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"Turning 60 can't be that bad!"Jennifer Saunders

Home is where the heart is for this versatile comedienne. By Simon Evans

IT IS the winter of 1980 and backstage at The Comic Strip, London’s trendiest hang-out, The Menopause Sisters are waiting to make their entrance. The setting is the Boulevard Theatre, above Soho’s Raymond Revuebar strip club, an unlikely host for what would turn out to be a comedy revolution. The Comic Strip had been running at the venue since October, and The Menopause Sisters, better known to you and me as Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, had breezed through the club audition largely because of their gender. In those days female comedians were distinctly thin on the ground.

Getting through the audition was just the start of it, however. The club’s compere Alexei Sayle could be merciless with anyone who was less than talented, and the trick was to last the full eight minutes on stage allocated to each act and not get ‘gonged off’.

Waiting to make their entrance at the start of the evening the two former trainee teachers had already decided to ditch the Menopause Sisters name but had not decided on a replacement. An impatient Alexei Sayle did it for them: “Ladies and gentlemen, French and Saunders”, he told the boisterous, baying audience.

On this, their first night at the Comedy Strip, the previous act had been interrupted by a racist heckler. Bottles were thrown, a fight broke out and the police were called, but French and Saunders ploughed on.

“We were complete novices, we’d come straight from college and had never come across anything like this before,” recalled Saunders many years later.

The profile of both performers and audience at The Comic Strip in those days was very male-dominated, but on that night, and on many more to follow, the duo held their own and found an effective way of dealing with the inevitable hecklers.

On one occasion, after being asked to display part of her female anatomy by a member of the audience, Dawn French strode to the front of the stage and, using her best teacherly voice, told the yobs to shut up. They didn’t make a sound for the rest of the evening.

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