Not much fazes Dawn French, except the prospect of going it alone with her new one-woman show. The comedian talks to Grace Hammond.
When Dawn French took to the stage for the first time in her one woman tour this summer she was stepping into the unknown. One of this country’s most famous comedians, she has toured with her friend and comedy partner Jennifer Saunders and starred in a one-woman play, but this was a different prospect.
It’s a few weeks before the first night and we are sitting together in a Cornish hotel just up the lane from her home on the coast. French is 56 and her dark hair frames a face that is quick to break into a smile, giggle or full-hearted laugh. Her knee-high boots are muddy, she explains, because she’s just back from walking her dog on the beach.
French spent much of her childhood in Cornwall and moved back with her first husband, the comedian Lenny Henry, in 2006. The tour, though, is nationwide, taking in more than 60 gigs in two stages. Talk of it both excites and terrifies her.
“I’ve just eaten a little bit of the cushion with my bum thinking about it,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to [do it] and I think I’ve dodged it a bit. Because I’m aware that it’s a risk.”
French is being directed by Michael Grandage. She was desperate to work with the man who ran the Donmar Warehouse for a decade until 2012.
“I could have asked Fatty Saunders, but I thought, ‘I’m actually going to ask a proper grown-up theatre person’,” she says. Eighteen months have passed since she first approached him, but she kept taking other jobs – a sign of her being “scared” – including a role as a judge on Australia’s Got Talent.
The show is called 30 Million Minutes – because that’s roughly how long she’s been alive – but French still isn’t quite sure what it is. Instead, she makes a worried noise. “It’s not a stand-up show. It’s not a play. I guess it is a monologue because it’s just me talking. It’s a slide show to an extent. But not just a slide show. It’s not like your awful, most feared auntie who’s just come back from Egypt where you have to sit and watch everything. It’s quite autobiographical, so I show you the people that have made me – so to speak. There’s quite a lot about my mum and dad.” Her grandmothers will also feature – ‘Good Granny’ and ‘Evil Granny’. Although Evil Granny did actually steal from her, she knew the nickname was a joke. “In fact she coined it – she thought the other one was so good.”
French was born in Holyhead, Wales in 1957 when her father was stationed there with the RAF. But she spent much of her childhood in Cornwall and went to boarding school in Devon. At home, French was a performer and her dad was too. “He would tease me to discipline me. Very loving teasing. Lots of things were dealt with at that quite sophisticated level of lots of fun.”
French’s father gave her confidence and she remembers a “key moment” when she was leaving for a party. “I’ve always been a big girl and shouldn’t really have been wearing hot pants,” she says. Her father, though, was supportive. “He told me I was completely beautiful and how amazing I looked in them and that I would get loads of attention. So my dad gave me a sort of telling off that was about totally infusing me with confidence and I went on cloud nine to this party and I’ve actually never left that party. It was armour.”
Three years ago, French revealed that she had lost seven and a half stone. She has since said that she put some of it back on. Eating, she tells me now, is very comforting. “It’s a lovely thing to do. We love tasting things. You don’t get to be spherical without liking eating things.” I point out that she isn’t spherical and she replies, “I’m less than I was. If you get very fat like I did you might be choosing to destroy some good stuff you’ve been given in terms of your health. That’s something you can address.”
When she was just 18, French’s father Denys killed himself. Growing up, she and her brother had been shielded from his depression. It was, she says, “just like a bomb went off in our family. My mum of course would have known there was danger. He’d lived his whole life with it [but] this was in a time when you didn’t say you had mental illness if you were the head of a family. I still have sadness about it. Massive sadness. And I think it’s been a centre point of my life what happened with my dad.”
Soon after her father’s suicide, French started at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London to do a teaching course. There she met Jennifer Saunders, with whom she would form a hugely successful comedy double act. The pair began to make names for themselves on the alternative comedy scene in the 1980s and their long-running TV show, French and Saunders, launched in 1987. Roles on television – including the lead part in the Vicar of Dibley – and in the theatre have followed. Now, with an autobiography and two novels also to her name, she is about to test herself again.
French will, she assures me, be more revealing in her show than she has been before. But she’s not entirely easy with it being all about her. “It’s a little bit, ‘Aren’t I interesting?’ I keep saying to Michael Grandage, ‘I need to take this out,’ and he says, ‘Absolutely not – that’s the whole point. Do not push it away from you. Absolutely own it and be completely strong and confident about that.’ And so that’s what I’ve done.” She certainly doesn’t seem to be on an ego-driven mission. She’s doing the tour, she says, because she’s got things to say, thinks it could be fun and because she hasn’t done it before.
“I don’t need loads of positive strokes for just being alive. What I want is people to turn up and see whether what I’ve written works.” That’s not to say, though, that there isn’t an element of attention-seeking in performance. “I think it’s the child in us that is saying, ‘Mum, Dad, look at me.’ It’s need for approval which I think all humans have. But I think performers have it in a needy, slightly sick way. I have had it and I have understood it as that. I don’t think you can get up and do a**ing about like I do without a bit of that going on, but I find it very unattractive – in myself and in other people.
“I always see people in their nappies. Comedians, actors, whatever,” she says and laughs slightly. “I see them as a baby going,” and her voice turns high-pitched and hysterical, “‘Mummy look, look!’ And if I watch Simon Russell Beale, Mark Rylance, Judi Dench, people who inhabit their characters properly, I don’t see them in a nappy. I watch their character and that’s that.”
French and Henry were divorced after 25 years in 2010. They have an adopted daughter and still have a “great” relationship. He is, she says, a good man and they had a very good marriage for a very long time until it went a “bit dodgy” at the end. After their split, French found herself, in her fifties, going on dates. “I’m not good at flirting, I’m not good at being coy. I find it absurd and ridiculous. What I’d rather do is give a questionnaire out and get people to tick boxes,” she says, laughing. “Speed dating – that’s what I should have done.”
Now, she has found happiness with Mark Bignell, who runs a charity. When she talks about him, she shuts her eyes in delight. They’ve just had their first wedding anniversary. “It’s so new. It’s completely thrilling. It’s almost too delightful. I could almost burst with it.”
• Dawn French’s 30 Million Minutes, Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, July 4 and 5. 01274 432000, www.bradford-theatres.co.uk; York Barbican, July 12. 0844 854 2757, www.yorkbarbican.co.uk; Leeds Grand Theatre, September 2. 0844 848 2700, www.leedsgrandtheatre.com; Hull New Theatre, November 26. 01482 300300.