Need a laugh? It’s French & Saunders to the rescue

06 Jan 2021

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders sparkle in David Quantick’s new drama for Radio 4, while The Archers gloriously celebrate 70 years.

When the days are cold and dark and the times are bleak, you have to take the laughs where you can get them. So thank goodness for Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, charging to the resuce like knights on a white stallion – or perhaps more like two drunk aunties on a pantomime horse.

French and Saunders have had fizzing comedy chemistry together on TV and stage since the Eighties, but radio drama is a less-ploughed furrow for them. Together they star in ‘Whatever happened to Baby Jane Austen?’, a one-off special written by David Quantick (The Thick for It, Veep) that should, if the Radio 4 commissioning mavens are reading, be made into a full series soonest poss, please.

French plays Florence Ransom, a critically acclaimed author best known for her Booker Prize-winning novel, “Pennant Days”. She’s a darling on the literati and on a smooth course towards an admiring obituary in the London Review of Books one day. Saunders is her embarrassing, super-famous sister, Selina Mountjoy, an outrageously vampish Hollywood movie star who has been married so many time that her most recent wedding was sponsored by GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS.

The sisters have been estranged for decades, but now, guess what: their worlds collide, because Selina has written a scandalous tell-all memoir threatening to outstrip her sister’s place in the best seller lists. And, what’s more, she’s lost all of her money after a bad investment in cryptocurrency, so she blackmails Florence into letting her come to stay with her in Britain.

The sisters are polar opposites and deep rivals, forced to try to get along. I won’t spoil any of the jokes, but suffice it to say Quanick’s are always about three steps more absurd than you’re expecting them to be, which is the perfect mood to lauch French and Saunders into sounding like they’re having more fun as these ridiculous characters than they’ve had in years.

Amid a whirlwind of lunches at The Ivy and appearances on Radio 4 and th Graham Norton Show (in a running gag, all of the men, from celebrities to incidental waitors, are played by comedian Alistair McGowan), French and Saunders sparkle with a magic that is so rarely heard in new radio comedies that I’d almost forgotten it was possible.

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