Serge Reggiani

Popular actor turned singer

In February, I was in Paris to hear one of Serge Reggiani's last concerts in that great temple of popular musical memories, the Olympia. The house was packed with fans who shouted, wept, laughed and applauded every number, often calling for a reprise.

Serge Reggiani, actor and singer: born Reggio nell' Emilia, Italy 2 May 1922; married first Janine Darcey (one son, one daughter, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved), second Annie Noël (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved), third 2003 Noëlle Adam; died Paris 23 July 2004.

In February, I was in Paris to hear one of Serge Reggiani's last concerts in that great temple of popular musical memories, the Olympia. The house was packed with fans who shouted, wept, laughed and applauded every number, often calling for a reprise.

Reggiani, immaculate in black, was too weak to stand all through his spectacle: he soon sat down to chat and sing, his favourite Gauloise spiralling smoke in his trembling fingers. There was a sense of almost unbearable emotional tension and anxiety as he kicked off the show with one of his favourite numbers, the endearing relevant "Sarah", whose piano intro aroused a storm of applause, followed by an instantaneous, reverent hush. That deep, rusty, almost extinct voice with its moving vibrato, casual respect for conventional rhythm caressed the very ordinary words in a murmuring complaint: " Le femme qui est dans mon lit / n'a plus vingt ans / . . . depuis longtemps . . ." ("It's now many a year since the woman in my bed was only 20 . . .") His daughter Carine joined him in a final chorus.

The audience held its breath, but there were some stifled sobs, as we all remembered that it was also a long, long time since Serge Reggiani had blossomed in his brilliant twenties, when he was all set to become one of wartime and post-war France's rising young stage and film actors; and one who was to enjoy immense popularity as a singer.

Now, at the end of every song, he rose shakily to his feet to acknowledge his applause with wide-open arms - standing there like a haggard El Greco saint. Weary bags under his pathetic brown eyes gave his long, grey-bearded face a martyred look, yet one gifted with a sly humour still, and a tenderness almost casually transmitted, thrown away with a last puff of dreamy smoke. He was still a romantic Italian at heart . . .

Serge Reggiani, " acteur dramatique, artiste lyrique", was born in 1922, in Reggio nell' Emilia, between Bologna and Milan. His father was a barber who passed on his craft to his son - something we remember fondly when we hear him sing one of his favourite composer Alice Dona's hits, " Le Barbier de Belleville" (1977).

Like many Italians, the family emigrated to France, to escape Mussolini's Fascist wave of terror. They arrived at Yvetot, in Normandy, in 1930, then migrated to Paris. But Serge found hairdressing a bore. He had a good baritone voice, but one not good enough for the opera. He made a little pocket money with walk-on parts, and started classes at the Conservatoire, where he won first prizes for both comedy and tragedy. He started reading poems in a literary cabaret - Verlaine, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Apollinaire. Then he got his first part, in Roger Vitrac's Le Loup Garou (1940), but it flopped.

He had better luck playing Burrhus in Jean Cocteau's 1941 production of Racine's Britannicus, with Jean Marais as Néron. He played a secondary role of a young delinquent in Louis Daquin's 1942 film adaptation of Georges Simenon's thriller Le Voyageur de la Toussaint. It was the first of several parts in which Reggiani impersonated sinister and depraved youths.

In order to avoid conscripted labour for the Nazis and call-up army papers from the Italian army, he "disappeared" into the maquis (underground movement) along with other artists like Simone Signoret, Daniel Gelin, Yves Allégret and Danièle Delorme. So it was not until after the Second World War, in 1946, that he received his first big part in films, with Marcel Carné's Les Portes de la nuit ( Gates of the Night). But his first really great success came in 1951, in Jacques Becker's magnificent classic Casque d'or ( Golden Helmet), playing a young tough, Manda, opposite Simone Signoret, a part made for his special kind of brooding melancholy mingled with moody violence. He ends on the gallows. Reggiani always considered it to be his finest movie performance.

With his impassioned way of speaking, his fevered eyes, "The Italian", as Reggiani was often called, began to get parts in which he exploited this sinister, violent undertone typical of the anti-hero or the tortured solitary. It was Jean-Paul Sartre who chose him for the important part of the Nazi officer Franz in Les Séquestrés d'Altona (1959). Sartre did not feel Serge looked vicious enough, but solved that little problem by making him wear a very Germanic monocle on an elaborate ribbon of black watered silk. The play ran for over 500 performances, and was successfully revived in 1966. Another important early role had been in 1947, in Cocteau's Les Parents terribles and Albert Camus' Les Justes (1949).

