Director Florent-Emilio Siri
Jeremie Renier, Monica Scattini, Marc Barbe, Benoit Magimel, Sabrina Seyvecou, Maude Jurez, Josephine Japy, Ana Girardot
When I was growing up in the 1970s culture was British. Yes, we would watch all the American imports on telly, but they spoke English. Columbo, Starsky and Hutch, David Cassidy and the Muppets, all indistinguishable from us, except for taller buildings, longer cars and better weather.
Back at home Stan and Jack struggled with Blakey in On the Buses, Smokey would release yet another single with acoustic guitars and Dickie Davis always kept a straight face introducing the ‘wrestling’ on World of Sport. Heatwaves laid waste to summers, snow made a guest appearence just after Christmas and Gilbert O’Sullivan dropped the ragamuffin look and, lo, he had big hair. Almost as big as Leo Sayer’s.
British/American culture was all you got, but occasionally the Europeans would get through the net. Sometimes they took the form of football teams with strange names like Ajax or even stranger strips (like Ajax). Every year or two foreigners would come in via British diplomatic channels chasing or being seduced by James Bond. They juggled balls and tripped over their own enormous polystyrene boots in Jeux Sans Frontiers. Or they won all the gold medals at the Olympics.
And they sang. Sacha Distel, Charles Aznevour and Nana Mouskouri would appear out of nowhere on variety and chat shows. Demis Roussos, a falsetto precursor to Pavarotti, never rehearsed according to the myth. These people became so familiar we forgot they were foreign. Even Nana Mouskouri singing in Greek told us in English what she was singing about and we accepted her as if she were a foreign cousin of Pam Ayres. There was also another one. A French man. A real rare bird, but not so rare as to die without me noticing.
As hard as I try I can’t remember which shows he appeared on. I don’t remember him being interviewed by Parkinson and everyone was interviewed by Parkinson, he was like some kind of celebrity immigration control, cross examining everyone before they entered the country. Des O’Connor had a chat show. He brought Jay Leno and Kelly Monteith to British attention, but O’Connor was more a chatterer and he favoured comedians. This French guy must have been a staple of the variety shows.
I can recall he was blonde, not very old, didn’t sing rock or pop or anything of a recognisable genre. I would have remembered him otherwise. Abba appeared on Mike Yarwood’s Saturday night show, so maybe this guy popped up there now and again. Morecambe and Wise occasionally allowed a guest or two to escape the ‘treatment’. Hogmanay would pull a rabbit out of a hat, such was the insatiable demand for stars to see the New Year in on numerous shows. Did I see him there, squeezed between Andy Stewart and Max Bygraves?
Whoever he was he must have appeared on British telly a lot because when he died it took me by surprise. Surprised not just by his death, but the way he died: he accidentally electrocuted himself at home. I can’t recall where I was when I heard the news or what I was doing, but back then singers died young in car crashes or through drug overdoses or asphyxiation-by-vomit. They didn’t electrocute themselves carrying out DIY. And he was the Famous French Guy, the famous French guy I’d seen on the telly in between appearances by Sacha Distel, and Nana Mouskouri, on those evenings when Ajax weren’t playing or the Belgians weren’t fighting the Swiss for the last water filled balloon in Aix-le-Bain.
For years I lived in ignorance. I couldn’t even remember when I had stopped remembering his name.
2013 and I settle down to watch Cloclo, Florent-Emilio Siri’s biopic of Claude Francois, starring Jeremie Renier in a claustrophobically accurate portrayal of one of France’s biggest stars. The film was nearly two and a half hours long and as meticulous as the man it portrayed. Francoise, the son of a strict employee of the Suez Canal company fought poverty, self doubt and changing trends in pop music to sell seventy million records, create a media empire that included music production and magazine publishing, establish a model agency to satisfy his desire to be surrounded by beautiful women and still have time to write Comme d’Habitude, which later became an international hit for Frank Sinatra after being renamed My Way.
