Dawn French by Perou
If you want to know what’s happening in Dawn French’s life, you need look no further than her latest novel, Oh Dear Silvia. Clues abound. First, there’s the dedication: ‘For Biggs. My anchor, and my true love.’ You wouldn’t have to be Hercule Poirot to work out that, no, this doesn’t refer to Great Train Robber Ronnie but to Mark Bignell, boss of a charity co-founded by Dawn’s mother, Roma. He is also the new love of Dawn’s life.
Then there’s the epigraph: Scribentem morbus cepit, dolor, amor (This was written in death, grief and love). And so it was. In March, her mother succumbed – swiftly, mercifully – to lung cancer at the end of a life punctuated by a 60-cigarettes-a-day habit.
‘She knew it was terminal,’ says Dawn, ‘and she didn’t really want any treatment. Everyone was trying to persuade her to give it a try because it might buy her a few more months. As it happened, the doctors had a conversation with her about it on the Friday and she was dead by the following Thursday. She was 77, no great age these days.’ A tight smile. ‘Even though it was expected, I cried and cried.’
We have met in the baronial splendour of the Fowey Hall Hotel on Cornwall’s southern coast, a hop and a skip from the house Dawn and Lenny Henry bought for £2.4 million in 2006 and where Dawn has continued to live since the collapse of their marriage and subsequent divorce. Daphne du Maurier is said to have once lived in its converted stables. ‘But then,’ confides Dawn, ‘you’ll find that Daphne du Maurier lived in every single house in Fowey.’
She’s on cracking form and even better looking in real life – that beautiful, mobile face framed by the curtain of hair currently dyed a more forgiving dark brown than the black she once favoured. During last year, she dropped a staggering eight stone but has since put a couple back on – again, to her advantage in that it has eliminated the slightly ageing look that often comes with severe weight loss. You certainly wouldn’t guess that she has just celebrated her 55th birthday.
She takes little prompting to admit it gets on her nerves that people seem obsessed about her size. ‘I’ve never defined myself by my weight but almost everybody else does, so I have to accept that’s the world we live in. On the other hand, you don’t reach your fifties and deal with being as big as I was all that easily. I’d become far too big. What tipped me over into losing weight were health considerations.’
Not that she takes it too seriously. She once famously declared that women can be divided into two distinct categories: those who like chocolate – and complete bitches.
You don’t have to spend much time with her to know that Dawn French is currently very, very happy. ‘I really am. I’ve only been seriously unhappy twice in my adult life: when my marriage ended and when my mother died. But I’m very happy now, very comfortable, extremely safe. I feel so supported. I feel loved well. It sounds clichéd but I’m in a very good place. I could never have imagined I’d find love like this again.’
For which she has her mother’s introduction to Biggs to thank. ‘She was remarkable,’ says Dawn. ‘She devoted so much of her life to trying to help rehabilitate people with drug and alcohol problems. In fact, she had a hand in getting the law changed in regard to young women with these problems.’
Roma French raised the money to buy a former MoD property, Hamoaze House, in Devonport, near Plymouth. ‘It’s a beautiful building that she had refurbished with a gym, a music room and so on. Biggs was one of the people Mum had an eye on 20 years ago. I got to meet him through her. He’s done lots of things but he’s a trained therapist who’s worked a lot with young people. If I’m reluctant to talk about him, it’s because his work is quiet and understated and it’s best it remains like that. He didn’t ask to get caught up in my world and what it involves in terms of media scrutiny.’
But he must have had a fair idea of what might ensue if he took up with one of Britain’s most recognisable entertainers. She laughs. ‘You’d think so, wouldn’t you? He sort of knew who I was but I was quite surprised to find out he’d never seen me in anything. I’m not boasting but you’d actually have to have not watched television for the past 20 years to have avoided me. And he’d managed to do just that. He’s encouraging and supportive but my job doesn’t mean any more to him than anyone else’s.
‘He supported me in writing this new book. When I started it, I was in a very different frame of mind. I was writing a story in which the central character is gravely ill and then I found myself around someone who was gravely ill.
‘When Mum was diagnosed, I asked – a difficult question but I had to know – whether she regretted being a lifelong smoker. She said: “Listen, it’s been my friend. I’m not a drinker. I’m not a carouser. Smoking has been my comfort through all sorts of challenges, a steadying influence when things were difficult. I always knew I was going to lop off a few years because of it. So be it.”
