Tuesday, May 12, 2009

dear fatty

I waited in a queue of 36 holds to get my hands on this book, Dawn French’s autobiography (or epistolary memoir if you want to split hairs), so one must assume from that it’s worth reading. It is. It’s very funny, in parts quite touching, and actually makes a nice companion piece to John Barrowman’s Anything Goes, as both use unusual structure to tell various threads from when they were wee kids to their success stories today. However, that’s where the similarities end between them in biographical details at least! The humor is slightly different, as well, though I confess both memoirs made me laugh out loud.

“Fatty,” by the way, is Jennifer Saunders, though unless I was skimming through the book and missed it, it’s never explained how she got that nickname. Personally before I read the book and saw it on the shelves, I thought it was a self-deprecating way of Dawn’s (yes, I will call her Dawn) getting back at some cruel-minded bastard who may have addressed her at some point as “dear Fatty.” Boy, was I wrong. She has chosen the memoir structure because autobiography would be “quite dull because in quite a lot of parts of my life has indeed been quite dull.” Dear Fatty spends a lot of time addressing Dawn’s childhood and teenage years, much like Anything Goes actually, for which Dawn can be forgiven as she is writing most of her letters to her dad, who died when she was 19. The irreverent yet loving tone she would have us believe she got from the French side of the family is evident right away, when she tells a hilarious story of being three years old and seeing her dad naked and wanting to save him from “the vicious hairy saggy mole-snake creature.” Dawn French: fearless in the face of comedic value!

Like John Barrowman, Dawn feels shaped by the influence of her two grannies, the delicate Cornwall Grandma French and Evil Granny Lil (there’s a great story about Evil Granny and £60 you should read yourself). I myself have struggled in memoir to portray the bald not-so-nice elements about members of my own family, and I’m sure it helps that Lil has long vanished into cigarette-scented smoke, but Dawn’s honest yet fair appraisal is helpful in that respect. I really love pre-teen and teenage Dawn’s letters to the Monkees, David Cassidy, and all-girl band Fanny, the former gushing with love and how she knows they will end up together. I love these because not only are they funny, they remind me of my aunts who are just about contemporaries of Dawn. The book is generously illustrated with photos, and the ones of Dawn in the ‘60s and ‘70s are uncannily like ones I’ve seen of my aunts in the same era. Spooky. (Also, I knew a Dawn who looks just like this Dawn!)

There are letters to her brother, to her now-teenage daughter Billie (not Piper because that would be weird), a poignant letter to her first boyfriend Nick, and a letter that makes you sorry for all the people she ever babysat for. Will male readers have to skip the several pages on Dawn getting her first period? I don’t know, but I thought it was funny and apt! If, like me, you didn’t know until page 172 that Billie was adopted, there’s a lovely, touching letter about that. There are a number of “Dear Fatty” letters that are just jokes in letter form, some of which are more successful than others. (The letters to Madonna in full-on West Country accent don’t quite do it for me.) There’s an amusing application for friendship form to Liza Tarbuck, though it would help if I knew who Liza Tarbuck was.

In a letter addressed to her niece, Dawn lauds the value and bemusement factor of bosoms. “Every time I see a flat-fronted woman
[1], I want to apologize for my seemingly appalling greed.” Her unbridled frankness brings a shocked smile to my face as she tells her niece to avoid men with small hands: “Every single boy I have known intimately has been utterly entranced by them and can’t wait to earn access so they can play all day.” This is followed up by a glorious chapter on the merits of kissing and how Dawn can’t resist. She gives a list of favorite kisses, and while it’s telling that “30. Lenworth G. Henry –the brightest, the best. Loves kissing anywhere, anytime. The King of Kiss”, there are some surprises, too. “36. Boyzone—enjoyable, varied, 39. Johnny Depp—sweet, respectful, as if I was favorite aunt. Not long enough or full enough or penetrative enough. Resistant.” Of course me being me, my favorite is, “44. Richard Armitage aka Guy of Gisborne, or ‘Man of Pleather’—shy, giggling, loving.” Oodalolly.

There’s her letter to David, the man she almost married (who became a tea taster for Lipton!). Maybe it’s just me, but this well-written, well-structured look at who a 19-year-old, pre-Saunders French would want to be married to stirred up nostalgic memories of my first boyfriend and what it felt like to be 18, 19 again. I wonder if teenagers’ approach to “it” is always the same: “I couldn’t believe you could be so casual and normal on such a momentous day. After all, SEX was going to happen. Within hours. Y’know, SEX. . . . I was going to have proper sex for the first time ever, and you were putting petrol in the car, your hand on the pump, filling up the car. The imagery made me giddy.” One wonders if Dawn hadn’t won her scholarship to go on exchange in New York for a year she would have married David. Or if her dad hadn’t committed suicide.

