Dawn French: 'I’m glad I’m not a young comedian right now'
On a Sunday morning in south Wales, the comedian Dawn French is telling me why she felt compelled to write about motherhood in her new novel, Because of You.
‘A lot has happened in my life since I wrote my last novel [According to Yes] five years ago,’ she says. ‘I wanted to write something deeper, darker and more layered. It had to be about the most important relationship in my life and that is about being a mum, because whoever people think I am, that is the core of me. Motherhood is my greatest joy and greatest challenge and it is the journey that never ends.’
When she was just 25, French and her best friend Jennifer Saunders burst on to the male-dominated British comedy scene, alongside Ade Edmondson, Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer, Alexei Sayle and Peter Richardson, in Channel 4’s instant cult hit The Comic Strip Presents. She had already faced heartbreaking challenges, a pattern that was to continue throughout her career.
Now 62, what sets her apart is the way she has chosen to handle those challenges – from her father’s suicide when she was 19, to racist abuse when she married fellow comedian Lenny Henry in 1984, a series of miscarriages, failed IVF treatments and her divorce from Henry in 2010.
Guided by her beloved mother, Roma, whom she lost to lung cancer in 2012, she has always chosen to push forward, be compassionate and ‘to listen and to learn from every single thing’. As a woman, a performer and particularly as a writer, it gives her a warmth, humanity and relatability that in part explains her huge popularity. Last year, a YouGov survey placed French as the most popular comedian in Britain.
When she married Henry, who was born in Dudley, West Midlands to Jamaican immigrant parents, the couple became a target for racists, with excrement being smeared on their doorstep and an attempt to burn down their house. ‘It was shocking, but you have to get past that,’ she has said.
I ask her how she feels – in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement – about comedians from John Cleese to David Walliams and Matt Lucas having shows and sketches removed from UK streaming platforms for blackface and racial slurs.
‘I said to Jennifer, “We are lucky we didn’t do that.” And her response was, “But we would not have done that.” And she’s right. I played Samuel L Jackson and Missy Elliott and neither of us even thought to put on a black face. We were awake as opposed to “woke”.
‘Lenny actually started out in The Black and White Minstrel Show as the only black person in it. At the time he didn’t think how terrible it was and I remember watching it with my parents and just seeing it as an entertainment show. But then you become aware. Lenny was completely traumatised by having been a part of that.’
She pauses and says, ‘But I do feel conflicted. I remember enjoying those shows [Fawlty Towers and Little Britain] and not being offended by them, but now it makes you think, “Should I have been?” I don’t know the answer. Comedy is meant to be on the edge. I’m just glad I’m not a young comedian right now.’
She adds: ‘I think we have to learn from this, but in my book I have written black characters – women and a man. And I feel very strongly that as a writer I should be able to do that. They are part of my life, part of me. And I also feel a black writer should be able to write white characters.’
Getting to talk to French today has not been without its difficulties. We try – and I fail – to connect by Zoom. After 10 minutes of attempting to fix technical issues I’m relieved to hear her chuckle and shout cheerily, ‘I’ll call you on your mobile.’
As a woman who has written every one of her five bestselling books (two memoirs, three novels) by hand, she has every sympathy with a fellow Luddite.
French, however, is not completely happy today. Due to Covid restrictions she is currently in ‘soft isolation’ in Wales, where she’s filming Roald & Beatrix, a Sky Christmas movie based on the true story of a young Roald Dahl taking a trip to visit an ageing Beatrix Potter on her farm in Cumbria. French, who stars as Beatrix Potter alongside Alison Steadman, Rob Brydon and Jessica Hynes, has been unable to return home to see her family during the five weeks of filming.
‘I’m not really complaining,’ she says. ‘Because it is so joyous to be back working. Everything is very strict, I’ve signed thousands of forms, washed my hands thousands of times. And despite all the restrictions, the PPE and the gloves, the production people are smiling behind their visors because they can actually work again after so long.
‘People think Covid has been OK for actors like me because we can afford not to work. But thousands of people make up the British entertainment industry and we are a vital, hugely profitable part of the economy. There have been no grants, no money, nothing to help people survive. Filming is now starting to go ahead, but our theatres are empty, people are struggling and seeing theatres in darkness makes my heart hurt.’