‘At one point, she turned to me and said: “It’s win: win, Dawn”. She had lung cancer. In what possible way could that be win: win? She replied: “Well, either I stay here with you guys or I go and see Dad.” That was her belief.’ (Having left the RAF, Denys French committed suicide at 45 when Dawn was 19.)
Ask her today what single word she’d put on her passport were we still obliged to specify our occupation and she thinks long and hard. ‘I’d have to have two. Writer/performer. But in that order.’ Dear Fatty, her autobiography, sold more than 600,000 copies in hardback. Her first novel, A Tiny Bit Marvellous was a huge bestseller. And now comes Oh Dear Silvia, the story of a woman in a deep coma seen through the eyes of the friends and family who come to visit her.
To be honest, says Dawn, she wasn’t sure if she could write at all. ‘Whenever Jennifer [Saunders] and I worked together, she was the one at the laptop. Part of that was because I’m not computer literate. I write my novels longhand in pads with a pencil, then someone types it up. But no, I didn’t know I could write and certainly not on my own. I think it was to do with confidence.’
What sharpened her resolve, and prompted her to write her autobiography, was a ‘truly dreadful’ unauthorised biography that caused a lot of pain. ‘When that happens, it sends ripples throughout your family that are very damaging. I could either shut up and move on or do something about it. It was my story and I wanted it told properly. But I wouldn’t take any dosh in advance until I saw whether I could do it.’
Trying to remember the details of her life proved quite a challenge. ‘I kept diaries when I was young but they were full of snogs and what ponies I liked and David Cassidy.’
The surprise, though, came with just how much she enjoyed the whole process. ‘Being alone in the room, with my own thoughts, being my own boss and writing 100,000 words or whatever was a real revelation. I’m a bit of a control freak and most of my life has involved compromise, so this new challenge rather appealed to me.’
On writing novels, she says: ‘What I really enjoy is climbing inside people, something I borrowed from my other professional life. Oh Dear Silvia is a series of monologues – if the central character is in a coma, the others have to speak.’
Her other life will see Dawn and Jennifer appear in Five Go To Rehab on UKTV Gold. They’ll also be popping up on Radio 2 and she’s flirting with the idea of a one-woman show. ‘The thought of doing it without Jennifer is hard, but I’m now very used to my own company.’
She and Biggs don’t live together but nor is she entirely alone. Her 21-year-old daughter, Billie, lives with her. ‘She works with horses. She has her own horse, the biggest love of her life – long may that be the case. All boys stay away. Please!’
Lenny was due that very weekend to see Billie. ‘We remain good friends,’ says Dawn, ‘but we parted three years ago so life has moved on for both of us. He also has a new partner [producer Lisa Makin]. But we’re in touch constantly. We were very great friends during the divorce, which I now realise was far from being typical. The settlement was easy. We had a good marriage for 24 and a half years, then it got sticky for a few months.
‘We’re no less fond of each other now but we have less to do with one another, except where it concerns Billie. But we’re not chummy bohemians with the two couples meeting for cosy dinners and chats. I couldn’t do that.’
So, new man, new career… that trademark face-splitting smile. ‘Yes,’ says Dawn French, ‘you could say I’d reached Chapter Two of my life.’
The day we shot Lulu
Dawn recounts the day on set when Lulu got more than she bargained for...
A few years back, Lulu joined an episode of the French and Saunders show in which they parodied the blood-soaked film Pulp Fiction. Lulu broke into song so often that Dawn and Jennifer threatened to shoot her next time she did. Then it all went wrong, though the three of them can chuckle about it now.
Dawn recalls: ‘Lulu’s clothing had small explosive devices attached to it, each filled with fake blood. All she had to do when we took aim was to throw her arms wide to activate them.’ But with one warning: on no account should she fold her arms back over her body as the explosives would touch her skin.
‘So she started singing again, we pretended to shoot her and fake blood duly spurted everywhere. But she’d somehow folded an arm in the process and two devices burned her – she really started to bleed.
‘We called the first aid officer. But nothing prepared him for what he saw when he entered the room. Of course it looked like a bloodbath! He all but fainted on the spot.
‘Lulu was a tremendous sport about it all, especially as the injury required a small skin graft. Jennifer and I went to Tiffany’s and bought her a gold key ring on which we had inscribed: “I was shot by French and Saunders”.’
Oh Dear Silvia (Michael Joseph, £18.99) is available at a discount from Saga Bookshop. Five Go To Rehab is on UKTV Gold on November 7.
This interview originally appeared in Saga Magazine. For more fascinating articles like this, delivered direct to your doorstep each month, subscribe today.