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French, Dawn (1957-)

Actor, Writer

Main image of French, Dawn (1957-)

Born in 1957 in Holyhead, Anglesey, Dawn French is best known (with partner Jennifer Saunders) as half of the comedy duo French and Saunders. The pair met while training as drama teachers at London's Central School of Speech and Drama and, after responding to an advertisement, began performing in Soho's The Comic Strip club in the early 1980s, sharing the bill with other 1980s alternative comedians such as Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson and Alexei Sayle.

French made her television debut on Channel 4's inaugural night in Five Go Mad in Dorset (tx. 2/11/82), a satirical take on Enid Blyton's children's books and the first of a series of comic films mixing parody and satire under the banner The Comic Strip Presents... (Channel 4, 1982-88; BBC 1990-1992; Channel 4, 1998-2000;). French acted in 27 of the 37 episodes, and wrote for two. She also made occasional appearances alongside her Comic Strip cohorts in The Young Ones (BBC, 1982-84).

In 1985 French appeared with Saunders, Tracey Ullman and Ruby Wax in the sitcom Girls On Top (ITV 1985-86) - about four eccentric young women sharing a London flat - which she co-wrote with Saunders and Wax. French and Saunders later teamed up for another sitcom, the flop Let Them Eat Cake (BBC, 1999), set in pre-revolutionary France and written by Peter Learmouth.

1987 saw the first series of the duo's self-scripted comedy sketch show, French and Saunders (BBC 1987-), which confirmed their position as Britain's most successful female comedic double act, and paved the way for acts like Mel and Sue (who first appeared on the show), and other female-oriented sketch shows such as Smack the Pony (Channel 4, 1999-2002). Successful elements included the recurring 'Two Fat Men' sketches, in which they inverted and mocked comedic traditions of male cross-dressing and the sexual objectification of women, and a series of comically inept parodies of popular films (Aliens, Titanic etc.). There have been five complete series to date, the last airing in 1996, but the two continue to make regular seasonal specials.

Without Saunders, French appeared in pastiche series Murder Most Horrid (BBC 1991-99), playing a different character each week: usually murderer, victim or both, as in the episode 'Mrs Hat and Mrs Red' (tx. 19/12/1991), about a woman who meets her doppelganger and falls for her husband. The hugely popular The Vicar of Dibley (BBC, 1994-99), in which she played the sassy female vicar of an Oxfordshire village, began in 1994. Despite accusations of blandness, it was an enormous success, winning an International Emmy award in 1998 and enjoying regular repeats.

Like her contemporaries Victoria Wood and Jo Brand, much of French's humour cheerfully mocks her own large size, which she incorporates into her material in a way quite different to the 'funny fat lady' traditions established by more patriarchal forms of comedy.

Although primarily a comic, she has occasionally appeared in more serious material, notably the drama Tender Loving Care (BBC, tx. 3/10/1993), as a murderous nurse preying on her patients, and the more light-hearted Ted and Alice (BBC, tx. 4/4/2002).

She has been married to comedian Lenny Henry since 1984.

Hannah Hamad

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Comic Strip Presents..., The (1982-2000)Comic Strip Presents..., The (1982-2000)

Long-running film showcase for the alternative comedy generation

Thumbnail image of French and Saunders (1987-)French and Saunders (1987-)

Sketch show featuring longtime partners Dawn and Jennifer

Thumbnail image of Girls on Top (1985-86)Girls on Top (1985-86)

Flatshare comedy with French, Saunders, Tracy Ullman and Ruby Wax

Thumbnail image of Vicar of Dibley, The (1994-2007)Vicar of Dibley, The (1994-2007)

Gently satirical Richard Curtis sitcom with Dawn French as a female vicar

Thumbnail image of Young Ones, The (1982-84)Young Ones, The (1982-84)

Anarchic sitcom which launched a generation of alternative comedians

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Alternative ComedyAlternative Comedy

The new broom of early '80s humour

Thumbnail image of Funny Women on TVFunny Women on TV

Comedy with a female slant

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Henry, Lenny (1958- )Henry, Lenny (1958- )

Comedian, Presenter, Writer

Thumbnail image of Saunders, Jennifer (1958-)Saunders, Jennifer (1958-)

Actor, Writer