Dawn French: 'I decided I'd pretend to be someone very confident'

The comedian and author talks about new love, how to look self-assured, and her weakness for talent shows

Why are you in Australia? You were supposed to have settled in Cornwall for the rest of your days.

For my sins and my guilty pleasure I am a judge on Australia's Got Talent, alongside tiny little bambi Geri Halliwell. It's an honest, open kind of competition and I thought, I'll give it a go. For this first bit, I've brought my chap with me. So when I'm not working we are on honeymoon. [French married charity director Mark Bignell in April.]

That is an interesting honeymoon…

It is extraordinary. On top of the jet lag, to be seeing some of the sights I've seen … I cannot make any sense of it. I'm seeing good, bad and everything in between. Great singers, dancers, people's poodles. The other day I sat and gave a minute and a half of my life to a man who was attempting to break the world Vegemite-eating record. He did not go through to the next round. I couldn't see where he could take it.

Do you genuinely like reality talent shows?

Oh yes. When I was coming away here, I felt a bit sad I would not see the rest of Britain's Got Talent. Every year I think, I must not invest more time in this. And every year I just do.

Did you go through anything like that process in your early days?

No. Jennifer [Saunders] and I just went for one audition for the Comic Strip. What we didn't know was that they were so desperate to find any women doing anything that we had the job the minute we turned up. I haven't really ever had to audition for anything.

What do people think of you in Australia? Is your weight loss (which I know you will not appreciate me mentioning) remarked upon over there?

They love The Vicar of Dibley. They show it endlessly. They think I've lost a bit of weight but they didn't see the part where I lost about seven and a half stone. I think I've since put on about three stone. No one here has said a word. It's so refreshing to have people not mention it.

Both your novels have been bestsellers. So are you a writer (and a reality TV judge) now and not a performer?

I am a kid in the dressing-up box at heart. I would never be able to just not do it. I have promised myself I will write a one-woman show. I keep putting it off but I have lots of thoughts and I just have to sit down and cook it up. I will tour that next year. Once I've got that, then I can start the third novel.

The second novel, Oh Dear Silvia, is out now in paperback. Silvia is in a coma and the book is about people discussing her around her bedside. Not exactly laugh-a-minute. Or is it?

I think you earn big laughs in something truthful if it has tragedy also. When I started to write the book, it was a happy time because I fell in love. Then like in all the interesting parts of our lives, tragedy struck and my mum died. As I was writing a book about a woman in a coma. Suddenly I was sitting next to my mum's bed. She said, "Come on, this is your research, why aren't you writing?" I said, "But you are dying." She said, "Please use this time properly. Don't sit there watching me die." So I did get my notebook out and start writing. I think my heart and soul went into the book as a result.

A lot of the book is written in accents, which are supposed to be so difficult to write. Why do that to yourself?

It's based on people I know or mixtures of people. There are certain people who are out-and-out funny. It's the hardest thing to write accents. But I definitely wanted to have a Jamaican nurse, born in Jamaica, raised in Jamaica and who comes to England, so I needed a Jamaican accent. I have been party to that for the best part of 30 years because my in-laws [through former husband Lenny Henry] are Jamaican so I hear that accent all the time. I started to write it and I couldn't hear the music of it. So I had to go the whole hog and write a very strong accent. To authenticate it, I ran it past Len's sister. I said, "You have to read this and tell me if I've done this right." She corrected me on a few things.

Where do you get your self-belief from?

I remember when I finished my A-levels, I got a scholarship to study for a year in New York. I didn't want to go; I wanted to go to Oklahoma or somewhere where there were horses. New York is where Kojak lives. I was afraid. But I decided that when I got off the plane, I would pretend to be someone very confident. They believed it. And I started to believe it. It's infectious, you catch it like a cold. You have it and it lives inside you. When I came home my dad had just died tragically and it was awful. [Her father killed himself.] I was due to start college. My mum didn't want me to stay at home and so I went and pretended to be happy. And it made me happy. I had to go and pretend to be someone who is not dripping with sadness and grieving and be ready for college and be chirpy. It's a little bit of pretence that then sticks.

You and Jennifer Saunders are still great mates and see each other often. Did you see Viva Forever!?

Of course! And I enjoyed it very much. It was nowhere near as bad as was described by unkind critics. It was schadenfreude. It was a shame. But Jen is tough. You cannot knock her down with some criticism.

Has the success of your writing surprised you?

God, yes. When I wrote the memoir, Dear Fatty, I discovered what it was like to write on my own. I had always written with Jen or Richard [Curtis]. I had never sat there for months on end on my own. I did not know I would enjoy it in the way I did. It was like finding a passion that you realise you should have been doing all along.

Contributor

Interview by Viv Groskop

The GuardianTramp

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