Dawn French talks 30 million miles a minute
She might have been a mainstay of British comedy for the past 30 years, but Dawn French has never done a solo show – until now
Where do you start with Dawn French? She is a stand-up comedian, an actor, a bestselling novelist – recently, even a TV talent show judge on Australia’s Got Talent. She is also a mother (to Billie, the 23-year-old daughter she adopted with ex-husband Lenny Henry), a daughter, a sister, and, since last April, a wife once again, after marrying charity worker Mark Bignell.
Although she been a mainstay on the British comedy scene for the last 30 years, she has never undertaken a solo stand-up show – until now. Thirty Million Minutes sees French cast a retrospective eye over the people, places and events that have led her to where she is today. The title is a reference to the time that she’s been alive (56 years is a somewhat less daunting way of expressing it).
“It’s interesting, isn’t it?” she says, bubbly, friendly and presumably buoyed from the positive reviews that the show has received so far. “I think I realised that people would already know the public part of my story, whereas I’m being a bit more personal in this show. And although I’ve written an autobiography before [2008’s epistolary Dear Fatty], I’ve had quite a lot of life since then and I’ve made quite a lot of changes. Plus, there are things that I couldn’t say in there that I can say now; things that I think I’ve learned and questions that I still have and answers I’m looking for. So I share all of that with the audience.
“I’m 56 now, and my friend Rik Mayall just died at age 56. Obviously I started writing the show long before I knew any of that, but it just goes to show that you’ve got to savour every moment. So I thought, well, I’m 56, if I’m going to do a one-woman show, when am I going to do it? Come on, let’s get going. So I put this year aside to do it and here I am.”
After spending so many years touring as part of a comedy duo with Jennifer Saunders, she admits that the prospect of not having someone to share a stage with was initially daunting. “Utterly terrifying; I couldn’t eat, which is very rare for me,” she chuckles. “My husband said that he had never seen the look on my face that he saw when he walked into the dressing room half an hour before the very first night in Sheffield.
“But the minute I stepped on to the stage and felt the connection with the audience, I thought, Oh yes, of course, this is what it is. When you get that fantastic wave of goodwill from an audience, it’s great. I’m like an animal, I’m absolutely greedy for that.”
It’s unsurprising that the audience connects with the material, considering how it delves deep into her family life and sees French recounting stories about her parents, grandparents and friends. There is humour and there is sadness; she touches on the death of her father, who took his own life when she was 18.
She has “never been afraid of tackling stuff”, she says. “I’m at the age now where I’m pretty unafraid of talking about anything, really.”
How do you go about researching a show about your own life? French says that it was mostly a matter of checking with her friends and family mentioned in the show – including her ex-husband.
“Everybody understands that it’s a positive show, I’m not up there to slag anybody off, and I wouldn’t; I’ve got nothing bad to say. Life’s too short for all the bad stuff,” she says, shrugging.
‘A little bit of anger’“I reserve a little bit of anger and rant for somebody who’s pissed me off in my life, who happens to be a journalist, sadly [journalist Alison Bowyer threatened to reveal the identity of her daughter Billie’s birth mother without her permission]. But I manage to have a nice bellow about that, and I feel lighter about it every night.
“It’s therapeutic in a way, but that’s not my reason for doing it . . . Other things I talk about, like being bullied about my weight over the years and stuff like that [when you hear the audiencereact], you just think Yeah, this is unacceptable, isn’t it? And as soon as I talk about it that way, it’s empowering for me.”
Happier memories are of her first meeting with Jennifer Saunders – the woman she still affectionately refers to as “Fatty” – at drama school in London in the late 1970s.
“We didn’t really get on, at first,” she recalls. “We were very different – she’s much posher than me and we were in a different group of people. And then we ended up living in the same flat and of course, within days I realised how much I was going to have a great time with her. Of course we didn’t have a career planned; we just enjoyed each other’s company and made each other laugh a lot. The career was a sort of happy accident, really.”
Stage work aside, French has had enormous success with the long-running BBC sitcom The Vicar of Dibley, created by Richard Curtis, which ran from 1994 to 2007. She is open to playing the lead in another sitcom in the future.
“I think I would, but it has to be the right thing, though. I think if you’re in a mediocre sitcom, it’s pretty grim, and if you’re in a bad sitcom, it’s appalling, and really great sitcoms come along rarely. I think it’s a massive skill and I was very lucky that Richard Curtis and Paul Mayhew-Archer wrote such a great character for me.
“I have really happy memories of that time, plus it was an interesting subject. It was wrapped up in quite a nice green ribbon of lovely country life and all the rest of it, but actually, it was a controversial thing; the ordination of women was new. And look: here we are and we still don’t have female bishops. It’s crazy.”
Female comediansShe touches briefly on how the British comedy scene has changed, both in terms of style and the prevalence of women.
“I do think that much as there aren’t enough women [in comedy], there are plenty more than there were, so the opportunities are there. There’s loads more openings now than there were, too, with festivals and things like that, so there are opportunities for women. Jennifer’s [Saunders] daughter is in a group for young female comedians, so it’s great.”
In many ways, it sounds like 30 Million Minutes acts as a sort of bookend to a certain chapter of French’s life, with the tidying-up of odds and ends as she prepares to move on to whatever comes next. She doesn’t quite agree.
“D’you know, I’ve got a scary feeling that it opens a whole new chapter up, because I’m now feeling so excited and invigorated about being on the stage on my own, which is something I always feared,” she says.
“I realise that it’s my friend, not an enemy, and I realise that there’s no stopping me with that. That’s why we’re pushing on into December with this tour; we started off with 40 dates and now we have 110. It’s crazy; that’s more than I used to do with Jen. It’s scary, but at the same time, when I come off stage I feel completely buzzing. And it doesn’t get much better than that feeling.”
Dawn French performs 30 Million Minutes at the Olympia Theatre on Wednesday and Thursday