Dawn Roma French (born 11 October 1957) is a British actress, writer and comedienne. She is best known for starring in and writing for the comedy sketch show French and Saunders with comedy partner Jennifer Saunders and also for playing the lead role of Geraldine Granger in the sitcom The Vicar of Dibley. She has been nominated for seven BAFTA Awards and also won a Fellowship BAFTA along with Saunders.
French was born in Holyhead, Anglesey, Wales to English parents Denys Vernon French and Felicity "Roma" O'Brien of Irish origin from Plymouth. She was educated at the independent St Dunstan's Abbey School (now absorbed by Plymouth College) boarding school on North Road West in Plymouth, Devon, England. She has a brother, Gary French, who was born in 1955. Her father, Denys (5 August 1932 – 11 September 1977), was a member of the Royal Air Force, being stationed at RAF Valley. The RAF partly funded her private education. When her father was stationed at the former RAF Faldingworth, she attended Caistor Grammar School in Lincolnshire, boarding in the school's Lindsey house. She later won a debating scholarship that brought her to study at the Spence School in New York.
French has claimed that her self-confidence and self-belief stems from her father, who told her how beautiful she was each day. She stated, "He taught me to value myself. He told me that I was beautiful and the most precious thing in his life." He had a history of severe depression and attempted suicides but managed to conceal his illness from Dawn and her brother. He committed suicide when French was nineteen and he was forty-five, having left the RAF.
She then went on to study at the Central School of Speech and Drama in 1977, where she met her future comedy partner, Jennifer Saunders. Both came from RAF backgrounds. They had grown up on the same base, even having had the same best friend, although never meeting. At first, as far as Saunders was concerned, French was a "cocky little upstart". The hatred was mutual: French considered Saunders snooty and aloof. The comic duo originally did not like each other as French actually wanted to become a drama teacher whereas Saunders loathed the idea and thus disliked French for being enthusiastic and confident about the course.
French and Saunders shared a flat whilst at college and were influenced to do comedy by their flatmates as part of their projects for college. After talking in depth for the first time, they came to be friends. During her time at the college, French also worked as a chambermaid to earn money. It was while at college that she broke up with her fiancé, David Smyth, a former Royal Navy Officer. After they graduated, they formed a double-act called The Menopause Sisters. Saunders has described the act, which involved wearing tampons in their ears, as "cringeworthy." The manager of the club where they performed recalled, "They didn't seem to give a damn. There was no star quality about them at all." French and Saunders would eventually come to public attention as members of The Comic Strip, part of the alternative comedy scene in the early 1980s.
French has also written a best-selling epistolary autobiography, which she has titled Dear Fatty. Released in 2008, French was paid a £1.5 million advance for the book. On an appearance on The Paul O'Grady Show on 6 October 2008, French said that "Fatty" is her nickname for Jennifer Saunders, as a joke about her own size. French said that she became great friends with Saunders well before they started working together, which was "over 30 years ago." The book is composed of letters to the different people who have been in her life.
French has had an extensive career on television, debuting on Channel 4's The Comic Strip Presents series in an episode called "Five Go Mad in Dorset" in 1982. Each episode presented a self-contained story distinct from other episodes and, in addition to French and Saunders, showcased Comic Strip performers Peter Richardson, Rik Mayall, and Robbie Coltrane and Adrian Edmondson. She acted in twenty-seven of the thirty-seven episodes and wrote two of them. One week featured a parody of spaghetti westerns, and another a black and white film about a hopelessly goofy boy. Some of French's first exposure to a wider audience occurred when comedy producer Martin Lewis recorded a Comic Strip record album in spring 1981, which featured sketches by French & Saunders. The album was released on Springtime!/Island Records in September 1981 and presented Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders to an audience outside London. In 1985, French starred with Saunders, Tracey Ullman and Ruby Wax in Girls on Top, which portrayed four eccentric women sharing a flat in London.
French has co-written and starred in her own successful comedy series French & Saunders with Saunders, which debuted in 1987 and still airs sporadically to this day. On their show, the duo have spoofed many celebrities such as Madonna, Cher, Catherine Zeta-Jones and the Spice Girls. They have also parodied films in the series such as The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. After twenty years of them being on television together, their last sketch series, A Bucket o' French & Saunders, began airing on 8 September 2007.
