Dawn French in The Vicar of Dibley
The Age reports
Dawn French has loads of talent and now she's checking out Australia's. Dawn French is on stage. But she's not performing. She's left her judging chair to climb up to an Australia's Got Talent contestant, who has broken down in tears as she relates a tale of personal loss, and give her a big hug.
French is reluctant to buy into the question of who the "nice judge" is on this year's AGT judging panel, claiming everyone – Geri Halliwell, Timomatic and even Kyle Sandilands – is nice. But as she's embracing the woman on stage, it's pretty clear which judge has the niceness stakes wrapped up.
The question on the minds of most fans, though, would not be what approach French takes to judging, but what she's doing here at all. She is not your typical talent show judge: neither a faded pop star searching for relevance nor an itinerant unemployed celebrity. Rather, she is a bona-fide legend of comedy (French and Jennifer Saunders are one of the most beloved double acts ever), a top-rating sitcom star, a conqueror of stage and screen, and, more recently, a best-selling author.
French was long ago cemented as a showbusiness titan – she's certainly got nothing to prove to anyone. Which may be the whole point of her appearance on AGT. Having just about done it all, she can choose her projects just for fun.
She admits it's a gig she wouldn't have expected to find herself doing – "not that I wouldn't do it; I don't think I would be asked" – until Ben Elton suggested her to Andrew Lloyd Webber as a guest judge for the live shows on the composer's Superstar talent quest.
Finding it "the best fun I'd had for years", she was thus inspired to take up the offer of a trip Down Under to judge the aspiring singers, comics and sundry novelty acts of Australia's Got Talent, a show that this season is thereby blessed with a judge of not only greater-than-usual distinction, but a different approach to the often formulaic task performed by so many judges before her. French was clearly hired for the quality that's made her a star: being funny. And she is. But she's also impressively thoughtful and considered, striving to understand where each performer is coming from and offering advice and encouragement even when unimpressed.
And of course, she's very, very nice. In person she's even nicer. Having seen her play the witty, big-hearted vicar of Dibley, the Reverend Geraldine Granger, for 13 years, it would be naive to expect the real woman to be as charming as the character, but French is all that and more – the rare celebrity who is every bit as loveable as you hoped.
She's genuinely excited about the talent she's been watching, particularly the variety the AGT format throws up. "You can see anything – as indeed we did. Some people juggle with their feet, some people throw spaghetti around." It's that variety, and the thrill of thinking with each act, "Is this our winner?" that has her enthused about her antipodean sojourn. "I would hope, I really pray that by the finals we've got an interesting line-up . . . and I pray that Australia goes for something really interesting."
She also hopes she's got the requisite skill set to properly judge the performers, finding her mind racing in the two minutes that a contestant is on stage: "Do I like you? Is this clever? Am I entertained? Am I sorry for you? Are you just a gorgeous kid I can't say no to?" She finds it exhausting, and freely admits her new job is a talent she doesn't yet know whether she possesses. When asked how she thinks she's done so far, she laughs. "Oh god! Always can do better!"
One part of the job she struggles with is letting people down: it's that preternatural niceness once again. "It's really hard. It's not in my nature to say no to people." Though she does have her bugbears; Elvis impersonators will get no joy from her, for one. But she's definitely more comfortable talking people up than slamming them: she lauds the "amazing" talent on display among the AGT contestants. She also praises her cast mates, even the notorious Mr Sandilands – a "very intelligent man" – with whom, she emphasises, she gets on famously, despite the warnings she received before arriving that she'd need to "have her gloves up".
French acknowledges that at the beginning of her own career she probably wouldn't have had a chance on a show such as AGT, describing the early French and Saunders as awkward – "our sketches were too long, we didn't have an ending, we didn't know how to start, we didn't know how to end it". She's thankful that back then, rather than the cruelty of a reality TV buzzer, her career hinged on the nurturing BBC, and laments modern shows needing to work straight away. "Nothing works until the second season," she says, a stark contrast, she muses, with her new career making two-minute snap judgments.
The fact she had a career at all was, according to her, a complete accident: French and her college friend Saunders found "the little show-offs inside us were nicely satiated" by performing the characters they'd created in public. They were lucky enough, she says, to begin performing at a time when the so-called alternative comedy boom had made it "very un-PC to have a show without women".
And so French and Saunders joined the Comic Strip, a sketch comedy group including such luminaries as Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson and Peter Richardson, which was desperate for women to boost its alternative credentials. "They didn't care whether we were any good – we had tits," French chuckles. Today, French professes delight that women in comedy are far more prevalent, and that many of them identify her and Saunders as a factor in entering the business.
From their affirmative-action beginnings, French and Saunders became television legends. Their sketch-comedy series came along in a decade in which British comedy was packed with big-name double acts – Smith and Jones, Fry and Laurie, Hale and Pace among others – but Dawn and Jennifer ended up at the top of the heap, their show running on and off for almost two decades and securing them a place in comedy lovers' hearts to rival the legendary Morecambe and Wise.
Their friendship is at the heart of the act. French declares that her own full-bore approach to comedy is a result of her desire to make her friend laugh. "I had to make her laugh – I will do anything. I'll show my arse, put on silly masks, make my face bad . . . to earn her laugh is my utter pleasure, and I know the same is true for her."
The pure affection that shines from French when speaking of Saunders is inspirational: a loving friendship that endures after more than three decades of working together.
The magical onscreen dynamic between manic French and refined Saunders spawned by the friendship has led to them conquering the world, and made possible enormously successful solo careers, in particular Saunders on Absolutely Fabulous and French, of course, as the Reverend Granger, a role she originally turned down, not wanting to play the straight woman in Dibley's cast of eccentrics. Only when show creator and friend Richard Curtis sent her a list of the distinguished actors who were in line to get the part was she spurred to take it on, a decision she – and the world – is thankful for.
After all, without the vicar, we might not have found out just how nice the "nice judge" can be.
Australia's Got Talent premieres on August 11 at 6.30pm on Channel Nine.