If the film is accurate Francoise was a jealous control freak who kept his first wife, dancer Janet Woollacot, locked in their apartment while he went for a night out with the other members of his band. He was prone to outbursts of temper and had an obsessive attention to detail, illustrated in an early scene when he neatly arranges his shoes and trousers before having sex in the car with Woollacot. He was terrified of failure, but never failed. Aided by guile and the advice of his manager Paul Lederman, he used perseverance and opportunism in equal measure. Rival Johnny Halliday’s military service left a gap in the market and Otis Redding’s appearance at the Paris Olympia gave Francois the idea to have backing dancers of his own. (The reality may be that this idea came from a trip to Las Vegas, but the black dancers within the group were the first black artists to appear on French television, according to the film.)
Innovator and mimic, supremely self-confident and at times cripplingly self-doubting, Claude Francois was a contradiction. His portrayal is made both believable and sympathetic by Jeremie Renier, an actor who cut his teeth under the direction of the Dardenne brothers and their hand-held documentaire style of film making. Reniere not only captures Francois’ meticulous blonde good looks, but also his exuberent, manic onstage performances. Around him Monica Scattini plays his doting, gambling mother Chouffa and Marc Barbe plays the role of uncompromising father Aime, who never saw his son’s success and died before he could even forgive him for becoming a singer and not a bank employee.
But in a roundabout kind of way it was probably Aime Francois who became the biggest influencing factor in Francois’ career and not Halliday or Redding or, indirectly, Presley, Sinatra and the Beatles. Aime Francoise inspired his son to be successful in order to prove a point, to be contrary, and at the same time the condemnation created the self doubt and the anger. The father’s attention to detail was passed on to the son; at times trivial, at other times life changing.
This attention to detail was also Claude Francois’ tragedy. In March 1978, in the lead up to a trip to America and another stage in the plan for world domination Francois took a shower in his apartment in Paris.
As I watched the scene with the light bulb flickering in the background my own life flashed before me. The old television shows of the 1970s, Ajax playing in the European Cup on Sportsnight, the silliness of Jeux san Frontieres and Kenny Everett, Smokey on Top of the Pops, heatwaves in summer, snow in January, the French singer who electrocuted himself. I knew instantly how the scene would end. Francoise, standing in an inch of water, just has to fix the faulty light bulb.
What followed was made more poignant in Siri’s use of actual newsreel footage of the outpouring of grief. Even grown men are dragged unconscious from the crowds. It’s hard to think of a present day comparison in an age where the impact of death is neutralised by the speedy ubiquity of social media: people would be too busy tweeting to grieve properly.
But the mystery was solved. It was Claude Francois. The man with no name finally had a name. The reason why this mystery stuck with me so long was the ridiculous nature of his death. When Les Dawson died in 1993 a friend of mine said that comedians are not supposed to die. In a similar manner pop stars are not supposed to electrocute themselves carrying out DIY. A famous person’s death is a news story, but even then there are limits to what is plausible. Claude Francois’ fatal accident seemed so arbitrary, so unnecessary, so far away from the script, so clumsy. So un-Cloclo, and yet in its obsession to detail and control over the environment, so typically Cloclo.
I wonder now whether I was one of the few people outside of France who made a note of his death. Watching Youtube clips still don’t jog any memories of how I came to hear of him. I watch him now, dancing in his smart suit and tie, Les Clodettes in the background smiling politely. It’s all so innocent, so ‘cheesy’ in a cruel retrospective way. And when I hear the simple evocative harmonics of his 1975 disco hit Soudain Il Ne Reste Qu’Un Chanson, I can’t help thinking in three years time he won’t be conquering America, he’ll be dead, the story suddenly halted, a legend created in absurd circumstances he could never have imagined.
Cloclo is a fascinating story of a complex man and in spite of its running time still manages to leave so many questions unanswered. (For all it’s fame and recognition how did Comme d’Habitude end up in America with Frank Sinatra, the film doesn’t say.) But one question is answered, an important one for me at least: what was the name of that Famous French guy?