Dawn French on her latest book, playing Beatrix Potter and bringing back The Vicar of Dibley for Christmas
The comedian talks to Miranda Sawyer about laughter, loss, and reviving her best-loved character.
Dawn French has a pre-Zoom ritual. Twinkling at me through the computer screen from her writing table in her Cornwall home, she reveals: “I always use my hand sanitiser – and I always spray a little bit of perfume, too!” She grins. Ah, there’s something about an all-teeth Dawn French grin that makes you instantly happy. French is not Father Christmas, but she brings the good times.
This year, the 63-year-old has brought her happy grin to BBC One in the shape of Geraldine Granger. Back in April she dusted off the much-loved Reverend in a sketch for the BBC’s fundraiser Big Night In, filming it herself using camping lights owned by her husband Mark Bignell (who co-founded a drug and alcohol rehabilitation charity with French’s late mother). And in the run-up to Christmas we have been enjoying a series of seasonal sermons in The Vicar of Dibley in Lockdown.
The Christmas episodes were filmed on a set in Shepperton and in Turville, the Dibley village in Buckinghamshire. Several of the show’s most familiar names are no longer with us – Owen Newitt (Roger Lloyd-Pack), Frank Pickle (John Bluthal) and Alice Horton (Emma Chambers) – which made for a conundrum in the writing and filming. So Richard Curtis, the director and co-writer, decided – “and I completely agree”, says French – to keep the show’s characters alive but unseen, with Geraldine talking to Owen or chatting about Frank as though they’re just off to the side.
“People know Dibley as an ensemble piece, they inherit all the other people, even though it’s just me, talking,” says French. “In a funny way, the audience becomes the other characters. They are the heart of Dibley. They’re who I’m addressing directly.”
The only character acknowledged to have passed on is Alice, who gets a eulogy; her widower Hugo (James Fleet) also appears. “Of course, as Geraldine is talking about Alice, I’m talking about Emma, so it wasn’t easy. It was very emotional,” says French.
Geraldine is arguably the best-loved of French’s many characters. She adores her, too, despite “all kinds of misgivings” when Dibley started in 1994. “I hadn’t done a sitcom before and I thought you had to invent a character, like a Captain Mainwaring. I said to Richard, ‘I need to make her not me. Maybe she should have an accent, maybe I should look very different…’ But Richard said, ‘You need to wear Geraldine like a good-fitting jacket, bring her really close to you’. The opposite of playing a character.”
French slips back into Geraldine effortlessly. She can’t give her up! “No, I can’t!” She loves Dibley’s combination of “silly and funny at one moment, and quite touching the next. Or outrageous! All without being mawkish.”
Geraldine’s busy 2020 is nothing on French’s. In March, lockdown prompted sleepless nights after 18 months of planned tours, live shows and films “just disappeared”, but luckily for her peace of mind, she’d already booked out March to May to write her latest novel, Because of You.
French shows me a scrapbook she made to map out the story: a magazine photo of a young woman with a cloud of curly hair – the basis for the central character; a diagram of a particular flat; information about heart defects; pages of research into British slavery history; notes on character histories. “The joy of writing is that it feels like playing,” she says, likening it to the freedom of comedy improvisation.
The novel wrestles with the morality of a seemingly unforgivable act: stealing a newborn baby from a hospital. “The question is: was this daughter raised in the right family for her after all, rather than her biological family?” she says. “I don’t even know the answer and it feels weird to say it, but people have said it touched their hearts, especially mums who understand that it’s me trying to talk about what mother love is, how scary it can be, and how committed you are to it.”
Away from writing, much of lockdown was spent watching RuPaul’s Drag Race with the grown-up girls of the house: Billie, her daughter from her first marriage to Lenny Henry, and Bignell’s daughter Lily. “Three or four nights a week, we’d go into the little back den, and we’d have some interesting outfits on, a bit of a feather boa. We had face masks, we did our beauty regimes, and Husband brought us snacks.”
Over the summer, French teamed up once more with her old mucker Jennifer Saunders for a couple of audio projects: Audible podcast series T*tting About, in which the two old friends chat hilariously about “various themes, which we mostly ignored”, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane Austen?, a Radio Four comedy by Veep writer David Quantick that airs this Christmas.
French still loves working with her old friend. “My dream film is Judi Dench playing my mother and Maggie Smith playing Jennifer’s. Something small and real with four characters. But Jennifer would immediately poo-poo that and put a car chase in, and she’d be right.”
They are both in Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile, too. “We were on set a lot – even when you’re not talking, because it’s Agatha Christie, there’s a lot of lurking about in the background, looking furtive.” Scheduled for October, then pushed to December, the movie’s now indefinitely delayed, to French’s chagrin. She felt she raised her game for her friend Branagh.
“He’s like Poirot! Well researched, extremely diligent, very particular. Forensic. Ken’s very funny, and can be relaxed, but on a big commitment like that, he’s at work, and he’s in charge. The camera is very close to your face – and he’s right next to it, watching everything you do. It was rigorous and a bit frightening, but I loved it.”
She understands the delay – yet another COVID arts casualty – and is sad, too, for what should be pantomime season, which underpins theatre all year round. French’s panto debut was in 2018, as the evil queen in Snow White at the Palladium: “Genuinely one of the filthiest things I’ve ever been in. Julian Clary and Nigel Havers are filthy”.
At least we can enjoy French in another TV special, Sky’s Roald & Beatrix: the Tail of the Curious Mouse, in which she plays Beatrix Potter. Does she share Potter’s fear of ageing, as conveyed in the drama?
“It’s a privilege to get older.” But, she adds, “it’s not for wusses. Things go a bit wrong… your rheumatoid arthritis knee stops you walking your dog a long way every morning, you know you’ve got to have a little op on that at some point, and you’ve got to take six weeks off… But ultimately, it ain’t so bad. Your teeth are a bit yellower, your chin has sagged, you’re fatter, you’re greyer. The only thing is, I feel the tick tock a little bit. I am quicker to edit out eejits from my life, because I haven’t got the hours. That’s the only grumpy part of me, it’s just to do with time.”
Speaking of time, shall we talk Christmas? As we chat, the Tiers have not been announced, but French – whose Christmasses usually feature 25 people, with her husband dressed as Santa – is thinking about going smaller.
“Does it matter if we don’t have that Christmas? I mean, what about if we didn’t even have presents and gave money to the right places instead? You can put your twinkly lights up and pull a cracker, but maybe it’s really low key, and maybe that doesn’t matter…
“There are probably a lot of people, and I might be one of them, who don’t mind not being in a great big gang. I love it and I dread it at the same time, because it’s a big palaver, isn’t it?
"So how about for one year you give yourself permission not to have that stress, and instead look after that mum, granny or grandad who’s on their own, rather than looking after everybody else that always gets looked after?
“The choices we’ll have to make will be about who needs the Christmas company most. Maybe that’s it. Maybe,” she adds, with her great big grin, “we need not worry so much about it all.”
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.
The Vicar of Dibley in Lockdown airs Monday on BBC One. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide. If you want to read Dawn French's new novel, Because of You, head over to Amazon now.