The born actor was also a born singer. He who played in Max Ophuls' La Ronde sang more than one roundelay. In Theo Angelopoulos' L'Apiculteur slept the honeyed cells of melody, and the words of a great contemporary lyricist, Boris Vian, through whose poems Reggiani learned to find his own unique way of speaking and singing his songs. (His first Vian disc won the Prix de l'Académie Charles Cros in 1966.)

Some of them displayed Vian's profound surrealist humour, like " Arthur, où t'as mis le corps?" ("Arthur, where've you put the body?"); like a gruesomely comic scene from some idiotic thriller, but one that Reggiani's genius transforms into a little c hef-d'oeuvre of rabid wit. On a similar but more searching note is " Le Java des bombes atomiques" ("Atom Bomb Java"), whose savagery recalls the title of Vian's first great novel, J'irai cracher sur vos tombes (1946, translated as I Shall Spit on Your Graves) - in which spit had to be the censored version of "piss" and other bodily functions.

But it was Vian's anti- government, anti-military " Le Déserteur" (1954) that put the cat among the pigeons, to Reggiani's great delight. It is a fierce attack on the Gaullist regime written between the end of the Indo-China conflict and the start of the wars in Algeria - a letter in the form of a slow patter-song from a young man who has received his call-up papers, it is addressed at the beginning of each couplet to " Monsieur le Président".

The letter explains why the recruit does not want to be a soldier, using set phrases of a disarmingly comic politeness and finally announcing that he is going into hiding, without arms, and telling the President that his gendarmes may shoot him on sight if they ever catch him. It is said that the soldiers embarking for Algeria marched on board singing this song. But the authorities considered it was an insult to the sacred memory of former combatants and officially banned it for 10 years, though it was taken up by Peter, Paul and Mary, and by other "folk singers" all over the world. Reggiani paid homage to Vian by making a recording of the original version.

Another composer who became a close friend was Georges Moustaki, author and interpreter of "Sarah", " Ma Liberté", " Ma Solitude" and many other standards. It was Moustaki who paid the profoundest and most generous tributes to his old friend:

He was and always will be an integral part of my personal history, as I was of his. His talent magnified the quality of the texts I wrote for him, that he transformed into imperishable successes. Serge was a great actor who became a great singer. But he was also a fine amateur painter; and through his genius for friendship he brought together all those who were essentially solitaries. We were so close. We knew solitude and when he sang " Ma Solitude" he turned my simple lyric into a true poem.

The great bond between us was the fact that we were both immigrés, and always when we were together we no longer felt strangers in France. He was "The Italian" and we talked our hearts out in that language that is the very soul of music.

James Kirkup



News
In 2006, Pluto was reclassified as a 'dwarf planet'
scienceBut will it be reinstated?
Voices
voicesI like surprises - that's why I'm bringing them back to politics, writes Nigel Farage
News
Destructive discourse: Jewish boys look at anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on to the walls of the synagogue in March 2006, near Tel Aviv
news

As anti-Semitic attacks rise, Grant Feller re-evaluates his identity

Arts and Entertainment
Adam Levine plays a butcher who obsessively stalks a woman in Maroon 5's 'Animals' music video
music'Animals' video 'promotes sexual violence against women'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people Biographer says cinema’s enduring sex symbol led a secret troubled life
News
newsGlobal index has ranked the quality of life for OAPs - but the UK didn't even make it into the top 10
News
people

Kirstie Allsopp has waded into the female fertility debate again

News
The moon observed in visible light, topography and the GRAIL gravity gradients
science

...and it wasn't caused by an asteroid crash, as first thought

News
people
Life and Style
food and drink

Savoury patisserie is a thing now

News
Researchers say a diet of fatty foods could impede smell abilities
scienceMeasuring the sense may predict a person's lifespan
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
News
Gillian Anderson was paid less than her male co-star David Duchovny for three years while she was in the The X-Files until she protested and was given the same salary
people

Gillian Anderson lays into gender disparity in Hollywood

News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Services Team Leader

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client, a prog...

Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: A rare high quality opportunity for a...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £50 per day: Randstad Education Group: Job opportunities for SEN Teachin...

Secondary teachers required in King's Lynn

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Secondary teachers re...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?