Dawn French: 'I feel genuine grief about what is going on in the arts'

The comedian on working under Covid restrictions, exploring the nature-nurture debate in her new novel, and debating politics with her uncle

Dawn French, 63, is a comedian, actor and writer who began her career as a comic double act with her friend Jennifer Saunders. Her TV work includes French and Saunders, The Vicar of Dibley and, more recently, Delicious and The Trouble With Maggie Cole. French has written several books, including three bestselling novels – A Tiny Bit Marvellous, Oh Dear Silvia, and According to Yes. Her fourth novel, Because of You, about two families whose babies are born at the start of the millennium, has just been published (Michael Joseph, £20).

What did you want to explore with Because of You?
I wanted to investigate what would happen if you really challenged the idea of: who is your parent? Somebody steals a baby at the beginning of this book. That shouldn’t be something you could ever, ever forgive – but I’ve tried to write a character that you might forgive for doing that. The moral dilemma is: was this daughter raised in the right family for her after all? Who makes us: those who raise you or those whose biology you carry – or a mixture of both? Or is it people who step up for you?

You have an adopted child [Billie, 29, whom French adopted with her ex-husband Lenny Henry]. Where do you think the line between nature and nurture falls?
I have thought about this a lot, and the nature/nurture balance is clearly different with every kid. My relationship with my daughter has confounded everything I expected. The things I thought I’d be great at I failed at a bit… Like I thought: “Oh, we’ll have to really prepare for when she wants to meet her biological family.” I always thought that’s something that’s part of your emotional contract, if you like, with an adopted kid. And yet I have a daughter, who despite all my determination that she should feel comfortable to do [that], showed no interest. Absolutely none.

They teach you stuff, kids…
Oh God, so much. I have learned… that my kids are not me! It’s the most annoying, frustrating thing. And it’s also the most joyful, edifying thing. I can’t understand why they don’t make decisions the way I might. I’ve learned to not control, and step back… the other thing that’s interesting to me is the lies we tell ourselves, the things we delude ourselves about so that we can continue to behave the way we want to behave.

How do you balance writing with your performance work?
Well, lockdown was due to be a writing time for me, because March, April, May, June were my chance to write my second draft of this book. Which is good, because at the beginning of the lockdown, like a lot of people, the next 18 months of work just fell off a cliff. I was supposed to be touring, doing a bit of theatre, and everything that was public just disappeared.

But you did manage to do a podcast with Jennifer Saunders.
Yes, Jennifer and I have done a podcast series, Titting About, which we did at the end of the lockdown. We sanitised, dipped the Hobnobs in bleach! And I’ve just done a film in Wales about the day, the real, true day, that the six-year-old Roald Dahl met the 60-year-old Beatrix Potter. I play Beatrix Potter. Doing a film under Covid restrictions is really odd – I was tested eight times in four weeks, temperature checks every day, full PPE for the crew – but honestly, everybody was so grateful to be back at work.

You are known for getting upset about scones – care to explain?
This is about the order of things that go on to scones. What I would say is: butter is optional, but if you’re going to use butter, it goes first. Then the jam, then the cream. That’s it. The big mistake is to think that cream is butter. Jam is for spreading, cream – and it’s got to be clotted cream – is the dollop. It’s the crown. If you do it the other way, I genuinely find it offensive! I just do. I’ve got into a bit of a Twitter war with certain people about it. But I’d rather be in a Twitter war about that than about something big and scary at the moment, to be honest.

What keeps you awake at night?
Recently, I would honestly say paying the mortgage has kept me awake. Covid nicked my work! I’m planning to live a smaller, simpler life, I think, as the result of it.

What, downsize?
Yes. I think so. I don’t know when, but I’m just going to reduce everything so that if this hits us again and again, I can survive. It’s a shame. It wouldn’t normally be the case for me.

If you didn’t have the haircut that you have, what would you have?
I’d love a really short haircut, but I’ve got a big fat, strange head, and a giant neck. And look what I’ve got now, I’ve got an arsehole in the middle of my neck! Look! I have a complete gullet, and I accept that I’ve got it. I can see when I’m talking to people, they are absolutely glued to it. Like, “What is that? She’s got an arsehole just underneath her chin!”

How do you feel about the government’s attitude to people who work in the arts?
I feel massive, genuine grief about what is going on in the arts. I didn’t know we were regarded as so unimportant by the government. I’m just so shocked. In any civilised society, the cultural landscape is our emotional scaffolding. It’s where we do our thinking, where we tell our stories, where our opinions are aired, where we argue, where there’s dissent, everything. It’s how we relate to each other. This dismissal of the arts – and especially theatre – as kind of frothy and light and a luxury, when it’s 120bn quid’s worth of income [the pre-Covid projection of the UK creative industries’ gross value added contribution to the economy]… it is shocking to me.

Are you a political animal?
Yesterday I went to visit my elderly uncle, who I go to see most Sunday mornings, and we are politically opposite. And we have what he refers to as a “robust debate”. And I leave these conversations absolutely furious, and he’s smiling. He enjoys baiting me. So I guess I must be a political animal, if it affects me like that. What I do know is that I once dated a man and said: “What is it about this guy? I don’t think we could ever be together for real.” And then I thought, “Oh, it’s because you’re a Tory.” And he was only mild, you know, Tory-lite. I’m ferociously loyal to the Labour party. I am. Warts and all. And I’m quite happy to have the internal fights.

Are you happy with Keir Starmer, then?
Yes, yes. I gave my support to him and I don’t really ever do that publicly, because I can’t be bothered with all the shit that comes with it, but with him I thought: “OK, I’m prepared to risk some shit for endorsing this man.” I did it and I’m glad I did. And I wish he was in charge.

Because of You by Dawn French is published by Michael Joseph (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


Miranda Sawyer

The GuardianTramp

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