Dawn French

Active - 1985 - 2022  |   Born - Oct 11, 1957 in Holyhead, Anglesey, Wales  |   Genres - Comedy

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Biography by Nathan Southern

Best known as one-half of the British sketch comedy team French and Saunders and as the star of the long-running sitcom The Vicar of Dibley, the unabashedly full-figured, rubber-faced Welsh comedienne Dawn French began life in the harbor town of Holyhead, Anglesey, Wales, on October 11, 1957. As a young woman, French trained at London's Central School of Speech and Drama, where she famously met fellow student Jennifer Saunders, then another aspiring comic. The two not only forged a lifelong friendship, but teamed up at the tail end of the 1970s as a comedy act. French suggested that they audition in response to a Stage magazine ad for up-and-coming comedians; this led instantly to a niche at the infamous Comic Strip Club, performing alongside Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer, Peter Richardson, and others on a weekly basis.

A regular gig with this troupe on its BBC "movie spoof" sketch comedy series The Comic Strip Presents -- which ran from 1982 to 1988, with a four-year revival in 1990 and a three-year revival in 1998 -- so furthered public awareness of French and Saunders and dramatically heightened their popularity that a spin-off series was naturally inevitable. French & Saunders debuted in 1987 to off-the-chart ratings and sensational critical reviews. The pair scripted and starred in episodes; French's most famous and beloved bits included caricatures of Catherine Zeta-Jones, Madonna, and Cher.

French debuted in feature films circa 1987, alongside Saunders and many of her Comic Strip cohorts, in the jet-black comedy Eat the Rich -- a spoof of cannibalism with guest spots by Paul McCartney, Koo Stark, Robbie Coltrane, and others. The film, however, was understandably reviled by critics on both sides of the Atlantic and disappeared quickly, which may explain why French gravitated back to television. Alongside her ongoing involvement in French & Saunders as a writer and performer (which continued through the first several years of the new millennium), French launched a second series in 1994, The Vicar of Dibley. The program cast her as the supremely unconventional and irreverent (female) vicar of the title -- a new arrival in a village of eccentric people -- with a flair for devouring mounds of chocolate and tossing out potshots and double-entendres left and right. Vicar, like French & Saunders, scored with the public and press and lasted 13 years, finally wrapping in January 2007.

In 2004, French -- perhaps having fully rebounded from the Eat the Rich debacle -- returned in full glory to feature films, this time more respectably and to improved critical reception. She lent a supporting role as The Fat Lady (in the painting) in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and voiced Mrs. Beaver in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005). French also essayed the role of a therapist in Alek Keshishian's Love and Other Disasters, starring Brittany Murphy and Matthew Rhys. She voiced Miss Forcible in the 2007 animated fantasy Coraline.

The characterization of The Fat Lady in Harry Potter is not a unique one for French. Early on, the comic actress used her weight (which has visibly increased over the years) as a key source of her schtick, not only in her BBC series but also in television advertisements. In late 2001, she did spots in the U.K. for Terry's Chocolate Orange segment candies which had her notoriously refusing to share, and an ad for Terry's Chocolate Orange Snowballs which had French rolling down a giant ski slope until she resembled a massive snowball. Off-camera, French is a vociferous proponent of "full-figured" women and markets the oversized female clothing line Sixteen 47 throughout Great Britain.

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  • Trained to be a drama teacher before turning to comedy.
  • Met comedy partner Jennifer Saunders while attending the Central School of Speech and Drama, but they initially hated each other before becoming friends and forming the comic duo the Menopause Sisters.
  • Joined the alternative comedy group the Comic Strip and made her TV debut in 1982 on The Comic Strip Presents.
  • Cocreated the hit sketch-comedy series French and Saunders in 1987.
  • Found success going solo in the 1990s starring in Murder Most Horrid and The Vicar of Dibley.
  • In 1991, cocreated the Sixteen 47 clothing line for plus-size women; the name comes from the statistic that 47 percent of British women are at least size 16.
  • Wrote the autobiographical Dear Fatty in 2008, and her first novel, A Tiny Bit Marvellous, in 2010.