Mary Beard’s life advice: “Take criticism, but don’t be crushed”
It seems perfectly fitting that an encounter with Dawn French, one of the country’s funniest women, involves several comedy moments.
We meet in a cosy tea shop, up in the hills, not far from her home in Cornwall. Due to a rail strike and a local driver who made several wrong turns, it’s taken seven hours to get here. I am 30 minutes late. Dawn is beside herself – not in a diva way – but because she feels I’ve been horribly put out.
“Oh no… we should have done a Zoom,” she says. “But I really wanted you to see how beautiful it is here. This café has the most incredible view over Cornwall.” We step outside into a sudden thick fog. Not even the cars in the car park are visible. She looks momentarily stricken, then – in unison – we burst out laughing.
Back in the café, we discuss Dawn’s latest book, The Twat Files, over homemade scones. There’s an initial scuffle over what goes on first: jam or cream. (“You will be arrested in Cornwall if you put cream first,” she says. “It has to be jam.”)
Then Dawn, who turns 66 this month, tells me how cathartic it has been to lay bare all her most embarrassing, awkward and humiliating moments in both her book and on her tour, Dawn French is a Huge Twat. The name, she admits, has been somewhat divisive (“in my family it was seen as having a bit of bite, but not an offensive word”), but the tour, which kicked off last year to sell out audiences, has been a huge success.
The book contains even more anecdotes from Dawn’s life, and is not just laugh-out-loud funny but is also an invaluable insight into the woman who shot to fame in 1982, aged 25, and who, along with her best friend Jennifer Saunders, has gone on to success as a writer, comedian and actor.
“Oh yes, I’m a national treasure,” she says with a wry smile. “But what am I really? I’m someone who works, who makes mistakes, who messes up, behaves badly, needs to have a word with herself at times. This isn’t something I could have done 20, 30 years ago. First off, I wouldn’t have had all the mistakes to cringe over, but also I wouldn’t have wanted to reveal certain things about myself. I’d have been too embarrassed, felt too ashamed. But the older you get, the less you care. You’ve learnt to accept yourself, to forgive others and forgive yourself. And just let it go – and laugh.”
Not wanting to spoil any surprises, the stories – told in Dawn’s inimitable warm, chummy style – are about epic fails in movie auditions, awkward encounters with the likes of Madonna and Dustin Hoffman, hideous outfits, moments of bad judgement, hubris, greed and unrequited crushes on other actors. The deeper point of the exercise is a rebellion against the current craze of Instagram’s perfect, neatly curated lifestyle, and to encourage us all to be more at ease with our imperfections.
So who is Dawn French? Yes, a national treasure, one half of French and Saunders, star of The Vicar of Dibley, Jam and Jerusalem and Death on the Nile, and named in a YouGov survey this year as the most popular female comic in Britain. The woman determined to show how imperfect she really is. In person – as often happens with famous people – you immediately feel you know her. But, unlike many other famous people, she does not set about putting up a wall. Although she has learnt to guard her privacy, she actively wants to make a connection. She asks questions and pays attention to answers. In the café, she knows the staff, they know her.
“I’m someone who works, who makes mistakes, who messes up, behaves badly”
What has always set Dawn apart is her warmth and the way she has dealt with the ups and downs of her life: her beloved father’s suicide when she was 19; racist abuse when she married comedian Lenny Henry in 1984; a series of miscarriages and failed IVF treatments; the adoption of her daughter Billie in 1991; and her divorce from Lenny in 2010.
In 2013 – the year after she lost her heroic mother Roma, who founded several drug and alcohol treatment centres in Plymouth – she married therapist Mark Bignell MBE, a friend and colleague of Roma’s. Across the table from me she looks like a vibrant, contented woman.
Her thick hair has been returned to her trademark bob but it is now a beautiful shade of grey. She stopped dyeing it during the pandemic, thought briefly about going dark again, but then concluded, “Why bother? This is so easy. All I do is use purple shampoo every week and that’s it.”
The grey brings out the green in her twinkly hazel eyes. She is wearing a rather beautiful Indian cotton kaftan top and on the window ledge by her side is an ornate, lacquered cane – a recent addition to her daily life due to her osteoarthritis, which will require a knee operation later this year.
I ask her whether she agrees with her friend, the Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde who, at 72, says she feels more cool and relaxed than ever.
“God no,” says Dawn. “I’ve never been cool. I wasn’t even cool when
I was young. In the Comic Strip [a group of comedians that included Dawn, Jennifer, Ade Edmondson, the late Rik Mayall and Nigel Planer], we weren’t cool, we were just messing around, not able to believe our luck.”
We talk about her home life. I ask her if she feels lucky to have found love a second time after her divorce from Lenny.
“I didn’t go straight into a relationship,” she says. “I needed time on my own. I needed to put up a barrier and to heal. Mark was a friend first. It took time and I realised there was something more.
