Antoine de Caunes is more than a cheeky Frenchman with a ridiculous accent. He is also responsible for some of the trashiest excesses of British television. By James Rampton. Photograph by Glynn Griffiths
The set of the Valentine's Day special edition of Love in the Afternoon is a temple of kitsch. Artificial flowers and ivy twine round a circular trellis below a mock hedgerow blooming with pink hearts. Statues of fat, pink Cupids act as gatekeepers at the entrances. Around a red, heart-shaped table two of the presenters, Maria McErlane and Antoine de Caunes, are rehearsing for the evening recording of the show that simultaneously celebrates and satirises the idea of love and romance. She presents him with his Valentine's gift: a heart-shaped mirror, because, she says, "Nobody loves you as much as you love yourself." He looks into the mirror and gives it his best cheesy grin. It is De Caunes's nature to send himself up. He is the dauphin of self-irony.

This is just one reason why, in the seven years since his British television debut as the fast-talking host of the pop magazine Rapido, De Caunes has become just about his country's most successful export since French kissing. Eurotrash - his and the fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier's knowingly tacky trawl through the flotsam and jetsam of continental culture - nets two million viewers a week for Channel 4. And Rapido, the production company he co-owns, has cornered the market in other such wilfully trashy products: as well as Love in the Afternoon there is Baadasss TV, a tour d'horizon of black popular culture, and The Girlie Show, the wildly hyped replacement for The Word which, in the words of David Stevenson, the Channel 4 editor who commissioned it, has been "monstered" in the press.

Yet while De Caunes is responsible for some of the worst excesses of trash TV, he himself has come in for remarkably little trashing. In fact, he is about as popular as it's possible for a Frenchman in Britain to be. De Caunes, on his lunch break from rehearsals of Love in the Afternoon, toys with his vegetable bake ("you don't want to print what I think of British food") in the canteen of the television studios that Rapido rents in Wandsworth, south London. A smile never far from his lips, he considers his popularity with his "British chums" - his catchphrase on Eurotrash which has brought him to the notice of Spitting Image, a sure sign he's made it over here.

"I offer something exotic," he reflects. "The British can tolerate one French person a generation. The last one was Sacha Distel. So I'm here to save the reputation of my whole country. I'm on a mission."

His colleagues assess him less modestly. Peter Stuart, a producer who co-founded Rapido with De Caunes, is parti pris, as they say in Wandsworth, but perceptive nevertheless. "He's by no means a novelty. The British disease is to grow bored with people very quickly. But it has been harder for them to pin Antoine down. I'm sure journalists would like to swat Antoine with, 'Oh, he's just a charming Frenchman in the mould of Sacha Distel,' but there's too much subversion and irony for that. He has the British public confused, and the longer he does that, the more successful he'll be. The British like to think that the French have no sense of irony. They weren't prepared for a Frenchman with one. He has all the qualities of the cliche Frenchman - as well as that dryness the British think of as their own. He's giving it back to them, but even drier, like white wine."

"He's brought intelligence to youth TV," enthuses Stevenson. "In the past, a lot of youth TV has consisted of metropolitan fashion victims making programmes for other metropolitan fashion victims. He's bust that mould. He's such a Gallic charmer, he has this wonderful, self-deprecating sense of humour. He's a faux naif; he knows much more than he cares to portray. We British have the idea that the French are very intellectual, that they all walk down the street discussing philosophy. But Antoine is very arch and knowing."

And De Caunes knows what the British expect from a Frenchman. "He's very au fait with British culture," Stevenson goes on, "and the thick accent is part of the joke. He can speak better English than he makes out. He gives the British a version of what they think the French are like. He's sending up the British idea of the French, so the joke is on us rosbifs."

Mais oui, ze accent. De Caunes's unique selling-point was described by one critic as sounding like "Inspector Clouseau sitting in for Peter O'Sullevan". De Caunes cheerfully admits that he plays the accent up, modelling it on "one of my personal heroes, Peter Sellers. I think he was a genius."

Although he lives in Paris, he is very much an Anglophile. "I really like the British sense of humour. The French take themselves so seriously. They always believe they have something to teach the world about philosophy, love or food. I don't want to change that, but if the British can admit that a few French people are different from that image, then that would be something."

He then launches into an assault on the French government's edict against Franglais. "It's ridiculous. You can't play tennis anymore or have a weekend or a lunch. And you can't say 'bridge', so the James Brown song is called 'Take Me to the Pont'."

A funny guy, Antoine de Caunes. Silly, too. He attended the British Comedy Awards decked out as Prince Charles, complete with sticky-out ears, bad teeth and Princess Diana (Gaultier) on his arm. On Nulle Part Ailleurs (Nowhere Else), the daily chat show he hosted for seven years on the French television station Canal Plus, he would appear as a bumble-bee or a boy scout to interview celebrity guests. And in pursuit of a cheap laugh on Eurotrash, he gladly performed a "pointy dance" dressed as a Seventies disco king in a shimmery, red jump-suit slashed to the waist exposing stick-on chest hair. "I'm so hairy, it's scary," he snarled.

"Silly things tell you a lot about the state of society," De Caunes muses. "Stupidity is one of the best ways of relating serious things. That's what I like about the Brits - the ability to say deep things in a light way. It's more effective than a load of serious people sitting around in chairs. You get hours of that already and you need some relief from it."

