When Dawn French was rejected by a hippo

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Head shot of Dawn French wearing stripy topI was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to interview Dawn French this week for an article to be published in the Falmouth University student magazine.

Dawn is the new chancellor of Falmouth University. She was ‘installed’ in March this year and this week she is performing her first official duty giving out degree certificates to all the students graduating.

She was kind enough to give us an hour of her time and as expected she was witty, charming and made us feel at ease straight away by ordering copious amounts of tea and sandwiches.

She has just finished writing her fourth book, this one is another novel based on an experience she had when she was working in New York as a babysitter when she was 18 and had won a scholarship to go to college there. She had run out of money and so had to find work or leave the course, so got a job as a babysitter. She did not have any experience but was trusted to collect a 9 year old ‘little chap’ as she called him, from school every day, take him home and feed him and supervise homework and stay with him until Dad came home which was sometimes late at night. She was amazed that she was given a key to the family apartment in Manhattan and was confided in by the divorcing parents. So her new book is about a woman who goes to New York and gets a job looking after twins and is swept into the life of a dysfunctional family.

She doesn’t bat an eyelid when it is suggested that many young students might not know who she is until they are told she was the ‘Fat lady in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’. She recalls that initially it was a bit awkward working with Daniel Radcliffe as French and Saunders had done a sketch taking the mick out of Harry Potter, but he took it in good humour. She laughs and recounts a bizarre experience working with a real live Hippo on that film which she was supposed to hide behind. She was directed by the animal handler on Hippo rules and etiquette “don’t run, don’t look it directly in the eye and look out if it starts to foam”. Apparently when Hippos get turned on their skin starts to foam and Dawn had images of being mounted by a Hippo. When the Hippo turned up it was actually only about the size of a small dog and when filming finished there was no foam in evidence which meant the Hippo was immune to her charms and she will never forget the feeling of being rejected by a Hippo.

She hints at a TV show in the pipeline, which she can’t tell us about yet, 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.

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