The French Revolution will be Televised

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There’s something slightly Hollywood about the rising success of French television internationally, but nobody’s complaining in the land of the birth of cinema

Earlier this year, “The Returned” (above) hit British and Irish screens on the UK’s Channel 4. The supernatural series was shown in its original French with English subtitles, but in a sign of the times, it clocked up viewing audiences of 1.8 million per episode in Britain. This is not far off the viewing numbers of a big-hitting American series like “Homeland” (2.2 million).

“The Returned” – about deceased citizens of an Alpine community that come back to life – has gone on to sell to another 40 countries worldwide and is amongst a whole nouvelle vague of television series from France that are now selling successfully around the globe, often out-selling American programmes.

“An issue has been that they (French series) tended to be a bit slow generally, which can be a challenge,” said John Peek, of London-based television consultancy TAPE. “But… what’s coming through now is that they can also be stylish and have a visual flair, which is something that makes them more attractive than they have been in the past.”

At the centre of television revival is ground-breaking cable television station Canal+. A feature of French life for decades, the company has never been afraid of risk-taking, creativity and controversy (they still show hard-core erotica on a Sunday night and their film division is involved in an increasing number of American productions). They have been to the forefront of transferring France’s cinematic creativity to the smaller screen, following the lead of so many American cable stations such as HBO.

Smoking in the bath: A scene from period brothel drama "Maison Close"

Smoking in the bath: A scene from period brothel drama “Maison Close”

Another big hit on French television is Maison Close – a period drama set in a 19th-century brothel in Paris and one that doesn’t shy away from the violent and the erotic. So too is “Spiral” – a gritty justice drama revolving around a French prosecutor, a policeman and a lawyer and which has been shown on BBC – and crime thriller “Braquo”, which was recognised by the Americans in their Emmy Awards last year.

According to programme exporters’ association TV France International, exports of French series and films rose 13.4% last year.

This is not to say that French television has not been successful in the past. Over the last 25 years, traditional crime drama such as “Julie Lescaut” and soap operas like “Sous le Soleil” have sold very well internationally, but overwhelmingly to French-speaking countries.

The difference now seems to be an injection of creativity that hasn’t been seen hitherto, as well as a level of risk-taking that was the preserve of the cinema.

“For a long time, French series were organised around a single, monolithic hero,” says French communications professor François Jost. “But for some 15 years, US series have highlighted either heroes with flaws, problems, or groups of heroes.”

Traditional terrestrial television has also come up to the mark set by the likes of Canal+. France 3‘s acclaimed war-time drama “Un Village Français” is still running since 2009 and still drawing audiences in the hundreds of thousands, as well as selling very abroad.

The riskier, edgier drama, however, is where the growth is and from this point on, people in Ireland and elsewhere will be looking at more and more French television. Vive la Révolution!

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