Dawn French loves the autumn: ‘the full drama of Nature’s Act III’, as she describes it in her new book.
But the autumn of her own life is far from dramatic. No longer craving the ‘showbizzy jazz hands attention’ that came with being one of Britain’s most successful comedy performers, she has returned to her West Country roots, and now devotes more time to writing than ‘dressing up and showing off’ on the telly.
It’s 10 years since she published her acclaimed autobiography, Dear Fatty, since when she’s written three best-selling novels. Even her debut solo stage show, 2014’s 30 Million Minutes, was less a standup set than a spoken word memoir with jokes. And now there is Me. You. A Diary, in which she writes exquisitely about the changing seasons (‘Winter can be skeletal and brutal in nature as trees do their burlesque best to shed their foliage’), while drawing parallels with the different stages of her life so far, and inviting the reader to add their own thoughts, feelings, lists and photographs.
‘It’s a way for me to walk hand in hand through the year with whoever has the book,’ French, who turns 60 next week, tells Weekend. ‘And I really hope that, by the end of it, there will be a little treasure that, if someone’s family were to discover it years later, will be quite revealing, in a good, intimate way.’
Like much of her recent work, it’s revealing and intimate about the author, too. ‘I hope so,’ she agrees. ‘I hope the things I’m prepared to say, I say very honestly. I want to have an open discourse. I don’t want to write from me to you, without reaching out properly.’
Is it also a way of controlling, and owning, the story?
‘Definitely. That’s definitely why I did 30 Million Minutes. Because I thought, hang on, there are a few too many rumours circling, and there’s a portrait of me being painted that’s not the Dawn I recognise. So let me put a few things right. But even that is a little bit self-indulgent, because who ever looks at all this stuff except me? No-one else gives a toss, frankly.’
In the book, French admits that, if she’s feeling melancholy, she has a tendency to ‘fold myself away’. Is this a classic case of the sad clown?
‘I’m a would-be happy soul, I think,’ she says. ‘I know there’s a cheerful person at the centre of me. I’ve learned to allow sadnesses when they come, and I’m quite surprised by how often they come. But I don’t think it’s melancholy. I’m a person who’s had mental health issues – depression – and I’m sure I don’t have that. The indulgent thing I do, which I’m trying to learn not to, is that I can settle into a very satisfying grump. A baby sulk. There’s something very enjoyable about it. I wish it wasn’t so enjoyable, because nothing about it looks good from the outside.’
Among the most moving passages in the book is the one recalling the moment when, aged 19, she learned her father, Denys, had taken his own life (‘That awful minute, so pitifully different to the minute before… when we had a dad’).
‘It’s definitely defined a certain part of my life,’ she says. ‘When your family goes from being a square to being a triangle, it’s a very big thing. It was very sad, and very traumatic. But our mum’s thing, through our whole lives, was that “the only way out is through”. And she took us all through it. We’ve cried a lot, we’ve talked a lot, we’ve said everything we wanted to say, and because of that we were able to recover from this. We are survivors, and it is possible to survive well, actually. We’re a bit cracked, but we’re not broken.’
She also writes about how, by sitting her down as a teenager one night and telling her how beautiful and precious she was, her dad instilled in her a confidence that has armed her for life.
‘He wanted to make sure that, because I was a bigger girl, I didn’t ever think less of myself, or didn’t deserve the best. He told me that I was a beauty, and that any boy would be lucky to have me. And I bought every single word of it. I put armour on that night, and I have not taken it off ever since. I believe it – I genuinely think I’m worth something.
‘When I got older, I started a company with [fashion designer] Helen Teague making clothes for bigger women. And because I started that, it was like I was publicly saying, “I’m a fat girl”. So that opened the floodgates for everyone to say that to me. Though people in the press would be kind of saying that anyway – I’m always defined by roly-poly this or dumpy that, or whatever.
‘But I was proudly putting my own mark on my own shape, if you like. When people asked me, “how come you seem to be confident about this?” I had to really stop and think. And I do put a lot of it at my dad’s doorstep.
‘I only had him for a short time,’ she adds, ‘and I’m aware that I lionise him a bit.’
