Les feux de l’amour

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?

Why I watch ‘la télé’

TV controlMy name is Mel and I am a TV addict. There, I’ve said it. You do not want to get between me and my favorite programs: sitcoms, dramas, the odd soap. TV characters are not just my favorite form of entertainment, they are my close personal friends.

When I first moved to France, I felt alone. The televised offering on the basic French channels was frankly pathetic. There was almost nothing that wasn’t dubbed, and watching reruns of American cop shows when the words don’t match the lips was beyond me. Unless something is offered in the original language (even if that language is not English or French), I refuse to watch it. I don’t mind reading subtitles but I want to hear the real voices.

So we got cable and I was saved. We had the BBC! We even had a few channels with American programs in V.O. (‘Version Originale’ or original language version with subtitles). My life changed as I went to my happy place most evenings, once again in the company of friendly faces.

Then we moved to the country and there was no cable. Desolation set in. Until I discovered…wait for it: Sky TV! We weren’t technically allowed access in France but there were ways around it (if you work for Sky, stop reading now). We had a satellite dish installed on our roof and the Sky+ Box became my new BFF.

Suddenly there was a full complement of British TV channels, including movies, all in English! I raved about how wonderful it was for the kids’ English, how fabulous for them to have access to high-quality programming. You could even add subtitles in English to aid comprehension! Well worth the expense. Who was I kidding? It was My Box, no one else’s.

I still watch my box nightly and enjoy a fabulous lineup of original British and American television, mostly recorded in advance, enabling me to zap through the commercials. But that’s entertainment; for news and information I watch French TV.

There are many reasons to watch French television. Sitcom is not one of them. The French do certain kinds of TV really well, especially live shows. Investigative news and information (Envoyé Spécial, 13h15 le samedi/dimanche). Comedy shorts like ‘Un gars et une fille’, ‘Caméra Café’). I’ve never been a fan of the longer dramas and comedies – the scripting is wooden, more like televised theatre than natural speech, and the dialogue may be clever but is just not funny. Most French people watch films on TV and consider series television to be crap. When I see what’s on offer, I can only agree.

Television is a wonderful tool for learning a language. Watching TV in French did wonders for my comprehension. Not just of the language, although that improved immensely. It also taught me a lot about les Français, what is important to them, how they interact – all the social cues and subtext that make up French culture.

The commercials were also a reason to watch. Back in the day when advertisers still spent big budgets on TV, some of best spots were made in France. The subtlety of the humor was brilliant – but why couldn’t they translate that into decent comedy series?

The nightly news, ‘le 20 heures’, taught me to decode the world according to the French. It is not the same as the world portrayed in North America: international news plays a bigger role, although French politics are centre stage. How the French see the rest of the world, especially les américains, has been key to understanding so many things in this country.

Then I discovered the televised format the French do best: live talk shows. These programs are featured in the access-to-prime time slot leading up to the dinner hour. They usually feature a round table of guests and ‘chroniquers’ or TV hosts/editorialists. So while I get dinner ready and enjoy a glass of something, I get a very French view on politics, current affairs, music, film and entertainment. All in good fun.

For years we faithfully watched ‘Le Grand Journal’ on Canal Plus (a pay channel with free access at certain times.) It features the highly entertaining Les Guignols along with an all-star lineup of international guests promoting books, films, albums. Having worked in television, I can say that the technical production of a nightly program like this is amazing. Over the years I witnessed some of the funniest moments ever captured on live television in France, especially back in the days with Philippe Gildas as host and Antoine de Caunes as funny man. But the hosts changed and I never recovered my love of the show after Michel Denizot left to edit the French version of Vanity Fair.

Now my favorite talk show is C’est à Vous. The premise is a dinner party. The guests arrive, usually bearing a hostess gift like flowers or some interesting trinket, and sit around the table while a chef prepares a meal in the open kitchen. The program continues as dinner is served, replete with wine and dessert. It is all very civilized but with lots of humor and sans prétension.

Plateau 'C'est à vous'I love this show. It is so very French to entertain à table. Socially, people relax and the conversational exchanges are more natural. The program usually ends on a live performance by an up-and-coming artist on stage but much more intimate than the performances on the Grand Journal.

C'est à vous

Hostess with the mostest: Anne-Sopie Lapix on France 5

The program host, Anne-Sophie Lapix, is the essence of the modern French woman:  elegant, natural, not overly made up. Authentic and smart. I cannot praise her enough as she manages to hold it together with warmth and intelligence no matter how stroppy certain guests get or even in a recent medical emergency when one of the co-hosts, Patrick Cohen, fainted on set. So catch it if you can, although I’m not sure it’s accessible outside France.

Do you watch TV? C’mon, you can admit it – we’re all friends here.