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French and Saunders

Dawn French's career in comedy has spanned almost 20 years, and a great chunk of her work has been alongside Jennifer Saunders.

They met at London's Central School of Speech and Drama, where they were both training to be drama teachers. Surprisingly Dawn and Jennifer didn't get on particularly well at first, and had very different views on their education at Central. "I loved it and Jennifer hated it" Dawn recalls, "She thought she was at drama school to get free tickets. I always wanted to teach, and to be like my Drama teacher at school, who was wonderful, spoke beautifully and had been to Central. I idolised her so much I wanted to do the same".

When Dawn and Jennifer eventually teamed up, they started writing together and performing for fun in their flat. Among other characters were the 'quasi-punk menopause sisters'. Jennifer says "We used to dress in long, plastic macs with tampons hanging on our ears and safety pins stuck in various places!" They made each other laugh a lot, and decided to perform at the school's end of term show just 'for the crack'.

Despite their early comedy attempts, Dawn achieved her ambitions and became a primary school teacher. Meanwhile Jennifer Saunders was unemployed, and spotted an advert asking for female acts at a new club, the Comic Strip in Soho. The Comic Strip team, including Ade Edmonson, Rik Mayall, Peter Richardson and Nigel Planer; had been looking for women to join so they'd be more Politically Correct, and according to Dawn, "We were just the first creatures with boobs to walk through the door". The pair auditioned, and were accepted to be the new, final additions to the Comic Strip team. Initially, Dawn continued to work as a teacher, working at the Comic Strip in the evenings. But when success beckoned, she had to quit, although did not dismiss the idea of one day returning to teaching.

The Comic Strip offered a new type of comedy, a non-sexist, non-racist brand of humour which became hugely successful and which although was originally known as alternative comedy, is now very much the mainstream. At the time, however, the Comic Strip was fresh and original, soon attracting attention from the media. One man who was particularly impressed by what he saw was Paul Jackson, then a young producer, who later became the head of Entertainment at the BBC. He approached French and Saunders and the rest of the Comic Strip, offering them a spot on a new BBC variety show, "Boom,Out Go the Lights".

Around the same time in the early 1980s, Peter Richardson, the driving force behind the Comic Strip, had been discussing plans with the new, developing television station, Channel 4, who were soon to launch. He was interested in film comedy and approached the channel with his ideas for the Comic Strip films. The team would write and star in a series of stand-alone films (similar to the style of Carry On films), with each being of a different genre with an individual style of comedy to the rest. His suggestion was so well received that the first Comic Strip film, "Five Go Mad in Dorset", a spoof of the Famous Five series, was part of the line-up on Channel 4's first night of broadcasting in 1982.

The film was both criticised and praised, it was attacked for ridiculing the popular Enid Blyton books, while complimented for being innovative and ground breaking. At that time, there was very little satirical comedy on television, and audiences were not used to this type of humour.

Despite the initial controversy surrounding the first episode, the Comic Strip team was re-commissioned to produce more films. Over 25 have been made since, from 1982 to the most recent "Four Men In A Car" in 1998. A number of feature length films were also produced, notably "Strike", which won the Golden Rose of Montreux. The Comic Strip films brought these relatively unknown comedians into the public eye, while also giving them the chance to write and perform in a variety of ways, showing off their talents and versatility. French and Saunders co-wrote "Consuela" together, a spoof of the film "Rebecca", while Jennifer Saunders wrote 'Slags' and Dawn wrote 'Summer School'.

French and Saunders were appearing regularly in the BBC variety show Entertainers in 1983-84. They also featured in Happy Families (1985), a comedy written by Ben Elton and produced by Paul Jackson. Jennifer Saunders played all the main roles, with cameos by Dawn French and the rest of the Comic Strip team.

French and Saunders soon went on to write their first sitcom "Girls On Top" with comedienne Ruby Wax (1984-5). They all starred in the show, alongside Tracey Ullman (who left after the first series to pursue a career in the USA.) It followed the lives of four flatmates living in Chelsea; Amanda, Jennifer, Shelley and Candice, and was intended to be a female version of The Young Ones (which the male members of the Comic Strip team had moved onto, and Dawn and Jennifer had cameo roles in). A number of up and coming stars were given cameo roles, including Harry Enfield, Pauline Quirke, Helen Lederer, Harriet Thorpe and Hugh Laurie. Paul Jackson and Ed Bye (who later married Ruby Wax) produced and directed the show, of which two series were made.

A years later, French and Saunders were offered a BBC sketch show, which led onto four more series and numerous one-off specials. The shows contained a variety of original characters and situations, however Dawn and Jennifer are probably most famous for their parodies. They have taken off everyone from Boyzone to the Spice Girls and spoofed a range of films from Gone With The Wind to Titanic. French and Saunders have since proven to be two of Britain's most popular and successful TV stars, and are unrivalled in being Britain's top female comedy double act.

French and Saunders have also worked together on Let Them Eat Cake.