John Lichfield: Moving story of the missing 'Picasso'

Paris Notebook: He left a painting on the studio wall to thank the BBC for having been the voice of freedom in France from 1940-44

Monday 22 March 2010 01:00

Jean Cocteau, poet, playwright, friend of Marcel Proust, Pablo Picasso and Edith Piaf, was also an occasional artist. His drawings, often erotic, frequently on ancient Greek themes, are sought after but not hugely valuable.

Shortly before Cocteau's death in 1963, he gave an interview in the old studios of the BBC. Before he left, he painted on the wall a large, lovely, non-erotic, Picasso-like drawing of an ancient Greek head and lyre. He did so, he said, to thank the BBC for having been the voice of freedom in France from 1940-44.

When the BBC moved soon afterwards, they chopped out the section of plasterboard containing the Cocteau drawing, placed it in a frame and hung it in the new offices. For the last 13 years, I have shared that office and shared the pleasure of seeing the Cocteau on the wall. It has come to be known to some members of the the Beeb's bureaucracy in London as "the Picasso".

Last month, the BBC moved offices for the first time in nearly four decades. They agreed to bring me – and the Cocteau drawing. I was able to get up the stairs, just, but the drawing, eight feet high by six feet wide, was too large.

Calamity. The new offices feel naked without the Cocteau. This week an attempt will be made to haul the immense drawing up five floors by rope from the building's back yard. With luck, we will have our "Picasso" back.

Stop! In the name of the lads

I was walking past the lovely, ceremonial gates of the Interior Ministry on Saturday when the policeman on guard duty gravely held up his hand to stop me.

I waited for a big, black, ministerial car to sweep by. A small, blonde boy on a tricycle pedalled calmly out of the broad gateway. Another small blonde boy on a bicycle pedalled in. The sons of Brice Hortefeux, the Interior minister, were playing not at cars but at limousines.

A very formal dressing down

My 16-year-old-daughter, Clare, was invited to lunch by a friend who has an excitable relationship with her mother. After the usual angry exchanges, the friend stormed out, saying: "Maman, vous êtes une salope."

Clare, who has lived in France from the age of two, was shocked. She was shocked not because her friend had called her mother a rude word, but because she had used the formal "vous", rather than the familiar "tu". It was as if a British teenage girl had said to her mother: "Mrs Smith, you are a slut."

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