While lacking the exoticism of some of the more far-flung tours, and certainly lacking the dangers of Arabia, Europe still proved to be fertile ground for the Wilde saga. Originally, I thought that my lack of language skills would prove to be an insuperable problem. During the 1980s, I had been in Brittany helping my cousin Peter to renovate a gite. We went to a nearby warehouse and, using our combined mastery of the French language, ordered one table and eight chairs to be collected. On arrival the next day we found neatly stacked and awaiting us – eight tables and one chair.
However, I found that the language problem simply did not exist – in France the audiences were ex-pat British and American, in Italy they were Irish, in Germany they all appeared to be talented linguists, while the Dutch seemed to speak better English than the English. Added to that, unlike Prague or Jordan, the shows were legitimatised before departure – there was no uncertainty as to whether I’d be able to perform or not. I even made money.
ANTIBES, FRANCE – October 1993
The week-long run in Antibes was suggested by some old friends, Heidi and Brian. Both previously Londoners, they had been resident on the French Riviera for some years. They laughed at my initial fears that I would not find an audience. Brian:
“There are at least 800,000 registered English speaking residents on the Cote D’Azur. Add to that the unregistered and the tourists and you have a million plus Anglo-Saxon audience out here. We even have our own English radio station”.
In fact, I had the experience of broadcasting a live interview from London to the said Riviera Radio, while lying in bed with flu and with a West Indian steel band performing at a street party outside the bedroom window.
Antibes was rich. On the first morning, I sat in a café and overheard an English woman’s familiar South Kensington bray:
“Oh, the recession is really quite dreadful. We’ve had to downsize one of our gardeners.”
However, it was also tasteful. Most of the Riviera coastline seemed to be covered in modern concrete blocks. Brian told me that the French preferred these new buildings and had abandoned the despised but gorgeous old town to British and American incomers. Antibes was genuinely old: it had been settled by the Greeks, the Romans, the Savoyards, the Italians, the French, and now South Kensington.
I stood on the medieval ramparts of the sea walls and looked at the enormous yachts in the marina below; beyond them, the Mediterranean was a seductive blue. Overlooking the east side of the harbour was a star shaped castle where in his youth Napoleon had been the commander.
The theatre turned out to be the cellar of Heidi’s English Bookshop in the central marketplace – years earlier she wisely had spotted the potential of supplying appropriate literature to what was an Anglicised enclave. Although holding only a maximum 44 audience, the bookshop cellar, originally built by the Romans, had atmosphere to spare. The bookshop also housed a cat named Echo who, despite all blandishments to live in the comforts of home, resolutely refused to leave the cellar.
On the first night, this domestic touch was reinforced when a woman appeared in my dressing room about ten minutes prior to the start.
“Oh, hello. I’m in row C. Do you mind if I leave my baby in here during the show?”
Well, why not. As I warmed up with the final voice exercises, the baby stared at me with a discouragingly beady face.
Thankfully, its opinion was not shared by the rest of the audience. I strolled on stage and, for the first time ever, got a laugh on the opening lines:
“Paris is utterly empty. Even the criminal classes have gone to the seaside and the gendarmes yawn and regret their enforced idleness. Giving wrong directions to the English tourists is the only thing that consoles them”.
It was the first audience that had really appreciated the ‘gendarme’ angle.
Also, I had forgotten that the Swiss border was not that far away. When ‘Oscar’ described the Swiss as ‘looking like they had been carved out of turnips’ and observing that ‘Swiss cattle had more expression than their owners’, the Rivierians roared. It seemed that, like most close neighbours, they had a blanket animosity towards their rivals over the Alps.
The show went fantastically well. Discussing it later with Heidi, we thought that maybe the reason could be because Oscar was so languidly intellectual and sharp – the qualities that the French pride themselves on. Here was an Anglo-Irishman beating the French at their own game – and the ex-pats loved it.
At the bubbling post show party, a tall South African girl came up and hugged me.
“That was so right! We don’t need political speeches, we need bombs made out of laughter!”
A middle-aged ex-actress demanded my phone number – she had a voice like a mellow cello with a figure to match.
The week continued in a whirl of shows followed by parties. Not every show hit top notch. On the fourth night, I turned in a bloody awful performance. I was tired and hungover and there were a lot of fluffs. At one point I had the horrendous sensation of ‘what am I doing here?’ while in full flow – a truly bad sign. All the same, it got a good response. It seemed I couldn’t go wrong whatever I did.
It was also the night when Echo the cat decided to get in on the act. Having watched impassively all week from the wings, he stalked with feline delicacy across the stage, jumped on to ‘Oscar’s’ chair, glared at the audience, and proceeded to lick his arse.