Today, French has a day off from filming and is on her own in a cottage in Cardiff. But she’d much rather be in her Grade II-listed house in Fowey, Cornwall, with her husband, charity worker Mark Bignell, and her daughter, 29-year-old Billie. Her perfect Sunday entails pottering in the kitchen, with Mark cooking lunch for the family, which also includes his children from a previous marriage, Lily, 29, and 26-year-old Olly, who like Billie live within a 30-minute drive.
For several months during lockdown they all lived together, which she describes as ‘on one level worrying and scary, but dayto-day really rather wonderful in terms of family – all of us taking it in turns with the cooking and watching lots of RuPaul. But I know I’m one of the lucky ones and it’s not been the same for so many people.’
On the surface, French does seem to have been one of the ‘lucky ones’. She had barely left the Central School of Speech and Drama, where she and Saunders met and bonded over their fathers both being in the RAF and a childhood spent moving around the country, before they became overnight stars with The Comic Strip Presents. Three years later they scored one of ITV’s biggest comedy hits, Girls on Top, with Ruby Wax and Tracey Ullman, and in 1987, the BBC gave them their own show, French and Saunders, which remains one of the most popular femalecreated TV comedy shows to date.
As well as the show, they both embarked on solo careers as writers and actors, with Saunders creating and starring in Absolutely Fabulous and French launching The Vicar of Dibley as well as appearing on stage as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and in films including Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. She has appeared in a one-woman show, 30 Million Minutes, and published two memoirs (Dear Fatty and Me. You. A Diary) and three novels (According to Yes, Oh Dear Sylvia and A Tiny Bit Marvellous).
French is someone who likes to keep busy. ‘Exactly like my mother,’ she says. This year alone she has made Locked Together, a podcast with Saunders (‘a Covid collaboration to lift the spirits’), and been reunited with her old friend in Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. And she already has ideas for her next novel. ‘My problem is I have forgotten I’m 62,’ she says. ‘And then I have a blip and feel terribly tired and worry I won’t be able to learn my lines any more or finish writing. But I just tell myself it’s fine, push on through and keep going. I have this very Protestant work ethic, which comes from my upbringing, always worrying about falling off the edge of a cliff financially and having to be organised.’
We return to the subject of motherhood. Because of You is a story of what it means to be a mother. It’s about secrets, lies, loss, addiction, family bonds and the complexities of maternal love – biological or otherwise.
‘Beyond what the book is,’ she says, ‘it is a love letter to my daughter, my mother and my stepchildren.’
She and Henry chose to adopt a child when they were unable to conceive, and it was not an easy process. They went through 60 hours of interviews, friends including Saunders and her husband Ade Edmondson were consulted by the adoption services, checking French and Henry’s suitability, and then in 1991, they received a call to say a baby girl was theirs. Billie.
At the time, studios and a crew had been booked to film a new series of French and Saunders, but she called Saunders to say she had to pull out to focus on her daughter. ‘I never miss work,’ says French. ‘I still worry about a period [in 2016] when I had to cancel several performances of 30 Million Minutes because of vertigo. I felt worse about letting people down than anything. But with my daughter, that was it.’ She and Henry spent a year cocooned with Billie.
I ask her how she is as a mother. ‘Ooh, that’s the tough one,’ she laughs. ‘There’s no rule book and it takes time to realise your child does not operate like you. My daughter is very different to me, she never takes the straight path, but I’ve learnt that is her process in life and that’s OK. I love her absolutely and things get easier.’
In the past she has talked about having ‘moments of peacetime, battles and war’ with her daughter and how necessary it was for both of them for Billie to move out when she was 24. She nods: ‘My theory now is that you are supposed to go to war with your parents in that late-teenage/early-20s period of your life. Being annoyed, having big rows with your parents is part of the organic process of leaving them.’
Billie may be a very different person to Dawn, but their relationship has mirrored her own with her mother. As Billie approaches 30, neither can do without the other (Billie also regularly spends time with her dad). ‘The older she gets, the more I step back from trying to say what I would do, which is me trying to control. And then the more she steps forward to me.’
As a teenager French battled with her own mum, whom she now ‘misses every single day’. ‘Everything about her wound me up,’ she laughs. ‘She came from a working-class Plymouth family, my dad was in the RAF, but he wasn’t an officer and she was so conscious of her place. It infuriated me that she tried to disguise her Plymouth accent. The RAF paid for mine and my brother’s education [she has an older brother, Gary, 64], so we were sent to a very posh boarding school where loads of kids were really rich – which we weren’t. She behaved in a ridiculous way. She turned up at speech day in a big hat and acted in this very conservative way. It was only later I realised how hard things must have been for her feeling permanently insecure.’
