Saunders was born in the Lincolnshire town of Sleaford, and went on to study at the Central School of Speech and Drama on a drama teachers’ course after spending a year working in Italy as an au pair. It was at Central where she met her comedy partner-to-be, Dawn French.
The pair went on to live together in London as they worked the comedy festival circuit as a duo. Eventually, they responded to an ad for comedians to become members of the comedy collective The Comic Strip – which had previously only employed men. Upon walking into the audition, the French and Saunders were immediately employed, and became colleagues with the likes of Rik Mayall, Robbie Coltrane and Adrian Edmondson.
The Comic Strip had its own TV series throughout the 80s and 90s, which included a spot on Channel 4’s first night of broadcast. But it was in the late 80s when French and Saunders decided to branch out and step into the spotlight as they launched an eponymous sketch show for the BBC which would eventually run for two decades.
Saunders major solo success came on television in the 90s, as she starred in the series she created, Absolutely Fabulous, with Joanna Lumley and Julia Sawalha. The series saw Saunders play Edina Monsoon, a boozy PR agent.
Saunders last role in the West End, and her first in 20 years, was in 2017 when she appeared in a production of Lady Windermere’s Fan, directed by Kathy Burke as part of Dominic Dromgoole’s Oscar Wilde season at the Vaudeville Theatre.
She returned to the West End stage in 2020 to star in Blithe Spirit, a new production of Noel Coward’s comedy about a clairvoyant visiting a writer in need of inspiration. Saunders was also due to star in the London revival of Sister Act as Mother Superior, but has now been postponed to 2022.
In 2023, Saunders will make her Palladium pantomime debut as Captain Hook in Peter Pan.