The knockout spirit of a French summer

A TV game show is essential holiday fun, mad cows and all, reports Mary Dejevsky

Paris - Do you remember the good old days of It's a Knockout and Jeux sans Frontieres with their improbable costumes, slapstick comedy and disgraced Royals? Well, the French don't need to; this summer, as last summer, and practically every summer for the past 30 years, a good half of the country's television audience will be riveted to the screen each Wednesday night for two hours of watery fun beneath the floodlights.

A week ago, almost 9 million people switched on for the first in this year's series of what goes by the name of Intervilles, knocking into a cocked hat all competing programmes on all five competing channels. The arrival of Intervilles is now as reliable a harbinger of the summer holiday season as the sun, the sea and the southward-bound traffic jams.

"It's almost a sociological phenomenon," said one of the brains behind the show, Fabrice Foucault. "It is one of the last expressions of la France profonde, in the best sense of the term." Pity then, poor Leon Zitrone, a veteran French television commentator who died in his Eighties last year. Zitrone's metier spanned the entire register of television from state funerals downwards. And what was he chiefly remembered, and loved, for? Being the first co-presenter of Intervilles, a kind of Gallic Eddie Waring.

Intervilles pits 18 towns and cities against each other - all with claims to be resorts of various kinds. The first matches are always between regional rivals, ensuring furious competition and vocal audience participation. Then the travelling begins. This year sees participation by such diverse places as medieval Troyes, east of Paris, the giant port city of Marseille, the fashionable Riviera resort of Antibes and the small southern seaside town of Port Bacares.

Last year saw confrontations broadcast from Palavas les Flottes - the largely modern seaside resort of Montpellier - and from the landlocked south-western wine centre of Cahors. The backdrop of a boat-filled modern marina and fish restaurants, compared with ancient fortress towers and hillside vineyards, could scarcely have been more different.

Always broadcast live, Intervilles distils into televisual form the collective French holiday experience: that unique period in the summer when the population has decamped to the seaside or the country, and everyone is wearing the sort of psychedelic Bermuda shorts they would not be seen dead in the rest of the year - everyone but the President and Prime Minister, whose shorts are a sober single colour. It's the time, in fact, when even the nation's Communist leader can be seen sipping at an oyster.

Wisely, the politicians know that Intervilles is not their terrain, and leave the people to their games. Guy Lux, 77, who has co-ordinated the programmes since 1963, says the secret of the games is to keep them simple. "Conveyor belts, a swimming pool, drawbridges, a show-ring, firecrackers, some soap ... then good luck and let them get on with it." An attempt to introduce a winter version of Intervilles - on ice - for last Christmas, failed dismally. The special summer holiday spirit just wasn't there.

Yet it may not be just the holiday spirit that has kept Intervilles going while such contests have flagged in Britain and colder lands. The programme has an added element that north Europeans would disapprove of, in this year of "suspect" beef, in particular. This is the vachette, a young cow, released, as and when, into the show-ring to add a frisson of danger.

Thus, it may not be sufficient for your team to have remained flawlessly upright along the ocean-wave conveyor and rehearsed its slippery-pole- climbing-in-flippers technique to perfection. When the vachette comes barrelling out of its fastness, horns first, you have to take evasive action in a hurry - and keep all those hard-won plastic balls/ flowers/fish in their buckets till you reach safety.

Mad cows or no, the typically Mediterranean and politically incorrect vachette is back this year, the star of Intervilles as ever. And the team from the southern city of Beziers will be banking on a small advantage. Theirs is the only city taking part in the fun this year which has a bull-fighting tradition.

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