Dawn French

Dawn French

Born in the Welsh seaport town of Holyhead, Dawn Roma French was the daughter of Denys French, a member of the Royal Air Force, and his wife, Felicity. Though her father suffered from severe depression that led to several attempted suicides, he managed to imbue his daughter and her brother, Gary, with a strong sense of self-confidence that helped her navigate the tricky social environment of her schooling, where she felt out of place amongst her wealthier schoolmates. After winning a scholarship to study at the prestigious Spence School in New York, French attended the Central School of Speech and Drama in 1977, where she met Jennifer Saunders. Though both came from RAF family backgrounds, the pair initially disliked each other's personalities. Eventually, they found common ground in comedy, and began performing on the club circuit as the Menopause Sisters. The duo earned their initial break as part of the Comic Strip, a troupe that included such favorites of the UK alternative comedy scene as Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmonson and Nigel Planer, all of whom would go on to stardom as "The Young Ones" (BBC Two 1982-1984). French and Saunders made their television debut with their fellow Comic Strip members on the sketch comedy series "The Comic Strip Presents. ." There, the duo attracted both critical and fan attention for sketches like "Consuela," a parody of Alfred Hitchcock's "Rebecca" (1940) with French as a scene-hogging take on the sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. A 1981 comedy album of Comic Strip sketches on Island Records introduced the pair to a broader audience outside of U.K. television viewership. By 1985, French and Saunders had moved on to star in and write their own television series, "Girls on Top" (ITV 1985-1986), which starred the pair alongside Tracey Ullman and Ruby Wax as a quartet of offbeat women sharing a flat in London. After signing a long-term contract with the BBC, they launched their showcase series "French and Saunders," which featured elaborate and uproarious parodies of popular culture icons, from "Titanic" (1997) and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy (2001-2003) to Madonna and The Spice Girls. The series proved extraordinarily popular with viewers, whose response prompted the BBC to boost the show's modest budget to record-breaking levels in order for French and Saunders to properly lampoon their mainstream targets. Though "French and Saunders" ended its regular run in 1996, the pair continued to issue Christmas specials and appear together on numerous variety programs, live tours and charity specials until reviving the show for a final season in 2004. A retrospective series, "A Bucket o' French and Saunders" aired in 2007, after which the pair concluded their duo act, though they continued to collaborate in various subsequent projects. Between French and Saunders assignments, French also enjoyed solo stardom on a number of television series. She starred in the anthology series "Murder Most Horrid" (BBC Two 1991, 1994, 1996 1998), which spoofed thriller and mystery tropes, then earned her biggest hit outside of the French and Saunders universe with "The Vicar of Dibley." The comedy program, which starred French as a female priest in a small, eccentric British village, was one of the most popular series of its period, earning French a BAFTA nomination for Best Comedy Performance and numerous British Comedy Awards, two International Emmys and multiple British Academy Television Awards for the series itself. She also found time during this busy schedule to appear in another sitcom, "Wild West" (BBC One 2002-04), with French and Catherine Tate as life partners who run a store in a small Cornish town, and play The Fat Lady, a supernaturally imbued portrait in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (2004). The following year, she voiced Mrs. Beaver in the Walt Disney Pictures production of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" (2005) before reuniting with Saunders for "Jam & Jerusalem" (BBC 2006-09), which cast her as a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder. After earning a BAFTA Fellowship with Saunders in the final year of the series' network run, French then co-starred in "Psychoville" (BBC Two, 2009-2010), a dark comedy that cast the comedian as a seemingly unhinged midwife who dotes on a doll to contend with the loss of her own child. In 2010, she created and co-starred with Alfred Molina in "Roger & Val Have Just Got In" (BBC Two 2010-2012), a bittersweet comedy series that unfolded in real time to follow the lives of a middle-aged couple. French received a 2011 BAFTA nomination for her performance, shortly before signing on to serve as celebrity judge on "Australia's Got Talent" (Seven Network 2007-) in 2013.