Long before Netflix was born, way before digital came to town, years before anyone watched TV on their computer, a woman moved to Lyon, France, and found herself rather alone.
She turned on the TV for company and discovered six channels, all of them in French. Mostly offering news and information shows in prime time and talk shows or ancient American reruns during the day or late evening. Very occasionally, the artsy channel would run an old English-language movie in the original version with French subtitles. Usually after she had gone to bed.
One day, when the time had come to put her feet up in the afternoons, she turned on the TV just after the lunchtime news and discovered something vaguely familiar. A soap opera. Not one she had ever watched herself but had seen in other people’s living rooms. The characters appeared quite modern and, although they spoke French, their words sounded familiar. She had stumbled upon the longest-running French soap opera: Les Feux de l’Amour. It didn’t take long to figure out that ‘the fires of love’ was in fact ‘The Young and the Restless,” dubbed into French and several seasons behind the US original.
The woman, becoming gross with child, found herself tuning in every afternoon to this feuilleton, as she learned the French call serialized programs. She grew familiar with the doings of the Newman family and learned all kinds of new expressions in her adopted tongue for the sneaky behaviour of Victor, Nikki and Jack: “Que’est-ce tu manigances?” meaning: What are you up to? (or more precisely: what are you scheming/plotting?) “Où voulez-vous en venir?” (What are you saying/suggesting?)
For a few years the woman watched the show whenever the children were napping. It wasn’t very good but it was a connection to home. And after awhile, she was able to read the lips of the actors under the dubbing and figure out what they were actually saying. Her French improved by leaps and bounds from all this unconscious translating.
She became so used to the French voices that once, when she was visiting her family in Canada, she came across the Y&R in English and thought it sounded very strange indeed.
Then one day in France they got cable. And a wonderful thing happened: they had the BBC. The woman discovered a nighttime soap, one that felt refreshingly real after all those perfectly coiffed Americans. It took place in the east end of London, set around a pub called the Queen Vic in a place called Albert Square. The woman took to EastEnders like a duck to water. Her TV family had relocated to London from midwest America. She was home.
For many years, whenever the woman’s husband and children heard the strains of the show’s theme song, they relaxed a little. They knew that for the next half hour, peace would reign over the household. And the woman knew that no matter what else happened in her life, that every Christmas, Halloween and Valentine’s Day there would be drama in Albert Square. And so it was.
The woman forgot all about the other show, the one that had saved her from homesickness in those early days. Until just the other day, when she opened her window in the early afternoon and heard familiar music playing at the neighbour’s house. Les feux de l’amour. It brought back many memories, of her early days in France, of feeling relaxed and coming home. And she was happy.
Do you watch any soaps? What’s your favourite TV show?
I really like the atmosphere that your writing creates, it is sweet and brings a poetry perfume.
Even if I’ve loathed soaps since their very first appearance on French TV – it was in the late 70s and I think the first was “Dallas”. I immediately foresaw what France was going to become, people losing the French spirit, just like Pasolini had foreseen the dulling of Italian soul when he discovered the americanization of Italian TV in the late 60s.
A clear sign of this phenomenon soon became obvious : in the first year after the first TV soap, the least intelligent French folks started giving their children names from these soaps and we discovered a sudden mass of Samantas, Vanessas, Larrys, etc .. It was the begining of the endless trend that now makes half of advertisements on French TV riddled with English words . And as some of us know, advertisement is the art of fishing the dumbest …
Anyway your way of telling your inner self could nearly make me like “Les feux de l’amour” 🙂
High praise, Monsieur. I am delighted to have sparked even a remotely positive sentiment towards soaps of any kind – American to boot! It’s good to know my bits of memoir resonate on a purely human level. 😊 As for the American influence, all is not lost: although I remember a friend of my in-laws naming her daughter ‘Victoria’ at that time, (clearly under the influence of Les Feux), it seems that these days old-fashioned first names are back in vogue: Maude, Louis, François…
Ah, yes. I did something similar. I took leaving my job very hard. It was for my husband, and we had a newborn, so it made sense, but my identity was 99% about my career. After dinner, the baby asleep, my husband and I would watch American crime series–all the CSIs, you name it. I wasn’t in police work but the deadline pressure and teamwork reminded me of the good old days, and I soaked them up. We discovered subtitles for the hearing impaired (in French, obviously), which helped me untangle the syllables and learn conjugasions. I knew from the next room which character was speaking from the dubber’s voice, although a few dubbers worked more than one series. Then, we went to the U.S. to visit my family, and the ubiquitous TV broadcast one of the series with the real voices. What a shock! The women sounded like men, or at least like life-long pack-a-day smokers, and the men had high, nasal voices.
