Interview with Katie Derham

Broadcaster and BBC Proms presenter Katie Derham has long been a Francophile, thanks to family holidays that began in childhood. She tells Carolyn Boyd about her fondest memories and the music that inspires her

I read that you’re mother was a French teacher and you spent many holidays together in France?

My mother was a French teacher - an assistante for a year in a school in Alès in the Cévennes, so that hugely influenced where we went on family holidays throughout my childhood. Our holidays tended to consist of packing the car with the camping trailer on the back and doing a tour of France, visiting several of mum’s friends and then ending up on a beach somewhere, taking in a cathedral or chateaux on the way.

Do you take your own children to France?

We do all go back to France quite a lot. When my first daughter Natasha was born, before I went back to work, I said to my husband John; “I’ve got this time off – we’ve got to do something, we can’t just stay in London!”. We just packed our car with all the baby stuff and went on the Channel Tunnel and drove through France to northern Provence and came across this little village called le Poët-Laval which is about 20 km from Montélimar in the Drôme. It’s quite an unpopulated part of Provence, it’s really quite rural, and you come round the corner and you see it on this small mould of an ancient ruined medieval village. A very ancient group of knights, the Ordre des Hospitalier, had fortified this particular hilltop and a village that had grown up around it in medieval ages. It had fallen into ruin, and so in the early 1970s the mayor of the local village decided that something needed to be done with this beautiful, ruined fort in the old village. We’ve been back almost every year since. When you discover somewhere like that you think you’re terribly clever, even though clearly hundreds of other people have discovered it before you, but you think it’s just you.

With your husband being a restaurateur, is eating out in France something you do quite often?

It’s something you have to do isn’t it? As well as our time in Provence, we’ve also spent a lot of time in Paris. We always end up staying in the Marais or the Île de la Cité, and inevitably revisit old haunts. We’ve had very memorable meals, such as at the restaurant next to the pyramid in the Louvre – it’s incredibly touristy and I’m sure the locals wouldn’t recommend it but we’ve had some fantastic meals and the setting is quite spectacular. John is fascinated by all the different foods. His style of restaurant, the Leon chain, is healthy fast food but using real Mediterranean flavours, so he is inspired by many Mediterranean dishes – soups, herbs, fresh ingredients. So he is always on the look out in France for inspiration and suppliers.

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You’ve been working recently on classical music – are there any French composers you enjoy?

As a pianist as a teenager I was enraptured by Debussy – it’s rather good sentimental teenage music really. Of course there is a lot more to it than that but at the time I thought it was incredibly pretty and romantic. I love listening to Saint-Saens, and Chabrier those kind of impressionistic composers. I often think I’d have loved to have been around in turn-of-the-century Paris with those composer and their arty friends.

Do your listeners request French composers?

On the programs I present on Radio Three, we tend to have French themes, be it a particular orchestra or set of composers. It’s so happy - French music generally has a real lightness to it, which is lovely. There was a wonderful French prom a couple of summers ago when the Capuçon brothers played together. They are both very handsome – one plays the violin and one plays the cello. It was a particularly lovely French prom. We recorded it in co-production with French TV. There is a good connection between the BBC and Radio France.

Does France have an equivalent to the Proms?

There is nothing equivalent to the Proms anywhere. But France does host some lovely festivals, particularly some lovely chamber music festivals in the mountains in the summer. But generally the world doesn’t have anything like the Proms. Maybe a week here and there but the fact that it goes on for two months is really special – it’s quite a phenomenon.

Have you been to any memorable concerts in France?

Well, every year for the last few my oldest daughter has gone on an orchestra trip with her school for a week near Toulouse and they give a concert in the local church and parents are invited so we always troop down for the weekend. Musically, it’s not quite on a par with the music of the Proms but for a sentimental value it’s world beating. Also, in le Poët-Laval, they quite often have recitals. There is a little museum and concert space where you can sometimes hear people practicing, which adds to the general magic of the place. You go down these narrow streets with crumbling walls looking out over the lavender and villages and hear the sound of violin floating out – it’s idyllic.

Katie Derham presents Afternoons on Radio 3 and the Proms on BBC Two and BBC Four (please check nearer time)