TERMITES, they thought. That was the only explanation. Why else would anyone paint the outside of an entire Provencal farmhouse black? Maybe the black paint had some poison in it which killed the insects. It wasn't a technique they knew, but the absent owners of the large house were rich Parisians, and no doubt they had sophisticated methods of dealing with such problems there. But termites destroyed wood, not stone, so that couldn't be the reason. Perhaps, then, the paint had something in it that dried out damp; except stone houses didn't get very damp in the middle of Provence, and even a Parisian wouldn't be idiotic enough to spend good money on something utterly useless.
And so, for a few weeks, 'la ferme noire' remained a local mystery, blackly overlooking its vineyard and the gentle valley below. Then the curious noticed a return to activity around the black house, and the stone became lighter and lighter, until it was almost the colour it had been before the black, but not quite. And more workmen came, and more people who couldn't speak French, and suddenly it was clear. 'C'est la tele'. All madness was explained. But not just any old tele. 'C'est la BBC', it was whispered in awe in the bars of Bonnieux and Menerbes, on the slopes of the Luberon.
It was, I suppose, inevitable. The surprise was that British television had managed to restrain itself for as long as three years before committing to film the exploits of Peter Mayle, Britain's most famous exile; perhaps they were only waiting for Britain's most famous copper, John Thaw, Inspector Morse, to portray him. But the heavenly match was finally made, and Morse-plays-Mayle will be with us for 12 weeks early next year.
The other main character was harder to cast. How to reproduce the famous Mayle farmhouse, the rags-to-riches vicissitudes of which are intimately known to the million or so who have drooled over A Year in Provence or its inferior, but none the less super-selling, sequel Toujours Provence? The BBC's trawl for a suitable location had found them a near-perfect model. Its owners worked in Paris and were willing to accept the large fee offered to stay away during shooting. It was just down the slope from the hill-top village of Bonnieux, and therefore not far from the real Mayle territory a dozen kilometres away. It was large, with a swimming pool, a vineyard, and a splendid view of the valley below and, in the distance, the villages which climbed the next range of hills on the Plateau de Vaucluse. Only - and this was a big only - the Parisians had tarted it up so it looked all shiny and pricy, not at all the image of neglect and mild decrepitude Mayle described when first moving in.
Enter the black. The stone walls had to look old and slightly crumbling. They looked new and in perfect health. It is not good filming technique, I was told patiently when I visited the set, to darken the light. Instead, several layers of latex were stretched over the outside of the house and the whole was treated to a black wash; weeks later, the skilled scenic artists carefully painted on the colours of faded stone and sections of pretend-disintegrating wall. Look at the picture of John Thaw. Behind him, not an inch of the wall is itself. It will look wonderful and natural on screen, I was assured. I poked the wall. My finger sank into the latex, and it left a depression when I took it out. Don't do that, I was told.
When the filming is finished, the latex will be peeled off, like one of those face-masks that people in films remove to reveal their true identities. And when the Parisians return, they will find their outside walls just as brash and artificial-looking as before. One illusion had been briefly substituted for another.
PETER MAYLE sold the British public a beguiling dream about the Luberon, but it was a false dream, a legerdemain of the imagination. A Year in Provence evokes the image of an ordinary middle-aged man with a little money but a lot of tenacity, vision, patience and amiable cunning, creating his own paradise within paradise. Abandon the rain and the rat-race, suffocating cities and a country going down the drain, it proclaims; find instead a haven of perpetual sunshine, lazy days by swimming pools, the clunque-clique chatter of boules, delectable and oh-so-cheap food, and a ruin - bought, of course, for a third, a quarter, a tenth of what you would pay for the same in Devon, Norfolk or Wales - that can be transformed into a fairytale dwelling with just a bit of flair, hard work and cheap labour. It's a peculiarly British dream, but Mayle managed to bring it almost within reach.
The truth is a little different. (This is not an accusation; on the contrary, it is the mark of a skilful writer to present the picture that will captivate his readers.) Mayle himself was comfortably off when he came to live in Provence. He does not say what he paid for the farmhouse (and why should he?), but it was not, according to local legend, cheap, even a few years ago; and he spent a great deal doing it up.
The Mayles were far from an ordinary middle-class couple stretched for money; but the cleverness of the book persuaded readers that they were. 'We could do that,' they exclaimed, when following Mayle's progress in A Year in Provence. No, they couldn't, but the dream was near enough for them to identify, and make wishes and even, occasionally, plans.
The dream the BBC is purveying is different. For what was left to the reader's imagination is now to be fully and colourfully visible. No amount of skilled scenic painting will be able to disguise the fact that the black house is large, plush-looking and clearly expensive. In real life, it would probably sell for pounds 400,000 or so. It will look stunning and seductive on the screen, but it is the kind of house that engenders envy and pure fantasy rather than almost-
achievable dreams. The BBC has reduced the stakes from a 'We could do that' to a 'Gosh, isn't it pretty'; it has changed the name of the game and perhaps it will change the Luberon.
