Dawn French: The French connection

Three years after a nasty brush with the tabloids, Dawn French is still wary of the press. But here, in a rare interview, she talks frankly about marriage, motherhood, adoption, insecurity - and how she came to fall in love with an alien
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The Independent Online

How exciting. I have a rendezvous with Dawn French, who between you, me, and an absurdly ornate bedpost, I have always rather fancied. I am waiting for her in a rococo bedroom suite at Home House, a flamboyantly decorated private members' club in Portman Square, London. It is the Groucho Club-meets-Versailles. Indeed, since, in my excitement, I have arrived 20 minutes early, I have time to read in a brochure that Home House used to be the French Embassy at the time of the French Revolution. Which makes it an apt setting for a "French" rendezvous (the more so considering the sitcom she did that was set at the court of Louis XVI, a rare French & Saunders turkey called Let Them Eat Cake).

The Lady Islington suite, where I am waiting, has a vast and extravagant marble bathroom designed in the Pompeian style by the Marchese Malacrida, so the brochure informs me. When French arrives, looking short, round and gorgeous in a capacious black two-piece, I suggest doing the interview in the bathroom. She chuckles. She has a wicked chuckle.

I whip out not one but two tape-recorders. Belt- and-braces, I tell her, although, naturally, being a highly experienced journalist, I am capable of shorthand. "Right, I'm going to test you later," she says. I titter nervously. "Mind you, you could show me any old scribble and I wouldn't know." Another chuckle. For one so wary of the press, and so economical with her interviews, she seems relaxed, infectiously jolly. Her West Country vowels – her father was in the RAF and she went to boarding-school in Plymouth, her parents' home town – are more noticeable in person than they are on the telly.

Starting this Thursday, she stars in a three-part BBC drama series, a romantic comedy called Ted and Alice, set in the Lake District. She plays a tourist-information officer who falls in love with an otherworldly chap (Stephen Tompkinson), then finds that his otherworldliness is literal, for Ted is an alien.

Ted and Alice was written by Nick Vivian, the partner of Jane Horrocks. French asks whether I know him. "He's quite badly behaved and very good for drinking with. Lenny [her husband, Lenny Henry] knows him very well. He's got great stories, and he's a good writer, so there were lots of good reasons to do it."

However, filming in the Lake District meant spending time apart from her 10-year-old daughter, Billie, which filled her with angst. "I can't bear to be away from her too much, and this was the first job that has taken me away for any length of time. Even when we [she and Jennifer Saunders] were on tour, I was away for no more than three days at a time. With this, I couldn't get away all week. It was like my heart would break. I can only compare it to having a new lover, when you just can't bear to be separated and it becomes sort of obsessional, you need to see them all the time.

"I need to know what she's done nearly all day, and I'm not interested in anyone else like that. I want to know what she feels about everything, what she's seen, what she's experienced, how she's changing. She's very mercurial, and I'm fascinated by how she perceives things. I didn't know I would be quite as obsessional. It's as well I've only got one child."

Billie was adopted, and I tell French that I was, too. In fact, the next five minutes of the precious hour I have been allocated are taken up with her asking questions of me. Like Billie, I was an only child. I ask French, who is 44, whether she and Henry have ever considered adopting another child, or trying to have one naturally (not even her unofficial biographer, Alison Bowyer, who otherwise did a thoroughly nosy job, was able to find out whether one or other is unable to have children).

"We did think about it, yes. But I didn't want to do it enough. Then I started to realise that the only reason for it would be to provide a companion for her, and I didn't think I could look a kid in the face and say, 'You were really a pet'. I thought we might as well get a dog, which, in fact, we've just done.

"If another kid had happened, I guess I would have felt differently, but it's such a total life-changing thing, I'm not sure I'd have the energy to do it all over again. Motherhood has tested me beyond belief. It's absolutely not what I thought it was going to be. It's almost the opposite, in fact. I thought, in typical Dawn-style, that I'd be able to organise her into my life, but in fact we've all been organised into hers.

"And although I didn't have the hormonal thing after we adopted Billie, I still went slightly mad. When I went back to work, I'd gone a bit cardigan. I hadn't read anything, hadn't talked to anyone. Well, I had with Len, but I just felt very fat-headed. I think a lot of women go through it. It's possibly nature's way of making you go all domestic. You'd better not be longing to read a book, because you need to mash up more carrots.

