The pursuit of Sacha-ness

Sacha Distel is still getting tons of fanmail. And it's not for his performance as Chicago's wisecracking lawyer in the West End. It's for being his wonderful, smooth, Gallic, starry self
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The Independent Online

What is happiness? This is a question that, throughout history, has perplexed philosophers, poets, psychiatrists, neuroscientists and, possibly, even Anthea Turner, but - and please don't think that I'm being presumptuous here - I truly feel that I have discovered the answer. Ready? OK. Well, happiness is arriving at Sacha Distel's London pad in the pouring rain - chucking it down, it is - so that you can sing through the letterbox (and do the tune in your head here):

What is happiness? This is a question that, throughout history, has perplexed philosophers, poets, psychiatrists, neuroscientists and, possibly, even Anthea Turner, but - and please don't think that I'm being presumptuous here - I truly feel that I have discovered the answer. Ready? OK. Well, happiness is arriving at Sacha Distel's London pad in the pouring rain - chucking it down, it is - so that you can sing through the letterbox (and do the tune in your head here):

"Raindrops keep falling on my head..."

That makes me happy. But I'm just about to launch into my next bit of singing - "I've just stepped in a big puddle, merde!"- when Sacha opens the door. He is 67 now. "But what is age? Just a number and an attitude, right? You always make me sink about age in zis country. You make me sink: two and a half more years, and I am 70."

He is nicely dressed, in a sort of Bruce Forsyth or Ronnie Corbett "at home" in the TV Times kind of way. You know, Lacoste cardigan, Ralph Lauren shirt. But he doesn't look so happy. He is smiling, yes - lots of gorgeous white teeth and everything - but the smile looks rather forced. Surely, you're not sick of "Raindrops", Sacha?

He has beautiful green eyes, which he rolls skywards, in a strangely exasperated kind of way. He then says he recorded Parkinson last night, with David Beckham - "He asks me what my favourite French team is, and I say Arsenal!" - and sang two songs, "but not zat one. Parkinson was too clever to ask me to do zat one." Oh dear.

The thing about happiness, I can now also tell you, is that it is only ever fleeting. No sooner do you think you've got it then, whoosh, it's off again. I feel horribly crestfallen and must look horribly crestfallen because Sacha quickly adds he doesn't mind too much. "It is a good song." Plus, he sang it at a Burt Bacharach tribute at the Royal Albert Hall recently and, even though the evening included a number of other great acts ("like Petula Clark"), it was the one song "that stopped the show".

He is nice enough to sing me a bit of it, up here in his swanky rented apartment, overlooking Park Lane, in his Lacoste cardi:

"Raindrops keep falling on my head/

But that doesn't mean my eyes will soon be turnin' red..."

I am totally thrilled. I say to the photographer: "Go on. Give him 20p. He hasn't had a hit for ages." And we all laugh, happily.

Actually, Sacha Distel only ever really had two international hits, "The Good Life", which he wrote, but was actually a hit for Tony Bennett rather than himself, and that other one - what was it called? "Raindrops", or something? - which made it into the British Top 10 in 1970. But he's endured brilliantly. How come? "Because I am very clever. Ha. Only joking, of course. What you look like is very important. I haven't changed too much. I didn't get fat. I didn't lose my hair. I didn't dye my hair. When my father died at 76, he didn't have one white hair. Mothers loved me and they tell their daughters and their daughters come to see me and say, hmm, he's not so bad."

So, not many hits, and probably no more hits - "listen to the radio... if you are over 25, zey sink you are dead" - but he is a hit. A very big hit, in fact.

Last month he took over the lead role as wisecracking lawyer, Billy Flynn, in the brilliant West End production of the musical Chicago. Honestly, if you haven't seen it, do try to. OK, Sacha, in the show, is... well... Sacha, but it doesn't matter. He's just such a... star? Yes. And you don't want to see Sacha as Billy anyway. You want to see him as Sacha, in all his French, smooth, buttery, Mr Smoochy-Smooch, rather kitsch, eezie-listenin' Sacha-ness.

That's what you pay for. And that's what you get. And it's fab. And he's getting a lot of fan mail. He shows me a big wad of it. "I get 20, 30 a day, at least. Not as much as Beckham, but I've had that in my time." He can be wonderfully vain. He shows me the envelope of a letter he once received in France. The address is simply: Sacha Distel, Cÿte d'Azur. "And it got to me!" he exclaims, with magnificent, feigned surprise.

Still, it's odd when you think about it. The image, I mean. Smooth? Mr Smoochy-Smooch? Actually, he's never been a great lover. By that, I don't mean he's rubbish in bed. I'm sure that, when the cardi comes off, he's tremendous. But he's never had a lot of women. True, he was once engaged to Brigitte Bardot in the late- 1950s, but only momentarily, and he doesn't want to talk about that, anyway.

