FRENCH, DAWN

British Actor

Dawn French is one half of the U.K.'s top female comedy duo, French and Saunders, as well as a highly successful writer, comedian and actress in her own right. She and partner Jennifer Saunders have become an outstanding double act whilst also following successful solo careers.

French's television debut was an auspicious one, as a member of a group of "alternative" comedians known as the Comic Strip, on the opening night of the U.K.'s fourth TV channel, Channel Four, in 1982. "Five Go Mad in Dorset," a spoof of author Enid Blyton's popular children's adventure books, clearly showed that French was a comic actress to watch. The following two years saw two series of The Comic Strip Presents in which French played everything from housewives to hippies.

1985 saw French approaching the kind of comedy which she and Saunders would eventually make very much their own. Girls on Top, a sitcom about four bizarre young women sharing a flat in London, gave French as co-star and co-writer a chance to develop further the type of character she so loves to play. Amanda was an overgrown teenager, sexually inexperienced and aware of the sexual powers of woman, yet so "right-on" that she is somehow unable to do other than caricature them. A second series followed in 1986, as did appearances with Saunders on Channel four's cult late-night comedy show Saturday Live, but in 1987 French and Saunders moved as a double act to the BBC for their own co-written series, French and Saunders. This was broadcast on BBC2, the nurturing ground for so much of Britain's new generation of comic talent. This first series took the form of a cheap and badly rehearsed variety show, hosted by the two women. Saunders was the rather grumpy, irritable half of the partnership, with French portraying a bouncy, enthusiastic, schoolgirlish character. This format was dropped for the second series, and instead the programmes were a mixture of sketches and spoofs.

With an uncanny ability to pick up on the foibles and fears of childhood, and particularly teenage girlhood, French always played the fervent, excitable girl, generally leading the more sullen and awkward Saunders into mischief, whether it be discussing the schoolboys they fancy, or playing games in the school playground. This ability to draw on universal but commonplace memories of what now seem petty and trivial matters of girlhood and turn them into fresh and original comedy is one of the things which has set French and her partner above virtually all other female performers except, perhaps, Victoria Wood. Further series of French and Saunders have seen their transfer from BBC2 to the more popular BBC1. While their inventiveness has increased, there has been no diminution in their ability to latch on to the way women behave with each other. In particular they have become skilled at extraordinarily clever film spoofs, with French playing Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music one week and Hannibal Lecter in Silence of The Lambs the next.

French's first solo starring role came in 1991 with Murder Most Horrid, a series of six comic dramas with a common theme of violent death, in which she played a different role every week. The series was commissioned for French and enabled her to play everything from a Brazilian aupair in "The Girl From Ipanema" to a naive policewoman in "The Case of the Missing". A second series in 1994 was even more ambitious, with roles ranging from an old woman whose family are trying to murder her to a woman who disguises herself as a man in order to become a doctor.

If there had been any doubt about French's acting ability, this had been dispelled the previous year, 1993, in the BBC Screen One drama Tender Loving Care. In this work, French played a night nurse in the geriatric ward of a hospital. There she helps many of her charges "on their way" with her own brand of tender loving care, believing that by killing them she is doing them a service. It was a beautifully understated and restrained performance.

After the General Synod of the Church of England voted to permit women to become priests, one French and Saunders sketch concerned French's receipt of a vicar's outfit after having received permission to become the first female comedy vicar, complete with buck teeth and dandruff. This soon proved prophetic when French was cast as the Reverend Geraldine Granger, "a babe with a bob and a magnificent bosom," in Richard Curtis's The Vicar of Dibley. French's portrayal of a female vicar sent to a small, old-fashioned, country parish is possibly her most popular to date. The public quickly took this series to their hearts, and French shone even amidst an ensemble cast of very experienced character actors.

French's influence can probably be felt in other areas of British comedy too. She is married to Britain's top black comedian, Lenny Henry, and is often quoted as having influenced him during the early stage of their relationship to abandon his then somewhat self-deprecating humour, in order to explore what it is like to be a black Briton today.

French and Saunders currently have an exclusive contract with the BBC which gives them scope for expanding beyond the confines of their double act. Their first project, Dusty, a documentary about Dusty Springfield, was not entirely successful, but there can be no doubt that whether it is as part of a double act or as a solo actress, Dawn French can be assured of a place at the heart of British television for a considerable number of years.

-Pam Logan

 


Dawn French (upper) with Jennifer Saunders
Photo courtesy of the British Film Institute

DAWN FRENCH. Born in Holyhead, Wales, 1957. Attended St Dunstan's Abbey, Plymouth; Central School of Speech and Drama, London. Married Lenny Henry in 1984; children: Billie (adopted). Met Jennifer Saunders at Central School of Speech and Drama and formed alternative comedy partnership with her, appearing at the Comic Strip club, London, from 1980; participated with Saunders in the Channel Four Comic Strip Presents films and then in own long-running French and Saunders series; has also acted in West End theatre. Address: Peters, Fraser and Dunlop, The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, Lots Road, London SW10 0XF, U.K.

TELEVISION SERIES

1982-92 The Comic Strip Presents ("Five Go Mad in              Dorset," "Five Go Mad on Mescalin," "Slags,"              "Summer School," "Private Enterprise,"              "Consuela," "Mr Jolly Lives Next Door," "The              Bad News Tour," "South Atlantic Raiders,"              "GLC," "Oxford," "Spaghetti Hoops," "Le Kiss,"              "The Strike")
1985      Happy Families
1985-86 Girls on Top (also co-writer)
1987-     French and Saunders
1994-     Murder Most Horrid
1994      The Vicar of Dibley

FILM

The Supergrass, 1985.

STAGE (selection) When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout; An Evening with French and Saunders; The Secret Policeman's Biggest Ball; Silly Cow.

PUBLICATION

A Feast of French and Saunders. London: Mandarin, 1992.

 

See also Saunders, Jennifer