A few years ago, I quit watching TV, preferring to work or read in those hours. Much more productive.
BTW, my grandma called soap operas “my stories.” “My story is coming on.” My mom and even my dad had soaps they watched, too.
What great memories! Some of those early crime shows were really good, until they took the gore to the horror level and forgot about the human stories IMHO. Interesting that we had a similar reaction re: the voices. I find not all people are sensitive to that but I can tell who is speaking without looking often even in French. As for quitting TV — good for you! I fear it will never happen for me as my addiction runs too deep. Although I do read and write, of course, most in the early mornings, but I associate TV with an unwinding that is different from those activities. Total brain decompress.
It’s the gore, as you said. I realized I slept much better without the adrenaline.
A few notes of Downton Abbey and I am melancholic. By far, though, the biggest impact that a show has had on my family is ‘Scooby Doo’. We suspect that my son’s French education would not have had the same depth without it!
Downton Abbey certainly has its die-hard fans! (Not me, as I don’t generally do ‘period’ stuff). Scooby Doo? That’s hilarious! I’m trying to remember now (and failing) which shows my kids watched on French TV. Mostly I remember them watching endless reruns of American movies like The Jungle Book. TV is a great tool for learning, even if it’s not always the level that one would wish!
lol – I REMEMBER…both the show and the theme. I’d turn the tv on, put my feet up and breast feed Bubs while watching General Hospital, The Young and the Restless and something else, can’t remember what. My Mum was addicted to the Bold and the Beautiful. That was half hour of shush time even if her daughter and granddaughter came to visit. 🙂
These days I love Grand Designs and the odd Australian drama shown on the ABC. No more commercials and no more soaps…but I do remember. 🙂
I know I’ve watched some good Australian shows (one about a home for unwed mothers?) but I can’t think of the titles. Property shows are also very addictive, and Grand Designs is great!
I don’t think I’ve seen that one, but to be honest I don’t watch a lot of tv any more. What little down time I have I spend playing online games. It’s my one addiction. 🙂
Lovely article!! For me it’s radio and BBC Radio 4’s The Archers… 🙂
I love that The Archers can come up in comments twice!
What a great ambience you have evoked here. No, TV soaps are not for me but the comfort you have described is in itself very comforting. For me, the shipping forecast on the World Service was my only English fix while I was in Brussels, and I loved to hear it before bedtime. Then I had to re-group after a drama in my own life in my twenties and I stay with my mum back in the UK, where we soon adopted Radio 4’s the Archers as our regular daily fix and would ensure that lunch or coffee coincided with it. I loved everything about it, from the way they introduced every character by name in each scene to guessing what the sound effects were created with. Sadly I have long since lost the habit of this as working has a way of disturbing such simple pleasures!!
Perhaps it’s time for a return of the ‘theatre of the mind’? Radio, with its sound effects, evokes our imaginations in a way that visual media can’t. I love to use my voice — perhaps we could start an online theatre group? 🙂
There’s the Sunday omnibus podcast…. 🙂
This is too funny… When we moved to Toronto and I was learning English, I watched Soaps in the afternoon to improve on my understanding of English. They were horrible TV but it did help my English. I don’t even remember which of the Soaps I was watching; they didn’t make a lasting impression but it was a tool that did help me. (Suzanne)
There must be something universally easy to follow in those stories. Good for you for using them as a tool even if you didn’t get hooked on the characters!