French was never insecure. Her father, Denys, a corporal technician, hid his severe depression and two suicide attempts from his children. He constantly told his young daughter – who was a size 16 at the age of 13 – that she was beautiful.
Bar an ill-advised diet for her wedding to Henry, she has never felt shamed into losing weight. She did however lose seven and a half stone in 2011, after a doctor advised her to lose weight ahead of keyhole surgery for a hysterectomy. ‘It was purely a practical thing,’ she said at the time. ‘So I set about dropping a few stone. No magic wand, just tiny, joyless low-cal eating and lots more walking for weeks and weeks. It was grim.’
It is easy to see why French has chosen to deal with problems practically and swiftly move on. Something her father was unable to do. He struggled after leaving the RAF and the family settled in Cornwall, taking on a series of odd jobs, with Roma working in local shops to help support the family. Tragically, Denys took his own life when French was about to leave home for drama school.
‘I was bereft,’ she recalls. ‘I wanted to stay at home and be with my mum, but she insisted I take up my place, to be positive and get on with my life. I was furious with her at the time, but I realise she taught me such a good lesson in life. I made myself happy, I made myself move on. And if I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have met Jennifer.’ For most of her life, French concedes, ‘I have lionised my father because I loved him so much and he was the one that wasn’t there, he was the one whose approval I could never have any more. But I had it from my mum, always. She was so proud of me.’
Her mother was a remarkable woman. After her husband died, she became a champion of young mothers with addiction problems, raising money to set up help centres, and even advising the Labour government on drug and alcohol issues.
She was by French’s side when her marriage to Henry crumbled after 25 years, which came 10 years after he was exposed by a newspaper for spending a night in a hotel with another woman in 1999. They remain on good terms. ‘You don’t come through things like that without scars, but you get through,’ she says. They have both moved on; since 2012 Henry has been in a relationship with theatre producer and casting director Lisa Makin.
Roma was ill for months, with what the family believed was pneumonia, but was finally diagnosed with lung cancer less than a week before she died. French took a break from her career in order to care for her mother, although Roma was badgering her to finish the book she was then writing. French speaks of that time as ‘a privilege’. When I ask her what she misses most about her mum, she says, ‘Just her, her guidance, her voice.’ Her daughter misses her too. ‘They had an amazing relationship. Mum taught her to cook, to sew, and she always had time.’
It was through her mum that she met charity executive Bignell in 2011 – he was then a divorcee with two children. They married in 2013. ‘Mum told me before she died that she was so happy I was with him, that we’d look after each other. I love the fact that he came to me through her. To me it’s like he came with a guarantee.’
Her relationship with his children has been relatively easy. ‘Being a step-parent can be difficult,’ she says. ‘I am very mindful that I am not their mother, but I’ve just wanted to be a good addition to what they have.’
Working with Saunders on Death on the Nile was, she says, a joy. ‘It’s a small part but we are together.’ Reprising the double act made famous by Bette Davis and Dame Maggie Smith in the 1978 version, Saunders plays the spiky American socialite Marie van Schuyler, while French takes on the role of her whip-sharp nurse Miss Bowers.
‘We filmed it pre-Covid and a car would come to me, then Jennifer would be picked up, with her dog, so we’d have an hour or so of nattering on the way to filming. We were very sensible on set because it’s a seriously big production and Kenneth was wonderful, but quite strict.’
She laughs and you get the impression that when she and Saunders work together they aren’t always so sensible. ‘Well, there’s just a lot of talking,’ she says. ‘I’m the organised one, the big planner and Jennifer is a genius, but she loves to leave everything to the last minute, then there’s lots of debates and digressions, and a lot of laughter.
‘It never really felt like work when we were doing French and Saunders. We’d finish and then put a new series in the diary just so that we could get to spend time together. And we still do that, although now always with Jennifer’s dog [a whippet called Olive]. Apart from getting older, nothing much changes between the two of us. Life is good.’
Classic French and Saunders moments
1990: Gone With The Wind
Saunders as Scarlett and French as Mammy in a skit based on the 1939 classic
1993: The Silence of the Lambs
Saunders plays FBI agent Clarice Starling and French the serial killer Hannibal Lecter
The pair’s careerlong fascination with Madonna culminated in a documentary spoof.
1996: Pulp Fiction
Playing the characters made famous by John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson
The duo recreate the making of the 1997 film for their Christmas special
Because of You is published on Thursday (Penguin, £20)