Culture on the Low Road


With the cuts in public expenditure in France, local authorities are reducing funding for what they were pleased to describe as cultural events. While some were well worthwhile, bringing top class performers to areas which would otherwise have no chance of seeing them in the flesh, like the Nuits Romanes in Poitou Charente,  a great deal of it betrayed the belief of official, authorised and therefore paid culture vultures that people should be provided with professional dispensers of approved culture rather than being left to develop their own.

Thus a rural village where some eighty per cent of the inhabitants are over fifty finds itself lumbered with a hip hop band for the Fete de la Musique: professional ‘story tellers’ infest the St Jean midsummer festival – probably sitting in a yurt to peddle their meretricious nonsense – while the only reason that the Bernache et Marrons (new wine and chestnuts) fair does not figure half naked men in red tights swinging from scaffolding towers is because it can be decidedly nippy in November in the Loire Valley.

So, on the grounds of every cloud having a silver lining, let us rejoice that  with the need to find money to pay the salaries of all the local government employees whose jobs have been duplicated by local government reorganisation people can, with a bit of luck, get back to doing what they like by way of culture.

Walks through the commune, pumpkin fairs, local folk dance groups, bands and choirs, fireworks on July 13th, the fire brigade ball (guaranteed bacchanalia) and, in my old area at any rate, amateur theatricals.

Some months after moving to rural France, I had had a toothache which oil of cloves would not touch, so I needed the dentist. Papy, my nearest neughbour, told me that there was no need to make an appointment, just to go down to the surgery in the village and sit in the waiting room, so that was what I did.

Two gloomy gentlemen were already in occupation – for some reason the usual round of handshakes doesn’t take place in dental waiting rooms – and one informed me that the dentist was out but would be back shortly. I passed the time looking at posters of teeth.

The dentist returned. The street door banged against the wall, there was a strong smell of drink having been taken and a tall handsome man with black curly hair strode in…..his white coat liberally splashed with blood.

‘Sorry to keep you waiting, but I had a spot of bother just now…Come on Jules, let’s get these false teeth sorted!’

I think I was rooted to the chair in shock…otherwise I would have fled.

Georges, the other patient, turned to me.

‘Don’t worry, he had a problem taking a tooth out…it broke and he had to put his knee on Jean-Paul’s chest to get the leverage to get the last bit out. Bit of a shock for both of them, so they’ve just been over to the bar for a restorative.’

Don’t worry! What, I wondered would qualify as something to worry about? A broken artery, dislocated jawbone….If the tooth hadn’t been giving me such gyp I would have been away in Olympic record time for the one hundred yard dash – or whatever it is in metric. But it was so I didn’t.

Dentists have an unfair advantage. They stick needles in your gums so that your lips turn to wood and then make you keep your mouth open while they talk to you. You have no way of responding.

This dentist talked to me while finding and dealing with my problem tooth.

I was new to the commune. I was British. This was very convenient. He ran the amateur dramatic society. He was putting on a Feydeau farce. There was an English governess in it and none of his regular actresses could say ‘shocking!’ properly. So there it was. First rehearsal on Tuesday evening in the mairie annexe at eight o’ clock.

He had a copy of the play in my hand, my role marked in pencil, before I could mumble a word.


So here I was, my French far from fluent, with no experience of amateur dramatics since being in the chorus of ‘The Mikado’ while at school, being propelled onto the boards by a dictatorial dentist.

I studied the part…small, luckily….and the cues. I turned up at the annexe to the mairie and found I already knew some of the people there. Then the dentist arrived and things took off. He was a ball of energy and enthusiasm, a perfectionist and, inevitably, not only director but also leading man.

Like everyone else, I was pushed and pulled into place, was prompted and scolded and learned an enormous amount about staging farce.

Timing, timing and timing, keeping the action going, getting his actors to have a signature expression or tone of voice that marked them clearly for the audience, he was dedicated to getting his crew to give of their best.

It was all very convivial…there was always wine and cake at the end of the rehearsal, and I was included in the cake rota automatically which surprised me given the French suspicion of anything emerging from a British oven. I supplied treacle tart and to my relief it was asked for again.

I got to know people…my French improved dramatically…and I learned a lot about the commune as we worked.

Although amateur dramatics – like music – had always had a strong following in the area, until fairly recently these activities had been duplicated. Those who attended mass – known as ‘les grenouilles du benitier’ (literally ‘frogs in the holy water stoup’)  to those who didn’t – supported the priest’s theatre group and band and the others supported the republican groups.

In that village, the war between state and church had been such that – Clochemerle like – the public toilets had been set up next to the church on the main square……and were closed on Sundays! Respect for the church or a strong determination that believers shouldn’t be able to use the facilities?

The play was performed on the home ground first, in the salle des fetes and then toured neighbouring villages, always to packed houses and vigorous applause, two nights and a matinee a week for four weeks, the cast kept going by buckets of mulled wine backstage, dished out in an enamel mug.

