Thursday 18 April 2019
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Dawn French: Queen of British Comedy


Last year 50 Plus Magazine caught up with Dawn French ahead of her UK tour ’30 Million Minutes’. Here’s what appeared in our magazines, written by Angela Kelly.


We’ve got so used to seeing comic actress Dawn French in roles where she’s anything but Dawn French that her latest solo tour is proving a bit of a revelation – both to audiences and to Dawn herself.

It’s called “30 Million Minutes”, which is the amount of time she reckons she’s been on this earth. But in what she describes as a “sliver of time between the madness of my menopause – now thankfully over – and the impending madness of my dementia” she’s boldly, and at times bawdily,  going where she has never gone before.

Dawn is 56 now, arguably the long-term holder of the title Queen of British Comedy, and an award-winning actress, best-selling novelist and all-round funny lady.

She’s written this new show based on her life and career, all with a sharp eye for comic detail as you would expect and a wicked ear for the absurdities of life. Dawn French of Cornwall shares how she misguidedly spent her whole life vigorously attempting to be a fully functioning female human.

“It’s not a stand-up show. It’s not a play. I guess it is a monologue because it’s just me talking,” she states. “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.”

Reviews of the show, now touring until the end of November from Nottingham to Southend and Bournemouth to Manchester, reveal a national ongoing affection not just for the characters that Dawn has played which have passed into entertainment folklore but also for Dawn herself. All of which is just as well because the show is a riveting 120 minutes about her life and, being Dawn, it’s not only larger than life but also deeply affecting.

She 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, Dawn was a performer and her dad was, too. “He would tease me to discipline me,” she recalls. “Very loving teasing. Lots of things were dealt with at that quite sophisticated level of lots of fun.”

Her 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 never actually left that party. It was armour.”

Bearing in mind that closeness, however, it’s not difficult to imagine how devastated she was at 18 when her father killed himself.

Growing up, she and her brother had been shielded from his depression. It was, she states, “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, Dawn 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 introducing us to their madcap world.

Roles in TV – including the iconic lead part in The Vicar of Dibley – and in the theatre have followed. She also has an autobiography and two novels to her name, not to mention high-profile TV advertising appearances that have kept her in the public consciousness and firmly  associate her with chocolate oranges and insurance.

Three years ago, Dawn revealed that she had lost seven and a half stone. She has since said that she’s put some of it back on and admits that eating is very comforting. “It’s a lovely thing to do,” she states. “We love tasting things. You don’t get to be spherical without liking eating things.”

And, although these days she is far from spherical and is a beautiful woman, she will only admit that she is “less than I was.”  Fortunately, there is a generally held theory that Dawn French is rightly not defined by her weight, simply by her talent.

She had a much-publicised divorce from comedian Lenny Henry after 25 years together, but they have an adopted daughter and she says they still have a “great” relationship. After the split, she found – in her 50s – that she was going on dates. “I’m not good at flirting. I’m good at being coy. What I’d rather do is give a questionnaire out and get people to tick boxes,” she says, laughing.

Now, though, she has finally found happiness with Mark Bignell, who runs a charity, and when she talks about him she shuts her eyes in delight. They have recently had their first wedding anniversary and she says: ”It’s so new. It’s completely thrilling. It’s almost too delightful. I could almost burst with it.”

And, for the thousands of fans who will see Dawn in person around the country, discovering more about who she really is, this is a wonderful – and very happy – postscript to her life so far.

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