French rediscover the taste for home-grown soap

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FOR THE first time in 30 years, French television has its own home-grown serial to match the gripping banalities of Santa Barbara or EastEnders.

The inaugural 26-minute episode of Cap des Pins, an everyday story of Breton millionaires, was shown on the publicly owned France 2 channel last night. It tells the story of the Chantreuil family - a cruel and rapacious father; a down-trodden, ineffective mo-ther; and grown-up children with divided loyalties.

If that sounds strangely and depressingly familiar, it is not surprising. The last French-made television series to in any way resemble a soap opera ended in the late 1960s. The scriptwriters and executives for Cap des Pins were dispatched to the United States, Britain, Germany and other soap-making countries to study the secrets of the lost art.

They came to the conclusion that a soap episode consists of three simple, slow-moving scenes, with an absolute maximum of five. A typical story- line over two weeks might be as follows: Things are not going well between Romeo and Juliet; Romeo's father's factory closes down; Tristan and Isolde discuss the problems of Romeo and Juliet; things are not going well between Tristan and Isolde ...

The French researchers concluded that soaps reflect the countries in which they are made. In British soaps, almost all the action, or inaction, takes place in pubs. In American soaps, everyone has just been to the hairdresser's - even the down-and-outs.

They are determined to give Cap des Pins a French flavour. The first indications were that the characters will be more interestingly dressed than those in American soaps; and that they will eat more often and better than the characters in Coronation Street and EastEnders.

One of the scriptwriters of Cap des Pins, Cathy Pierre, said the series will be "very French and not entirely a soap".

Simone Harari, the producer (who studied with the producer of Santa Barbara), says soaps are the perfect expression of modernity. "They are not challenging to watch, but they are very challenging to make."

The rediscovery of soaps in France is partly a response to criticism of the high proportion of foreign drama on French television. French-made light entertainment programmes consist mostly of quiz shows, variants of It's A Knock-out and some detective series.

There is no French sit-com, but that vacuum will be filled shortly. The cable network, Canal Plus, is making three sit-coms based on American models, and two air next month.