Jennifer Saunders’ Memory Lane, review: this interview-on-wheels doesn’t make it out of second gear

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Michael Hogan
·4 min read
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Road trip to nowhere? Jennifer Saunders and Michael Sheen - Jon Hall
Road trip to nowhere? Jennifer Saunders and Michael Sheen - Jon Hall

We might not be getting an Alan Partridge special this Christmas but his spirit was alive and well in Jennifer Saunders’ Memory Lane (ITV). This new interview show might well have been pitched by the desperate North Norfolk DJ at his infamous “Monkey Tennis” lunch with a commissioning bigwig. 

The rather random premise was that Jennifer Saunders slipped behind the wheel of a classic red Jaguar E-Type and picked up a celebrity passenger. She then chatted through their life story while driving them to key locations from their past. 

From the punning title to Saunders’ driving gloves, from fetishistic shots of dashboards to the forced format, much of it was sheer Partridge. His ill-fated festive chat show, Knowing Me Knowing Yule, had unwittingly been put on wheels. Aha!

For this pilot episode, Saunders was joined in the passenger seat by the actor Michael Sheen. For some reason, he was dressed in an oilskin cape and hat. Together with his untamed lockdown hair and bushy beard, it gave Sheen the air of a mildly unhinged fisherman.

The pair pootled through the streets of Port Talbot where Sheen grew up, stopping at key locations for personal stories. We saw his childhood home, the playing fields where he dreamt of becoming a professional footballer and the scenes of his early forays onto the stage.

Saunders and Sheen, who had childhood dreams of being a footballer - Jon Hall
Saunders and Sheen, who had childhood dreams of being a footballer - Jon Hall

Port Talbot is famed for its steel industry and striking skyline, which frequently looked stunning. Yet, remarkably, it has also produced the greatest Welsh actors of all time: Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins and Sheen. There must be something in the River Afan. Local boy Rob Brydon must be annoyed he didn’t get mentioned in this illustrious company. 

They drove across the Brecon Beacons to Hay-on-Wye, the magical town of books which young Sheen saw as an escape. Face masks on, they browsed the famed Booth’s Bookshop. En route, they took a teasing phone call from Sheen’s close friend David Tennant, his sparring partner in Good Omens and Staged. 

Sheen grew visibly emotional recalling his extraordinary 2011 performance in The Passion of Port Talbot – a 72-hour production on the streets of the town, watched by thousands of locals after word-of-mouth spread. They retraced the steps of his procession and visited the seafront location of his crucifixion.

“While I was up on the cross, I was so tempted to go ‘I can see my house from here’,” joked Sheen but he was palpably proud of the epic play. “I will never do anything as meaningful again,” he said. “That will be the greatest thing I ever do.”

“Well done,” replied Saunders, like a faintly embarrassed aunt. 

Sheen's (r) favourite cinema was in the process of being bulldozed - Jon Hall
Sheen's (r) favourite cinema was in the process of being bulldozed - Jon Hall

There was the germ of a good idea in this unusual chat show set-up. There’s an intimacy to two people in a car, an enforced closeness and sense of being in a bubble – a feeling exploited by the likes of James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke and Peter Kay’s Car Share.  

Yet despite the combined star power of Saunders and Sheen, it somehow felt like a daytime TV show had washed up in primetime. Copious recaps and on-screen quotations reinforced this impression. I half-expected the duo to suddenly view some properties or stop off at an antiques auction.

At an hour’s running time, it felt overlong. Reunions with characters from Sheen’s past lacked emotive power. This was hardly helped by the need to stand two metres apart and wear masks. In listening mode, rather than doing the talking herself, Saunders’ wry wit had to take a backseat.

Another drawback was that if you’ve lived long enough to have an interesting biography, there’s a good chance that key locations won’t be there anymore. Hence “Wales’s first drive-thru burger bar” was now a car park, Sheen’s school had been converted into flats and his favourite cinema was in the process of being bulldozed. This lent an air of wistful melancholia. I remember when it was all fields round here. 

Sheen was full of pride and infectious passion for his hometown. He and Saunders seemed to hit it off. Sadly, this interview vehicle – essentially Who Do You Think You Are in a car – never really got out of second gear.