Sads, mads and le lad

Antoine de Caunes (new beard and all) gets serious about trash with Serena Mackesy

Late afternoon at a small television studio in the suburbs of Paris, and a small posse of 14-year-olds - mostly girls painted as if it were evening, with a couple of boys whose smoking, lounging, big-booted posture is betrayed by the autograph books clutched to their sides - is gathered on the pavement outside. In the gloom beyond reception, against a blue backdrop, G-Squad, (pronounce it right: djee-skwud), the French Take That, are performing their mega-dance-smash, "De Haut en Bas". When one says the French Take That, that means that the band contains a Gary (lead singer, big smile, fair hair), a Robbie (though he looks disconcertingly more like the geeky guy in Third Rock from the Sun than Robbie, who has a disconcerting capacity to look like Norman Wisdom himself), a Jason (ponytail, falling-off shirt) and a replacement for How and Marky who has the orange skin-tones and irritating haircut of Peter Andre and the faraway facial expressions of Joe in EastEnders.

G-Squad hop and dip, tart the camera and do those arm movements that the Manc lads did so much better. Out in the editing suite, techies give them a background of dancing psychedelia. And as they sparkle, a slight figure in white satin shirt, fishnet singlet, zip-covered baggy trousers and giant dangling LOVE pendant appears behind them and dances across, arms flailing, in that irritating way your dad used to do before you got to have a record player in your bedroom. The figure is Antoine de Caunes, perky Gallic crumpet and televisual genius, and G-Squad, far from getting their big break into the British market, are being sent up on Eurotrash.

The eighth series of Eurotrash goes to air this Friday. A ninth is pencilled in for the autumn and the seventh programme in this series will be the 50th edition of the programme. Eurotrash, which specialises in finding the sads, mads and lads of our great Union, voice-overed by trainspotting British regional accents, remains a hot favourite with the weekend drunks lacking the cash to go on to a nightclub. The last series pulled in a rating of 2.5 million, which, though it sounds like peanuts in comparison with the 23 million who tuned in for Ricky and Bianca's wedding down in Albert Square, is 25 per cent of the available audience at air-time. Not bad for a minority channel.

The secret behind the show's success is, broadly speaking, a formula that has been used in most of the output of Rapido, the parent company: sex, kitsch, colour and presenters who combine twinkly casualness and satire without blinking. The Girlie Show, Carnal Knowledge and the short- lived but delightful Love in the Afternoon issue from the same stable. De Caunes's presentation of the programme - hammed-up French accent, smooth suits, taking visible pleasure in rolling phrases like "butt-cheeks"over his tongue, is little short of inspired. The series has survived the loss of Jean-Paul Gaultier, the hyper-camp fashion designer, whose flirty chemistry with de Caunes added a surreal touch to the stream of busty blondes which is the programme's main ingredient. He is replaced in the new run by Melinda Messenger, darling of Page Three, who shared a spread in last week's Paris Match with the Spice Girls under dubious congratulation for being "fiere de leur 95c et leur look de pin-up".

"It was a good duet, you know," says de Caunes during a break in filming. He has just finished interrogating Lova Moor, a former showgirl of a certain age who is marketing a scent that smells of lavatory cleaner through French supermarkets at pounds 10 a bottle. As they were setting up, he explained to her that "en Angleterre la serie est une serie de culture", a somewhat disingenuous explanation that caused her to preen with pride. "We were the master and the slave. I was the master, of course." And why have they replaced Jean-Paul with Melinda, another blonde among many? He smiles. "We like beautiful girls with class; that's what we enjoy. She has the perfect silhouette of the girls we want on Eurotrash, you know. We love Page Three girls. It's very tasty and it's what we love in life: what we expect from girls and women, you know. What's funny is that we speak of the tabloids that use these girls, and we speak the way they speak, but most of the time they hate the show. They think it's insulting."