“He’s a lovely, kind man. The thing I love most about him is that’s he is so happy, so positive. He works in a very different world, of drugs and alcohol, but he always believes there is hope for everyone. He understands me on an emotional level and has absolutely no understanding of me on a professional level, which is perfect.”
When she and Mark, 58, got together, they were both divorcees with children: her with Billie, 32; him with Lily, also 32, and 29-year-old Olly. They are all at the heart of Dawn’s everyday life. Her relationship with Lenny has settled into an easy amity. He is referred to in several of her anecdotes, sometimes as Lenny, sometimes as “the first Mr Dawn French”.
“It’s all good,” she says. “We were together for 30 years [they met in 1980], so it’s a lot of history.”
Two years ago, Dawn left the stunning harbourside home in Fowey where she had lived for 15 years and moved to a village house near the Devon border.
“I’d been thinking about it for years,” she says. “My old house was huge, needed a lot of upkeep and everyone knew where it was. I’d be out in my garden and I’d hear a guy taking a boat tour, shouting: ‘There’s the vicar of Dibley.’ I could never walk around in my nightie. I wanted to downsize, have a bit of privacy.”
Her home now is just 40 minutes away from her best friend, Jennifer, close to Mark’s work, and within a short drive from all their children. And grandchild.
“Yes, we are grandparents,” she says with measured pride. “All I can say is I am completely in love. It’s changed my life. I think about her all the time – everything on my bucket list revolves around my granddaughter. I spend every moment I can with her.”
But Dawn never stops. This year she’s touring the country for three months – her show kicked off again in Exeter on September 6 and will end on Sunday November 26 in Bath. The following Tuesday a surgeon will operate on her knee. It was damaged during a reenactment of The Vicar of Dibley “puddle stunt” when she stood in for the late Paul O’Grady on his TV show in 2009.
“I had to jump about 12 feet down a shaft onto a few crash mats,” she recalls. “I landed on my legs and was in absolute agony. I should never have done it, which is a real example of me being an idiot. And the problem started there.”
She will break for Christmas and New Year, then take the tour to Australia in April and on to New Zealand in May. Oh, and this autumn there’s also the new series of the award-winning podcast she makes with Jennifer, Titting About.
I ask how she will manage a full-on tour with a knee that is so excruciatingly painful that she has to suppress her shrieks as she stands.
“My surgeon doesn’t want me to do this tour,” she says. “And lots of people have tried to talk me out of it. But I booked it before I knew I had to have surgery and I refuse to let people down.”
“I’ve never been cool. I wasn’t even cool when I was young”
I shake my head but Dawn has never missed a day of work in her life. Travel aside, on stage she will be standing every night for hours (albeit with her stick). “The big problem is that at the moment the only thing that gives pain relief are steroids, but for months before the operation they have to be cleared from the system, so I can’t take them,” she says.
“I have strong painkillers but they don’t really touch the sides. My surgeon thinks I’m insane. I’ve resisted and resisted surgery for so long but I can’t any longer, so every night I’ll be wrapping my leg in ice packs.”
I shake my head again.
“I’ll be fine,” she says. “I know it’s going to be sorted. I’ll have either a partial or full knee replacement and then I will rest and I’ll be back up again.”
Home is her sanctuary. She loves to potter with her Jack Russell terrier Goodie, see friends, read and cook.
“I love to bake,” she says. “My current favourites are a breakfast bundt cake with blackberries, and fruit and banana and pecan muffins. I love to make hearty stews, shepherd’s pie, pasta from scratch, that sort of thing. But Mark and I are like Jack Sprat and his wife. He likes to make salads and dishes with lentils. I don’t think he really likes my cooking, but he doesn’t complain.”
Neither does he complain about her sucking chocolate éclair sweets every night when they go to bed, a habit she acquired during lockdown when they had to sleep separately due to Covid restrictions (they were both working).
“It was an anxiety thing, a comfort thing,” she says. “But it’s not great for me, my teeth or my dentist.”
Dawn lets out a sudden shriek. Time has flown by and she is now late for a voiceover session in Plymouth, which will be followed by a trip to the theatre to see 42nd Street with Mark and her “gusband” (“My gay husband, my friend since I was 11″). We leap into her Mini and into the fog only to hurtle into gridlock on the Tamar Bridge.
The real Dawn has never been more on display. Straight into action mum mode, she sorts out a cab to take me from the recording studio to the station, takes a shortcut into yet more gridlock, points out various personal landmarks (the house she grew up in, the pub where her brother was born, the treatment centre where Mark works), and all the time entertains me with anecdotes about her days at drama school with Jennifer and the next book she wants to write.
As I make my exit into the cab, she is once again perturbed by the thought of my trip back to London. “We should have got you a pasty,” she says as I’m waving goodbye. “Or some fudge…”
I am smiling all the way home.
Written by Louise Gannon