Dawn Roma French (born 11 October 1957) is an English actress, writer, and comedian, best known for starring in and writing for the comedy sketch show French and Saunders with comedy partner Jennifer Saunders and for playing the lead role as Geraldine Granger in the sitcom The Vicar of Dibley. French has been nominated for seven BAFTA Awards and also won a Fellowship BAFTA with Jennifer Saunders.
French was born in Holyhead, Anglesey, Wales to English parents, Denys Vernon French (5 August 1932 – 11 September 1977), and Felicity Roma French (née O'Brien) who married in their hometown of Plymouth in 1953. She was educated at the independent St Dunstan's Abbey School (now absorbed by Plymouth College). She has a brother, Gary (born 1955). Her father, Denys served in the Royal Air Force, 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 Caistor, 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 stem 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.
She studied 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". French considered Saunders snooty and aloof. The comic duo originally did not like each other as French 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. While at college 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 recalled, "They didn't seem to give a damn. There was no star quality about them at all." French and Saunders came 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. French was paid a £1.5 million advance for the book, which was released in 2008. 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 consists 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 and, in addition to French and Saunders, showcased Comic Strip performers Peter Richardson, Rik Mayall, Robbie Coltrane and Adrian Edmondson. She acted in 27 of the 37 episodes and wrote two of them. One episode 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 1981 which featured sketches by French & Saunders. The album was released on Springtime!/Island Records in September 1981 and presented French and Jennifer Saunders to an audience outside of 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 and Saunders' comedy series, French & Saunders, which debuted in 1987. 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 such as The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. After 20 years 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 both. In 2002, French appeared in the comedy/drama mini-series Ted and Alice. In the series, set in the Lake District, French played a tourist information officer who falls in love with an alien. She also appeared in the BBC sitcom Wild West, with Catherine Tate, in which she played a woman living in Cornwall who is 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 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 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 Damian Lewis in a mini-episode made for Comic Relief in 2013. 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.
French played a major role in Jam & Jerusalem as a woman called "Rosie" who has dissociative identity disorder and with it an alter ego called "Margaret". She co-starred alongside Sue Johnston (as the lead character, Sal), Jennifer Saunders (regular bit-part as Caroline – also created and wrote the series) and Joanna Lumley (regular bit-part Delilah). She made a guest appearance in Little Britain as Vicky Pollard's mother. 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 appeared in Agatha Christie's Marple (episode: "Sleeping Murder"). She 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." In late 2010, French starred in Roger & Val Have Just Got In with actor Alfred Molina.
French appeared in Little Crackers, short comedy films which were broadcast over Christmas in 2010.
French appeared as a special guest on Michael Bublé's Home For Christmas in December 2011. In July 2012, she was a judge in ITV's Superstar live shows. In March 2013, it was announced that French would replace Brian McFadden on the judging panel of Nine Network's Australia's Got Talent alongside Kyle Sandilands, Timomatic and Geri Halliwell (who replaced Dannii Minogue).
Film and theatre
In films, French played The Fat Lady in the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, replacing 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 roles in the theatre. French has 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 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, in The Daughter of the Regiment (La fille du régiment) by Gaetano Donizetti. Soprano Natalie Dessay and tenor Juan Diego Flórez were the leads in the production. French returned to Covent Garden and La Fille du règiment in the 2010 revival.
Her tour of 2014 is called 30 Million minutes since she will be this age in 2014. According to her time of birth this will happen on 25 or 26 October.
French was chosen as the face of Terry's Chocolate Orange, until August 2007, when she was dropped. She has also been in advertisements for Churchill Insurance Company.
She also appeared in two Comic Relief music videos. In 1989 she joined Jennifer Saunders and Kathy Burke to form "Lananeeneenoonoo" and, along with Bananarama, they created a charity single to raise money for Comic Relief. It was a cover version of The Beatles song "Help!", and was released on the London Records label, entering the UK Singles Chart on 25 February 1989 and reaching a high of #3. It remained in the chart for nine weeks.
French, Saunders and Burke returned for Comic Relief in 1997 as "The Sugar Lumps", along with Llewella Gideon and Lulu, to parody The Spice Girls, with whom they performed a version of Who Do You Think You Are.
