It was all part of Renault's promotional push for its new Clio range. Over a hundred UK motoring correspondents were flown out in five separate parties in order to put the cars through their paces on the Cote d'Azur. This high-octane army was expanded to include a handful of feature hacks because Nicole and Papa have recently completed a celluloid adventure starring the relaunched Clio. The narrative remains very hush-hush, but we were given the tantalising news that it involves (brace yourself) a marriage.
My audience with the beguiling twosome took place on the hotel terrace. With the Mediterranean providing a sun-spangled backdrop, Papa, otherwise 60-year-old actor Max Douchin, unleashed his formidable charm on me. "Papa," he explained, "is an Englishwoman's vision of what a Frenchman is." If Mrs Weasel's maman, who flushes perceptibly when Max pops up on the box, is anything is go by, he fulfils this role to a tee.
Somewhat more diffident than his TV persona, Max is pretty much the paradigm of a Parisian artist - I doubt if many other stars of British TV adverts would use the word "ontological" in interviews. Max revealed that in the eight years he has been playing the role, Papa has uttered just three words: "Nicole", "Maman" and "Bernard" (the name of his chauffeur). He hinted that playing the part was not undemanding. "If you are in a play, you have many things to say. But here, you have to transmit a lot of things in a single word."
Estelle Skornik, 27, who takes the role of Nicole, was a little perplexed when asked how many words she'd said in the course of the adverts. "Just one, of course: Papa." And was that hard? "No, it's very easy for me." Pale, tiny, slender, rather serious, but with a devastating heartbreaker of a smile, Estelle revealed an understandable wariness of British journalists. This emerged when I mentioned that I'd seen an article quoting her as finding Nicole as an unsympathetic character. "It was a LIE!" she exploded, eyes flashing. "Nicole is very spontanee and I'm very spontanee. She's open to life, she's French. Nicole is part of me."
It also emerged that another UK paper had alleged that Estelle could not drive when given her famous role. "That was anuzzer LIE!" she seethed. "I passed my test at 18." Nor was it the case that she only had a bit part in a recent Spanish film. "It was NOT a small role. It was a BIG role. Anuzzer lie by a British journalist." Things calmed down when Estelle turned to the torrent of fan mail she receives from the UK. "They are very nice," she flashed her wonderful smile. "Very correct." As we parted, Max turned philosophical. "In general, I love all human beings, particularly if they are kind human beings," he pondered. "But, of course, I 'ave a preference for the women."
In a quiet moment, one of the Renault team kindly ferried me from our luxurious retreat to the local supermarche. "It's interesting to see you chaps at work," he remarked, perhaps a trifle bemused, as I keenly stalked towards the seafood counter. While ordering supplies of huitres and crevettes for dinner back in Weasel Villas, I spotted a display of a Provencal maritime delicacy called violets and delightedly purchased half a dozen prime examples. Back in Weasel Villas, Mrs W did not share my joy at the acquisition. "Urgh!" she gasped. "Other men bring back Chanel. You've brought me doggy doo back from the south of France." I must admit that the small oval creatures, with a moist, wrinkled, grey-brown skin, are not unturdlike in appearance. Putting such thoughts to one side, you hack through the violet's leathery cover and eat the yellow bit inside, which resembles the yolk of a well- poached egg. The taste is somewhat bitter, with a mild iodine astringency. All but the most ardent shellfish lovers would probably find Microcosmus sulcatus on the cusp of edibility. I asked Mrs W for her opinion. But, with eyes clamped shut, all she would say was: "Have they gone yet?" So much for the romance of violets.
Conservationists are up in arms about the decision of the Odeon chain to change the shape and colour of its distinctive Thirties logo as part of a pounds 30m redesign. However, the company insists the refurbishment will banish for good the flea-pit image of cinemas. Going by a recent visit to our local Odeon, I'm inclined to the view that the cinema would be greatly improved if it were a bit more of a flea-pit, complete with art deco sign. Despite claims to be "fanatical about film", the mundane business of projecting moving images seems almost peripheral at the Odeon. My spirits plummeted from the moment I entered the foyer, filled with thumping rock music, arcade machines and vast array of molar-corroding confections. Over everything hung the all-pervading sweaty-feet pong of popcorn.
Things were scarcely better when we reached the tiny auditorium (one of four). Despite its minuscule size, a two-class seating system has been idiotically instituted in order to maximise profits. We sat through at least 20 minutes of adverts and 10 minutes of trailers. Due to the high ambient light level, I was distracted during the first three-quarters of Jackie Brown by the mechanical rise and fall of the arms of the quartet ahead of us as they chomped their way through vast binfuls of popcorn. Needless to say, the Odeon redesign is primarily aimed at such vulgarians. In its publicity material, the chain proudly announces that its brave new look even extends to the popcorn boxes. What on earth will they will look like? Skips, perhaps.
Many thanks to the numerous readers who pointed out, sometimes quite forcibly, that the railway town of Crewe is located in Cheshire, rather than Staffs as I erroneously suggested two weeks ago. Perhaps I might make amends by mentioning the handsome polychromatic brickwork of Crewe station. I had ample opportunity to observe its elegance the other day, when, in keeping with the disastrous reputation of the service, the Virgin train on which I was travelling down from Lancashire broke down there for almost an hour. No wonder that the cheesy grin of the Virgin boss always reminds me of a certain feline associated with the locality