I have been known to indulge in a soap or two – including EastEnders from the very start until I got too irritated with the writers’ inability to remember which Mitchell brother was which – they seemed to swap personalities like a curious angry dance. Maybe I just didn’t need it any more. My mother truly believes what she is watching is real to the extent that you can present her with a really real life crisis and she will say ‘ah yes, we had this in (insert soap of choice) and what you need to do is ….’. It can be a little taxing. So here I sit in my new homeplace for a while and I find myself sneaking into the living room at 3 pm to watch ‘The Great British Baking Show’ or watching re-runs of Midsomer Murders on a Monday night or sighing with pleasure when I see Father Brown is on at the weekend. In France I actually got rid of all the accounts that allowed me to be so sneaky because I wanted to immerse (this was about a year in) and of course it helped but it is also why I was quite happy to sit with the aforementioned mother drenching myself in wall-to-wall British soaps and drama whenever I visited. The same will doubtless be true from here …. long may she and her telly habits ride!! By the way this was absolutely beautifully written – so wistful that my heart literally ached 🙂
Thank you, dear Osyth! It’s good to know when it hits the mark and to be honest, I hesitated on this one as my soaps were always a bit of a deep, dark secret. It’s true that these characters are real to us and become our friends on some level. I fear the day that the Beebs will cancel EastEnders (or somehow make it impossible for me to watch). It did get better after Grant left, BTW. Hope you find some cultural succour outre-manche, and enjoy a visit from the Queen of Soaps soon!
I can think of far worse dark secrets than Soaps to be honest, but I do know what you mean …. we effect intellectual intelligence and fear that Soap Operas undermine that (and the snobbish will certainly vouch for that) but actually, when I was an agent in the 1980s I worked briefly for a company which represented Julia Smith (the original producer of EastEnders) and it was a brilliant place for new writers to cut their scriptwriting teeth …..
It’s only in recent years that I’ve come to fully own some of my lower-brow TV tastes. There are good soaps just as there are crap films. Different strokes for different folks. Yesterday on the plane I could not find a single thing to watch until – le bonheur! – I stumbled on the film ‘The Shape of Water’. Masterful. I can see how EE would be a good starting place for screenwriters. Even if their plot lines are sometimes far fetched, the characters are real and you are rooting for them. 😘
I saw The Shape of Water in Grenoble …. it is one of those films that effected me so deeply that in some sense I will never get over it. Mustn’t it be amazing to be so gifted as whatever sort of creator you are to have that impact on an audience? I try not to stop too low though it must be said that I have been known to watch some pretty tenuous stuff in my time!!
I haven’t watched any soaps in years although I was briefly addicted to Dallas and I can still hear the theme music in my head. The thing about serial TV is exactly as Osyth said – the characters become people we talk about in our real lives as though they are neighbours. They bring us together sometimes when there’s nothing else in common or when conversation flags. I look back on those old shows fondly because we used to gather around the television as a family and share the experience. Nowadays everyone watches their own little devices in isolation. Love this post MEL. Pulled up all kinds of thoughts.
Great point about the isolation of watching now as compared to the past, when it was a family social event. I remember watching Lost in Space with my family on Sunday nights — what a weekly event that was! Thanks for your kind words. Nice to know it resonates.
I can imagine it so well. I watched anything British when I first arrived in Australia but at least we (sort of) share a common language. I still miss Albert Square, though… One of our tv channels plays a very diverse range of programmes from around the world to cater for our diverse population so we get Chinese game shows, Maltese and Lebanese soap operas, and (thankfully) lots of lovely French serials (loved Les hommes de l’ombre, btw) which I am sure has helped my appalling language skills.
I must confess I almost never watch French TV drama. Partly because I record everything on the Skybox and zap the commercials which I can’t do on the French channels, and also because the shows here are often too late for early-bird me. I may be repeating myself, but Netflix has a show called ‘Call My Agent’ which is actually a French serial about talent agents called Dix Pour Cent. I LOVE this show. It’s hilarious and features cameos from a great many French stars. Worth a watch if you get a chance… 🙂
I binge-watched the whole of Dix pour cent in a matter of weeks – went into mourning once I finished. Wonderful stuff.
Vivement season 3!😁
@”Do you watch any soaps?” – que nenni et pas du tout!!! I mean never… c’est grave Dr MELewis?! 😀
Bien sûr que non! It’s surely a sign of character (yours, not the ones in the soaps) not to spend your days in such idle pursuits. But you watch crime shows, right? (Which means you’re human!) 😉
Not sure about feeling relaxed given the extreme violence of that show
Ha, ha…if pub brawls and emotional meltdowns are your idea of violence! 😀