History Centre Heroes: Dawn French

Some of the best Christmas television in recent years has been provided by today’s History Centre Hero. Who can forget the Vicar Of Dibley Christmas specials – particularly the last one in 2006 when the character of Geraldine Granger finally fell in love and got married?

A photograph of Dawn French as Geraldine Granger in the Vicar of Dibley

 

Dawn French has had a long career as a nationally renowned comedian, mostly in TV but also in film and theatre, writing and performing sketch shows with Jennifer Saunders and other major comedians of the alternative comedy scene.

But her one role most likely to be discussed by future historians is that of Geraldine Granger in the BBC comedy sitcom ‘The Vicar of Dibley’ which ran from 1994-2007.  Two years after women were first allowed to become priests in the Church of England, this award winning series made her into a sort of patron saint for professional women.

It had a huge impact on getting them generally accepted in the last of the traditional professions, and if sexist attitudes at work continued, perhaps she at least made it easier for women to laugh it off; watching from the sofa Geraldine’s troubles with an array of characters in a fictional Oxfordshire village.

Dawn French was born in Holyhead in Wales in 1957.  Her parents were from Plymouth, and though they moved often as her father was in the RAF, she stayed in the city during term time at St Dunstan’s Abbey School (now merged with Plymouth College) on North Road West.

A photograph of comedienne Dawn French

When she was eighteen her talent for public speaking was spotted by local MP Michael Foot during a debating competition.  He nominated her for a scholarship to spend a year in the USA at an independent school in New York, a period she drew upon in her novel According to Yes (2015).

At the Central School of Speech and Drama in London she was training to be a drama teacher when she met Jennifer Saunders, a comedian with a similar mission to upset chauvinist stereotypes, and began to work on the double act that was so successful as ‘French and Saunders’ (1897-2007). This series of sketches and spoofs on popular culture was given one of the highest budgets in BBC history. Jennifer Saunders’ highly popular sitcom ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ was based on one of their sketches.

 

A photograph of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders

After publishing her autobiography Dear Fatty in 2007, Dawn French’s work has concentrated more on her own life experiences.  She has written two other novels, and recently toured with her first solo show, ‘Thirty Million Minutes’, when she described how she has spent ‘her whole life vigorously attempting to be a fully functioning female human.’  She now lives in Fowey, Cornwall, and in March 2015 became the first Chancellor of Falmouth University.

Her 2011 best-selling debut novel A Tiny Bit Marvellous is currently being turned into a series for ITV.

In the meantime, you can catch her in a very different role at the end of the festive period when her new four-part drama ‘Delicious’ premieres on Sky1 on 30 December.

A photograph of Dawn French in Sky1's 'Delicious'

Written by Rosemary Babichev.

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