Friday, 30 October 2015

‘I’m 58 now and I’ve lived a bit’

From her first job as a nanny, to a new career as a novelist, Dawn French reflects on her life.

Written by Richard Barber
dawn-176-dropinDawn French is looking great. ‘Well, thank you,’ she says, her face splitting into that watermelon smile. ‘I had some photographs taken yesterday and I looked in the mirror beforehand, something I don’t do that often. Everything seemed to have fallen a little, but that’s what happens if you decide not to have stuff injected into you or bits sliced off your face…

‘Actually, I’ll tell you exactly what I saw staring back at me from that mirror – my mother’s face. I thought: “Oh my God, Mum’s turned up at the photoshoot!”’ Not that she was alarmed. ‘Oh no, I loved my mother, loved her face. So that’s a good thing. I’ve got no complaints.’

Dawn is up from Cornwall where she lives with her second husband, charity boss Mark Bignell, to talk about her new novel, According To Yes. We have met at her club, Home House, and she’s in flying form. This is Dawn’s best book yet, the story of a 38-year-old escapee from the West Country who fetches up in New York, quite quickly working for a dysfunctional family on the city’s posh Upper East Side. It’s funny but wise, too, and nowhere more so than in its examination of family dynamics.

‘Well, I’m 58 now and I’ve lived a bit and been around families all my life. Also, my mum was a counsellor, some of which inevitably rubbed off on me. I’ve always processed things both in my head and out loud. I enjoy the cut and thrust of emotional investigation, if that doesn’t sound too lofty, of myself and everything that’s going on around me.’

The book has a history. ‘I had the idea maybe 15 years ago but I was thinking of it as a possible film. I sat down with Carol Noble, a writer I admire, and we bashed out a screenplay. But we knew it wasn’t quite right.’ The central premise only resurfaced when Dawn’s editor suggested that for this third novel she ought to access a part of her life that hadn’t taken place in this country. ‘When I left school,’ she says, ‘I won a scholarship from the English-Speaking Union to go to New York for a year.

‘When my money ran out – who knew you could buy pizza by the slice? – I got a job as a nanny for no better reason than I was English and so my employers thought I must be Mary Poppins. The parents of the little chap I looked after every evening were getting divorced. In the week when it was the father’s turn to have the child, I’d pick him up from school, cook his supper, read him stories, put him to bed and then wait for the dad to get home at 11pm and open his heart to me about how unhappy he was. I had the keys to this fantastically smart apartment and found myself in a very intimate place inside their lives.’

It seemed the perfect scenario for her heroine, Rosie, performing the same task for a family ruled by a cold, unbending matriarch presiding over three generations of privileged men. Like Dawn before her, our irrepressible protagonist discovers the city’s secrets – Le Train Bleu restaurant on the sixth floor of Bloomingdale’s, the Japanese garden in a city bank, the whispering gallery at Grand Central Station – all of which she uses to educate and entertain her eight-year-old twin charges as they deal with their parents’ disintegrating marriage.

‘I’m a big believer,’ says Dawn, ‘that difficult stuff can be handled via a bit of fun. On the other hand, Rosie’s different from me in that she doesn’t think things through, she makes choices I would never make and she’s in a different emotional place from me but she doesn’t cope very well.

‘Essentially, she’s running away from her life in Cornwall and that’s just not me. She doesn’t like confronting her problems. She wants to live in the moment – in short, in a world according to yes. That’s not necessarily a bad credo except that she sometimes says yes to the wrong things.’


Dawn’s first book, A Tiny Bit Marvellous, goes into production next year for a six-part TV adaptation. And there’s every chance, all these years later, that According To Yes could end up being a film after all. If she could choose, who would she cast as Rosie? She doesn’t hesitate. ‘Oh, Ruth Jones [best known for playing Nessa in Gavin & Stacey] because she’s beautiful and curvy and cheeky and fantastic in everything she does.’

Being a writer, she says, dovetails perfectly with married life. ‘I’ve married somebody for whom my professional life is nothing like his world, which is why I make a point of never allowing it to intrude into our home. It would be poisonous to do so. But writing is perfect because I’m at home and I can be a proper wife.

‘If I’m up in London, though, and doing a bit of jazz hands, as I like to think of it, Biggs – that’s what I call him – will happily come and see what I’m up to. He’s always amazed by it a bit’ all. But he’s not overawed by it; he’s just as interested in metal detecting.

‘Having said that, it was very good at that stage of my life that my first husband, Lenny [Henry], was in the same business as me because he understood the hours, the pressures and so on. Funnily enough, that was right for then and this is right for now.’

Biggs will have cause to spend time in London in the coming days. Dawn is to bring her one-woman show, 30 Million Minutes, on tour last year, to the Vaudeville Theatre for a four-week run from 11 November.

‘The prospect of revisiting it is both terrifying and exhilarating but I loved doing it. I’m delighted it’s coming to the West End and it will be nice to do it in the same theatre every night.’ In the New Year, she’ll take the show to Australia and New Zealand.

Before then, she’s likely to pop up on Radio 2 with her great friend and collaborator, Jennifer Saunders, for what she describes as ‘a bit of mayhem and mischief’. And she might well be giving us a cameo in the big-screen version of Absolutely Fabulous, which is currently being filmed.

They see each other less than they’d like now that their TV act has been more or less permanently put on ice. ‘If she’s in Devon, it seems, I’m in London. But we’re always in touch. I had her eldest daughter – my goddaughter, Ella – to stay with her husband and their two boys. Last year, I had all three of her children over.’ Dawn’s own daughter, 24-year-old Billie, lives nearby with her boyfriend.

So, it’s a full, happy and remarkably well-disciplined life for the hugely likeable Dawn French. What does tomorrow bring? ‘Back to Cornwall,’ she says, and that trademark smile tells you all you need to know: home is indeed where the heart is.

According To Yes is published by Michael Joseph, priced £20. For details of Dawn’s tour, visit: 

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