Dawn French on 300 Years of French and Saunders

One of Britain's favourite comedy duos are back for Christmas - but why does Dawn French think she's too old for sketch shows?

300 Years of French and Saunders (BBCPictures,mh)

Interviewing Dawn French is a joy: she’s such a friendly, upbeat spirit. She chats to the waitress who serves her a cappuccino (we’re in the Fowey Hall Hotel, in Cornwall, near where French lives). She chats to the two small kids who pop in to get some toys from the corner of the room (“Ooh, you’ve got a tiger car, that looks nice”); to the taxi driver who picks me up to take me to the station; to me, about the last time we met, at a very muddy festival – “I lasted an afternoon, I think.” French’s default setting is about making life better, more positive, more communal. Still, that’s not to say she doesn’t ever get grumpy…

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“On Christmas Eve I do allow myself to indulge in sulkiness, a tip into sadness,” she says. “The kids are not around. They’re busy doing things, and I tip off the edge, and I decide that I hate Christmas. I hate everything. I have a quiet grumpy hissy fit, and then I get through that, and the melancholy that comes with it, and creep back into Christmas. Which is lucky, because I’m married to a particularly jolly chap. So jolly that he plays Father Christmas at work every year and brings the outfit home.”

Mark “jolly chap” Bignell – who runs a charity that supports people affected by addiction – and French have been married since 2013. His two kids (a son, 23, and daughter, 26) and Billie, her 27-year-old daughter with Lenny Henry, all come over on Christmas Day. There’s food, and then a big present opening, “all around the table, everybody watching everybody else opening everything – it goes on for hours”. French likes giving presents, but isn’t mad about receiving them, unless they’re “chocolate, candles, bath things,” she says firmly. “If it’s bath stuff, I genuinely will be in the bath, thinking about the person who gave it to me.”

How does she cope with unwanted gifts? “I don’t know what to do with my face.” This happens more often than French would like: she’s been collecting Clarice Cliff ceramics for a few years, and she was once given a wooden fireguard by her mother, on which she had attached an embroidery of her own version of a Clarice Cliff. “It’s not very nice but I can’t throw it away,” she laughs, “because it’s got all of her hard work in it and my mum’s dead now, so…”

French’s other bugbear is hearts. “When my husband and I first started dating – it’s a gooey thing, but allowable gooey as far as I’m concerned – he bought me interesting little hearts. And so there’s a wall in our kitchen where I put them up. But people who come to our house think, ‘Oh, she collects hearts.’ Wrong. The hearts are from him. And they’re rather beautiful, and he’s made quite a lot of them. And they start giving me horrible ones. And this is awful because they’re going to hear about it now, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with them!”

She pretends to be cross as she tells me these stories, but I’m laughing. Of course I am. Funny is what French does, and those who love her humour will be delighted to know that she’s back with Jennifer Saunders to make the nation laugh on Christmas Day. I’m not allowed to call it a  “Christmas special”, says French; neither is it a “reunion”. Really it’s a clip show gone haywire. Essentially, the BBC approached her and long-time comedy partner Saunders to ask if they would approve a show made up of snippets from old episodes of French and Saunders. It ran from 1987 to 2004, with a retrospective show in 2007, so there are around 40 episodes to choose from. They said yes, but only if they could pick the clips. This grew into them deciding to write scripts for the talking head commentators; then into them coming up with “a few new bits” for themselves, set in the French and Saunders white room. And those few bits turned into 25 minutes of new material. “In three days,” says French. “That used to take us a month! And bear in mind it takes three days for us to stop eating cake and talking about our kids…”

300 Years of French and Saunders, (BBCPictures,mh)

The budget was small, says French, so they couldn’t do their much-loved, high-spec parodies of Hollywood movies or popular TV series. Instead, they’ve covered contemporary classics such as Wonder Woman and The Handmaid’s Tale by using the white room. With the latter, “I’m the handmaiden, coming in to tell Jennifer, who’s been sitting there for 30 years and doesn’t know what’s going on out there in Gilead, that I’m having to be penetrated regularly. So there’s some fun to be had with that.”

The duo also take on Gogglebox, playing the eccentric Giles and Mary, and elderly Bristolians Mary and Marina. “And I suppose they might make them watch our show on Gogglebox, so that would be weird. Them watching the telly and it’s us, doing them, watching the telly. Telly eating itself up!”

300 Years of French and Saunders (BBCPictures,mh)

The French and Saunders special was filmed in front of a live audience in November. Thirty-five thousand people applied for the 350 places in the audience. That’s how popular the duo remain. But although she’s proud to be so loved, and adores being with Saunders, French doesn’t want another sketch series. “It’s where I’m anchored, in a way, but it’s not something we should be doing that often. Because they’re a young person’s game, sketch shows. They’re exhausting, and we can’t play teenagers any more. We couldn’t be doing Towie, or stuff like that.