I floated through the week on a lake of wine, French cuisine, good company, pretty women, and a stream of flattering compliments. News kept arriving that various celebrities were about to attend the shows. The niece of Richard Clayderman, the saccharine but hugely successful French pianist, said that he was intending to come. Also that the rock star Tina Turner was a possible attendee. (Turner had bought a mansion near Antibes and appeared to have an obsession with redecoration and building alterations. As this provided a huge amount of work for the locals, she was a highly popular resident.) Unfortunately, neither of them actually arrived.
Among many other local notables, Brian told me that the novelist Graham Greene had been probably the most famous of all. Greene had stayed in the town for many years and, despite his wealth, lived modestly in a small flat and ate at an unfashionable café. Each day he would have lunch there with a woman with whom he was in love, who in turn lived with her husband across town. The locals respected and abetted his love of privacy.
The main fly in Greene’s Antibes ointment had been the arrival of another writer, Anthony Burgess. Seeing Burgess as a rival who might eclipse him, Greene had been plain jealous. Among Burgess’s recent pronouncements was a claim that he masturbated five times a day, claiming that it was an infallible stimulus to the imagination. Greene’s reaction to this was not recorded.
In addition to the Bookshop shows, Heidi had also arranged for extra lunchtime performances at two local American schools. The first was at the International School of Sophia (named after the beautiful wife of a 1980s government minister) Antipolis (named after the original Greek for Antibes) – a very French hybrid. It was set in a technology park in what I presumed was the Silicon Valley of the Riviera, about ten kilometres from the sea. The various computer companies had placed their neat white buildings amid the forested hills – surprisingly, it looked delightful.
The show took place in the campus cinema and, instead of the 80 we were expecting, drew about 170 16-year-old students. It was a sea of jock testosterone and cheer-leader pulchritude. As Heidi, in her role of stage manager, went on stage to light the set candle, she received an ironic cheer. School audiences can be hell, so I marched out into the hubbub determined to quell any rebellion. There followed one of the most doom-laden performances ever, as I squashed any possible interruption (including laughter) purely through authoritarian voice projection. Admittedly, there were not many laughs in any case as they seemed to be too intimidated to even shift in the seats. Not so much theatre, more a parade ground tirade – I’d simply overdone it. Still, incredibly, even this was greeted by some decent applause.
The other show was at the American School in Nice. I prepared in the school changing room; there must be an international smell to such places. The ‘theatre’ was a great aircraft hangar of an assembly hall with over 1200 seats. Of which thirty were occupied. The performance was off-key as the acoustics were dreadful; I had the distracting problem of hearing my own voice echoing back. It was a dead-serious teenage American audience. Despite all Oscar’s jibes, the only time I got a real reaction was when I took out and lit the cigarettes – a horrified intake of breath and muttered protests. I couldn’t have produced more consternation if I’d suddenly unveiled the severed head of Chelsea Clinton.
After the last performance, Heidi, Brian and I sat drinking late night wine under a café awning watching some large drops of rain begin to fall. The infamous wind called the Mistral was on its way. Heidi:
“It really gets to you. If a spouse murders their partner after five days of Mistral, they’re pardoned. Nice has a higher rainfall than Manchester but it all falls in about two days.”
Fortunately it held off till after my last afternoon in town. I went for a walk on my own along the sea ramparts towards Juan Le Pins. The warm wind buffeted the coast – the sea, the old town tower, the hills, and behind them, the snowy peaks of the Alps. It was all so beautiful that it made the heart full.
In a small public garden overlooking the rocks, I found a small bust of Victor Hugo, the celebrated author of ‘Les Miserables’, who also lived here for a time.
[Wilde met Hugo only once – although Oscar was on sparkling form, Hugo fell fast asleep. Hugo did stay awake long enough to tell Oscar the story of the time he nearly had been killed in an accident. It had happened when he had attended the funeral of the equally celebrated writer Honore de Balzac. The horses pulling the hearse slipped, and the cart slid back pinning Hugo to a tombstone. Hugo: ‘Without a man who clambered on to the tomb and hoisted me up by the shoulders, I should have presented the curious spectacle of Victor Hugo killed by Honore de Balzac’.]
Beneath the bust there was an inscription written by Hugo himself. With the help of a pocket dictionary, I deciphered the words:
“Homage to the town of Antibes. Here all is radiant, all is blooming, all is song. The sun, the women, the love, this is their home. I have again the radiance in my eyes and in my soul.”
Yeah, I think he got it about right.
Antibes from the sea.