‘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

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - COVER STORY -

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’

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