How we have loved Absolutely Fabulous, French and Saunders and even her early work on Girls on Top.
Jam and Jersualem, which also features Dawn French and Joanna Lumley, therefore comes with much currency. But it is poles apart from her trademark comedy of the grotesque. To dub this is a sitcom is to set up false expectations.
In the quaint English village of Clatterford St. Mary the local GP has a heart attack and dies, widowing the surgery nurse Sal, Sue Johnston (Waking the Dead, The Royle Family). When her son and his wife take over the medical centre Sal is suddenly without purpose. So she turns her attention to the local women’s auxiliary, populated by kooky, if support, characters including Lumley and French.
Writer Jennifer Saunders also takes a back seat role as one of the townspeople.
Devoid of a laugh-track, this 6-part series is something of a seachange for Saunders, who admits she wanted to write about the sort of community she was living in. Her desire was to illustrate, “how country life didn’t have to be sinister.”
Unlike her trademark over-the-top characters, these are gentle, if off-beat, folk. Lumley is unrecognisable, hunched over as a haggard old woman with big-bucked teeth, glasses and wig. French dons a ghost-white wig and track suit and is given the occasional inappropriate aside. But it is Sue Johnston who has the central role, rebuilding a senior life.
Saunders’ plot isn’t at all ambitious or targeting big belly laughs. It skates just as close to drama as it does to comedy, yet the premise isn’t particularly dramatic enough. In a bucolic comedy, Johnston’s performance is also understated – perhaps with Brenda Blethyn or Pauline Collins the role this would be more spirited.
Fans will likely be disappointed that Saunders, French and Lumley seem kept apart from screen-time together.
It’s no surprise this is airing out of ratings season on the ABC. Indeed, not all of Saunders’ work has achieved the success of her sketch series or Ab Fab. Her comedy about theatricals, Mirrorball, didn’t get past its pilot. But to her credit, a second season of Jam and Jerusalem begins January 1st in the UK.
Sadly, even this Jennifer Saunders fan doesn’t expect to be back for more tea and scones in Clatterford St. Clair.
Jam and Jerusalem airs 8pm Friday on ABC.