by Philip Watson, Esquire
Depending on your point of view, Antoine de Caunes is either that hilarious French bloke with the dreadful accent who presents trashy TV shows, or he's more responsible than most for the dumbing-down of British television. But in his native France, he's been one of the most popular television presenters for more than 20 years, and has also found time to pursue successful careers as an actor and thriller-writer.
Antoine de Caunes is having his photograph taken in the Tuileries Gardens, Paris, and he can't stop clowning around. Spotting a children's carousel, he stretches out on one of the seats, as if to suggest that he is perfectly at home on a kids' merry-go-round. Spying a lofty statue, he drapes himself campily around a heroine of the Republic, as if to prick her pomposity.
And then, near one of the fountains, he spots his prey. Two men, one rotund, the other elderly, are sitting on a stone bench shooting the breeze. They have their arms crossed and are looking in opposite directions, like book ends. Sidling up beside them, de Caunes adopts their pose and mimics their demeanour. When one becomes self-conscious and unfolds his arms, de Caunes does the same. When the other scratches his head, so does de Caunes. And when they tire of the game and move to another bench, he follows them, gently mocking their lumbering walks, before sitting back down next to them as the trio adopt their original position.
It's a classic piece of gentle de Caunes ridicule. In his dark suit, long, black coat and soft-rimmed fishing hat, he looks like a bespoke jester: Charlie Chaplin dressed by Yves St Laurent. And he clearly loves the playfulness of the situation: throughout, he has a cheeky smirk on his face that is accentuated by his crafty eyes and Vulcan-like ears. De Caunes knows how to act the fool.
And that is precisely how we in the UK expect him to behave. While he has been a very willing protagonist in the creation of his goofball image, having specialised in a cartoonish sense of the absurd over 11 series of Eurotrash and in his latest TV creation, Le Show, the most interesting thing about him is that this tells only a small part of the story. There is, in fact, a gap the size of La Manche between the person we think the king of tack is and the person he really is. For one thing, he is much older than his preternaturally youthful looks would have you believe. The grey flashes around his temples give him away a little, but such is the unblemished nature of his face, and such is his Tigger-like energy and enthusiasm -- his joie de vivre, if you will -- that he looks and behaves at least 10 years younger than he really is: de Caunes is 45, and he has a 22-year-old daughter.
His reputation in France is also somewhat contrary to that in Britain. Having presented a nightly news and satirical show on French television for seven years -- in the process becoming one of the country's best-known and highest-paid TV personalities -- he left in 1995 to pursue an acting career. He has since appeared in seven feature films, including two made by leading French directors, Claude Chabrol and Philippe de Broca, and was nominated for the Best Actor award in this year's Cesars, the French film `Oscars' that he has hosted for the past four years.
He has also made a career as a writer of policiers, and has published two crime thrillers in France to commercial and, mostly, critical acclaim. Featuring a heavy-drinking, -smoking and womanising New York cop, the books and their hero are, says de Caunes, his favourite creation. `Of course, he is a Vietnam vet and, of course, he is very strong and heavy, and very, very violent. He is also very sarcastic and takes nothing seriously. The books are very tongue-in- cheek. And that, after all, is the essence of de Caunes' appeal: his knowing brand of faux Froggery. Over the past 12 years on British television, starting with the self-mockingly poptastic music show, Rapido, in the late 80s, he has developed a presentation style that falls somewhere between Carry On and Inspector Clouseau. Eurotrash is 'Allo 'Allo! for slackers, an ironic, double-entendred trawl through Europe's sleazier and freakier furrows.
Part of the humour, of course, lies in his extravagant accent. While some have implied that, away from the camera, his pronunciation is not so exaggerated, when I meet him, after he has spent several months away from Britain, it has all the unashamed francais stresses and rhythms of his archetypal "Bonjour my Breeteesh cherms" voice. The word "decade" comes out "dick-head"; "indisciplined" becomes a chimera of ostentatious syllables and elongated vowels: "een-deeze-hip-line-ed". You can't help wondering if he is putting it on, sending us up.
Yet, however clever the act, de Caunes has become, along with Eric Cantona and David Ginola, one of our great contemporary Gallic symbols. He is the cipher through which we attempt to understand those often seemingly proud and distant men and women across the Channel with whom we are supposed to have a concorde, an entente cordiale. De Caunes is the acceptable face of modern Frenchness, a presenter who plays with national stereotypes, who breaks down the Euro-comedy barriers. He is living proof that a Frenchman can be funny.
He is also a master of facial gesture and control. He can do a look to camera, with a raised eyebrow and an eye half-cocked, that achieves a perfect balance between mockery and celebration. It makes him seem on the side both of the programme's very willing victims and of the viewer; that we are all in on the joke. He is more than aware that Eurotrash's main appeal may be its very liberal share of salacious sex and soft porn, but he also enjoys playing a subversive game with the show, its format and its audience. He is nerdy but cool, knowing and naive. He wears a suit and tie. He is Jonathan Ross, Terry Wogan even, with a tangy French twist. "People on TV always play a character, whatever the programme, and I know how to act the host, how to act with the camera as my partner, and how to fool around with it."