Mayle is also about that other great British fantasy - putting one over on the natives. He is Lone Brit struggling against the language, his life made a misery by a succession of lazy, incompetent, drunk and devious 'Allo 'Allo caricatures all trying to take advantage of his innocence and foreign-ness; not to mention endemic bureaucratic chaos, daft local customs and villagers with strange habits. But fear not. Lone Brit even gets to like these ridiculous florid rustics.
More than 50 years ago, Lady Winifred Fortescue bought a place in Provence in circumstances rather like Mayle's; she, too, wrote warm, evocative books about her experiences. In the first, Perfumes from Provence, she describes the locals around her: 'I had grown to love these excitable emotional men of the south and to regard them as my children - for they were little more. They were perfectly maddening, entirely without initiative and quite irresponsible, but they were most lovable.' The style may be old-fashioned, but the patronising attitude it conveys has clearly not entirely disappeared.
That, of course, is how the British prefer it; and that, it seems, is how the BBC is going to give it to them. The French plumber in the scenes I watched may have been wholly untypical of the series' local characters, but I doubt it. The exaggerated eye-rolling and r-rolling relish with which the actor played the part allayed any thoughts that the French might be represented on screen other than as florid jokes. At least the actor was French; it is a comfort that there will be no Brits with cod accents.
DOES MAYLE matter? Does the BBC matter? Probably yes. We are not just talking about a very successful book and a bound-to-be successful television series based on it. For many of his critics, the Mayle phenomenon is deep and harmful, an assault on the very territory that nurtured it.
I remember when the Mayle effect first started troubling me. I had known and eaten at the Auberge de la Loube at Buoux for many years. Mayle had discovered it soon after coming to the Luberon. 'The other customers were all French', he wrote about his first visit, in A Year in Provence. Not for much longer, though. I went there a couple of years ago. Many British tables, two with visible copies of Mayle's book, waiters who spoke English, and, embarrassingly, a couple who insisted on excitedly talking to the chef in pidgin French to make sure he knew he was mentioned in the book, and claiming some distant acquaintance with its author.
Certainly the restaurant has been changed - yes, spoiled - for me. It has lost its innocence, its eccentric out-of-the-wayness, its nonchalance; it is more sophisticated, organised, less scruffy and clearly aware of its fortuitous new appeal to a particular nationality. The excellent food is no worse, but an atmosphere is missing to those who knew it before. The accusation against Mayle is that he is entirely to blame for that loss; he has, to put it in the jargon of his critics, ruined the place.
Ruined for whom? He has not ruined the restaurant for M Maurice, the chef-proprietor, who is not weeping over his increased turnover. He has not ruined it for the vast majority of customers, Maylists or not. His only victims, if we are to be honest, are a small section of the English middle classes, for whom anything in a foreign country that has become popular with other Brits is automatically anathema, and the sound of another English voice across a crowded restaurant quite puts them off their food.
But Mayle has not, to his critics, just ruined the occasional restaurant: single-handedly, merely by praising it to a million Brits, he has spoiled an entire area, changed its character, and turned a quiet, sleepy and French corner of Provence into a tourist hell of ever-upward prices and a target for British house-buyers.
It's largely nonsense. His own small village of Menerbes has benefited - or is it suffered? - from his publicity. It is, at least in the summer, far busier than before, occasionally unpleasantly crowded, with British cars and people in the forefront of activity. The locals are not complaining, though. 'He doesn't bother us. The tourists, they spend money here, what is wrong with that?', shrugs the pastis at the corner table of the Cafe de Progres, Menerbes' central meeting place, much described in Mayle's work. 'Besides, they are only here for two months,' adds the vin rouge. 'The rest of the year, it is quiet.'
The voices of complaint come not from the French, but from the chattering-class British, annoyed that Mayle has given away their secret hideaway, so that they can no longer pretend to be living or holidaying in a region as yet undiscovered by the rest of the world.
The airy armchair accusation that Maylism has sent house-prices jumping is equally invalid. Dutch, Swiss and Germans have been just as active in the market, and usually at a more expensive level, than les Anglais. And far more important (and more resented) than anything that can be blamed on foreigners has been the impact of the Parisian invasion.
'Hollywood-sur-Luberon' was the title of the cover story in the June issue of Lui, a monthly once devoted to nude women, today far more a leisure and style magazine. The stars of cinema, politics and the intelligentsia have made Luberon the Beverly Hills of France. The concentration of private swimming pools is the highest in the country. The President of France himself has a place in Gordes, 10 miles from Menerbes. Jack Lang, the Minister of Culture, is nearby, as are several other ministers. Claude Berri, the director of Jean de Florette, is round about, as are the stars of the film, Daniel Auteuil and Emmanuelle Beart, France's best known television journalist, Christine Ockrent, Jane Birkin, and a list of celebs not, perhaps, well-known here but national figures in France.
They are not buying cheap ruins to do up a l'anglais. Serious money is changing hands, seriously pushing prices upwards. The Luberon has become fashionable - even American Vogue had a spread on it - but the British contribution to its new status, and to the increased cost of buying anything from houses to cappuccinos, has been tiny.