Growing up in an RAF family, French – who has a brother, Gary – lived on stations in Wales and Lincolnshire, as well as her mother’s native Devon. In the late 1970s, she was training to be a drama teacher in London when she met her future comedy partner, Jennifer Saunders. It was far from love at first sight.
‘She was very posh – she’d had a very different upbringing to me,’ she recalls. ‘Her dad was an officer in the RAF, and my dad wasn’t, and when you’re brought up in the RAF, the ranking system is a very clear demarcation of where you are in the pecking order. In my head I was at the other end of the camp, in the joined-up houses, and she, the officer’s daughter, was in the stand-alone houses.
‘Anyway, we were forced together into a flat, and I remember thinking: “I want to move into that flat, but it means I’ve got to share with that girl. God, I don’t want to.” But it was a matter of minutes before we both thought, “actually, you’re very funny and I like you”.
Having initially formed a double act called the Menopause Sisters, French and Saunders came to prominence during the first flush of the ‘alternative comedy’ boom, joining Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Nigel Planer, Peter Richardson and Alexei Sayle – fellow players at London’s Comedy Store – as part of TV’s Comic Strip ensemble. French is the first to credit the scene’s politically correct credentials with getting them their break: ‘We weren’t very good, but they needed women on the bill,’ she admits. ‘But once we were in that position, I think we used it well.’
And then some: French and Saunders went on to become one of Britain’s most celebrated comedy double acts, fronting seven series of their own sketch show – famous for its big budget parodies of films like Thelma and Louise and Titanic – while enjoying success outside the partnership in the likes of The Vicar of Dibley (French) and Absolutely Fabulous (Saunders).
The latter only came about when a planned series of French & Saunders had to be scrapped at the last minute due to the sudden arrival of Billie, French’s adopted daughter (now 26) with then husband Lenny Henry. In the book, she details her and Henry’s efforts to conceive a child with typical frankness, writing of how they began to ‘dilute our happiness with this giant sadness’. And she is equally frank about the ‘cocktail of emotions’ she felt when Ab Fab became such a monster hit.
‘Jen was covering for me. She was doing a very generous, loving thing. She had to very quickly get something together. And annoyingly, it was brilliant,’ she laughs. ‘I felt massively jealous, and then immediately after I thought, “this is my darling and I’m massively proud of her”. But also jealous!’
French describes the performer’s need for attention as ‘a sickness’ – which perhaps explains why, these days, she’s happier writing in splendid isolation in her magnificent Grade-II listed home on the Cornish cliffs. Her second husband, charity worker Mark Bignell, is also as far removed from the showbiz life as it’s possible to get – when they met, he had barely seen any of her work. ‘He was aware of me, but he wasn’t a TV watcher,’ she explains. ‘He’s a very outdoorsy bloke. One thing he had seen was a sketch where Jennifer and I played these big fat men in prosthetics. So that was kind of his opinion of me. He has a little look at YouTube every now and then.
‘It’s a new chapter,’ she adds of their life together. ‘And I’m grateful for all the other chapters. I don’t think I’d have got to this one in this way without everything else. I’ve got no proper, big regrets, no bitterness or anger.
‘I have moments where I think, “we could have managed certain things better”, but we all think that about our lives. We managed a lot of stuff really well – that’s Len and I I’m talking about. We really did do an awful lot with a lot of kindness and thought for each other. And we are very much connected, especially when it comes to our daughter. I think we’ve spoken three times this week. It’s fine. It works okay. As well as it can, it does.’
French still has the urge to wave those jazz hands occasionally. Earlier this year, she fronted kids’ talent show Little Big Shots, and she’s even been a judge on Australia’s Got Talent. French and Saunders have also just announced they will reunite for a 30th anniversary special this Christmas, a decade after their last series together.
But it takes a lot these days to drag her away from her home. ‘I feel a bit sad when I have to leave, even if it’s for a job I want to do,’ she says. ‘It’s easy to say I belong by the sea, because everyone wants to be beside the seaside. But it’s where I’m from, and I genuinely feel happy here. I just feel completely that I’m in the right place.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, October 5, 2017
(c) Waitrose Weekend