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Cover story : Dawn of a new era; Dawn French is losing her giggly vicar persona for that of a violent, grumpy lesbian but, fear not, it will have us in stitches, says TIM RANDALL.

WHEN Dawn French laughs, it rumbles around the whole room. She is infectiously jolly and more than a bit similar to her chirpy Vicar Of Dibley character.

Except obviously Dawn doesn't sit around her Berkshire home wearing a dog collar. Or maybe she does, who knows? But today she isn't.

"It's just drying out in the airing cupboard," she says. "I like to give it a rinse at least once a week."

We are here to talk about her new BBC comedy Wild West in which - shock, horror - Dawn swaps the perky saintliness of vicar Geraldine to play a stroppy no-nonsense lesbian who is so bad tempered she makes Rhona Cameron look like Lorraine Kelly.

"She just happens to be a lesbian but that's not what the show is really about," says Dawn.

"I can promise you won't see any big hot lesbo action going on. This isn't Tipping The Velvet."

Dawn is Mary Trewednack, the grumpy, rude postmistress of St Gweep, a strange remote fictional Cornish village which makes Dibley seem positively normal.

Interesting locals include a mad fisherman, a witch and an over- enthusiastic policeman.

Not many people visit St Gweep and those who do usually leave with the distinct impression they have never been anywhere quite like it before.

Mary is a woman not unknown to steal from her neighbours in order to stock her shop and someone who lies far more than she ever tells the truth.

"Mary's very unusual and I suppose she is the opposite of the vicar," says Dawn, 44.

"She's quite alarming because she says what she thinks, usually without considering the sensitivity of the situation.

"She just blurts out whatever is on her mind which gets her into a lot of trouble. She's does have a heart, although it's buried quite deep.

"Not many people visit the village and Mary and her partner Angela (Catherine Tate) are mainly together because no one else will have them."

Dawn's character is also not averse to lashing out, should the need arise.

"Mary's also borderline violent, so you wouldn't want to have an argument with her," she says. "She likes to get her own way.

"Sometimes her rows with Angela escalate into quite a lot of physical violence which I really enjoyed doing. I do like being paid to punch people - it's very fulfilling."

Written for her by Men Behaving Badly creator Simon Nye, Dawn admits some Dibley fans may take a while to get used to her new guise.

"From the minute I started to play Geraldine Granger it has been very hard to shake her off. Not that I really want to shake her off - I'm very fond of her - but I need to be able to jump around and play different roles," says Dawn, slurping on her mug of tea.

"The feel of Wild West is also very unlike Dibley as it hasn't got all that bright squeaky cleanliness.

"It's not all shot through lovely filters making everything look sunny. Quite the opposite, in fact - the village and the people who live there are quite dark and a little bit sinister. But that's what attracted me to it.

"Wild West is a very different show and it's very funny. I think it will be a grower."

The show was filmed on location in Cornwall this summer which meant months away from her comedian husband Lenny Henry and daughter Billie, 11. Even so Dawn really enjoyed returning to her roots.

She says: "I'm from Cornwall so it was absolutely fantastic to go back. I immediately felt at home there - as soon as I've got that wonderful accent around me I feel very comfortable.

"But it did mean I had to organise my family, which can be troublesome. I miss Billie every day if I'm away for any length of time."

It's as one half of duo French and Saunders that Dawn shot to fame.

The former teacher met her long-term comedy partner Jennifer Saunders 25 years ago when they were studying at London's Central School Of Speech And Drama.

Since then she has starred in numerous shows, including Murder Most Horrid and the recent Ted And Alice. She says their partnership is as strong as ever.

"We're doing a Christmas special this year but as usual we haven't even started writing it. Jen has been busy filming Ab Fab in New York and I've been doing Wild West, so we haven't even had a conversation about it yet," she explains.

"When you work in a double act like ours and you spend a lot of time together, it's good to have a little time apart. After a while you find that you do start missing each other's company, and the moment you get in touch is often your most creative time."

For Dawn, the most important thing to get right in Wild West was finding someone to play opposite her as Angela - Mary's neurotic partner.

"I'd never met Catherine Tate until she came to the audition, but she's such an unusual and interesting talent I was completely drawn to her straight away," she says.

"I don't think I've ever met anyone quite like her - she is genuinely barking. But in a very clever way.

"In fact, she was a bit too talented for my liking and may have to be destroyed," she adds, laughing.

"I knew that part had to be played by someone I really wanted to work with. I'm so used to Jennifer that you get a bit lazy really.

"There's so much I don't have to say to Jen and we are very good at taking each other's temperatures if things might get heated. Maybe it's a female thing, or maybe we're both just too lazy to ever have a row.

"I didn't want to be working with a person where you just have to constantly explain everything or where they can't improvise a little bit with you. Luckily Catherine was really good at that and we had a hoot."

Dawn certainly likes to keep herself busy - she is also voicing and writing Bosom Pals, a BBC animation based on the work of artist Beryl Cook.

Then there's a one-woman play called My Beautiful Divorce, which opens in London early next year.

She says: "I don't really know how I'm going to remember all the script. I'm presuming that fear will force me into it.

"I'm dreading forgetting my lines as normally it's Jennifer who helps me out in those situations.

"When she sees me go a bit glassy- eyed she always finds some way to tell me what's coming next."

Dawn is also co-designer (with her friend Helen Teague) of a range of clothes for bigger women, which is sold in Evans.

However, despite recent tabloid reports, the comedienne has not signed up for Celebrity Big Brother II, although she is a big fan of the show.

"Definitely not - I can't think of anything worse. I want to watch it, not be in it," she says.

"Oh and I loved I'm A Celebrity: Get Me Out Of Here. It was hilarious for all the wrong reasons. Do you remember that song Darren Day sang on a rock? Oh my God."

And once again the room is echoing to one of the most popular belly laughs in television.

Wild West, BBC1,Tuesday, 9.30pm
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Oct 19, 2002
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