Dawn Roma French (English Comedienne and Actress, b. 11 October, 1957, Holyhead, Wales)
"I don't think my family would put up with me being anything else [apart from down-to-earth]. They are my strictest critics and wouldn't allow me to have any airs or graces."—Dawn French
"Dawn French ... fully lives up to her legend. She's funny, and fun, warm, beautiful, generous, sexy, brilliant—just like you think she is going to be."—Margaret Cho
Talent and Turmoil: Her Early Years
Self-confidence can be a powerful tool. As a child, Dawn French suffered the social stigma that almost invariably goes with being short and heavy. Her parents were a font of self-confidence for their little girl, teaching her to always believe in herself, no matter what the world may throw at her. Her varied and successful career attests to the power of this lesson.
Young Dawn showed an aptitude for drama and speech at a fairly early age. In 1976, she took part in a public speaking contest and won a year's scholarship to Spence School in New York City. This was a tumultuous time for the young woman, as she became engaged to an Irishman named David White. On the other hand, her beloved father, who had always been such a source of strength and self-confidence for her, committed suicide. Soon thereafter, she moved to London and enrolled at Central School of Speech and Drama, planning to become a drama teacher.
At Central, she met a young woman named Jennifer Saunders and the two came to realize that they had an uncanny amount in common—not least of all their off-beat senses of humour. When the two shared a flat with several other students (and Dawn worked hard to keep all of them under control) the two women became very good friends.
Mad Girls about Town: Jen and Dawn go Public
The funny young ladies auditioned at a new comedy club, and they were soon performing a stand up act almost every evening. During the 1980s, the duo performed at the famous Comedy Store, one of Britain’s premier venues. French and Saunders then joined a ragtag bunch of young comics at the Comic Strip. This gang became a sort of alternative comedy posse and four of them moved on to start their own television show—the Young Ones, where both French and Saunders also showed up from time to time.
At this point, things really started to happen for Ms. French—and where her fortunes led, Ms. Saunders was also there as a vital part of the fun. The Comedy Strip gang put together six films (initially), collectively entitled the Comic Strip Presents, which ran on Britain’s Channel 4.
French and Saunders worked on the TV show Girls on Top , a zany production that reminded many viewers of the Young Ones. They also starred in Happy Families, where they enjoyed continuing success.
Love, Clothes and a Dash of Fame
Ms. French met and dated a very funny young man named Lenny Henry in the early 80s. The two hit it off and worked together on several occasions. In 1984, she and Mr. Henry were married, but the union was not without its challenges. As a mixed race couple (Henry is black and French is white), they were the target of a hate campaign by racists, who threatened the couple and attacked their home. In 1991, the two adopted a little girl, named Billie, but they were forced to conceal this fact for a while because of threats that her birth mother was going to take the child back from the couple.
In 1987, Jen and Dawn got their own television show, which ran for about four years and continues to have specials produced up to the present time. This program showed the incredible range of talent of the two women, French and Saunders really got French and Saunders noticed and soon both women were extremely busy.
Ms. French was highly dissatisfied with the clothing available to larger women. In an effort to provide attractive clothes, she teamed up with designer Helen Teague in 1991 and started a fashionable boutique catering to plus-sized women. Their shop, Sixteen47 was in London, but has moved entirely on-line (www.sixteen47.com). Ms. Teague runs much of the business from her native Ghana, and French says that almost everything she wears is by Sixteen47. She has also co-authored (with Sylvie Soudan) a couple of books of designer patterns for big women.
In 1991, Ms. French was active in theatre and television. On stage, she played a tabloid journalist in Ben Elton's Silly Cow. On the tube, she starred in Murder Most Horrid,, playing a large number of different characters in a series of terrific black-comedy mystery stories.
In 1994, Richard Curtis created the television series The Vicar of Dibley, starring the charismatic Dawn French as Geraldine Granger, a strong, intelligent and very likeable vicar in a small town parish. The show's creator described Reverend Granger as the only sane person in the village, the one who is trying to figure out why all the others are completely bizarre. The show was quite successful and ran for three years (more or less, plus several specials). This further cemented Ms. French's reputation as one of the top talents in the world of British comedy.
How Far She's Come: Dawn's Latest Achievements
Since Vicar, Ms. French has gone on to work on Wild West, a darker, edgier program. She plays a woman living in Cornwall who chooses a lesbian lifestyle more from lack of choice than from her inclinations. French said, "I relished the chance to play a gay woman because I think it's about time gay female couples can be as ordinary as any other couple on the telly."
In recent years, Ms. French has been appearing on the big screen with increasing frequency—from voice work (such as her memorable turn as Mrs. Beaver in 2005's Chronicles of Narnia) film, bit parts (like her appearance as the Fat Lady in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and many other roles. She has also appeared in several BBC dramas and television ads for Terry’s Chocolate Orange.
All this attention has inevitably trained the public spotlight on her. She has said that she receives pitying looks in Hollywood, a land of ultra-thin models and movie stars. Despite all the criticism, she keeps a sense of humour about herself. "I would feel the pressure to lose weight if I got out of breath regularly," she says, "but I don't torture myself with it."
In 2006, Ms. French took a role in Smaller, a play which deals with size issues (among other things). With co-star Alison Moyet and director Kathy Burke, Dawn French has garnered rave reviews from fans and critics alike.
Movie and stage roles, several successful television series, a clothing line and books ... time will only tell what this self-confident woman from Wales will do next.
Research already done for my French and Saunders writeup
Lenny Henry by shimmer—go read this node right now, it is phenomenal!
Dawn French's site online: http://dawnfrench.tripod.com/biography.html
Dawn French: Girl on Top, biography on line at: http://www.teletronic.co.uk/dawnfrench.htm
"The Christians Told Me Where To Shove It" Dawn French feature interview at Chortle UK online: 20 May, 2006 http://www.chortle.co.uk/TV/tvfeatures/vicar.php
BBC Interviews: Wild West, Dawn French on line at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/comedy/wildwest/interviews/dawnfrench.shtml Margaret Cho's blog: http://margaretcho.net/blog/dawnfrench.htm
The Telegraph: 'I'd buy anything I could get over my head' on line at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/core/Content/displayPrintable.jhtml?xml=/fashion/2005/12/02/efdawn02.xml&site=11