‘A Bishop of Dibley? I’m not saying never…’
As she prepares for her pantomime debut, Dawn French tells Chris Harvey why she almost rejected her most famous role
It’s an autumn morning in London and I’m having a friendly disagreement with Dawn French about The Vicar of Dibley – more specifically, how many series there were. “There can’t have been only two,” she says. “We were making it for 13 years!” She wants to include 1999’s four-part festive special, but eventually concedes on a technicality. “I wish I could blame drugs for this lack of knowledge about my life, but I don’t take drugs.”
At its peak, the show attracted more than 12million viewers, but French was cool on it when its creator Richard Curtis first offered her the title role. “I remember being a little bit snooty about sitcoms. Most didn’t make me laugh very much,” she says. “And who was this Oxbridge bloke, really? I thought, oh, does he want me to be a sort of goody two-shoes at the centre of it; everybody else is much funnier.” But she began to recognise that it was “a bit Dad’s Army” – which she liked – and was finally talked into taking the part.
There hasn’t been a new episode of the sitcom since 2007 but, French says, during Comic Relief in 2015, they did wonder about a spin-off. “Richard and I were looking at each other thinking, is there a Bishop of…? I’m not saying never but… he writes it, it’s his choice.”
She reminds me, too, that many of the regular cast were already quite elderly when the series first started. And now “Roger is gone, Emma is gone”. Roger Lloyd-Pack died in 2014; Emma Chambers, who played Alice, suffered a fatal heart attack earlier this year at 53. French says it doesn’t get easier to lose people you love as you get older – “She was so young.” Since we spoke, another former cast member, John Bluthal, has died, aged 89.
We’re looking out over the London skyline from a wellappointed hotel suite; French has tea and pastries on offer and, chatting to her, it’s abundantly clear why the British public have such affection for her. She talks from the heart; she’s funny and frank and sometimes ribald, with a rowdy, infectious laugh, but you already knew that.
This winter, French is appearing in panto for the first time, as the Wicked Queen in Snow White at the London Palladium. “I love panto. I go to it every year,” she says, “and I’m really angry if it’s not good – and by good, I mean all the rules. I want to see ‘He’s behind you!’ I want to see ‘Oh yes he did! Oh no he didn’t!’ I want all of that.
“There was a time in the Nineties when lots of weird Australian actors were in them, and sportsmen… the ones I went to see, I thought, ‘Oh come on, we’ve got loads of great actors who can do this, why is this not funny?’”
French has written her own lines for Snow White – for the five-week run of which she’s receiving a reported £220,000 – and drops a hint that she might appear as a “good person” at one point, and “perhaps that might lend itself to something I’ve done in my past”.
She’s been asked many times, she says, but felt an overriding need to be with her family at Christmas. This time, she asked them what they thought, and they all told her, “rather shockingly”, to do it. French remarried in 2013, to charity executive Mark Bignell (she and fellow comedian Lenny Henry divorced in 2010 after 25 years of marriage) and gained a grown-up son and daughter to go with her own 27-year-old daughter, Billie.
French has been working hard over the past decade, fitting in a successful career as a novelist alongside acting roles from period dramas to the offbeat comedy Roger & Val Have Just Got In and Delicious, which is returning for a third series this Christmas.
In Delicious, she plays Gina Benelli, a gifted chef running an upmarket restaurant in Cornwall with her late ex-husband’s second wife (played by Emilia Fox). The new series introduces a sexually charged relationship between Gina and a rival chef. “I love that element of her,” French says, “she’s a sensual person, with many flaws, but being inhibited sexually is not one of them.”
The character plays into the debate about the representation of older women on TV, how they are often depicted as asexual beings.
“If sex is a central part of your life, which it is for Gina, I can’t imagine why it doesn’t remain so,” French says. “Maybe you adapt a bit, depending what happens to your body and how your health is, but if you are still firing on all pistons… I’m 61 and certainly still up for it.”
She doesn’t share Gina’s flair for Sicilian cuisine, however. “I don’t know how I’ve been able to remain such an atrocious cook, seeing as I love food so much. I think it’s because I like mixing flavours – I’m a bit of a ‘put marmalade in your stew’ kind of person.”
She recalls how she spent her first year at the Central School of Speech and Drama, where she was studying to be a drama teacher, “drinking chocolate milk and eating pizza”. It was the late Seventies. French arrived there “dripping with grief ”, weeks after her father, an engineer in the RAF, had committed suicide.
She had been unaware of his infrequent bouts of depression, although she found a diary recently, in which she writes of being furious that she has been told she has to stay at home, because “Dad has a cold” – her mother’s way of covering up a condition that was rarely talked about at the time. “I had no idea that what Mum was doing is making sure there’s another person in the house, as she knows he won’t take any terrible action if I’m there.”
She wanted to defer her acting course after her father’s death, but her mother forced her to go, and it was there that she met Jennifer Saunders. “I suspect if I’d stayed at home, I would have sunk a bit more into the sadness, but I had to subvert it. The first day I arrived, I had to put a leotard on and walk into a room of strangers also wearing leotards, and that’s when I first saw Jennifer.”
Saunders seemed confident and enigmatic: “I now know that when Jennifer’s looking thoughtful, she’s actually thinking about sausages, but then she just looked erudite
‘When I first heard Jennifer speak I thought: she’s posh, that’s not my type’