That’s right, you’re merrily reading along when she mentions “when my dad committed suicide.” You jump and read back and think, is that going to come up again? It does, in a heart-rending letter to her dad in which she attempts to come to terms with it. It’s definitely the most powerful part of the book, a series of questions that go on for two pages, one single, hulking maelstrom paragraph of grief and trying to understand. Dawn’s dad’s death propels her on to college in London where she lives on chocolate milk and crisps every day for a year. (“I was left with less than two pounds a week to buy toothpaste and other essentials. Like food.”) On a drama teachers’ course, she meets Fatty and crushes on Rowan Atkinson. Once out of the course, she gets a job teaching drama at Parliament Hill School for Girls (I’ve called up that school, when I was ringing all schools everywhere to get their in-set coordinator’s name) with her Best Friend (the B.F.). She was only at this job for a year because she and Fatty (eventually christened French and Saunders by Alexei Sayle) had joined the Comic Strip troupe. And their lives are never the same again.

Comic Strip basically begins French and Saunders’ (and French’s and Saunders’) careers in comedy. Following on from this is, of course, much fame and fortune, The Vicar of Dibley, etc. Dawn shares her rather intriguing way of dealing with bad reviews: “the very last night when I enjoy a little ritual of reading ‘notices’ with a glass of rum when I get home, after the party, when the whole shebang is put to bed.” It is only here, ¾ s of the way through the book, that Dawn starts talking about Lenny Henry. Now, I will confess something. I think I first came to know about Dawn French through the French and Saunders sketch included on the VHS tape of Curse of the Fatal Death, you know, the Comic Relief Doctor Who special. So I came quite late in the game, though I caught up quickly as all last autumn my friend Adi
[2] (boy not girl) and I spent our afternoons watching French and Saunders on YouTube. Now that I’m catching up quickly on Vicar of Dibley, I’m feeling a bit more confident. But I had never heard of Lenny Henry until Jamie told me “he’s Dawn French’s husband.” Ohhh. When I finally watched Bernard and the Genie, I thought a) he’s gorgeous; b) lucky Dawn, lucky Lenny. I felt sure they would make a great couple.

Dawn explains her first meeting with Lenny as having been enchanted with his laugh in the audience of one of her shows. Despite that, it was not love at first sight. A year after the initial meeting, Dawn and Lenny met again and stayed up talking late one night. “By morning, I was in giant love with him. In proper, big, marvellous, astonishing love.” He stayed in her flat for a week, and when Fatty came to the door, Dawn shooed her away, insecurely afraid her more “beautiful” friend would steal him away! Because this letter is to her dad, she gets to describe her husband physically. “Another important physical attribute, probably the most impressive, is his marvellous, incomparably fabulous bum, but it feels inappropriate to tell you about the many virtues of that, so I’ll spare you . . .” Dawn gushes in this chapter, which frankly makes it fabulous, and I think she is allowed to effuse a bit about her own wedding (though she was engaged in dangerous dieting beforehand and describes her dress as “an inspired combination of shepherdess and whore”).

I mentioned to my boss that I was reading this book and she was reminded of an interview on TV during “a rough patch” in the French/Henry marriage. Of course I had no knowledge of this, seeing as how I didn’t know they were married until 5 months ago. This, too, is addressed. “Really, this book should be called Dear Len and simply be one big long love letter to you.” Dawn mentions “endless rounds of heartbreaking IVF failures, the sneaking in and out of clinics, often at night, to avoid press interest.” “It was frightening and humiliating to be doorstepped in the night by two journos in macs who I was convinced were police. You were driving home from a gig that night, so when I saw them I thought that they were here to tell me you had died in some awful crash. Instead, they were at my door to gleefully dump their buckets of sleaze and schadenfreude on me. Oddly, I was relieved!”

With her marriage of 24 years now more solid than ever, she writes to Richard Curtis to thank him for her years on Vicar of Dibley and announce that not only has ‘More tea, Vicar?!’ been shouted at her more times than she could cope with, she’s also been addressed as ‘Vicar of Dumbledore!’ and ‘Vicar of Dublin!’ She admits to crushes on Peter Capaldi, Clive Mantle, Richard Armitage, and Johnny Depp. “Me realizing I am an actual dirty harlot.”

Dawn ends the book by saluting Fatty as they both turn 50. “I bow to you, and bring on the next 50!”

[1] Of which persuasion I am.
[2]Dawn was among Adi’s celebrity crushes, the others being Juliette Binoche, Audrey Hepburn, Kristin Chenoweth, etc.

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