Stuart Kemp explores why the UK is not alone in enjoying an affaire du coeur with French TV.
Through the comedy-drama chic of Call My Agent! (Dix Pour Cent), the down and dirty cop-show grit of Spiral (Engrenages), the adventures of gentleman thief Assane Diop in Lupin or the political thrills and spills of The Bureau, international viewers are devouring subtitled French sass with gusto.
But this current crop of French hits does not share a formula or any commonality of genre or theme. “What the successful international French shows have in common is that they have nothing in common,” says Frédéric Pittoors d’Haveskercke, a Paris-based executive producer and go-to fixer, who helps European producers develop their international slates and development projects.
What they all share is being “absolutely, quintessentially French”, says Walter Iuzzolino of Walter Presents, the international TV drama partnership between Channel 4 and the acquisitions and distribution company Global Series Network. “The shows all have a funny, blasé, raucous sense of humour. And they don’t mind stabbing a cigarette in your hand if you irritate them,” he suggests.
Dominic Schreiber, SVP for co-productions and acquisitions at Newen Connect (the distribution arm of TF1 Group-owned Newen), agrees: “Even with the sound down and the subtitles off, you could look at a show such as Call My Agent! and know that it is French.” Vive la différence, then.
Sometimes, efforts to capture Frenchness have caused Gallic shrugs among subjects and audiences alike: Emily in Paris, a comedy-drama streaming series created by Darren Star, debuted on Netflix in October 2020. The show stars Lily Collins as an American who moves to Paris to work for a French marketing firm, and it was criticised for its stereotypical view of all things French.
“The berets. The croissants. The baguettes. The hostile waiters. The irascible concierges. The inveterate philanderers. The lovers and the mistresses. Name a cliché about France and the French, you’ll find it in Emily in Paris,” said French newspaper 20 Minutes.
French television has come into its own as locked-down viewers across the globe have turned to their TVs in search of escapism. Many have latched on to French content across traditional broadcast channels, pay-TV and subscription streaming platforms.
Call My Agent! has been around for five years but the show’s fourth season is trending on Netflix, attracting plaudits and fresh attention in equal measure.
“The success is a combination of lockdown and being on Netflix. Word of mouth has just snowballed,” Schreiber notes. “One of the great things about these [online streaming] platforms is that audiences can stumble across these shows.”
Coupled with a growing comfort with subtitles, French shows are flourishing abroad. Long gone are the days when the French Alpine mystery drama The Returned (Les Revenants), produced by Haut et Court TV, was craftily marketed to Channel 4 audiences with images and no dialogue for its prime-time 9:00pm drama slot.
Tim Mutimer, EVP for sales and acquisitions, EMEA, at global distributor Banijay Rights, says the advent of Netflix, Amazon and Apple TV+ as co-production partners and distributors has bolstered the profile of French output.
“Such platforms have taken non-English-language [content] to audiences around the world, so there is more of an appetite than there used to be.
“When you see the success of Lupin on Netflix… the fact is that something that isn’t filmed in English is not the barrier that, once upon a time, it would have been.”
Mutimer is promoting Banijay Studios France’s adaptation of Émile Zola’s novel Germinal, which could deliver a Peaky Blinders twist for France 2.
The arrival of the deep-pocketed streamers in France has opened up new possibilities for young writers, including those from diverse backgrounds, to develop their own projects, notes d’Haveskercke.
“Netflix and Amazon operate a little more carefully in the French market, because there are very specific ways of working [in France],” he explains. “It has not been as easy for Netflix to invest in the French market as it has been for the company in other European markets.”
Indeed, the slower migration to the small screen in France by the country’s producers is partly down to its protected cinema industry model, which subsidises independent film but does not assist TV.
"French creative talent is not glib about television – they are making art"
But a combination of broadcasters and pay-TV operators raising their game to attract viewers and a growing demand from younger audiences for quality programmes delivered online is driving a cultural shift in attitudes.
“French film talent is flocking to TV,” argues Paris-based journalist, writer and broadcaster Agnes C Poirier. “From Cédric Klapisch directing Call My Agent! to Pierre Salvadori behind the camera for En thérapie, TV series have earned a nobility and prestige they lacked before. For actors, the appeal is that the shows are often character-driven and therefore dramatically interesting, plus, on a purely practical level, the work is more stable than cinema.”
Iuzzolino adds: “French film-makers clocked it early – sometimes it is exciting to have a canvas where, instead of having to condense your story into 90 minutes, you can actually tell a story over several seasons.
“French creative talent is not glib about television – they are making art. They take their mission as writers, actors and DoPs very seriously and it shows.” French television political drama series Spin, starring film star Nathalie Baye and Grégory Fitoussi (of Spiral and Mr Selfridge fame) began life on France 2 before crossing la Manche, with three seasons rolling out on More4 between 2015 and 2017.
The seeds of love for French television, certainly for UK viewers, were planted by Spiral, which first aired on BBC Four in 2006. Created by Alexandra Clert and Guy-Patrick Sainderichin and produced by Son et Lumière, it garnered critical acclaim and a loyal audience of around 200,000 for the corporation long before Scandi noir became a genre phenomenon.
All eight series and 86 episodes of Spiral are available on BBC iPlayer. The show became Netflix’s first subtitled show when the streamer snapped up non-exclusive rights to it in 2012; Braquo, distributed by Banijay, was another early runner, garnering two million viewers on Channel 4 in 2009.
There are plenty of other French gems on offer. Amazon Prime is home to No Man’s Land, a drama about a man who travels to Syria, where Kurdish female soldiers battle Isis, to try and find his sister, who he believes has been declared dead in error. Produced by Haut et Court (producer of les Revenants), a second season of the Hulu co-production is likely.
Walter Presents boasts no fewer than 17 French shows. It is readying for the return of one of the platform’s big hits, with the third season of The Crimson Rivers due this summer. Walter Presents also hosts the glossy, Provence-set drama Torn, a show that The Guardian’s TV guru, Stuart Heritage, described recently as “perfect lockdown telly”.
Iuzzolino and co created Philharmonia, a rollercoaster psychological thriller centering on a classical music conductor, her Parisian orchestra members and a dark secret she harbours. It is available on All 4 in the UK.
Such shows – “so French but at the same time so fantastically international” – are front and centre of Iuzzolino’s ambitions to curate a “sexy and exciting international drama space”.
And there are many more ambitious French TV shows flirting with UK and international distribution deals. Federation Entertainment is selling the M6-commissioned They Were Ten, a contemporary adaptation of Agatha Christie’s best-selling crime novel of all time. It is directed by Pascal Laugier, best known for hit thrillers The Tall Man, starring Jessica Biel, and Incident in a Ghostland, France’s most successful film export of 2018.
Newen is pitching HIP, a police procedural with a twist being made for TF1, about a police-station cleaning lady who discovers that she has “high intellectual potential” and begins working on police cases.
L’Opera is a Paris-set drama about the glamorous and merciless world of ballet dancers, produced for OCS, the Orange pay-TV platform, a smaller rival to Canal+. And buyers are jostling to secure the UK broadcast rights to Federation’s glossy thriller Time is a Killer, set on Corsica and starring Mathilde Seigner, Caterina Murino, and Jenifer Bartoli alongside Fitoussi.
French television is certainly on an upward spiral.