Still, she’s aiming to work with Saunders again. What she’d really love is for them to co-write a funny film, with a small part for each of them. Saunders finds writing harder than French – she procrastinates, whereas French gets on with it – but French thinks she might be able to persuade her. “I think she’d be up for it. And really, I just want to have time with her. And sometimes working with her is how we get time together.” I wonder, though, if French would have that time? She turned 60 this year and seems to be getting busier. Her one-woman show, 30 Million Minutes, which she toured in the UK, Australia and New Zealand over 2014 and 2015, has been released on DVD. During the tour she experienced a strange vertigo on stage, brought on by the lighting, and felt all the way through as though the room was lurching. “I was allergic to my show,” she recalls. “But at least it wasn’t a brain tumour, which was what they thought at first…”

300 Years of French and Saunders (BBCPictures,mh)

She has also completed another book, Me. You. A Diary, which was published in October. It’s a cross between a diary and a journal: there are the usual 365 days, with spaces for you to write in your dental appointments and relatives’ birthdays, and then there are the inserts that French has written, which pop up throughout the year. “Essays,” she says, “though that’s a crap word.” They’re more like French’s life philosophies, her memories, her techniques for getting through good and bad times, “all things that pertain to my life and stuff I’ve learnt”. The book was inspired by her own diaries: “I stick photos in of people that might have died that year, or people I particularly love, or reminders of little moments. And each one of these diaries on my shelf is a proper journal about that year.”

Finally, she filmed the four-part second series of Sky’s Delicious over the summer (see box, right). Ostensibly about a family hotel, Delicious is a show that celebrates women, “which shouldn’t be unusual, but it is,” says French. Four women, of all ages, are at the heart of the second series: 20-year-old Teresa, played by Tanya Reynolds; Sam (Emilia Fox), who’s 40; 60-year-old Gina (mother of Teresa), played by French; and Sam’s 80-yearold mother-in-law (Sheila Hancock).

“It’s not comedy and I feel liberated by that,” French says. “It’s a tough old mistress, comedy. You’re measured by laughs per minute. That’s not to say I’m not aware of it [while playing Gina], and I have to be reined in sometimes… It’s props, usually. If you put me in a kitchen, there’s lots of things, courgettes…”

We’re having a laugh about stupid jokes and strong women and somehow this turns into a discussion about Harvey Weinstein and the recent revelations about sexual abuse within the TV and film industry. After a short chat about comedy – “When I think back to The Comic Strip, the joke was, ‘We [she and Saunders] are the boys and you’re the girls, and so we can lech over you, we can look through a hole in the dressing room at you,’ and we all laughed a lot. But it was all joking. And I never felt that anyone was going to hurt me, or that I was in danger” – but while that was all lighthearted fun, the conversation turns serious.

French is absolutely behind all those women who have been brave enough to come forward, but she’s also worried that they weren’t looked after in the first place.

“I think that we should be arming our young women,” she explains. “They should have a script as to what to do. So if they’re asked to go to an audition at a hotel, they say no. If they go and then they are told, ‘It won’t be here in one of these public rooms, you’re going to Mr Weinstein’s bedroom,’ then they say no. Or otherwise, you’re walking up a corridor to his bedroom. He’s answering the door in his bathrobe. You’re now entering his bedroom. Now we’re going into the next part of it where you’re totally compromised, because you’ve already done all those other things. But there are out-points all along the way. And we, the mothers, we, the friends, we, the agents, we, the casting directors, have to say this. At drama school, actresses need to learn what’s OK and what’s not, and have a checklist of what you do and what you don’t do, and leave at that point. Leave, leave, leave.”

Many people would argue that it’s the men who have to change their behaviour, rather than women. “Of course they need to change. But I can’t stop Harvey Weinstein. But I can arm young actresses, just like I would arm my own daughter, telling her not to walk in the streets at night on her own, get in a cab… All those lessons that we give our young women, and that people gave us, we can choose to ignore them if we like. But I am going to arm all the young women around me as much as I can.

“One of my fears is that what will happen now is that every casual remark is going to become a moment,” she says, “and that’s going to dilute the actions of these real predators, and then men will be able to go, ‘Oh, look at you silly women, you’re all overreacting.’”

French is as serious about this as she is about comedy. Because actually, she is serious about life, the potential joy of it and how we can get the best out of it. That’s why she’s so friendly and upbeat. That’s why she wants to protect women and help them fulfil their potential. The jokes come from there. Dawn French is a seriously funny person.

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300 Years of French & Saunders Christmas Day 10.35pm BBC1