and several more fleeing to release dates next year. Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile is one such title – now slated for release in February 2022 – as well as being the next screen collaboration for French and Saunders, who play Mrs Bowers and Marie Van Schuyler respectively. Mentioning the film sets the duo off on a hilarious riff that I present in full below for your amusement:

French: It’s a giant movie. It’s a huge, huge, proper Hollywood blockbuster movie.

Saunders: And we are huge in it.

French: We are the hugest people you have ever seen. 

Saunders: We are actually the hugest people in it and that’s the truth. 

French: We are the hugest and the oldest, I think probably.

Saunders: We are the oldest and the hugest bottoms in it.

French: It’s so true, everybody else is so trim!

Saunders: Oh no, we’re not! Annette Bening’s older than us.

French: Yeah, but she hasn’t got a bigger bottom than us.

Saunders: She’s got a tiny bottom.

French: She’s looked after her bottom and made sure it still fits in her trousers. We’ve had to have trousers made specially to fit around ours.

Saunders: I managed to put on quite a lot of weight within the pyramids at some point on Death of the Nile and I don’t know how it happened.

French: I know how it happened: because filming takes a long time and there’s very very good snacks.

Saunders: I walked into a temple quite slim and came out with the fattest bottom you’ve ever seen. 

French: Those are the mysteries of the Nile, Jennifer.

French & Saunders: Titting About 2, an Audible original podcast is available to download now (for Audible members or free with Audible’s 30-day trial).

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