Dawn French interview transcript

interview - Rupert Smith

Jennifer and I have worked together since 1980, but we didn’t make the first series of French and Saunders till 1986, and it was shown in 1987. This new BBC1 series is a “best of” the six series that we made together, plus about ten minutes of new material per half-hour episode.

It was weird going through all the old material. It was very nostalgic, and very emotional. When I look at the stuff, I don’t just see sketches – I see that Jen was pregnant, and now that baby she was carrying is at college. I think of the embarrassment of wrong haircuts – which was virtually all of them. I think of the fun we used to have, and whatever was going on at home – somebody’s dad had died, someone in the family was ill. I actually remember more about our personal lives. In comparison, the work was just frothy fun.

The material moved on as we moved on in age. Six or seven years ago we decided that we really couldn’t play teenagers any more. I did one recently, with a lot of hair over my face – that’s the only way I’m ever going to pass as a teenager. It used to be about pretending to be the teenagers that we had been; now it would be about pretending to be the teenagers we have ourselves! And to be honest, everyone else has done teenage characters now: Harry Enfield, Little Britain, Catherine Tate, they’ve all had a go. I think it’s something that you have to go through as a comedian.

The relationship between the French and Saunders characters remains the same. When we were moving away from live shows into television, we realised that we didn’t have any punchlines, we never knew how to finish a sketch, so we had to develop the characters of “Dawn French” and “Jennifer Saunders” to go between the sketches and hold them together a bit. Jennifer is very definitely the one who owns the home – that white room is hers. It’s her set. I can enter it with any energy I like; she’s the receiver of whatever I bring. She’s grumpy, bossy and in charge. I’m the misbehaver. Of course, we enjoy swapping roles. Jen is particularly keen on changing things round if she feels we’re getting entrenched. So sometimes she’s the one that’s doing something strange, like when we did the Matrix sketch in the white room. She was on wires, I was the passive one. But usually it’s me blasting through the door and her being grumpy.

We love the Fat Old Men, and the Fat Old Women, who came about when we were half way through putting on all the prosthetics for the Fat Old Men. We realised that if we put on a bit of blue eyeshadow and some wigs, we had two new characters. It’s a way of saving licence payers’ money.

I’m most familiar with the big production numbers, particularly the film parodies, because they’ve been replayed so often. I’ve got particular affection for the Fellini parody, because of all the research we did. It’s probably more accurate than it is funny. And I loved Misery, because I had Jen strapped down on a bed. Bob Spiers, the director, had the real film of Misery playing on a monitor beside him, so he could frame up every shot to be as accurate as possible.

We used to shoot all those big parodies on film – Alien, Silence of the Lambs, all those things. You don’t get the budgets now. Nothing is shot on film. And we don’t feel propelled towards film parodies any more. It became such an expectation – whenever a new film came out, people would say “Oh, I expect you and Jennifer will be having that for lunch soon”. And as soon as people expect us to do something, we don’t want to do it any more. That’s why there are very few catchphrases, if any. What I loved about the film parodies was that we put our relationship inside the films. The biggest joke was always us dropping out of character into being ourselves.

We’ve hardly ever got into trouble for any sketches. Not even for the Noel’s House Party sketch. That was towards the end of the Noel Edmonds regime at the BBC. I do worry about people being offended. I’d hate to upset anyone. I think we’re usually quite kind to people. I’ve been a victim of cruel, bullying representations on TV, and it’s not nice. The only time I really worried was when I was booked to go on Richard and Judy, and they were supposed to have Sonia on as well. Then suddenly she wasn’t on any more. I was worried that she’d been upset by a sketch I’d done about her. I hope not, because I loved Sonia.

Our pathetic attempts to get Madonna on the show actually became part of the show. At first we were desperate to get her on, but then it became a standing joke; we felt we had to put the call in, and get turned down, just for everything else to be all right. The closest we got was when she was in town doing Evita, and we got a fax saying “Thanks, but I’m doing another job called Evita and I’m actually quite busy”.