French and Saunders have also followed separate careers. During French's time starring in Murder Most Horrid from 1991 to 1999, she played a different character each week, whether it was the murderer, victim or even both. In 2002, French appeared in the comedy/drama mini-series Ted and Alice. In the series, which was set in the Lake District, French played a tourist-information officer who incidentally falls in love with an alien. She has also appeared in the BBC sitcom Wild West along with Catherine Tate, in which she played a woman living in Cornwall, who is also a lesbian, more through lack of choice than any specific natural urge. This series did not meet with as much success as her earlier roles had, and it ended in 2004 after two years.
French's biggest solo television role to date has been as the title figure in the long running and popular BBC comedy The Vicar of Dibley, which Richard Curtis created specifically for her. She starred as Geraldine Granger, a vicar of a small village called Dibley. An audience of 12.3 million watched the final full-length episode to see her character's marriage ceremony. Her last appearance on The Vicar of Dibley was with Sting and Trudie Styler in a special mini episode made for Comic Relief in 2007. She was nominated for a BAFTA for Best Comedy Performance in the last episode of The Vicar of Dibley. Repeats of the show on BBC One still attract millions of viewers, and it also retains a following amongst PBS viewers in the United States.
More recently, French played a major role in Jam & Jerusalem as a woman called Rosie who had an alter ego. She co-starred alongside Sue Johnston, Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley. She also made a guest appearance in Little Britain as Vicky Pollard's mother, Shelly Pollard, who was seen defending her daughter in the dock in Thailand as she was charged with drug smuggling, and who was sentenced to twenty years, ten more than her daughter. French also appeared in a special version of Little Britain Live which featured several celebrity guests and was shown by the BBC as part of Comic Relief. She played the part of a lesbian barmaid in a sketch with Daffyd Thomas. In 2006, French played a role in the television series Marple in the episode "Sleeping Murder." She also appeared as Caroline Arless in the BBC television drama Lark Rise to Candleford in 2008. Talking about her role, she has stated, "I'm quite a vibrant character. She's quite extreme, in that she drinks too much, laughs too much and sings too much. But she loves her family very much; it's just that she goes over the top sometimes." French also said, "I didn't want to appear in a series which was all about just a few main characters. It gives me the chance to observe, to learn things from other actors." This is also reflected in her latest role as Joy Aston in comedy thriller Psychoville.
On television, French has kissed (in some cases, for charity) Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, George Clooney, Richard Armitage, Gordon Ramsay and Paul O'Grady. French also raised money for charity by kissing Hugh Grant. In late 2010, French starred in Roger & Val Have Just Got In, with actor Alfred Molina. The premise was based on an idea by French.
French partakes in Little Crackers, which are short comedy films that were broadcast over Christmas 2010.
Film and theatre
In films, French has played The Fat Lady in the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, replacing the late Elizabeth Spriggs, who played the character in the first film of the series. French's then-husband, Lenny Henry, provided the voice of the Shrunken Head in the same film, though they shared no screen time. In 2005 French provided the voice for the character Mrs. Beaver in Disney and Walden Media's film adaptation of C. S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In 2010, French lent her voice to the role of Angie the Elephant in the environmental animated film, Animals United
She has also taken to roles in the theatre. French has previously appeared in plays such as A Midsummer Night's Dream, My Brilliant Divorce, and Smaller, which last is about a schoolteacher caring for her disabled mother. January 2007 saw French performing as the Duchesse de Crackentorp in an opera in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. The opera production was The Daughter of the Regiment (La fille du régiment) by Gaetano Donizetti, which depicts the life of a baby adopted by an army regiment. French soprano Natalie Dessay and the Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez took the two leading roles that required singing. French returned to Covent Garden and La Fille du règiment in the 2010 revival.
French is known for her larger figure and for her efforts to promote the notion that "big" can be beautiful. As a result, she has her own line of clothes, Sixteen47, taking its name from the statistic that 47% of the British female population are at least a size 16. The line aims to produce clothes designed to look flattering on larger women.
Because of her admitted "chocoholism," she was chosen as the face of Terry's Chocolate Orange, using the slogan, "It's not Terry's, it's mine." This was later replaced with the line, "Don't tap it, whack it!" As of 29 August 2007, French had been dropped as the face of Terry's Chocolate Orange, causing speculation that Terry's regarded her as an unsuitable role model because of her size. The company stated, however, "After such a long partnership we feel that the campaign has run its course and we are in the process of developing different work."
Her voice can be heard advertising the Tesco's "Every Little Helps" promotion.
