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Last hurrah for French and Saunders

After 20 years at the top of the comedy tree, French and Saunders are calling it a day. But as Dawn French tells Gavin Allen, the pair haven’t seen the last of each other

“IF Catherine Zeta Jones looked in the mirror and saw me staring back at her she would be straight into The Priory,” joked Dawn French.

French is looking forward to “doing” the Swansea superstar when she returns to her native Wales next week on the last ever French and Saunders tour.

Although they will continue to work together in other areas – they have a production company together – French and her best friend Jennifer have decided to quit performing the sketches that made their names.

The pair are a British comedy institution, forerunners in the “alternative” scene that radically changed British comedy during the early 1980s.

They first met 30 years ago at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama and initially disliked each other: Saunders thought French “cocky” and French considered Saunders ”snooty”.

But they soon bonded, better understanding each other’s personalities when they discovered a common upbringing in an RAF family.

“Jen was an officer’s daughter and I wasn’t and at the time that was quite a big difference,” said French, who was born in Anglesey and lived there for the first four years of her life while her father was stationed at RAF Valley in Holyhead.

“As an RAF kid you move about every 18 months and it turns out that at one camp, in Lincolnshire I think, I actually followed immediately after Jen and inherited all her friends, including her best friend.”

Once at college, the friends began performing sketches for friends and their first creations were The Menopause Sisters.

“They were punks,” laughs French at the memory, “vile and rude.”

“But later we did The Menapatsi Sisters, who were the last in the line of old circus performers and just did rubbish circus skills, we ended up doing that on our first show together.”

Their first shows were at London’s The Comic Strip, which became a TV show for which the pair eventually wrote approximately 60 episodes.

But it was in 1986 that they signed a long-term contract with the BBC to produce the first series of French and Saunders, which appeared a year later.

The pair ended that long-running series on it’s 20th anniversary last year and this live tour is the double act’s way of waving a personal goodbye – something French specialises in.

“I can’t leave a room without saying goodbye to absolutely everybody and making sure they have a gift,” laughs French.

“Jen says if I could just say goodbye and walk out of a room I’d have a lot more spare time in my life.”

When asked for Saunders’ best and worst qualities, French’s affection for her friend was palpable.

“She is a breathtakingly bright and profound person, and quite remarkably supportive.

“I know I could go to her with anything and she is a gladiator when it comes to defending the people close to her.

“The bad things?

“Just habits really.

“She is one of those people that chews gum with her mouth hanging open, and she will answer the phone in the middle of a conversation. But if those are your worst faults in life you’ll be OK.”

The pair have also flourished apart from one another with their most famous solo successes being The Vicar Of Dibley (French) and Absolutely Fabulous (Saunders).

Ab Fab was first created as a sketch for French and Saunders and that early sketch will feature in the live show.

“It also features the first ever sketch we wrote which is called Sex Talk,” says French, who was the face of Terry’s Chocolate Orange for nine years.

“It’s about two teenagers discussing sex even though they know nothing about it, but they’re supposed to be 15 so that might be hard to pull off now.”

French, 50, is currently writing her memoirs (called Dear Fatty and due out in October), and it has brought back many memories of her Welsh roots.

“It’s a very odd thing but whenever I speak to my Welsh mates I want to be in their gang,” she says, slightly mystified at the ‘hiraeth’.

“It’s all probably to do with these really weird early memories I have of the blustery landscape in Holyhead.”

As well as her memories, French is currently occupied by moving the family, husband Lenny Henry and their adopted daughter Bille, to a farmhouse in Cornwall.

Her future plans include a sitcom with Bill Bailey and another series of Jam And Jerusalem but, alas, no more sketches from the white room.

French And Saunders perform at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay, from Wednesday until Saturday. Tickets cost £29.50 to £32.50 from 08700 402000.