Comedian and writer Dawn French – who is officially a Welshy – talks about turning 60, how she gets through the festive season and the prospect of working with Jennifer Saunders again.
Some of us may dread the later landmark birthdays, thoughts of bus passes and fading in the twilight years, but not Dawn French. She is relishing being older and wiser.
The star of The Vicar Of Dibley, French and Saunders and the Sky 1 series Delicious has just turned 60, enjoying a low-key celebration with family and friends at her home in Cornwall – but no big parties, she’s not a party animal.
She has, however, found time to take stock of her life and what she’s learned over the years, a good deal of which is featured in her new book, Me. You. A Diary, an autobiographical reflection through the months and years, which also allows the reader to include his or her own entries, pictures and thoughts.
You were born in Holyhead, Anglesey, where your father was stationed in the RAF. What are your memories of Wales?
“The memories I have are provoked by looking at pictures of my mum pushing us around. I was in a pram and my brother Gary was walking next to the pram. I think there’s a picture of that in Dear Fatty [her 2008 autobiography], of a very windy place and lots of walking with my mum. I was maybe three when we left.
“I do remember the cadence of the language, because it was all around us in Anglesey, where we lived. Although we lived on an RAF base, my brother went to school and spoke in Welsh at school when he was little.
“He would come home and would speak some Welsh at home, although we didn’t know what he was saying. And people in the shops were speaking Welsh. So whenever I hear Welsh, it propels me back to babyhood in a very visceral way and I like it. And I like Welsh people very much. I feel a kind of affinity.
“I’ve not been back to RAF Valley, although it’s where Prince William did his time in the RAF and that’s where my dad was, but I have been back to Wales often, as I have friends and lots of connections there. And I know a little Welsh, ‘Diolch yn fawr’, which is Welsh for ‘Thank you very much’! I also know some swearing, but I won’t be repeating that!”
You’ve just turned 60 – but you don’t seem to be slowing down?
“I’ve taught myself to slow down a tiny bit. I’m still too busy for my liking and I have to remember sometimes to stop in the moment, lie down, look up and be quiet for a minute. That’s when the creative thoughts happen and when I’m at my most open to new thinking. That can’t happen when you’re clattering around in your own head, which is what we do all the time.”
But you’ve lots of projects on the go, including a 30th anniversary Christmas special of French And Saunders. What will be in it?
“It’s basically a clip show that the BBC wanted to do, but there have been enough times when other people have chosen the clips and they always go for the same ones. Jennifer and I have a fondness for the ones they don’t go for necessarily, plus we’ve got other bits of film that haven’t been seen before of our own stuff, where we’ve been filming backstage. And we’re writing 15 minutes of new material, which has given us a little challenge.”
How do you work together?
“Either she comes to me or I go to her. Our biggest challenge is to get on with the writing and stop all the gossiping and the catching up and the laughing and the magazines and the food and everything else that we want to do when we’re together.
“I’m quite good at that, I don’t like leaving things till the last minute. She doesn’t worry about it. I’m the catastrophiser and she’s the very calm one until the last minute, when I get very calm and she gets a big red rash on her neck and worries.”
You’ve given yourself some huge challenges in recent years, including your first solo tour, Thirty Million Minutes (the title refers to the length of time she has lived), when you were 56. Why did you do it?
“If you’ve been on stage in a double act, there’s a nagging thing in your head saying ‘I wonder if I could do this on my own? Have I got the material? Have I got anything to say that is separate to this? Is there something of me that I’m wanting to share? What am I like on my own on stage?
“At first, the director said, ‘Why do you keep standing to the left of the stage and not in the middle?’ I said, ‘Well, because there’s another girl there normally. I just constantly spent my time veering off, making some space for her. But by the time I finished that tour, I was firmly centre stage in every way and I owned that show.”
What will you be doing at Christmas?
“I’ll be with family. I don’t cook. My husband [Mark Bignall, who runs a drug rehabilitation charity] is good at cooking. I’m very good at table-laying. And I don’t even do the washing up now. I pay – and bribe – the young people in our family to do the washing up on Christmas Day. It used to be a fiver when they were little, but it’s gone up now.”
You say the prospect of Christmas makes you feel sad. Why is that?
“Usually on Christmas Eve, I have a dip. It’s only been since my mum died [five years ago] that that’s happened. Because my mum’s gone I have no parents [her father committed suicide when Dawn was 19].
“Christmas is so much about family and parents, I find that every part of your grief is exaggerated at Christmas. It’s when you miss your parents the most, when you’d like to be considering them and buying a present for them and you’re not. You just get reminded of it.
“But I’m aware that my husband’s got both his parents and I’m lucky to have lovely in-laws, so I just have to move into this next phase of my life. So when I have this dip, I think, ‘How am I going to get out of this in time for Christmas?’ I have a very cheerful husband who plays Father Christmas quite often for various people and loves Christmas.
“And I don’t want to ruin it for him or anyone else, so in the end, I just pick myself up and actually capture the joy. You remember those who aren’t here but you celebrate those who are. It always comes right in the end.”
:: Me. You. A Diary by Dawn French is published by Michael Joseph, priced £20. Available now.