Having been born and raised in the States, I never really got French & Saunders, aside from snippets of Christmas specials. But even before the curtain rose on the West End opening for Still Alive!, their “final farewell”, I was left in no doubt about their importance, with scores of the comedy world’s great and good – from Eddie Izzard to Jo Brand – all in attendance to pay homage to the UK’s most enduring female comedy duo.
For those of you who did grow up in this country, you probably don’t need me to tell you that, having met at drama school in 1978, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders started on the stand-up circuit as part of the Comic Strip Presents before moving into television with Girls on Top (alongside Tracey Ullman and Ruby Wax) and then graduating to six series of their own BBC sketch show French & Saunders. Individually, they’ve also scored big hits, most notably with Absolutely Fabulous (Saunders) and The Vicar of Dibley (French).
After 30 years of collaboration, their farewell has been a somewhat protracted one: they haven’t done a live show since 2000, while their last TV series was in 2004. Earlier this year, coinciding with the Still Alive! tour which launched in February, they released their first box set of their entire back catalogue.
If you’re an avid French & Saunders fan or have scanned the DVDs recently, much of the material on offer here will no doubt be familiar to you, as it clearly was to the first night audience, who groaned with anticipatory pleasure at various points, including impersonations of Madonna (Saunders), Catherine Zeta Jones (French) and Joan and Jackie Collins (both). The pair have unashamedly billed Still Alive! as a “greatest skits” compilation which will give fans a proper smattering of what they want and expect.
To my mind, the sketches are a bit hit-and-miss – I loved the teenage girls’ sex talk, the shocking prosthetic penises and the scene that gave birth to Absolutely Fabulous but could have done with less of the Strictly Come Dancing spoof and the Bideford ladies – and the reliance of lengthy filmed inserts runs counter to the notion of a “live” show. Most engaging are the links, when the comediennes are simply on stage being their hugely likeable and amusing selves, talking direct to the audience and bickering with each other in continual one-upmanship about their solo successes.
As Little Britain’s Matt Lucas notes in the programme, French & Saunders seem to have been blessed with “funny bones … you think about them and you smile”. Still Alive! is a welcome celebration of this extraordinary double act: it left even this foreigner feeling nostalgic for their British Eighties heyday.