Over five series Eurotrash has remained consistently funny, but it has brazenly grabbed the ratings by establishing itself as a taste-free zone. De Caunes has shamelessly exploited the fact that people will do anything to get on television. On Eurotrash, women have been known to squirt breast- milk across the room or crawl naked through mud while being flogged by men dressed as huntsmen. Other incidents not likely to win any awards for sophistication include: women making ink-prints of their breasts and behinds; a Talk Dirty Machine that teaches you how to swear fluently in eight different languages; a Spanish restaurant where all the food and decor is phallic-shaped; and German male prostitutes who offer clients a money-back guarantee if they don't reach orgasm.

Strange to relate, De Caunes has had to tone down the kind of material he could get away with on his French chat show; he claims to relish the fact that Eurotrash has to abide by the more stringent British regulations governing taste and decency. "There are certain things you can't say on British television," he intones solemnly, "but that's an advantage rather than a constraint because I can fool around with that. It's like with a girl; it's always more erotic not to see everything. You have to guess what surprise might be waiting for you."

On Eurotrash De Caunes plays the teacher to Gaultier's naughty schoolboy, but the real strength of the double act lies in the fact that they're two adults behaving like children and being wilfully stupid. It's more clever than it looks: hiding behind their characters, they can be as rude as they dare. It also makes them virtually critic proof. As Stevenson puts it: "How can you take criticism seriously when Antoine and Jean-Paul are dancing in tight disco clothes with transsexuals? They're willing to make such fools of themselves, how can you get mad about it?"

The fact that De Caunes is prepared to make a complete prat of himself cannot entirely absolve him of the sins he's committed on British TV. Not everybody enjoys seeing him being whipped by a dominatrix in bondage gear and a riding-hat. Stevenson concedes that the duty log is often busy after Eurotrash has been transmitted. And De Caunes is largely to blame: the programme is put together by a production team in London, but all the items are run past De Caunes before the recording in Paris. He determines how far things can go.

"I would never do anything involving children being beaten or people suffering from Aids or cancer," De Caunes says in his defence. "But otherwise I'd say the sky's the limit." His attitude is: if it's funny, run it - and if you don't like it, switch off. Channel 4 keeps a close eye on the programme and has asked the company to tone things down before, without ever pulling an entire item. De Caunes is proud of an ITC ruling that favourably contrasted his tongue-in-cheek coverage of tasteless material with The Word's less ironic approach.

The naughty boy in De Caunes emerged at an early age. Brought up in the comfortable, middle-class Paris suburb of Neuilly, De Caunes was expelled from two secondary schools (for, surprise, surprise, persistent indiscipline); his parents sent him to a Catholic boarding-school in Fontainebleu for fear of him sliding into serial delinquency. After school De Caunes went to Paris where he joined a photo agency in the hope of becoming a photo- journalist. ("I did all the shitty jobs," he recalls.) At the agency he befriended Michel Parbot, a celebrated Vietnam war journalist, who invited him to be his assistant when he set up a television documentary production company. "In four years there, I learnt everything about the business. I never thought I'd go into it. I saw my parents working [his father was a newscaster and his mother a producer], and I knew it wasn't such a glamorous life." But once bitten by the box, he was hooked and in 1978 landed his first job as a presenter on the rock magazine Chorus. "I was so shy at first, it was a nightmare," he remembers.

But others recall him as a television natural. Stuart comments that "his unique way of delivery pushed the series beyond simple rock reports. Irony was not yet part of the language of television, but Antoine presented the programme dressed in a blazer. At the time, all the other presenters were wearing leather jackets that said 'salut, les kids, we're all in this together'. He has since become an institution in France. A whole generation grew up with him." (That's one way of putting it, says De Caunes; another is to say, "If you come into people's homes every day, they look on you as a vacuum-cleaner.")

In 1989 Chorus metamorphosed into Rapido, which ran on British and French television for five years until De Caunes, in a moment of rare insight for someone in his profession, decided he was getting too old to front a rock-show. So Stuart and De Caunes turned Rapido into a producer of documentaries (subjects have included Gerard Depardieu, Camille Paglia and Fellini) and youth programmes (given his sensitivity about his age - he is 40 - you can see why De Caunes feels the need to act the child in the youth programmes he fronts).

De Caunes has the stamina to shame a marathon-runner. As well as presenting Eurotrash and Love in the Afternoon this year, he is acting in three French films, hosting the Cesars (the French Oscars), and polishing a screenplay, Good to the Last Drop, based on a hard-boiled, American-style detective novel called Good But Hot that he wrote in 1991. He has time to tell me that his hobbies include vintage motorbikes, cycling, the music of Charles Trenet and the writing of Celine, Voltaire and Robert Louis Stevenson before he is dragged back in front of the cameras to run through the latest edition of Love in the Afternoon. Peaking through the ivy-clad trellis, I see him picking a woman out of the audience to help with his cookery display, which involves doing suggestive things with a banana and a bowl of molten chocolate. "Would you like to get sticky with Antoine?" he asks.

Tasteful to the last.

The repeat run of 'Eurotrash' continues tonight at 10.35pm on Channel 4. A new series begins on 12 April. 'Baadasss TV' continues Sunday, 2.30am on Channel 4.