We’ve always had a big gay audience, thank God. Men and women. I think it’s because we’re big and bold and not scared of make-up. There was never anything gay-unfriendly about us. It went up a gear with Absolutely Fabulous, when it changed from appreciation to adulation for Jennifer. When we’re on tour, which we will be next year, about a third of the audience seems to be gay. That’s a pretty good reflection of our social circles as well.

We were on stage with Rufus Wainwright recently. We’ve had an ongoing relationship with Rufus for some years now. He visited us on set years ago, and Jennifer put him in Ab Fab. We popped up on stage at his Christmas show at the Apollo, and we recently appeared at his shows at the Old Vic. I did one night, Jennifer did the next. We were doing the spoken word bit [in Between My Legs] that Sian Phillips does on the record.

Those gay stylist characters we used to do were great fun. We were backstage at a big fashion event once, and there were a lot of men doing make-up for the models, with those industrial belts holding all their stuff. They were being quite rude to the the girls. We were intrigued. They can be cruel to the girls if they’re beautiful. So that was the basis for the characters, and they got their hands on Dusty Springfield, Kylie and Kate Moss. We tried to get Bette Midler to do it when she was in town, but she was very wary. She called us in to a meeting at her hotel, and we outlined the characters. She said ‘I’ve never come across anything like that’, and actually made us act it out in the hotel lobby. She didn’t laugh at all, and when we’d finished she said ‘no. I’ve never met anyone like that.’ Then her entourage walked in, nearly all gay men, and they started screaming at Jennifer. We were standing there going ‘Come on, Bette! This is it! This is what we mean!’. But she didn’t get it.

New material in the new series includes a celebrity “effing” chef, played by Jennifer. I’m in his restaurant having dinner with the toys from Playschool, if you’re old enough to remember them. There’s another sketch in which we’re trying to sell our set and upscale ourselves, and we get Kirsty Allsop in to advise us. She was absolutely great and she’s now in the family. There’s also a Big Brother moment, of course, because I am a complete Big Brother addict, I’ve seen every single show since the very first series. I’m rooting for Jerry in the current series. Celebrity Big Brother is great. Barrymore was fascinating; I just sat there thinking ‘there but for the grace of God go I…”. He’s obviously in terrible pain, which of course makes fantastic telly. I loved the first Celebrity Big Brother, because it was for Comic Relief of course. All the comedians who were booked to do it dropped out, leaving poor Jack Dee in there swimming around in a sea of C-listers. It was sheer hell for him, but he’s so lovely that of course he won. Anthea Turner was fascinating to watch. As for Vanessa Feltz, her addiction to the limelight was really scary. She didn’t like being out of it at all. Incredible attention seeking. Going to pieces on day three? Come on!

Next I’m doing a small part in a ten-part series of the BBC, Lark Rise to Candleford. I wanted to see what it’s like to be a small part in a big production like that. I’m such a control freak that it’ll be interesting to work to someone else’s schedule. Lovely costumes. The corsets are on and the norks are UP! In the old days, when I wore a corset, it pushed everything up. Now some bits go down as well. Thank got for full skirts. Although some of the skirts you’ll see are actually my own flesh.

We’re doing another series of Jam and Jerusalem, then we’re going on tour in February 2008. I don’t think there will be another series of French and Saunders as we know it. Sketch shows are a young person’s game. The last one, which was set mostly in the office, got a very mixed reception; people don’t like it when you step outside what they’re used to. They don’t want you to change. After we’d had independent success with The Vicar of Dibley and Ab Fab, everyone wanted us to play a vicar and a PR. Whenever something is successful, it sets people up for disappointment. We thought we were on to a winner with Let Them Eat Cake, because it was a massive camp romp, but people just didn’t like it.

We might do something on the radio, or a chat show/variety show sort of thing. In other words, I haven’t got a clue. But the French and Saunders team goes on. It has to. It’s the only way we ever get to see each other. We get so distracted by other jobs, that we have to work together in order to have the lunches.