Dawn French: If you censor comedians, you’re on a slippery slope
Today, on a Zoom call, the award-winning comedian, actor and writer, 66, is adamant that she’ll be taking the show to Australia and New Zealand in April, even though her knee replacement surgery is scheduled just before Christmas and she’s doing the tour against her surgeon’s advice.
“He said, ‘You’ll just make life worse for yourself, so that when it comes to the knee operation – which I’m going to have in early December – it might be that you’ve done more damage’. But a knee surgeon has no idea about the preparations for a tour, which you start booking a year earlier. So tickets are already sold by the time he’s telling me not to do it.”
She injured her knee while appearing on the Paul O’Grady show in 2009 when she recreated the famous Vicar Of Dibley scene, in which she jumped into a comically deep puddle – only on the second occasion, the stunt involved a 10ft drop on to thin crash mats and she twisted her knee on landing.
The knee issue, temporarily relieved by steroid injections, is one she pens in The T*** Files, her hugely witty memoir of mistakes, which charts her many gaffes and faux pas over the years.
Today, her smile is wide – in the book she self-deprecatingly calls it a rictus grin – and the grey bob she has after years of dyeing her hair (she stopped during Covid) suits her. She seems truly content.
“Why has it taken me 66 years to come to this understanding, which is that, along with all the mistakes we make in life comes embarrassment and shame, and actually if we could get rid of that, it would only be fun?” she muses.
“It only makes us human, fallible and serves to connect us better. Really shockingly, the minute I did start to think about these instances, they came at me like a tsunami, a cacophony of all the twatty moments in my life.”
The book features anecdotes of her behaviour, from her response to Ben Elton on telling her ‘I want you to play the lead’ in his new play, when what he actually said was ‘I want Hugh to play the lead’ (as in Hugh Laurie), to over-exaggerating curtseys and dissolving into fits of giggles when meeting royals.
She also includes several funny moments of her ex-husband, Lenny Henry, who she describes as the ‘king of faux pas’, but with massive affection.
French has long been one of the comedy elite, from her early days with The Comic Strip alongside Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Nigel Planer and Alexei Sayle, and the sketch show French And Saunders (with Jennifer Saunders), which set the bar for satire on popular culture, to branching out in the hit comedy The Vicar Of Dibley, the Sky drama Delicious and the movie Death On The Nile (teaming up with Saunders again).
After the wave of ‘alternative comedy’ she rode in the Eighties, does she think comedy will struggle to be as edgy now as it was then, given the cancel culture of today?
“Yeah, there’s a danger (of that),” she contemplates. “But I’m a firm believer that if you censor comedians with their material, it’s a slippery slope to nowhere good.
“The way we (should) cancel people is, just don’t go to their gigs, don’t watch them on telly, don’t buy their books. That’s how you cancel people you don’t like. Let the people who like them have them.
“I believe that the whole point of comedians is to show you your world in a rather edgy way or a soft, fluffy way. Every comedian is different. Where would we be these days without Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor or all of those people that will probably be massively un-PC now?
“However, we all evolve and we know there are areas now that you think, ‘Oh, that’s a bit hateful’ or ‘That sounds a bit dodgy’ and I wouldn’t be going there, I don’t think we ever did, particularly. But young comedians will find a way to say the things they want to say and long may that be the case.”
French never encountered any intimidation from male peers when she was making her way in comedy, she says.
“We were at a time in the early Eighties when they were desperate to find more women so that the line-up looked nice and diverse. So we were very unpolished when we first started. I’m not sure if we’d have got the job if we were guys. We were accepted into The Comic Strip because they desperately needed women in the line-up. And we had talents – but we learned on the job. The guys we worked with were nothing but welcoming.”
She began her latest one-woman show last year.
“To return to going on stage on my own is joyful,” she enthuses. “It’s not something I want to do every year because it’s exhausting to be travelling all the time. I do it in clumps so that I can manage it.”
With no let-up in her schedule, she confesses: “I’m not very good at relaxing. I think Covid was a massive lesson.
“When we had to stop because things were stolen – tours, films – I thought, I don’t really like this. I’m not a jigsaws and sitting about person, however much I think that’s what I want to do when I’m very busy and a bit tired.”
She lives in Cornwall with her husband, Mark Bignell, who heads up a drug rehabilitation charity founded by French’s late mother, and admits that she’ll get homesick when she’s on tour, although he will visit her Down Under.
There’s a new BBC sitcom in the offing which she can’t talk about, various documentaries she wants to make and another novel coming. There seems to be no slowing down.
“Covid taught me a little more about who I genuinely am when it comes to being creative. I love it – so why would I stop?”
The T*** Files by Dawn French is published by Penguin Michael Joseph, priced £22. Available now. Dawn French tours the UK until Nov 26. Tickets and venues: DawnFrenchontour.com.