"Jen [Saunders] has three kids, but she does it much better. She's one of those women who can manage [motherhood] without it taking over too much. There are others of us who can't. It totally drains you, and you realise that you're not the person you thought you were. Suddenly, you're this person called Mum – and it's not a bad thing, it's quite a good thing – but it takes a while to retrieve your personality.

"And you can't write comedy when your head feels full of cotton wool. I was angry about that. I know it's something men think happens to women when they have babies, and I was really annoyed that I had it. Because I was out to lunch for a long time. It was like walking through treacle, though I got there in the end. Which is a long explanation of why I don't really want to do it all over again. I went back to work with very little confidence, and I'd never had that before."

Just to compound that feeling of insecurity, of standing at the sidelines while the comedy bandwagon rolled on without her, it was while French took time off during the adoption process that Saunders, for want of anything better to do, turned a short sketch that the pair of them had performed into the hit sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. Still, French has benefited from Saunders' Ab Fab-inspired popularity in America, for the pair are currently discussing an option to develop their stage show for US consumption. Not that it will be easy to find the time. French is committed to starring in a new sitcom, written by Simon Nye, in which she plays a grumpy Cornishwoman, enabling her to crank up those West Country vowels. Moreover, an American tour might mean further separation from Billie. French thinks it unlikely.

"Mind you," she adds, wistfully, "I do love to go to New York. Mainly for the shopping. My first stop used to be for Reese's Cup Cakes, but you can get them here now. I know all the big-girl shops in New York. They know about big girls in the States." A huge chuckle. "Lenny is very used to sitting outside them for many hours, with a good book. I don't shop at all in this country. There's nowhere for me to go other than Evans. It used to really annoy me, but now I can't be bothered wasting the energy. I do think they're foolish, though. They're missing out on a massive market."

It is a market, in actual fact, that she has successfully tapped herself. She is co-owner, with her friend, the fashion designer Helen Teague, of a shop in London called French & Teague. Their label, 16/47, also sells in Evans. She is perfectly content with her weight, she adds, but it became an issue during the adoption procedure. "I was told that I had to lose weight – it was non-negotiable. That was hard for me. No-one had ever said that to me before, and I had never agreed to do it before. I'm actually the sort of person for whom it's quite a big deal not to [lose weight]. I'm so comfortable after all these years, and I thought, 'who are they to tell me this, unless they can prove to me that I'm going to die?'.

"What they were looking at was charts. I had to be in the middle of a chart, and I don't want to be in the middle of anybody's chart. But I was told, 'These are the rules'. I had to lose five stone, and I did. They said, 'Are you going to whack it back on straight away?'. I said 'I don't know. I've never done it before. But I'm not going to spitefully eat loads of doughnuts, if that's what you mean'."

Billie has always known that she was adopted. I ask French whether she worries that her daughter will one day ask to meet her biological mother. "Well, at the moment she's more interested in herself, the story of herself. She's a complicated kid, but I don't know whether she'd be like she is if she weren't adopted. Jen says her three are all completely different: 'Other than looking a bit like us, I don't know who they are,' she says, 'so don't be too quick to think it's because of the adoption'.

"Whatever she wants to do when she's 18, we'll support her. What I do worry about is anyone else making the decision for her. I have a great fear of the press, and I'm very, very guarded. I've had to take out injunctions, because somebody wrote a biography of me and was getting very close [to revealing the identity of Billie's birth mother], and I was like, get lost, this is not about show business, this is a kid's life. I don't want anyone rocking the boat until she's ready to rock it herself."

I feel like applauding, but instead I ask how French dealt with a different assault by the media – the tabloid allegations three years ago, that Henry had spent a night in a hotel with another woman.

"It feels like you're being bullied, and I'm not a victim person, but you just have to eat it, which I find quite hard. If I was in the playground being bullied, I would first use my brain, and then my fists. But you can't do that. And these lies become your history. I'm amazed that we've become this society of gossipy twits, although I admit I do get Hello! every week. I don't mind Hello! because it's chirpy and positive. Jen and I cut out people's heads and put them on other people's bodies."

And with that rather curious thought implanted in my mind, it is time for me to leave. Another huge chuckle follows me out of the Lady Islington suite, past the Pompeian bathroom. I still wish that we'd done it in there.

'Ted and Alice' starts on Thursday, 9pm, BBC 1

Deborah Ross is away