Dawn French: “I was jealous of Jennifer’s Ab Fab success”

Dawn French talks candidly about her father's suicide, and being "really annoyed" when Absolutely Fabulous became a hit

At 16 I was virginal. I thought about sex almost every hour of every day. Imagining it, anticipating it, fearing it and longing for it. I was at a girls’ school and my brother was at a boys’ school so I fell in love with each of his friends in turn. Mostly misguided crushes on inappropriate people. Always asking, when will the moment happen? Before that I’d practised kissing on plums, other girls, pillows. I feel very affectionate about the teenage me. I was full of hope, always looking for the good in every moment. And always looking for the laugh.

I was angry, confused, bewildered, sad, blaming all the wrong people, including myself

There were points when I didn’t have much confidence. It would go from high to low a lot. My dad gave me a bit of talking to one night, when I was off to a party in my purple suede hot pants. He told me what I was to him. A beauty and a prize. He said if anything happened to me he’d be devastated. He told me any boy would be lucky to have me. And I utterly, utterly believed him. He was probably handling me carefully, knowing I was a bit vulnerable, off to a party, maybe not with a lot of confidence. But I believed he spoke the truth and it really stuck with me. A dad’s boost of confidence to his daughter is a very potent thing. I was very lucky to have him. And I still believe what he said to me was, and is, true.

I was 18 when my dad committed suicide. If I could go back an put an arm round my teenage self I’d say, one day, eventually, you will understand this. Because it was so hard to understand then. It was a giant trauma. I was angry, confused, bewildered, sad, blaming all the wrong people, including myself. But as time has gone on I’ve learned about mental health, and understood that if my dad had perhaps lived in a time when he didn’t feel so ashamed of his depression, it might have been very different. It’s a cliche but it’s true – over time you learn to forgive that person and understand they sought a way out at a particular time. At that point, for him, life was a sort of hell. He was just then altered, and not the dad I knew.

Dawn French

It wasn’t until the middle part of my life that I began worrying and catastrophising. Probably to do with having kids. Paying mortgages. Having responsibilities. I longed for children and I was so happy when it happened, but when they were there the responsibility sometimes felt overpowering. It can wear you down if you’re not careful. Since then I’ve made conscious decisions to live differently. There’s a Jane Hirshfield poem where she says “I move my chair into the sun”. That has been the most useful thing I’ve learned in the last 10 years. You can choose to move out to where it’s warmer. Now it’s like muscle memory, I’m starting to feel much more optimistic. I’m back to where I was when I was young.

DID YOU KNOW…

If you pay for the magazine you should always take it. Vendors are working for a hand up, not a handout.

The 16-year-old me would be amazed and very impressed that I ended up in the comedy world with comedians I adored. I still have odd starstruck moments, like when I met Michael Palin or John Cleese, and I thought, ‘Oh God, I have adored you’. And I have to tell myself, come on, they’re just people, they’re normal. Among people I actually knew, Rik Mayall was very easy to love. Not only was he beautiful, he was extremely funny in a unique way. He used to have me in absolute fits of laughter. Probably because he performed very easily in his normal everyday life. He would do anything, any stupid thing, to get a laugh out of you. He was a complete tart for a laugh. I have a lot to thank him for.

It’s a slow, painful process, when you finally start listening to your inner instinct

It can be hard when a friend, especially one you’ve never done any work separately from, suddenly has a huge success without you. Ab Fab was such a massive hit. Until then Jennifer [Saunders, her comedy partner since the early ’80s] and I had been utterly linked in everything we did. I was made very aware that, in comedy terms, she was a completely individual, separate person. With her own powers. That really shocked me. Not only was she able to do it without me, she could do it really well. So that was really annoying. But however jealous I was, I love her and I was proud of her. I dealt with it by being open and honest about my jealousy. I sent her a bunch of flowers when she won a Bafta saying ‘Congratulations you cunt’.

For me, our separation was a sad thing [she split with husband Lenny Henry in 2010, after 26 years together], a kind of waking up to the inevitable. That’s a slow, painful process, when you finally start listening to your inner instinct. You must never never ignore voices in your heart. We all know them, suppress them like mad, but sometimes they are the truth. So it was sad. But we handled it by acknowledging that we were both in a bit of pain. And we looked after each other. We were kind to each other. I was delighted with that. It’s not like we had to say, ooh, let’s try to be kind to each other. We just were, because we’d always been. We thought, let’s finish this as we started it, as friends. And we’ve got a kid! Who matters much more than us. And she must never feel she was trapped in the middle of this, or that she was for one minute to blame.

Lenny Henry and Dawn French and daughter Billie
Lenny Henry and Dawn French and daughter Billie

If I could have one last conversation with anyone, it would be my dad. I’ve always felt he knows what’s happening in my life because I have him in my back pocket at all times, sort of like my engine. But I would like to talk to him about his struggles with mental health. I knew nothing about them at the time, though other people did. But it was such a shameful thing back then, no one talked about it. Most of the time he was a cheerful, funny, adventurous, happy dad. Then there were times when he withdrew to a dark room, but I just thought he had a migraine. I’d like to talk to him properly about how he was feeling. Now that I think I understand.

I still have starstruck moments, like when I met Michael Palin or John Cleese

If I could go back to any moment I’d be 18 again, in a tent, in the dunes on a Cornwall beach called Gwithian Sands. That was the moment everything I had been worrying about for years finally came to pass. It was not at all traumatising – he was a lovely boy. It was a happy event. Then we had a big, long sloppy kiss. And went for a big swim in the sea. And then we had a Fab ice lolly. Bliss.

Me. You. A Diary by Dawn French (Michael Joseph, £20) is out now