French met Lenny Henry on the alternative comedy circuit. The couple married on 20 October 1984 in Covent Garden, London. They adopted a daughter, Billie. French has stated that Billie has always known that she was adopted, but once took out an injunction when a biographer came close to revealing the identity of Billie's biological mother. When faced with a question about how she and Henry would feel if Billie wanted to find out about her birth mother, French commented, "Whatever she wants to do when she's 18, we'll support her. What I do worry about is anyone else making the decision for her."
The couple had a home in Shinfield, near Reading, Berkshire which they recently sold to buy a property in Cornwall, where French intends to spend the rest of her life. It was once misinterpreted by the press that she was going there specifically to die because of an alleged belief that she would die prematurely. She quashed these rumours while appearing on Parkinson in November 2007 stating that she likes "being in one place" and simply hopes that this will be her last move. Both her grandmothers have lived to be well over the age of ninety. The £2.3 million mansion with 40 rooms overlooks a smugglers' cove in the Daphne du Maurier country. The grade II-listed building dates back to the 19th century. In the French & Saunders: Still Alive farewell tour, French commented that after the tour was over, she was "going to Cornwall to die, apparently", poking fun at the misinterpretation.
She is also a supporter of the Labour Party.
On 6 April 2010, it was announced that French and Henry were to separate after 25 years of marriage. It is believed that the separation was amicable and they decided to split in October of the previous year but left it until then as they were still in discussion over the separation. French and Henry's divorce was finalised in late October 2010.
Awards and recognition
French and Saunders won the honorary Golden Rose of Montreux award in 2002 and in 2003, she was listed in The Observer as one of the 50 funniest acts in British comedy. In a 2006 poll consisting of 4,000 people, French was named as the most admired female celebrity amongst women in Britain. She has also won and been nominated for several notable awards:
- 1989 – Nominated – BAFTA TV Award for Best Light Entertainment Performance in French and Saunders
- 1991 – Nominated – BAFTA TV Award for Best Light Entertainment Performance in French and Saunders
- 1998 – Nominated – BAFTA TV Award for Best Comedy Performance in The Vicar of Dibley
- 2000 – Nominated – BAFTA TV Award for Best Comedy Performance in The Vicar of Dibley
- 2001 – Nominated – BAFTA TV Award for Best Comedy Performance in The Vicar of Dibley
- 2007 – Nominated – BAFTA TV Award for Best Comedy Performance in The Vicar of Dibley
- 2009 – Won – BAFTA Fellowship – awarded with Jennifer Saunders
- 2011 – Nominated – BAFTA Best Female Performance In A Comedy Role in Roger and Val Have Just Got In
British Comedy Awards
- 1997 – Won – British Comedy Award for Best TV Comedy Actress in The Vicar of Dibley
- 1998 – Nominated – British Comedy Award for Best TV Comedy Actress in The Vicar of Dibley
National Television Awards
- 1998 – Nominated – National Television Award for Most Popular Comedy Performer in The Vicar of Dibley
- 2000 – Nominated – National Television Award for Most Popular Comedy Performer in The Vicar of Dibley
- 2002 – Nominated – National Television Award for Most Popular Comedy Performance in Ted and Alice
- 2003 – Nominated – National Television Award for Most Popular Comedy Performance in Wild West
- 1991 – Won – Writers' Guild of Great Britain Award for TV- Light Entertainment in French and Saunders
- 2001 – Along with Jennifer Saunders, declined an OBE.
- 2002 – Won – Rose d'Or Light Entertainment Festival Award shared with Jennifer Saunders
- Me and Mamie O'Rourke
- When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout
- All Souls' Night, Lyric Theatre
- Swan Lake (1996)
- Then Again (1997)
- Side By Side (1997)
- A Midsummer Night's Dream (2001)
- My Brilliant Divorce (2003)
- Smaller (2005)
- La fille du régiment (2007)
- Still Alive (2008–2009) the last comedy sketch show done by French and Saunders
- Beneath the Cassock: Vicar of Dibley by Joy Carroll
- Cruising by Beryl Cook (with a foreword by Dawn French)
- A Feast of French and Saunders by Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French
- Dawn French: The Biography by Alison Bowyer (unauthorised)
- Frigid Women by Sue Riches, Victoria Riches and Dawn French
- Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (audio cassette version; part-read by Dawn French)
- Dawn French: Level 1 by Gwen Berwick and Sydney Thorne
- The Vicar of Dibley- complete series scripts, by Richard Curtis and Paul Mayhew-Archer
- Dear Fatty by Dawn French
- A Tiny Bit Marvellous by Dawn French