Peter Mayle may be a phenomenon and a household name over here - at least among the middle classes - but he is hardly known in France outside his immediate area. Even in nearby Bonnieux, several locals I spoke to had not heard of him. His books have not been translated into French (rightly, for they would give offence), and what coverage there has been of him in the French press has often come from correspondents in England, writing home in bewilderment at his extraordinary success, and taking umbrage at his treatment of the French. Occasionally, a regional paper mentions him - a recent affronted article reported hiswaspish remarks about local estate agents in Toujours Provence.
It would have been better, of course, had he disguised, even slightly, details of where he lived, ate, drank and purchased; he has himself paid the price of openness, with unwanted visits and persistent, tactless admirers. But to heap on Mayle responsibility for the despoiling of a beautiful corner of France is a form of British arrogance - there is almost a sense of pride in being able to say: 'at least it was a Brit who ruined it all'.
AN ACQUITTAL, then, on the main charge, though a few verdicts of guilty on minor counts, like making Luberon life marginally more crowded and diminishing the pleasure of certain restaurants. But that was just the book. A Year in Provence has sold 800,000 copies; and it has been read on the radio. The second book has attracted mostly the same readers. So let us assume that, at most, perhaps a million and a half have dabbled in Mayle's dreamland. A few thousand of them may have visited the north-west Luberon as a result.
The BBC series, shown at peak time and with the pulling power of John Thaw, will probably be seen by at least 10, perhaps 15 million viewers. If Mayle's books have, as his detractors claim, gone some way towards ruining an entire region on sales of less than a million, think of the unimaginable catastrophe when Mayle's story reaches the box. The beauty and lifestyle of Provence will be stunningly propagandised, surpassing the voyages of imagination the mere book reader was forced to take. Even those who do not blame Mayle for all that is unpalatable in the Luberon may feel a frisson of anxiety at the thought of the sainted image being fed to one-fifth of the British nation.
The Luberon has survived Mayle, the book; can it survive Mayle, the telly? Who will watch the series? The vast majority will not have read the book; a good proportion will only vaguely have heard of Mayle's heroic adventures. The television will create a new market of many millions, for most of whom Provence, and the Luberon, would not have been a natural holiday destination. Peter's gospel will be spread well beyond the francophile middle-classes. The Luberon's future depends partly on how the new converts react.
EVERY AREA of great beauty and charm has its breaking point, when the very qualities which make it superb are submerged by the people wanting to join the experience. The pessimistic view is that next summer a whole new set of Mayle-Thaw fans, beguiled by the seductive life portrayed on the television, will descend on the region and make it totally insufferable for visitors and locals alike.
'Not only will they teem all over the place in their thousands,' a Notting Hill Gate gin-and-tonic extremist complained to me, 'they'll start demanding fish and chips and McDonald's and before you know it it'll be like St Tropez.' I didn't tell him of the proud boast of some of the English film crew on the set - that they had taught a local cafe-restaurant how to make chip-butties, so they didn't have to eat too much of that French stuff.
Too dramatic, too bleak a view of the future, the optimists argue. Television programmes don't immediately make people go to the places pictured, however pretty. And anyway, most of the viewers new to Mayle aren't really Provence types; if they were, they would have heard of Mayle already. They will enjoy the programmes, and still take their holidays in Spain or Greece or Cornwall.
The local French are torn. 'I would not like to see the character of the area changed too much,' said the farmer in the Bonnieux cafe. 'But it will be good for commerce.' In the end, business usually wins.
There is a reason, though, why the feared invasion won't happen. The Luberon range and its close villages have, since 1977, been part of a protected national park. It is almost impossible to get permission to erect a new house or do anything that might interfere with the existing state of the area. The protection offered is firm, and not subject to the usual French compromises, piston (who-you-know) or stretching of the rules. The Luberon can never be overrun by new hotels, theme parks and sports facilites. Menerbes and Bonnieux will not, for instance, go the way of Gordes, just outside the national park. A glorious medieval village perched on a hill, it succumbed to popularity, new buildings were allowed, and the place has become, in summer at least, an inferno of high-priced boutiques, artefact shops, traffic jams and tourist-catering establishments, including le fast-food.
Mayle's slice of the Luberon is no longer the pastoral idyll it once was; but the responsibility is neither his nor that of the nouveau Anglais. Blame, if you need to, natural progress and the desire of the French in that region of Provence to boost tourism, make money and be modern. La vieille Provence of Pagnol and old French films has not existed for many years; nor, however much the British would like it otherwise, would the citizens of Provence wish to turn the clock back. The region of France around the Luberon is no more immune from the forces of technology, the influence of television culture or the impact of the EC than any other.
The Luberon will be nibbled at by progress, but it will not be eaten up. It has seen off Julius Caesar, countless bloody religious wars in the middle ages, and the Nazi occupation. It is not likely to capitulate to Peter Mayle and the BBC.