"He'll stop if you do," I'd been warned. "He is very sick of that." So I approach the subject with my usual subtlety. "NOW, ABOUT BARDOT...", and he cries: "It was 42 years ago." He adds: "And I've been married for 38 years to a great lady (onetime French ski champion, Francine Bréaud) who still looks great. When you do a comparison now, I made the right choice, no?" Are you romantic, at least? "I can have tears in my eyes if I hear good music, but I try to behave like a man."

Smooth? Yes, he appears as if nothing has happened to him, ever, but a lot has, and there have been some rough moments. He's had two run-ins with cancer, one in 1970 when a growth was removed from his thyroid and then, a decade later, a year of chemotherapy for skin cancer. "It's the worst thing in the world. You have your head in the lav for five days a month."

Are you frightened of death, Sacha? "I enjoy life so much I just hope it won't happen, especially not now. I'm a star in the West End!"

And his childhood was surprisingly full of incident, too. Born in 1933, his father, Leon, was a Russian émigré who came to Paris from Odessa, while his mother, Andrée, was a Jew, the daughter of a prosperous jeweller. His childhood was, initially, very happy. He adored his mother. "She was lovely, beautiful. A small lady, very intelligent, who could play the piano and paint and speak four languages." He adored his father, too. "He was very handsome and very successful (dealing in electrical goods), so he gave my mother some worries. He had a beautiful, Russian exotic voice with a soft accent."

His uncle (his mother's brother) was the famous band leader Ray Ventura, and every Sunday "my parents would take me to my grandparents, where he still lived, and I remember him playing the piano and composing songs". Little Sacha started having piano lessons himself. "There was a teacher, Monsieur Gourdon, in our apartment block. He only had to come three floors down... and then the war happened."

Yes, then the war happened, and one morning, after France had surrendered to Germany, there was a knock at the door. "It was 7am, and zey had come to arrest my mother. It was the French police, on behalf of the Germans, which was nice. Zere was one policeman at the front door and one at the back. My father tried to say my mother wasn't in, then he offered them money, but nothing worked."

His mother was taken to a camp in Paris, while his father went into hiding, and Sacha was taken by the maid to her sister, 300km away. Here, he was found a place at a Catholic college, run by priests. "I ended up singing the Mass and 'Ave Maria'." His father managed to keep in touch "from a distance" but not his mother.

Then, when the Allies landed in 1944, the priests told all the children to go home, but: "My home was 300km away. So I went back to the maid's sister where my grandparents sent a man to come and get me. I knew he was from my grandparents because he came with my grandmother's ring, which I recognised. My grandparents were living in one rented room in a small house. I slept with my grandmother while my grandfather slept on the floor.

Then, one day, I looked out and saw two people walking up the alley - a tall, slim gentleman and a little woman with white hair. I went: 'Maman! Papa!' I had not seen them for two years." Did you cry? "We all cried." How was your mother? "She was in a nervous state. In the camp she was in, every day at 5pm, they would call out the names of all the people there - you, go to the right, you, go to the left. And one group would be sent to an extermination camp in Germany. So, for 19 months, my mother waited for her name to be called."

I ask him if he feels Jewish which, according to Jewish law, he is, because his mother was. He says no.

"Religions are the worst things in the world. Look what is happening in the Middle East." Have you ever been to synagogue? "I've never been, to tell you the truth."

I'm not sure he's an especially curious man. He doesn't read, no. "I read eight pages and fall asleep." He has not allowed himself to be disturbed, I think. But then that, too, is probably part of his Sacha-ness.

When the family were reunited they moved back to Paris where, ultimately, Sacha swapped the piano for the guitar. Indeed, he was voted France's best guitarist for five years in a row before having his first singing hit, "Scoubidou", in 1956. He now has homes in Paris, St-Tropez, and Megÿve. He has two grown-up sons - Laurent and Julien - and a three-year-old grandson, Alexandre. He is mad for Alexandre.

"He has the Distel look." The Distel look? "Yes. I show you." He gets out some photographs. Alexandre has huge, startlingly green eyes. Is that the Distel look? "Yes. Yes!"

I ask if he doesn't get lonely, in his rented London apartment. He says no. He has his CD-player, his guitar, his laptop. "I'm crazy for computers." He's astonished by London prices. "I bought some guitar strings yesterday - £10. They are £3 in France." Can you cook? "I have to. Well, I go to M&S. I put their things in the microwave."

We look out over Park Lane. A bus goes past. "Did you see it? Did you see it?" he cries. Did I see what?, I cry. "The poster on the bus," he continues excitedly. "For Chicago. It says: 'Sasha Distel puts the Chic in Chicago'." And this, I think, makes him very happy.

I leave. It's still chucking it down. I don't care. I can always hum. And I do. "Those raindrops are fallin' on my head, they keep fallin'..." Happiness? Nothing to it, really.

'Chicago' is at the Adelphi Theatre (020-7344 0055)

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