Saturday Night’s Children: Morwenna Banks (1995)
Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 38 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member every other week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
While there are plenty of SNL cast members whose stints didn’t last many episodes — see Laurie Metcalf, Dan Vitale, and Ben Stiller — British sketch and voice actress Morwenna Banks holds the record of the shortest repertory player tenure with a mere four episodes under her belt at the end of the show’s twentieth season in 1995. Four episodes weren’t enough to make it in the American sketch comedy sphere, but for fans across the pond Banks remains a consistently talented performer and familiar voice who has remained a steady presence on British TV and radio shows for the past 25 years.
Born in Cornwall, England, Banks initially aspired to become a dramatic actress, but at university she was encouraged to pursue comedy instead. She began writing and performing her own sketches with vigor and even co-authored a book on female comedians called The Joke’s on Us: Women in Comedy from Music Hall to the Present when she was only 26. After performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Banks was hired to perform on BBC Radio 4 with comedy team Morray Hunter, Jack Docherty, Gordon Kennedy, and Peter Baikie in the series Bodgers, Banks and Sparkes. The group’s work together led to their co-writing a pilot for the British sketch comedy show Absolutely, which premiered on Channel 4 in 1989.
As the lone female performer on Absolutely, Banks found instant success with recurring characters like the prejudiced charity enthusiast Jennifer Wells (with Docherty as her husband Peter), the extremely Welsh Gwynedd (with Sparkes as Denzil), and her solo “The Little Girl” character who delivers monologues on topics like the Queen, old people, and dentists. Absolutely ran for four seasons until the group decided to part ways in 1993.
Soon after, Banks went to New York for SNL for the highly transition 1994-1995 season; Phil “The Glue” Hartman had left the prior season, Janeane Garofalo, Mike Myers, and Al Franken would leave before the end of the year, and Molly Shannon was added midseason as a featured player. Banks joined as a last-minute addition in April, and aside from two Weekend Update appearances in which she resurrected her Absolutely “Little Girl” character, she didn’t have the chance to debut original characters or recurring impersonations before the end of the season. Banks did, however, appear in supporting roles in a handful of sketches, making her debut on the April 8th episode with fellow underdogs Chris Elliott and Mark McKinney in a Cirque du Soleil sketch and showing up as a Ricki Lake guest, Boyz II Men girlfriend, and in sketches “Replacement Baseball,” “Prichard’s,” “Where in the World is San Diego California?” and as a teenager who receives a trademark talking-to by Chris Farley’s Matt Foley character during the April 15th episode’s cold open.
Whether due to the overcrowded cast, being outshone by the similarly inclined Molly Shannon, or the lack of momentum, Banks was unable to find grounding during her short chance on the show and was not asked back after the end of the season, which also saw the final episodes for Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Kevin Nealon, Ellen Cleghorne, Laura Kightlinger, Michael McKean, Chris Elliott, and Jay Mohr. Despite being credited as a repertory player, Banks’s place in SNL history has gone largely forgotten, and she’s one of the several former players to not even get a note in the index of the definitive SNL history book Live from New York.
Despite her lackluster go at wooing American sketch comedy fans, Banks was quick to rebound with British shows (Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer and Catterick, David Baddiel’s Baddiel’s Syndrome, Steve Coogan’s Saxondale), animated series (Stressed Eric, Monkey Dust, King Arthur’s Disasters, Peppa Pig), and small appearances in a few American shows (The Critic, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, Weird Science, and most recently 2012’s Shameless), not to mention her own shortly-lived BBC sketch show The Morwenna Banks show in 1998. She also had a parental guest role on the British teen drama Skins from 2007-2010 and starred in the 2009 BBC web series Celebrities STFU, in which she impersonated celebrities like Lady Gaga, Noel Gallagher, Susan Boyle, Iggy Pop, and Jools Holland.
Lined up next for Banks is her role as writer and executive producer of the upcoming comedy-drama film Miss You Already set to star Rachel Weisz and Toni Collette with Twilight‘s Catherine Hardwicke helming, so if American sketch comedy didn’t work out it was perhaps for the best. SNL has always been a North American show — a fusion of Canadian, Chicago, LA, and NYC flavors — so that a Brit didn’t make it isn’t all that surprising, especially during such a tumultuous season. Thankfully for Banks, SNL was just a blip on the radar of an otherwise fruitful, however underappreciated, comedy career.