French on Saunders: It's not a friendship you have to feed

Dawn French talks about her friendship with Jennifer Saunders, her first novel in five years and the trials of filming during a pandemic

Dawn French with her long-time friend and comedy and creative partner Jennifer Saunders

DESPITE lockdown, Dawn French, comedian, actress and novelist, has welcomed the chance to get together with her old mucker, Jennifer Saunders.

They've been reunited for a podcast, are appearing in Kenneth Branagh's movie remake of the Agatha Christie thriller Death On The Nile, due out in December, and have kept in touch during the pandemic, she reveals.

“My first bit of ‘back to work' was with Jennifer. As soon as we were allowed to meet up at a great distance from each other, with a wall of cake in between, we met up and devised a series for Audible called French & Saunders: Ti**ing About.

“We see each other all the time anyway as friends. We're not very good on Zoom. I'd rather be on the phone to her or we text each other a lot.

“If we don't get to see each other much, we just pick up where we left off. There's never a guilty gap. It's not a friendship that you have to feed on a regular basis to keep it topped up. It's very secure.”

During lockdown, French (63) finished writing her first novel in five years, Because Of You, a story of love, identity and belonging as two baby girls born on the millennium New Year's Day change the paths of the women who give birth to them.

One is stillborn and, in her desperate grief, the bereaved mother steals the other healthy baby from the hospital. Then unfolds the story of what happens to the two couples – and the child – as they face the consequences.

French explains: “I wanted to find a story where it was a challenge to empathise with the main character. She is somebody who is honourable and upright and who we want to love, flaws and all, who does something huge and wrong. I wanted to write about someone you would still love when she makes a giant mistake. I wanted to morally wobble the centre line.”

The novel explores the nature nurture debate and whether a child's personality would naturally follow that of his or her birth parents or adoptive parents.

It's a subject she admits she's thought about a lot – she has an adopted daughter Billie with ex-husband Sir Lenny Henry – but hasn't come up with an answer.

“It's dollops of both and it depends on the people. The problem is that if you have somebody who is brought up by a different family than their blood relative, you could forever be saying, ‘Oh, clearly this person is the result of the nurturing in the new family', or ‘This person is the result of the nature of the old family'. But how would you ever know?”

French spent lockdown at home in Cornwall with her husband, Mark Bignell, who runs a drugs rehabilitation charity, her daughter Billie and her stepdaughter, Lily. She dedicates the book to Billie, Lils, as she calls her, and Olly, her stepson.

“Lockdown was frightening. It's frightening to have an invisible enemy out there but I'm quite resilient and resourceful and to hunker down with my family was a kind of a treat.

“My two daughters came to live with me for three months and we cooked for each other and talked a lot and gave each other space and had robust debates about things.”

Being a key worker, Bignell has worked throughout the period.

“When we get the chance to look back, what we'll notice is all the little acts of kindness and the moments when people pulled together and supported each other. He came back with so many stories of that nature, so although it was difficult, it was rewarding in many ways.”

While 18 months of her work schedule went up in smoke and her tour was postponed, she's missed other things too, she reflects.

“I've missed cuddles with my mates and it proves to me how much that stuff matters. Now that restrictions are a bit more eased, I've got a special waxed hugging coat with plastic on the outside and a huge hood. I put gloves on and put it on back to front with the hood over my face and get my hugs that way.”

She describes the government's handling of the crisis as ‘shambolic'.

“But then a pandemic throws you into a crisis,” she continues. “Nobody's experienced at this. It's no secret that I'm a ‘leftie' and would have preferred Keir Starmer to be guiding us through this.”

It may be no coincidence that her novel features a self-absorbed, pompous ass of an MP.

“Well, we are surrounded by men like that at the moment,” she says wryly. “I didn't base his character on a particular MP but on many people I see and listen to on TV and people I come across in my life. He's a composite. I'm not naming names!”

She recently went to London to join fellow actresses in campaigning to open theatres.

“I just wanted to join forces with some remarkable women I know who are just making quiet protests about opening the theatres. I'm befuddled by it all because the discrepancies are hard to get your head around. I do not understand how you can get on a plane or go to a pub but you can't sit in a theatre.”

Despite the restrictions, French recently returned from Wales where she was filming the new Sky One Christmas family drama Roald & Beatrix, about the day when Roald Dahl, aged six, met Beatrix Potter, aged 60. French plays Potter and co-stars include Rob Brydon, Jessica Hynes, Bill Bailey and Alison Steadman.

“There was a ‘gulp' moment of, can we manage it? It was one of the first bits of filming that went back into production, you have a Covid person on your crew, you have medicals – I've had nine tests in four weeks. Everyone who's not going to be wearing a mask has to be tested, everyone who is near you is tested. I've worked for five weeks with a crew I've only met from the eyes upwards.

“I sanitised my hands 20 times a day, we sat in our caravans away from each other, we ate lunch on our own, our costumes were sanitised and quarantined. But every single person on that job was so grateful and happy to be back at work.”

Meanwhile, the release of Kenneth Branagh's remake of Death On The Nile, which features French and Saunders, has been put back to December. But they are not in a comedic role, she stresses.

“Ken has been quite brave to cast us in this because if we're in a big movie, normally we're parodying it. But he knows that we can not do that. You wouldn't tip up a giant budget film like that with two people ar*ing about.”

Her tour may have been postponed but she's clearly still busy.

“My big work has fallen away and I've had to find it elsewhere and pray for things to come back. But I don't feel any less creative. I will always write books because it's where my heart is.”

Will she work on TV with Saunders again?

“If we can think of the right thing and if we want to, I would never say no to anything. It's just finding the time and the right job and getting on with it.”

:: Because Of You by Dawn French is published by Michael Joseph on October 15, priced £20.

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