Spurred on by a casual meeting, Sadie Hasler finally writes the letter she’s always meant to write to Dawn French – her inspiration, not just in comedy, but in personal tragedy; moving on from a father’s suicide.
I don’t do fawning or bowing to fame. Humans are humans, I reckon.
From seeing Bros waving out of a West End window as a kid and numbly thinking “Huh. Their heads look really tiny,” as hundreds of girls screamed their larynxes out around me, to spilling wine on Derek Jacobi (and getting away with it), I’ve always felt quite casual meeting people who happen to be famous.
I quietly search for the things hidden just beneath the illusion of their renown; a shyness in the way they move, or a bit of sandwich in their teeth. Looking not for faults, but for real things. The humans they are, not ‘the thing’ they do.
Perhaps I am slightly deadened to the thrill of meeting people who have been glazed with the dubious gilt of celebrity.
You get to meet a lot of people when you shapeshift around the worlds of comedy, telly and theatre as a character writer and performer, and a few years of doing the Edinburgh Festival can be enough to permanently snuff out any sense of magic you may still have for familiar faces. Everyone all wallows around together like pigs in swill. It has a democratising effect; if you saw John Cleese in Tesco up there, you’d sooner be telling him to “get to the back of the queue, Granddad,” than trying to force a silly walk and an autograph out of him. (Which is as it should be if the cheeky bastard is pushing in.)
But recently, I sought an encounter with a well-known person because I just had to know what it felt like to meet her. A dear friend of mine, Adam, is tour managing Dawn French. He offered me tickets; asked me if I’d like to meet her. I squealed and said yes, yes, a thousand yeses. That casual question of his brought up a lot of things I had been quietly sitting on for some time, and resulted in this letter.
Dearest lovely Dawn,
Firstly, DON’T BE FRIGHTENED – I’M NOT MENTAL.
Re the first point again – I am a chum of Adam’s, I’m not a complete random writing to say I have every picture ever taken of you pasted to the wall of a secret Dawn French annex in my attic. As I say, not mental. I’m coming to see you at Southend tomorrow and thought I would write in advance to say how much I loved the show, even though I’ve not seen it yet. I know I will.
This is my third attempt at writing to you. The first still exists in a notebook somewhere, and the second was deleted with an accompanying slap to the forehead from a book I am writing. Over the past few years, I’ve done a lot of work with the very silly man that is Al Murray, which is how I know Adam. One of the many silly things I’ve done for that lovely beer-slosher was ‘play’ the female guests in his live theatre rehearsals for Happy Hour. Of all the women I vaguely attempted to impersonate in some token way – Lumley, Holden, Von Teese, some posh bird I’d never heard about but looked up on Wikipedia – you were the only one I didn’t even try to ‘do’. I knew I wouldn’t get close, and didn’t want to try.
I wrote the first letter to you to put in a card and send to your dressing room at the Happy Hour record, but I bottled it because I didn’t want to be nauseating or annoying. So I just sent you love in my head instead. Now I’m actually going to go through with being nauseating and/or annoying. Apologies.
One of my other jobs in the uncertain world of writing (plays and columns) and acting (stoopid) is working part-time in a bookshop. I’ve wandered in and out of its cosy embrace throughout the years; it’s like my second home. When your autobiography came out, I stood leaning over the counter like a total slacker, chewing gum and shooting surly looks at anyone who interrupted my very important ‘work’, which was reading your lovely words with the biggest grin on my face. My grin soon left. I didn’t know that your father had ended his own life. I was heartbroken for you, and felt savagely protective of you.
My father committed suicide when I was 23, ten years ago, and at the time of reading your book I was a little way into writing a book about him. I had to write it I think or I would always have been trapped in grief, like a fly in amber. It’s been gruellingly difficult but I think it may be the most important thing I have done for my head. Still tinkering with it. I secretly wonder if I want to finish it at all, because that will mean I have to move on in a new way; another kind of goodbye.
My Dad had always struggled with depression. Bi-polar, they later told him. He was found with his head in a gas oven at thirteen, and then it was always there. Like you, I was always kept from it. Mum and Dad split up when I was six, so he was ‘holiday’ Dad. ‘The odd week in North Wales’ Dad.
I only got to see him when he was chipper. I never knew. He was a difficult controlling bugger, a clusterfuck of financial mess and woe, but god was he wonderful too. He instilled so much in me, and was obsessed with me being everything I could be; he knew the importance of living a good life because he knew that dark pull of wanting to give that life up. He is in everything I do, and I’m so grateful for it all. Even grateful for his death sometimes, because you have to take things from that too or you go a bit mad, don’t you?
I grew up loving you, doing skits to the class with my best friend Vicki, intent on being the school’s French and Saunders. Then I forgot I loved comedy and started writing poetry and plays as a teenager, later became a drama teacher, and a month after I started teaching in 2003, Dad died. Teaching died for me too, almost immediately I think. I shuffled through it for a couple of years, then had a cataclysmic breakdown and left. Started working in the bookshop once I’d dusted myself off, then got pulled into acting and comedy via writing, met Al, and remembered that I’d always loved it; it had always been there, and that it started with you. That’s when I wrote you a letter I never sent.
The letter told you that you had been there – years after inspiring silly sketches, one of the happiest times in my life – in my lowest moments too, after Dad went – wrapped in blankets on the sofa, in the deepest depths of wracking grief, not wanting to be alive anymore. The Vicar of Dibley was one of the few, few comforts at that time. I watched DVDs of it over and over again. A veil pulled over it all. Its warmth and strangeness and occasional darkness. And the vibrancy of you – reminding me what it felt like to smile, even in the middle of all that hopelessness. (The words ‘thank you’ for that aren’t enough.)
Then years later I ‘played’ you. Failed to send you a letter. Looked after your book in the shop instead. Never dropped it. And I still always make sure you’re face out. No snugly hidden spine for you. You’re with me a lot as I bustle about dropping expensive hardbacks on my toes. I think you’ll always be with me.
Anyway. I just wanted to say…all that. Sorry. But mainly I wanted to hug you very tight with words. Hope that isn’t your definition of mental after all.
I’m coming to see you tomorrow. So if you feel the theatre beaming extra bright and hot somewhere, that will be me. Quietly bursting with lots of things for you. (Actually – I say quiet – I have a hideously loud laugh. I will attempt to keep it down so you can concentrate. That’d be bloody typical after this, wouldn’t it; ruining your lovely show with my squawking.)
With just the right healthy sort of love you can feel for someone you don’t know,
But undoubtedly love,
The letter got delivered to her via my friend. I felt like a complete nobby doofus, but somehow better for the purging. The next night, after her show, Dawn asked to meet me. And there in her dressing room it ended – after all that time, after all those things – in the best way. Not with any awareness or acknowledgment of her fame, but with two women, talking, understanding, and hugging.
* Lovely Dawn is touring her fabulous one-woman show Thirty Million Minutes around the country. Dates can be found at www.dawnfrenchontour.com1923 Views
Sadie is a playwright, actor, columnist, artistic director of Old Trunk theatre company, and frequently discombobulated multi-tasker.