Comedian, actor and writer Marcus Brigstocke performed in French for a BBC show after four weeks’ tuition. He tells Eve Middleton about the French sense of humour and his passion for cheese
My first response was one of extreme caution because it was a reality show. But when they explained what it was – go to France, spend four weeks learning French, then do your job in French to a French audience – I thought I have to do that, that’s so difficult and challenging. I hadn’t spoken a word of French since I was 16 and had finished my GCSE.
How did you find writing comedy in French?
A lot of people commented that the French have a different sense of humour. They have a different comic tradition, yes, but I don’t think they fundamentally have a different sense of humour. The only difference in the show was that the performance was more physical, partly to cover gaps in the language.
The gig was in Marseille; did the audience prove a challenge?
In a way they did, but then Marseille has got quite a lively little comedy scene. The starting point for me was accents and voices, and I was able to pick up very quickly the difference between the Marseillais and Parisian accents, and to play around with that, which they found hilarious. I didn’t write a fixed set; I was keen that it shouldn’t be spoken parrot-fashion, but also knew that if it kicked off, I would get heckled a lot! I still do a gig in French at least once a year if I can, sometimes twice a year at the Altitude comedy festival that I was running at M�ribel in the French Alps.
Why did you choose M�ribel as a location?
It’s in the middle of the Trois Vall�es, a fantastic ski area; I know lots of people there and the guy in France with whom I set up the gigs lived in M�ribel. I have been doing these gigs for almost 11 years now. We were very keen for it to be a bilingual festival; I made Al Murray, whose act is based on a Europhobic, unthinking but postulating pub landlord, do it in French. That was a crowning achievement of my comedy career.
You talk about religion in your book God Collar – what do you think of France as a secular country?
Well it has a very clear separation of church and state. However, France – in some ways like the US – has ended up observing religious holidays in a way that I don’t see happening in the UK. I wonder if that’s more connected with the French attitude to work and holidays, which is altogether healthier than ours.
The presidential elections are coming up – have any French politicians or personalities caught your eye?
My friend Nick did this brilliant joke when Nicolas Sarkozy first married Carla Bruni: “The French President married to a supermodel, isn’t that just amazing? Imagine what his mistress must look like!” Then, of course, there were rumours that he did indeed have a mistress, so that joke ran aground somewhat. There is one political dimension to France that I’ve always loved, and I do as a joke in my set: “People say that the French don’t have a sense of humour – not true, the French have an amazing comic tradition. Do you know the French wrote the European Constitution and then voted ‘no’ on it? I mean that’s so amazingly French – every page skewed in favour of the French farmer: ‘Ze Common Agricultural Policy eez safe in zis document! ’Ow we make our vote? We vote ‘non’, ha ha! We are crayzee people!’”I love that! I think that’s hilarious.
There’s something intriguing about the French character…
Yes! It’s like the clock tower in Saint-Tropez (pictured left). It has a clock on three of its sides, but not on the one facing Sainte-Maxime [the village across the bay] because “Zay can get zere own bloody clock! We’re not sharing our time wiz zem!” I mean, it’s wonderful, just so French!
You described your passion for cheese on the BBC show Room 101 – do you have a favourite French cheese?
St Marcellin – it comes with its own terracotta pot, for God’s sake! Beaufort is a wicked cheese and Roquefort at the right time of year, matched with the right things, is delicious. I love French food and the French attitude to food. I love the connection between the thing in the field and the thing on your plate.
God Collar, by Marcus Brigstocke, is published by Bantam Press priced at �11.99.