Dawn French: The Unauthorized Biography by Alison Bowyer
|Dawn French: The Unauthorized Biography by Alison Bowyer|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: A lively portrait of one of the most successful comediennes of the last twenty years, best known for her work with Jennifer Saunders and as star of ‘The Vicar of Dibley'.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 288||Date: June 2008|
|Publisher: Pan Books|
While reading this book, it struck me that being one of the nation's funniest people often means there's a desperately unhappy or at least rather troubled soul behind the public face. George Formby, Tony Hancock, Wilfrid Brambell and John Cleese are probably the most obvious examples. While Dawn French has generally managed to present a smiling face to the world, this thoughtful biography reveals that she too has had her difficult times.
Born in Anglesey in 1957, she had a happy childhood, although overshadowed at times by low esteem due to her generous frame. Fortunately her father took her on one side at the age of fourteen and told her firmly that she had every reason to have confidence in herself. Little did she know at the time that he was battling with his own demons, and after a history of depression took his own life.
Encouraged by her mother to throw herself heart and soul into a new challenge in order to keep from brooding on the tragedy, she went on a drama teaching course. Within a few weeks she had met a fellow student, an upper-middle-class coolly aloof girl whom she cordially disliked on first sight. Within a few years the initial mutual antipathy between this girl – Jennifer Saunders – and Dawn had given way to close admiration, friendship and a common bond which saw them one of the best-known comic female partnerships of all time. Whether they would have done so had they stuck to their original choice of name, Kitsch'n'Tiles, is debatable.
It was clearly a challenge, being a young ambitious comic at the end of the 70s. An old generation of stand-up performers was about to be eclipsed by the bright new young things who cut their teeth in the Comedy Store and then the Comic Strip. Along came Channel 4 in 1982, and the BBC was determined not to be left behind. 'French and Saunders' and the ever-popular 'The Vicar of Dibley' beckoned.
Throughout her career, Dawn has had to juggle her professional life with the personal one, and this biography tells not only of the highs and lows of her career, but also of her married life with Lenny Henry and their adopted daughter Billie. That their marriage has endured through a few difficult episodes, particularly a short but sustained campaign of racist abuse and later a nasty piece of muck-raking by the tabloids, says much for both of them.
Overall, the book presents a lively portrait of a warm-hearted, successful woman who has never been afraid to meet her critics head on and expose herself to mockery. At the same time, it doesn't gloss over the fact that she could become rather over-defensive and sometimes too intolerant of thin people for the sake of it.
It also points out that for every major professional success she has enjoyed, there has been the occasional questionable venture or resounding turkey. Wild West met with mixed reviews and lukewarm ratings, while Jam and Jerusalem was a bit of a dud, and even her partnership with Jennifer Saunders may have run its course. Of course, nothing lasts forever, as one of their co-stars, June Whitfield of Terry and June fame, may well have reminded them.
As a biography, and an insight into changing tastes in comedy during the last thirty years or so, this makes a very enjoyable read.
Our thanks to Pan Macmillan for sending a copy to Bookbag.
Further reading: If you enjoyed this title, you might also enjoy Dear John by Joan Le Mesurier.
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