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 owned property in Fowey, Cornwall. The £2.3-million mansion with 40 rooms overlooks Readymoney Cove and neighbouring Poldridmouth Cove, known as smugglers' cove. The grade II-listed building dates back to the 19th century.
French is a supporter of the Labour Party.
On 6 April 2010, French and Henry announced they were separating after 25 years of marriage. It was reported that the separation was amicable. They had decided to separate in October the previous year but left it until then as they were still in discussion over the separation. Their divorce was finalised in 2010.
French began dating charity worker Mark Bignell in 2011. On 22 April 2013 it was reported that they had just married.
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.
- 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
- 2011 – Nominated – British Comedy Awards for Best TV Comedy Actress in Psychoville
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
|1982||The Comic Strip||Various Roles|
|1982||Five Go Mad in Dorset||George|
|1983||Five Go Mad on Mescaline|
|1982–84||The Young Ones|
|1985–86||Girls on Top||Amanda Ripley|
|1987–2007||French and Saunders||Various Roles|
|1991–99||Murder Most Horrid||W.P.C. Diane Softly
|Anthology - a different character each episode|
|1992||Absolutely Fabulous||Kathy||Series 1, Episode 6 - "Magazine"|
|1993–95||The Legends of Treasure Island||Jim Hawkins|
|1994–2007||The Vicar of Dibley||Geraldine Granger||Leading role; 2 series and 10 specials (20 episodes)|
|1997||Sex & Chocolate||Bev Bodger|
|1999||Let Them Eat Cake||Lisette|
|2000||French and Saunders Live||Various Roles|
|2002||Ted and Alice||Alice Putkin|
|2005–06||Agatha Christie's Marple||Janet Erskine|
|2006, 2008–09||Jam and Jerusalem (Clatterford in America)||Rosie|
|2006||Dawn French's Girls Who Do Comedy||Herself|
|Little Britain Abroad||Shelly Pollard|
|The Meaning of Life|
|Dawn French's Boys Who Do Comedy||Herself|
|2008, 2011||Lark Rise to Candleford||Caroline Arless|
|2009||The Paul O'Grady Show||Guest Host|
|2010–12||Roger & Val Have Just Got In||Val Stevenson|
|2013—14||Australia's Got Talent||Judge|
|2013||The Wrong Mans||Linda Bourne|
|1993–94||Me and Mamie O'Rourke||Stand Theatre, London|
|When I was a Girl I used to Scream and Shout||Whitehall Theatre, London|
|All Soul's Night||Lyric Theatre, London|
|Side By Side|
|2001||A Midsummer Night's Dream|
|2003||My Brilliant Divorce||Apollo Theatre, London|
|2005||Smaller||Lyric Theatre, London|
|2007||La fille du régiment||Royal Opera House, London|
|2014–||Thirty Million Minutes|
|1987||Eat the Rich|
|1996||The Adventures of Pinocchio||The Baker's Wife|
|1999||David Copperfield||Mrs. Crupp, landlady|
|2004||Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban||The Fat Lady|
|2005||The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe||Mrs Beaver (voice only)|
|2006||Love and Other Disasters|
|2009||Coraline||Miss Miriam Forcible (voice only)|
|2010||Animals United||Angie (voice only)|
|2016||Ab Fab: The Movie|
- A Tiny Bit Marvellous (Penguin, 2010)
- Oh Dear Silvia (Penguin, 2012)
- According to Yes (Penguin, 2015)
- Dear Fatty (Arrow, 2007)
- Girls on Top (with Jennifer Saunders and Ruby Wax) (HarperCollins, 1986)
- A Feast of French and Saunders (with Jennifer Saunders) (Mandarin, 1992)
- Big Knits: Bold, Beautiful, Designer Knitwear (with Sylvie Soudan) (Ebury, 1990)
- Great Big Knits: Over Twenty Designer Patterns (with Sylvie Soudan) (Trafalgar Square, 1993)
- Frigid Women by Sue and Victoria Riches (with a foreword by Dawn French) (Eye Books Direct, 1996)
- Cruising by Beryl Cook (with a foreword by Dawn French) (Victor Gollancz, 2000)