It was fun, and I gladly joined up for several more years. It was always a Feydeau farce, there was always a place for a foreigner and in year two I even graduated to my own little round of applause as I entered, an accolade awarded by audiences to the regular players.

It came to an end, of course: the dentist left the area.

The lady from the chateau, whose cavities he had been assiduously attending to for some years, decided that enough was enough. She left her husband and, with the dentist in tow, moved to that Sodom and Gomorrah of the Atlantic coast, La Baule.


The last visit from the traveling circus took place in my time in that village…no lions or tigers,  but dancing dogs and the great attraction – the chicken that could count!

Not caring for the circuses I had not gone down to the trestles arranged in the square by the church….but I do rather regret not seeing the chicken tapping on the cards laid out on the sand.

Later, there was a new attraction – one which had nothing to do with the culture vultures.

It started with a man impersonating one of the iconic figures of French rural life..the old woman who ruled her family with a rod of iron: the show would start with this ‘lady’ roaring on stage on a solex, headscarf firmly tied under her chin, ready to wind up the audience with ‘her’ take on rural life: somewhat scatalogical and utterly hilarious.

Others copied….

These days the best known act is that of ‘Les Bodins’: much less scatalogical but reviving in its audiences memories of the old ways of rural life…set in a pastiche of a typical small farm of the not so distant past.

Here is an excerpt: you might not understand the words, but it is slapstick enough to be self explanatory given the title:

A dormouse has shat in the cheese.

High culture it is not…but neither are half naked men in red  tights.


26 thoughts on “Culture on the Low Road”

  1. I never thought farces would appeal to anyone but the Brits so naturally I’m surprised to hear you took part in a French one. It does sound as though you had fun over the years of the Dentist’s productions. Fancy him having the temerity to desert you with the wife of the man fro the chateau. Did no-one take on his mantle?
    It’s a delight when village life retains some of the character and tradition that villagers have enjoyed for many years.
    xxx Hugs Galore xxx

    1. Farce forms quite a part of French theatrical tradition, but anyone familiar with the old Whitehall farces would have been quite at home in these productions, all swinging doors and men mysteriously lacking their trousers…
      They were great fun…..but after the dentist left there was quite a hiatus until the youth club took up the mantle – though the nature of the productions changed as you would expect.

    1. Since meeting the lady who had lived in France for many years, a lot of memories revive…She has tales of her part of Paris which give an entirely different picture from that peddled by the tourist industry too…

  2. I’m always amazed at the respectful tolerance French audiences give to the most tedious and pompous productions. This applies to music, theatre, painting and other visual arts. Ugh! anything involving live performance or local artists arouses my immediate suspicion and I’m likely to run a mile. On the other hand, there are sometimes some real gems. Sculptors seem to have the hang of it better than most in this area.

    1. I used to go to the local art expos…occasionally there was something good, but as most of the participants followed to the letter the dictates of their current guru most of it was pretty dire.
      Friend tell me how delighted they are that their local theatre no longer has to suffer the productions the regional arts directors commissioned from their old friends to keep their social security contributions up to date – as that seemed to be the only justification for the productions.

  3. All the world’s a stage,
    And all the dentists and women merely players;
    They have their exits and their cavities,
    And one man in his time plays many hearts . .

  4. Belfast has something similar – numerous arts festivals, largely state or council funded, mainly featuring people I’ve never heard of boasting acts or shows that sound excruciatingly pretentious or absurdly parochial. They would greatly benefit from a few well-oiled farces directed by local dentists.

    1. Exactly!
      Now if they were to make an effort to acquaint people with the major works of culture it would be worth the money they currently waste….but that would be beyond them.

      They take culture from the hands of the people – and make them pay for the pretentious pap they supply in its stead.

    1. It was a case of learn on the hoof for me…and that dentist took things seriously: I suppose we were all thinking that, should we have toothache, it would be better to have been serious students of theatre!

  5. “…professional ‘story tellers’ infest the St Jean midsummer festival – probably sitting in a yurt to peddle their meretricious nonsense.”

    That rings so true!
    Glad to hear you were a popular actress of local fame.
    Can I have your autograph…?

    1. Fame! I was once greeted in the local town by a chap who said…Ah, you are the ‘shocking’ woman!
      I know those who might agree with him…
      As for those ‘story tellers’…doesn’t it dawn on those who hire them that any granny or grandad has stories which can knock these PC things into a cocked hat?

  6. At our first wine tasting event in our French village we were ‘entertained’ by a chap on keyboard wearing a candelabra on a motorcycle helmet while his lady pranced around wearing a short sheet pinned together. The local wine was good though.

  7. We have something called the Rural Touring Arts (RTA) here, whch is partly funded by the local council. There are usually about four productions a year in our village hall, providing they can get the production onto the stage of our village hall, which is small. The actors are amateur/semi-professional and the productions varied. I do not think that we have seen a comedy or a farce. We could do with one to cheer us up!

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