"I like my Eurotrash personality. I feel very close to it because it is very childish." Born in the suburbs of Paris in 1953, de Caunes was almost genetically pre-destined to pursue a career in television and comedy. His father, Georges, was a journalist, who became the presenter of the main 8pm news in the 50s and 60s, often injecting, much to the annoyance of his employers, humorous ad-libs into some of the lighter stories. His mother, Jacqueline Joubert, was a comedian before turning to television as a continuity announcer, director and producer. His maternal grandfather was also a comedian. His daughter, Emma, a comedy actress, is now the fourth generation to make people laugh for a living. "I was born with TV, and right from the beginning I saw my parents on it, and part of it," he says. "They were spending so much time working that, at some points, I saw more of them on TV than in real life, and it was hard for me to draw a line between their TV image and who they really were. So, when I started myself to work in TV, there was nothing fancy or glamorous or magic about it. It seemed completely natural." He describes his parents as very independent, as eccentrics who refused to conform. "They always had to play with the norm, and I think I have that playfulness now with everything I do. I was raised with the idea that TV is only showbiz, that it is a game. You have to be serious about your work, but you must never take it too seriously." Sent away to a strict Jesuit boarding school in Fontainbleau at the age of 13 because he had begun to rebel and skip lessons - "I was very naughty" - he says that he can now see the benefit of the highly-disciplined regime. "In a very strange way, it made me stronger, and today I am almost grateful. I understand that the only secret of success is hard work, and that you must fight and refuse to submit if you want to keep your integrity." He studied French literature at university in Paris, but left after two-and-a-half years. Intending to become a reportage photographer, he says he fell into television by accident when Sygma, the photo- agency he was working for, set up a television division to make music programmes. De Caunes had always been a music fanatic, to the degree that he says he learnt much of his English through the lyrics to Beatles' tunes, especially from the Sgt Pepper album.
During the 70s, he worked on and produced several pioneering rock programmes. In 1979, unable to find a suitable presenter for a new show he had just devised, he was encouraged to step in front of the camera for the first time. He was an instant success, and went on to host other music and style programmes, including, in 1985, Rapido.
A couple of years later, Janet Street-Porter, then head of BBC's youth programmes, signed up Rapido and its host for the UK.
By this time, de Caunes had co-founded a production company, Rapido TV. "At first, I thought she was buying the format, but when she asked me to host the show - in the UK, in English - I thought it was a joke. How come a Froggie can come to England and pretend to teach anything about rock music to the Brits? It's like having a Brit doing a food programme in France." Yet Rapido's zany graphics, sharp scripts and hip bands proved as much a hit in Britain as it had in France. It was a one-off, a culture clash that sparked something fresh, and when the BBC scrapped the show in 1991, Channel 4 stepped in. Its commitment to Rapido TV has been solid ever since: de Caunes' company has gone on to make such programmes as Fortean TV, Here's Johnny (Johnny Vaughan's big break) and the Girlie Show for the channel, as well as a schools programme, Channel Hopping, co- presented by de Caunes and Eddie Izzard, which recently won a Bafta.
By far the most successful of its products, however, has been Eurotrash, which was first broadcast in 1993 and now regularly attracts audiences approaching three million. "You Brits allow one Froggie per generation to make it in England. You've had Maurice Chevalier and Sacha Distel, and I feel it like an honour to be accepted in England." In the mid-80s, he also began an association with a new French pay-TV channel, Canal+, which led to an offer to host his own 90-minute evening show, Nulle Part Ailleurs (Nowhere Else). Half- serious and half-satirical, it featured irreverent and humorous topical monologues (delivered and part-written by de Caunes), straight interviews and surreal sketches. Famously, he once interviewed Jack Lang, the one-time French culture minister, wearing nothing more than a small placard across his privates.
Then, quite unexpectedly, de Caunes quit the show - and 15 years in French television - to concentrate on a film career. At first, he had a string of bit parts in films that ranged from romantic comedies to serious social dramas. Others sound as if they might have featured on Eurotrash: C'est Pour la Bonne Cause explored the integration of a group of Rwandan refugees sent on holiday to France; and in L'Homme est une Femme comme les Autres he played an impoverished gay Jewish clarinetist offered FF10 million to marry and produce an heir.
Yet it was for the latter role, his first lead, that French audiences began to take him more seriously. It led to more offers, to the opportunity later this year to direct his first feature, and to his recent Best Actor nomination. "Of course, I asked another actor to read the nominations," he says of his hosting duties at the Cesars, "but I had to go back on stage after the award had been won by someone else. I said, 'I don't give a shit', and then read my acceptance speech anyway."
De Caunes lives alone in a secluded country house near Trouville in Normandy.
