Did we like it?
As an educational guide to inspire the notoriously monolingual British to embrace European language and culture it was as alluring as rabies, but as yet another corpse tossed mindlessly on to the burning pyre of reality TV it had its moments.
What was good about it?
• The selection of the “celebrities” is rather artificial, but does clinically divide them up into distinctive species of people. Esther Rantzen is the inflexible mature woman who will on the surface speak French to make her seem more refined and intellectual but the moment it becomes a taxing chore then she reverts back to English and starts moaning about the supposed oppression of the tutors.
• Marcus Brigstocke is the young, eager learner who will muddle through the linguistic quandaries he faces with enthusiasm and a real joy of gradually being able to communicate with people whom he would once have addressed with a slapdash concoction of brand new phrasebook, loud English words and lots of pointing.
• Ron Atkinson represents the stubborn, wilfully uneducated Brit abroad who only visits pubs where the barmen speak English (or are English) and who scans the holiday brochure for the availability of nearby chip shops before choosing his destination.
• Ron appraising the continent of Europe as though it were a promising young footballer scampering around a training pitch avoiding late Bryan Robson tackles: “I think Europe, by and large, has great qualities.”
• The insistence by the three French tutors – Didier, Patricia and Christine – that the British trio could not speak English between 9am and 6pm. Even when they were driving in a car, with the tutors trailing them, any lapse into English caused the admirably fastidious Patricia to phone them and order them to stop speaking English.
• This, of course, led to confrontations as the Brits, led by Esther, complained with Esther irritatingly singing in English as a way around Patricia’s admonishment that they shouldn’t speak English.
• The task where the trio had to deliver goods and provisions to bars and farms in the surrounding area. But the tutors had sabotaged the task by omitting some of the goods that had been ordered thus forcing the trio to address the complaints in French. What made this task so watchable was that the people who were to receive the goods were obviously in on the sabotage and so gave the whole vignette a sense of conspiratorial drama like The Prisoner.
• The irony of Ron being taught another language when he has invented Ronglish by himself, and the anticipation of him learning French only to warp it into his own mutated vernacular.
• In the race between the trio to get to an island off the southern coast of France, Ron drove and reached a nearby town ahead of the other two. Once there, he demonstrated his ignorance of the hare and the tortoise fable as he relaxed for a few hours in a restaurant with his wife. This allowed Marcus to overtake him and make the rendezvous with Didier first. Esther, meanwhile, oscillated between the bus and train stations and finished last.
What was bad about it?
• In order to enlighten the viewers to the joys of France beyond the bland stereotypes of French cafes with coffee aromas snaking from the ever-open windows, old men in berets creasing up their faces into sour expressions while playing boules and elegant women languidly sitting outside bars with sunglasses smoking a cigarette it was necessary for the producers to avoid dumping these very images on the viewer at the start. All that was missing was an emaciated sad-eyed young man in a trench coat ferociously devouring a Camus novel on a street corner in the hope of attracting the attention of women.
• Although initially amusing, the pidgin conversations between the Brits, especially Ron and Marcus and the French, quickly palled as the French just gave quizzical expressions to Ron’s efforts to talk to a barman or Marcus’s attempts to tell a joke.
• It does evoke the full horror of French lessons at school with the refusal of the tutors to speak English, and also your own embarrassing memories of trips to France (that in our case includes a school trip where our sole aim was to learn the phrase “Avez-vous les éclairs de chocolat?”, one of our mates getting told off by an irate shopkeeper for staring at the porn videos on the shelf; and a holiday where we were asked the time by two pretty French girls only for five years of GCSE French to be flushed away from our brain and be replaced by a mangled, molten mass of unintelligible Franglais that spilt forth and was met by a polite but scornful “merci” before they went off giggling).
• The fluffy hair in Ron Atkinson’s ear.
• The sense that rather than a programme to encourage people to learn French it’s little more than a four-week stopgap in the schedules commissioned to test the tolerance of viewers already smothered with the voluminous pillow of minor celebrities doing something they’re not very good at so the viewer can go “on a journey” with them. It’s not a “journey”, it’s merely cheap TV in which mediocrity and amateurism become virtues as it supposedly brings “celebrities” down to the same level as the viewer when in reality it’s just a bony Stalinesque fist crushing innovation and creativity from the heart of TV.
• The way in which the ineptitude of the trio, most notably Marcus and Ron, is artificially exaggerated to make their ultimate triumph all the more uplifting; or rather it would be uplifting were this ruse not used on every reality TV show in Christendom and in fact anaesthetises the viewer against future peaks and troughs in Excuse My French as there is the suspicion of being emotionally manipulated.
• Ron not being introduced to Marcel Desailly.