Serge Reggiani

Popular actor turned singer

Saturday 17 September 2011 13:43

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

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