It is "a very British red- brick family house" set in a 'garden of roses'. The town itself is a seaside resort of seafood restaurants and tacky casinos. It is also curiously British: a shop called Covent Garden sells 'Produits Anglais', and a bar sign declares 'Welcome to our Liberators'. It is here that he entertains friends, and has his daughter from his short-lived marriage and his 11-year-old son, Louis, from a subsequent relationship, over to stay. Both women left him. For the past two years, he has dated the actress Elsa Zylberstein, his co-star in L'Homme est une Femme comme les Autres.
De Caunes has often admitted to being a perfectionist and workaholic - "I ask a lot of the people I work with, and I can really be a pain in the ass" - and to being difficult to live with. Yet there is also an unavoidable Peter Pan quality to de Caunes' debonair look and very degage manner.
Trouville is also where he retreats to write his novels. C'est Bon mais c'est Chaud (also published here) and C'est Beau Mais C'est Triste are thrillers shot through not only with de Caunes' love of parody and the absurd, but they even feature their originator. When I charge him with blatant egotism, he counters by saying that he actually makes fun of himself in the books. In the first, he appears as a TV presenter, but of a low-rent daytime cooking programme that serves up naked girls, bad food and even worse jokes. In the second, he is a struggling actor in a Ukrainian soap. "I love to go to Normandy, switch off the phone, and spend three months writing. I have such fun with the books: writing them has been just some of the best times in my life - ever." His most recent contribution to British TV culture is Le Show, described by its makers as 'a saucy, glamorous entertainment extravaganza'. It goes out live on Friday nights, and features showgirls, drag queens, music, models, send-up celebrity interviews with French celebrities such as Frank Leboeuf and Nicole from the Renault ads, and plenty of what de Caunes calls 'pure goofing'. It also has comic sketches in which de Caunes plays such characters as a camp Eurostar steward and Gerard Springer, the host of a French confessional talk show. It's Mrs Merton crossed with Monty Python and the Moulin Rouge. It's a variety show for the late 90s.
"Antoine has a wider range of personas than any presenter on British television," says (the not entirely neutral) Peter Stuart, de Caunes' business partner at Rapido TV. "Angus Deayton is good at what he does, at the clever quips and such, but he is always Angus Deayton, nobody else. Chris Evans is the same; he just plays the sycophantic host or the unreconstructed lad. Antoine is a comic actor who also presents television programmes. He can be all those things and much more. In a single one-minute segment, he can move from vulnerable sweetheart to vicious Euro-snob, and get away with both." De Caunes enjoys the unconventionality of British television and feels closer to our sense of humour. Peter Sellers is his 'all-time comedy and acting hero', and Monty Python one of his favourite comedy series. "I like very much this tradition and spirit of nonsense - right back to Lewis Carroll, to Saki. It's something very particular to Britain; in France, people always need a comedy beginning, middle and end - and a punchline. I just can't stand that. The French take themselves too seriously and have no idea of self-derision." Le Show is a significant development for de Caunes, an attempt to achieve here what he has done in France: make the transition from flip presenter to comic performer. It is also predicated on an ambitious premise: "Just as Rapido was a French look at British music, this will be a French view of British humour." And it almost works.
Although it is not enough of a departure from the wilfully cheapo production values and big-busted titillation of Eurotrash to be entirely original, it is held together by its host's charm, wit and intelligence. "It is part of my mission to prove to you Brits that France is not only inhabited by boring and serious people," he says. "There is a great tradition of humour and comedy in France, ever since Moliere and Beaumarchais. 'Comedy' and 'France' are two words that get along together very well." Yet still the suspicion remains that we are only being served second-rate de Caunes; that he is simply party to the supply of even more frivolous and disposable television; that he is considerably more thoughtful and talented than his British material would suggest. He counters this by saying that this year he is going to make a comedy feature film for the British market, Mad Dogs and Frenchmen, in which he plays the lead, a failed crooner who smuggles dogs into Britain for money.
Yet you also sense that he enjoys the dichotomy between his differing images either side of the Channel, of operating in the gaps between the stereotypes, languages and accents. Significantly, his favourite fictional character is Arsene Lupin, the loveable rogue, gentleman burglar and master of disguise created by Maurice Leblanc early this century. Having discovered the books at 14, and having re- read them almost every year since, de Caunes has long- standing ambitions to portray Lupin on film. He has even written several screenplays based on the series. "Lupin is one of my heroes because he is always fooling around and fooling everyone. He's funny, elegant and very charming, and he has a talent for mystification. Nobody ever knows who he is or where he is."
De Caunes also mistrusts concepts of low and high brow (he argues that it is "pretentious to say you can't compare Stevenson and Dumas with Joyce and Proust"), and he is not afraid to be populist. In the end, he is Voltaire and Candide. `You can have a light side and a deep side - they are not exclusive, and there is no contradiction - and I know now that I need both sides without being ashamed of either. The spirit of Eurotrash and Le Show is to do an entertainment programme, but that doesn't mean you're inconsequential, or nothing more than a TV soap bubble. It's like telling a clown he doesn't have depth, that he has no tears.'
Le Show is on Channel 4, 10.30pm, Fridays. Philip Watson is editor-at-large of Esquire.