There is something disconcerting about Antoine. It's not just his new beard - a rather Kris Kristofferson effort he's grown in preparation for an upcoming film role - it's the combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar. I have always suspected him of being a bit of closet intellectual, and indeed, he is working hard at taking his career away from the frivolity of television into straight film roles. What I didn't expect is that so much of his on-screen personality would show through in life. It's like talking to a very precocious prep-school boy: he is aware of the implications of everything his shows involve, and without doubt there is an element of subversion in everything he does, seeing how far one can push the boundaries of tat television to show up the failings of less sophisticated offerings. And yet, whenever the subject of breasts comes up, which when you're discussing a show like Eurotrash is often, his eyes light up like a 10-year-old behind a bike shed. He is, in some ways, a typical product of a Jesuit education, with all the convent-girl-goes-wild preoccupations that go with it.

"Breasts? Well, they are beautiful." Even those of Lolo, regular guest and a woman who single-handedly halved the European silicone lake? "No, not Lolo's breasts. You can't call them breasts any more. But she knows the limits. She does regard herself as a pastiche." Those round fox's eyes shine with enthusiasm as he warms to his subject. "Once there was a competition to find the world's biggest breasts. Lolo had a challenger from America, who came on Concorde to take part. And one of her breasts exploded because of the cabin pressure. It would have been a good story for Eurotrash." Ideal.

The thing is, de Caunes is a considerably more serious character than the British public has seen evidence of. He is, for a start, president of the French Aids charity, Solidarite SIDA. His show, Nulle Part Ailleurs, which ran daily for seven years, was more straight than not, though dotted with satirical skits. He wrote the lion's share - 90 minutes' worth every day - himself.

This is a man, it seems, whose boredom threshold is painfully low. He has a reputation as a workaholic - rumours of 20-hour days have circulated - but a lot of this comes from being in possession of a restless brain. "I don't know how to make the frontier between work and pleasure. I work a lot because I'm always working on new projects which are very exciting. I don't feel it like it's working too much." For relaxation, he reads - "I'm a big fan of Robert Louis Stevenson: I think he'd one of the greatest writers of all time, along with Dumas, Maurice LeBlanc, with Stendhal. And I read a lot of background stuff. I've been reading a lot of Jewish novels recently. And I love American novels" - and rides his bike around Trouville, where he lives.

Not that there's much time for that. The de Caunes diary is, as always, crowded. La Divine Poursuite, a film by Michel de Vil, opened in France on 30 April. "It's from a Donald Westlake novel, Dancing Aztecs. It's always stories of people running after something and not exactly knowing what they're running after. It's always very shambolic. I am trying to purchasing a gold statue coming from Africa that's was smuggled. And there are some burglars running after us. It's part comedy, part straight."

Meanwhile, he is about to enter a two-month shoot of a film called L'Homme est une Femme comme les Autres. "It's very different. First of all it's a leading role and we'll be shooting every day for two months. It's the story of a gay Jewish guy who has to marry a girl. It's a kind of edgy comedy." It also sounds like it bears more than a passing resemblance to Jaime Humberto Hermosillo's 1986 movie Dona Herlinda and her Son, but we'll let that pass.

Television, it seems, is rapidly becoming a thing of the past: over the past year, he has cut his small-screen commitments down to Eurotrash and presenting the French Cesar awards. He has no intention of ditching Eurotrash for the time being. "I love it. It's very easy. It's like recreation time. I like being able to work in England. I can't say I particularly like French TV. They're two opposite worlds. French TV is very conventional." Lolo totters past us to the head of the stairs, looking like she has quadruplets strapped to her chest. The sight of her, gripping the hand rail to keep her balance, suddenly fills me with gloom. Does he never find this stream of freaks depressing? "Yes," he says, "but life is a circus, you know. We only show the edge. If you take it seriously, yes, it's a bit depressing. But we made a choice to have fun with it. There are enough reasons to get depressed in life. This is showbusiness. And anyway" - that giggly grin comes back - "as long as I can hurt morals and well-thinking people, I enjoy it. It's a good enough reason to make the show, you know?

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