As we walk through the entrance of a very plush hotel in Falmouth, the friendly doorman immediately puts us at ease. “Where would you like to meet Dawn, is the dining room OK?” This is nice as we are a tiny bit star struck and anxious.
Sitting there expectantly we see her arrive in the doorway and the first thing I notice is her diminutive stature. Once greetings are exchanged she asks: “What shall we have, tea, coffee, cakes?” My mouth is dry with nerves I am worried I won’t be able to ask questions while eating but she decides on tea and sandwiches all round. After a couple of minutes I forget I am interviewing a ‘celebrity’ and it feels like a friendly chat. Her dark hair glistens each time she turns her head and she’s very smiley, as she quite happily talks and munches at the same time.
Dawn was rehearsing for her one-woman show ’30 million minutes’ at the University last year when she was approached for the role of Chancellor. “I had huge reservations at first,” she says. “I don’t come out as a celebrity very often, it is the thing I like the least about my work. I am aware that being Chancellor is a kind of ‘everyone look at me’ role but when I walked around and talked to students I realised it is a remarkable place and that I could draw attention to Falmouth University in a way it deserves”.
Dawn adds that she needs to ‘nest’ herself into her new role, juggling it around her other commitments. “I know what I am doing virtually every day up to the end of next year apart from 8 days off with my family in January.” However, she expects to get more involved over time and plans to invite people she has worked with to give master classes or perhaps facilitate a chancellor’s day where people will be encouraged to share their skills.
When she entered the limelight in her 20s she says her celebrity value was all about her work and wasn’t about home or private life. “I am quite surprised now with everything that comes with ‘celebrity’ and that now people can just be famous for being celebrities and nothing else but I have to accept that that is an industry now.”
Dawn insists that she will only get involved with things that she feels passionate about including Comic Relief and The Orchid Project, a charity working to stop female genital cutting. Being Chancellor at Falmouth University fits with her ethos and values so even though she technically did not have time to accept the role she managed to squeeze things around as it was so important to her. “I won’t do things unless they are fun or I’m going to learn something” she adds.
As for Dawn’s ‘other’ career in performing arts and writing, this is now in its 4th decade. There have been numerous films and TV shows, including the hugely popular ‘French and Saunders’ and ‘The Vicar of Dibley’.
If this wasn’t already enough, she has also written two bestselling novels and has just finished her third, as well as ‘Dear Fatty’ her autobiography, written in the format of letters to all the important people in her life. These letters form the basis for her highly personal one-woman show ‘30 million minutes’, named for the number of minutes she has been alive (approximately). “It’s quite an emotional show as it is based on my life and my Dad who died (she was just 19 years old when he killed himself) and what it’s like to be a mother, daughter, wife and best friend,” she says.
When we meet she has just finished her new book ‘According to YES’ which is released on 22nd October and is doing rewrites at night in her hotel room. Yet again the book is based on a personal experience. When Dawn was 18 she went to college in New York for a year, after winning a scholarship. She got a job as a babysitter for a couple in the process of divorcing to pay for her keep. “I had never babysat alone and I didn’t know Manhattan and suddenly I had the key to this family’s flat and was thrust into a very intimate part of their life”.
The main character in ‘According to YES’ is a woman who goes to live with a family in New York to look after twin boys. “She comes into their life on a bit of an East wind and she brings fresh air and light and change to a very dysfunctional family. She has her own flaws and secrets too and causes a certain amount of chaos”. Dawn also cheekily reveals that the book is quite “saucy”.
Dawn’s typical working day reflects her strong work ethic. When writing she gets up at 6 am daily and takes her little terrier for a walk on the beach near her luxury home perched on a Cornish cliff overlooking the sea. She grabs breakfast and is at her desk by 9 am sharp. As she looks out to sea she can see a large note pinned up on the wall with three words on it ‘character, character, character’. “Every day my brain just goes into a complete chugging fug of nothing, but it’s like doing homework you just have to pull it out of your head” she says. She breaks for lunch and watches some trashy daytime telly, then back to her desk until 5 or 6 pm, adding that “you cannot write a novel without being disciplined” This is her routine every day including weekends until the book is finished. She shuns the computer and writes all her books in longhand.
This latest novel is in a more traditional format to her previous two which were written one in the form of a journal and one from the perspective of characters talking to a woman in coma. “This is me finally writing chapters where people talk to each other” she says. She initially thought it might be a bit dull writing what she calls ‘she says, he says’ dialogue but the book has evolved and she has come to love the characters a lot. “It’s all about the characters” she says, hence the note pinned on the wall.
She doesn’t bat an eyelid when my colleague Jess suggests that students might not have heard of her until they are told she was the ‘Fat lady in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’. Dawn tells us a typically funny story about her strange incident with a hippo on that film. It involved a scene where Dawn had to hide behind a hippo and after rehearsing the scene a few times they brought the hippo in. “We were told to be really quiet so as not to upset him, the handler told me all the things NOT to do. Don’t run, don’t look it directly in eye and look out if it starts to foam”. The handler also told Dawn that “if its skin starts to foam it means that he fancies you and then he may try to mount you”. She laughs as she recalls thinking that she could have to face the daunting prospect of sex with a hippo. “I am now quite afraid of this hippo and in comes this huge lorry and out trots this dwarf hippo, it wasn’t much bigger than a big dog and actually quite hard to hide behind. It was surreal, we finished the filming and I said to the bloke “he didn’t foam” and he said “no he just didn’t fancy you” and I actually felt quite rejected, it was sad that I had not been able to turn the hippo on”.
She hints at a TV show in the pipeline, which she can’t tell us about yet but might be set in Cornwall, and she acknowledges that so much time spent working does not give her a healthy work/life balance – although when she is writing at least she is at home in Cornwall with her husband and sleeping in her own bed at night. “I need to get less work; I just need to open up my diary a bit more; it’s very hard” but she also acknowledges that in her industry it is a good problem to have.
Quick fire questions
Cream Tea or Cornish Pasty
Pasty – but hard to choose
Jam first or cream first on a scone
Easy – Jam first the Cornish way
Doom Bar or Prosecco
George Clooney or Michael Buble
The best kisser is not either of those, it’s actually Jamie Theakston, but I’ve stopped all that kissing nonsense now as it was getting out of hand
Falmouth or Fowey
Would have to be Fowey as it’s my home, but Falmouth comes a close second
Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings
Lord of the Rings I think