‘How frightening is this?’

Dawn French has confidence to spare – but a solo West End show still scares her, she tells Simon Fanshawe

“Hey, pretty boy, you want fuckee-fuckee?” The window has just rolled down on a passing Jag and a cherub with a long bob cut and a huge smile is leaning out. “Or do you want a lift to Basingstoke?” I’m walking to the tube after the interview and Dawn French is off to deliver a birthday present to her best friend, the actress Geraldine McNulty. It’s a mystery how she can drive a grown-up car. Her legs are just too short. She is small in height and large in girth, yet manages something that is supposed to be culturally impossible: being funny and fat and sexy all at once. And she is almost unfeasibly upbeat.
“Well, I’m not always, obviously, but mostly. I’d rather have a happy life with lots of laughter in it. We’ve all been dealt some terrible cards, but generally I’ve had a very happy life. You don’t get to 45 without some self-doubts and some demons. But they’re just demons.”

Exploring such things on stage has never been her stock in trade; she has more often just been fabulously girly and jolly rude with Jennifer Saunders. But in a new one-woman show in the West End called My Brilliant Divorce, by the Irish playwright Geraldine Aron, she is about to play a woman wronged by and divorced from a man who cheated on her.

After the tabloids went for her own marriage three years ago, claiming that they had caught her husband Lenny Henry with his pants down, isn’t she tempting fate? “Am I?” she says with a kind of steely naivety. Then she makes a refreshingly open breast of things. “What people think happened in my personal life is only what they read and I have no interest in telling people what really happened. I do believe that we all need a bit of a kick up the arse now and again. We all fall off the wagon. I wouldn’t recommend it. But none of us are angels, are we?”

Later she says, apropos of something else, “When the press were making my life difficult – and it was them, not Len, making it difficult – whole interviews appeared that neither of us had done. Anything you read about Len and me at that time was untrue. We never spoke at all. And you know, they don’t know anything about what happened and what it was actually about. It wasn’t about women, though. The dignity I can have is to know what I know. I’ve never spoken publicly about what happened because” – she pauses, then continues lightly – “because what happened is nobody’s business, and that’s the honest truth of it.”

One paper even wrote her a note suggesting that they would make a donation to Comic Relief if she told her side of the story. “As if I would betray my husband in that way. And as if I would do it because it’s for charity. It’s just too sick. Like any married couple we have rough patches, but our instinct is to do this [she clasps her fingers tightly together]. Here’s something about Len that says it all. When he goes to bed, he puts his head on the pillow and that’s where he wakes up in the morning. He has no anxiety in his head. He’s like a big, solid rock. So if I wrap myself around him at night, I catch some of that. My heart rate slows. He’s a great anchor for me and I know people think it’s the other way round.”

She has enormous self-assurance, which, she says, she puts down to her father. Despite his own depression, which led to his suicide when French was in her teens, he assured her when she was growing up that she was the most fabulous, gorgeous thing ever and that she should never think any different. She never has. “I have a good instinct about men and love. If someone hasn’t noticed how fantastic I am, I can’t be bothered. I have genuinely never thought I was second best. Equally, I hope that I don’t think I am better than anyone. But I am not going to beg someone to like me, to be grateful for their affections.”

If this sounds cocky, French is not. She’s the most popular girl at school. She’s the leader of the tuck-shop raid, the general of the pillow fights. Her comedy with Saunders has always managed to retain that bolshie schoolgirl arseyness and sheer silliness.

But she has a bigger task with this new play. Apart from anything else, she has never been on stage by herself. “I mean, how fucking frightening is this, an hour and a half on stage on my own?” She originally turned it down because the first production was to be in Galway, the home of the Druid Theatre Company, whose director, Garry Hines, had commissioned the piece. “I could sort of hide behind the fact that I couldn’t leave my daughter for long. But when the suggestion came back to London, I couldn’t really say, ‘Oh no, I can’t get in and out of London.’ I only live near Reading! So the only reason not to do it became the fear.

“What I neglected to think about was how alone I would be. Usually when you do theatre you have a gang. And there are things you’re supposed to do like have a little rebellion against the director and do the crossword. I have had to make the cardinal sin of making friends with the director.”

Although she is alone, French will not be doing multiple characters. “I’ll be telling a story direct to the audience there, at that moment. We won’t be doing the Edinburgh thing of having a hatstand on stage. Jennifer and I did that the first time we went. And of course it’s exactly what you shouldn’t do. Apart from anything else, there’s nowhere to store it, and inevitably Legs Akimbo, the next show, will borrow it and break it.”

She has done more theatre than you might think. “Len worked it out the other day – I have spent four and a half years doing plays. When We Were Married, When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout, Me and Mamie O’Rourke, Silly Cow. And half of them were six-month runs.” The difference with My Brilliant Divorce is that if it fails, she’ll be the one who gets it in the neck. “Oh,” she says, “I’ll get it in the neck anyway.”

The only time her self-assurance fails is when talking about critics – especially TV reviewers. “They can’t harm the show because you’ve done it, but they don’t seem to have any passion for TV. It’s not like they ever teach you anything.” She’s not much softer on theatre critics. She claims to read reviews only before the last night. “I’ve got to do the show every night, and I know how good it is or isn’t, what I have to work hard at, what I think I am succeeding with. And I want to give the audience the show that way, not tainted with ‘Oh but didn’t she fade in the second half’, or ‘Isn’t her arse too big’, or whatever.”

So she won’t be seeing the reviews for three months, which is as long as My Beautiful Divorce can run because after that she’s off to play Mary Trewednack in the TV sitcom Wild West. After that she is promising to sit down with Saunders and come up with some new characters. And on March 14, for Comic Relief, there will undoubtedly be a few more charity snogs. “I’ve snogged quite a few boys… for work,” she says. “Hugh Grant – now he’s a really dirty boy! Last time I did it blindfold and I had to kiss him and the whole of Boyzone, but there was one who was really great.” Who? “Jamie Theakston.”

But it would appear that no matter who she kisses for charity, Len is the man for her. The one thing she won’t do with him is work. “No, not unless they bring that thing back where you sit in a box. What’s it called? You know.” Celebrity Squares? “Yes, I’d love to sit in a box with him on that.” Ahhh.

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