Dawn French takes Saga's Grown-Up Test

Richard Barber / 21 October 2015

Dawn French, 58, lives in Cornwall with her second husband, Mark Bignell, who helps run a local charity. Her new novel, According To Yes, has just been published and she’s appearing in the West End in a one-woman show, 30 Million Minutes. But when we ask her the questions we'll find out how old she really feels.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was about seven or eight, I had three. I wanted to be a prima ballerina, a bridesmaid and a pop star – and I was hell-bent on  all of them. It never crossed my mind that I didn’t have the perfect body for ballet.

New technology or pen and paper? 

There’s a computer in my house but other people use it. I wrote my book over seven lonely months in longhand. I do have a tablet, though, and I’ve learnt how to use Google so I can check anybody out. And I know how to access YouTube which is a requirement as a mother because my daughter, Billie, who’s 24 or my husband’s two children – a girl Billie’s age and a boy who’s just turned 21 – are forever asking me if I’ve seen the footage of meerkats shouting ‘Alan!’ or whatever it is.

Disciplined or a ditherer?

I’m massively disciplined no matter how beautiful the day and how brightly the sun is shining. And I always finish everything on time unlike a certain J Saunders who’s one of the world’s great procrastinators. 

Town or country?

I love my life in Cornwall but then I enjoy my forays up to London to do a bit of jazz hands.

When were you last really grumpy?

When a local paparazzo took a photograph of me on the beach at 7.15am out walking the dog and not wearing a stitch of make-up. A downmarket rag then ran the picture on its cover along with the headline: ‘Depressed’ Dawn: “I feel old and haggard” Family fears for star’ I’ll take a certain amount of nonsense but that crossed a line.

Your greatest influence?

My family. We’re all the product of our families. I stand around in my favourite black boots but I walk in the footsteps of all who went before me. I’m made of all of them and all of them had their own accomplishments. And I try never to forget that.

Have you ever had therapy?

Yes, twice in my life, six sessions on each occasion. The first time was when I was suffering a temporary blip and then, 10 years later, when my first marriage was falling apart. All three of us – Lenny and me and our daughter, Billie – attended together. It was called systemic therapy, something my husband, Mark Bignell, is currently training to do. It’s all about practical tips on how to cope and move forward.

What really annoys you?

To be honest, it gets on my nerves that people are obsessed about my size. I’ve never defined myself via my weight but almost everybody else does and I have to accept that that’s the world we live in. At the moment, I’m neither the fattest nor the thinnest I’ve ever been.

Your favourite decade? 

I think it would have to be the 80s. It was the beginning of the Comic Strip and meeting Jen. Everything was possible. 

Pet indulgence? 

I don’t really skimp on treats. I have almost any treat I like. I suppose it would have to Portuguese tarts; love ’em. And proper Cornish pasties. If I could, I’d have one every day. My mother-in-law absolutely understands that hers could never replace my mother’s pasties but she comes a very close second. She’s called Dawn Bignell, by the way – and so am I.

Which song always gets you on the dance floor? 

Hips Don’t Lie by Shakira. Or It’s Raining Men by The Weather Girls.

First record? 

My father bought me Sugar Sugar by The Archies. Then my brother, Gary, and I jointly bought James Taylor’s album, Mud Slide Slim. But I own it. This matters. I’ve kept it and my brother’s never forgiven me. 

What’s the bad habit you can’t break?

Well, I don’t know if it’s a bad habit but I tend to order other people’s time too much. I’m a control freak.

Your most over-used phrase? 

I say ‘to be honest’ too often. It annoys me when I say it and when other people do, too. It implies that everything else I say can’t be relied on.

What would you say to the 16-year-old Dawn? 

I’d say to her something my mother said to me which is that the only way out is through. What she meant was that, when you’re in the middle of the storm which you can’t believe you’ll ever survive and the like of which no one else has ever experienced before, just know that you will come through it. 

What’s your philosophy?

I’ve always been a big believer in that difficult stuff can be handled via a bit of fun.

Who was your first teenage celebrity crush? 

There were two: Steve McQueen and David Cassidy. David once invited me to come on stage at a concert he gave at the Hammersmith Apollo. Word had somehow reached him that I’d written in my autobiography about how much I loved him. For a moment, my world stopped and then I realised I must never meet him. David Cassidy must remain my proper fantasy.

Your biggest regret? 

Not marrying Simon Cowell. He didn’t ever ask, of course, but I’d be a match for him. I’d teach him all sorts of interesting things to do with small, round women. When I was single, I kept mentioning him. I threw the lasso out but no response. Nothing. Rude git!

Who gave you your first kiss? 

Michael LePellier in primary school. But I must also credit David Eccles for magnificent kissing until my lips were completely swollen. We must have been 14. We were latchkey kids. We’d come home from school, get a glass of milk and then sit down and kiss for three hours sometimes until my parents came back. I haven’t kissed like that since.

Best Christmas ever?

When I was six and we were living in Cyprus – my father was in the RAF – and my parents had to make a big effort to make it all Christmas-y because it was hot and there was no snow. 

Do you have a faith? 

Yes, I do although not quite as strong as my mum’s. She wasn’t a Christian but she was a great believer in the afterlife. She was a very spiritual person so I guess I’ve inherited a certain amount of that. 

Do you always receive a Terry’s chocolate orange egg at Christmas? 

No but, funnily enough, I always used to give my mother a box – this is absolutely true – long before I landed the TV ad campaign which pleased her enormously. Art imitating life. Often, when I stay in hotels, I’ll find one on my pillow.

Your preferred epitaph? 

She really tried hard. 


Anyone who still has fantasies about David Cassidy must come in at youthful 40.

According To Yes is published by Michael Joseph and available on Amazon for £9


A version of this article was first published in the November 2015 issue of Saga Magazine. Read more great features like this in the November issue of Saga Magazine.

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