Dawn French: When you remarry in your 50s you must savour every minute
Dawn French talks about turning 60, marriage second time around and revisiting French and Saunders with Hannah Stephenson, as her new book, Me. You. A Diary is published
MUCH of comedy actress Dawn French's writing has been drawn from her own life – her 2008 autobiography Dear Fatty and recent solo show Thirty Million Minutes chart both her triumphs and her tragedies. Her latest book Me. You. A Diary reveals what she has learned in her 60 years and features blank pages for the reader to include his or her own entries.
It's a mellow, gentle read with a lot of words of wisdom, as French looks back on how she has acted and reacted to different events in her life, how her priorities have changed and how, as her mother used to say, 'We don't do perfect'.
It's clear that family means everything to French, who has an adopted daughter Billie with her ex-husband Sir Lenny Henry, and has gained two stepchildren through her second marriage to Mark Bignall, who runs a drugs rehabilitation charity. They live in Cornwall.
Yet she guards her family's privacy like a tigress, both in the book and in person. It must have been difficult to write about her own life without including them in it.
"I'm a bit of a contradiction in terms," she admits. "I've had my loss, I've had my joys, and all kinds of ups and downs, like everyone – but I've found that by telling my story honestly, that connects me to the readers, and the audience to my show. It's who I am. That doesn't mean to say I'm not private – there's plenty that's not in the book."
She doesn't mention Mark by name in the diary and steers clear of much detail on other family members.
"None of these people have asked to be part of this," she explains. "This is my life and my choices, so I have to be careful about that. My own daughter doesn't want to be in it [the limelight] because she's very shy."
French had known Mark for years, as he worked with her mother and had taken over the running of the rehab centre when she retired. French interviewed him for research purposes while writing her second novel, Oh Dear Silvia.
In the new book, the meeting seems like an epiphany for her – the sun burst out from behind a cloud, the light poured in through the window, bounced off the white wall and reflected on to his face 'lighting him up as if Caravaggio and Fellini had collaborated'.
"I knew in that instant we would marry, yet a minute before, he was just that bloke who was a workmate of Mum's," she writes.
Is marriage different second time around?
"Yes, because the person is different and so the mixture is different. There's chemistry that's entirely different and all the more interesting for that. I'm glad I've had both of these marriages for lots of reasons. They both bring very different things. It's very joyful. I didn't imagine I'd ever be married again. I was quite happy to not be married again, but I'm very glad I did."
Initially, the respective children kept a watchful eye on their parents' relationship, but before long, they were keen for them to tie the knot.
"They were kind of petitioning for it and were rather embarrassing, mentioning it when we hadn't mentioned it yet. They wanted it to happen and they wanted us to hurry up. It was great to get their approval."
But she did want a proper proposal, she admits.
"You do need that person to confirm it, I guess. He very firmly did ask Billie as well, calling her to say, 'I've asked your mum and she says 'Yes', as long as you think it's OK'. She was the person whose permission had to be given."
The marriage, of course, meant she became a stepmother.
"The 'step' part, as far as I'm concerned, is 'Don't step on anyone's toes'," she says, chuckling. "You have to be massively careful that you don't get in the way of anything that already exists. I feel massive love for these two kids.
"They are very easy-to-love people that have come into my life, but they were 'fully cooked' people by the time I met them. An awful lot of goodness about them comes from their life before I was ever there. I have lots to be grateful for. I have my relationship with them and we are very close, but respectful of their mum and their stepdad the other side. It's a blended family. You have to make sure everybody's feelings are being considered."
She agrees that she has probably approached marriage differently this time.
"There isn't acres of time ahead of us. When you get married when you're young, you don't even think about the future, you just trundle on. I'm very aware that when you get married in your 50s, you must savour every minute, have a bit of a shorthand and cut through the crap a bit quicker.
"You also know yourself very well and there are things that I'm absolutely prepared to compromise on – many more things than I ever did – and there are other things that I'm absolutely not prepared to compromise on."
She remains on good terms with her ex-husband, she says.
"Well, we've got a daughter together. We are friends. We keep a distance because we've got new lives and everybody needs a chance to breathe in their new life, but we talk all the time, always about Billie, at least once a week, if not twice. We are very civilised and kind to each other."
The career is still going strong – she is currently filming the second series of Delicious for Sky 1 and working on a French and Saunders 30th anniversary Christmas special.
"It's basically a clip show that the BBC wanted to do, but there have been enough times when other people have chosen the clips, and they always go for the same ones. Jennifer and I have a fondness for the ones they don't go for necessarily, plus we've got other bits of film that hasn't been seen before – where we've been filming backstage, and we're writing 15 minutes of new material, which has given us a little challenge."
Turning 60, she wants to be able to take a little time to soak in her joys and her achievements.
"I don't want to be 60 and not have stopped a bit. I've taught myself to slow down. I'm still too busy and I have to remember sometimes to stop in the moment, lie down, look up and be quiet for a minute.
"That's when the creative thoughts happen and when I'm at my most open to new thinking. That can't happen when you're clattering around in your own head, which is what we do all the time."
:: Me. You. A Diary by French French is published by Michael Joseph, priced £20.