I cannot say I was someone who grew up watching Dawn French. Her and her ilk were viewed in our household as being a bit rude, crude and dare I say it, a bit too female. Possibly these are the very reasons my sister seemed to revel in the humour, and with many other things my sister enjoyed, I made a mental post-it note to catch up with French and Saunders when I was old enough to have my own opinions about comedy and feminism. And my own TV.
So it wasn’t the need to have a nostalgia hit that led me to this book, but rather a sense that I had missed out on someone. This was a notion confirmed by French’s heartbreaking turn on Desert Island Discs.
Having listening to French’s frank and warm account of loss, suicide, friendship, heartbreak and the joy of finding love again (not to mention her excellent song choices), I sought out Dear Fatty as soon as I could.
French writes her autobiography in the form of letters to family, friends and, of course, Madonna. I found this method incredibly interesting. I haven’t read a memoir that uses this technique before. It felt like French was literally opening up her diary to me, and though I felt quite privileged to be let in on some of her correspondence, at times it was so brutally open that I felt I shouldn’t be reading it at all. There were words I couldn’t help feeling should have been kept solely for the recipient. But that’s up to French, I guess.
And it was strange, because you would assume a writer using this method would ultimately want the reader to feel included in everything. But there were many times that not just my own coyness made me feel like I wanted to stop reading. In fact, I began to entirely skip over French’s letters to Jennifer Saunders. Maybe it didn’t help that I don’t know much about the comedy duo and felt left out of the in-jokes, but I didn’t get the winks and nods, the endlessly repeated phrases. I felt like a stranger at a party, sat on the arm of a sofa, dumbly smiling so as not to seem rude or stupid, as two people bantered away beside me.
So I kept to the biography path I know well – family life and career trajection. And it was here that the book really grabbed me. French has a cast of characters for a family, a bundle of warmth and humour that seemed to be wrapped up against a darkness. This darkness comes to ahead with the suicide of her father when she was still very young. French handles this subject with a steady and unsentimental hand and I was struck by her brutal honesty. She allows her anger to show, but it is clear that love is at the root of everything this woman does. Her sharing of her grief, the result of a harrowing and untimely death, has allowed me to view my own in a new and inspiring light.
It is a bit of a cliché that some of the best humour springs from the saddest people, and though I didn’t get the impression that French has the classic symptoms of the depressive clown, it is hard to ignore how comedy does seem to have pretty restorative properties. Two weeks after the death of her father, French sets off to college where she meets Saunders, and the rest, as they say is history.
I really wish I had watched French and Saunders on TV as I was growing up. Thier story, as told by French, is a great example of talented women working, pursuing, working, boundary breaking, working some more and generally being just brilliant. I think I could have learnt a lot in my formative years about women being funny, original and having the cahooners to send themselves up and look ridiculous. Knowing that it was ok to do these things may have set me on a firmer path that didn’t just involve trying to be pretty and always being quiet. But who knows?
I will however, at the age of 31, let French teach me a little about the importance of family, the extraordinary power of friendship and how finding something to laugh at every day can make the week a bit more alright.
- ISBN: 9781448106578 Kindle edition
- Arrow/Random House 2009