English reigns in 'Versailles' as French TV eyes global market

GMT 06:27 2015 Thursday ,05 March

Arab Today, arab today English reigns in 'Versailles' as French TV eyes global market

Chateau de Versailles
Lésigny - AFP

Back in the day, the prospect of a French king speaking English would have been enough to trigger a century-long war.
Not any more, as evidenced by what will be France's most-expensive TV series ever, "Versailles", a period mini-series of 10 episodes that will come out at the end of this year.
The makers of the series, about the famous Palace of Versailles outside Paris and King Louis XIV who had it built, have bowed before the inescapable domination of English as the global language of international entertainment.
Thus their French king -- one of history's most iconic monarchs -- is British. Indeed, most of the the cast is British or Canadian. French performers are relegated to supporting roles or in the background.
The reason for such sacrilege in a country known for jealously protecting its language and culture is simple: France no longer wants to sit on the sidelines of the international resurgence in television.
It has seen the revolution sweeping the small screen, with cinema-grade productions being made by new players including Netflix and Amazon, and it wants to be part of it. And that means adopting English.
It also means spending big. At 27 million euros ($30 million) -- around 2.7 million euros per episode, each taking 12 days to film -- "Versailles" is the costliest TV production put on in France.
That's the sort of cash an "American super-production" would throw at the screen, boasts George Blagden, the English actor who incarnates the 28-year-old Louis XIV.
The only other French co-produced series that came close were "Borgia", a 25-million-euro epic series about a ruthless 15th century pope, and "The Tunnel", a 19-million-euro French-British contemporary crime drama based on the Danish-Swedish series "The Bridge".
- Gamble on global sales -
The producers of "Versailles" -- France's Canal+, Capa Drama and Zodiak Fiction allied with with Canada's Incendo -- are gambling their new series can win the same sort of worldwide business generated by the British-Irish-Canadian TV hit "The Tudors" or the British drama "Downton Abbey".
Claude Chelli, of Capa Drama, makes no bones about it. He says the decision to film "Versailles" in English was "to ensure the biggest international distribution possible".
The script itself is also crafted in English by Simon Mirren (former executive producer the US series "Criminal Minds") and David Wolstencroft (who created the well-received spy series "Spooks").
It focuses on the early years of the reign of Louis XIV -- the grand and self-proclaimed "Sun King" -- when he ordered the vast and vastly expensive Palace of Versailles be built to house his court away from Paris and its intrigues.
Six months of filming wrapped up last week with a torture scene in the underground of a castle watched over by Blagden, 25, who exudes regal airs under a wig of long curls and a vest adorned with braids.
"Even pros from American television would have immediately thought themselves on a film set," the blue-eyed actor tells AFP afterwards.
The scene, in which the king observes the suffering inflicted on a traitor to the throne, is meant to take place in the bowels of the Louvre in 1667.
Days earlier, all the pomp and elegance of Louis's court was on display in front of the actual Palace of Versailles in another scene, in which nobles and aristocrats rolled up in fine carriages -- all testament to the costume and set design detail that chewed up 12 percent of the total budget.
Another scene, shot in Versailles's spectacular Hall of Mirrors, brought together technical mastery and fortuitousness in a way to forever mark the London actor.
"There were only a few minutes of permitted filming left, and then suddenly the sun burst out from behind the clouds, the outside pond started shining, the light lit up all the mirrors -- and there was me, in the middle of it all, doing my monologue. It was magical," Blagden recalls.
- No 'ideal' French actor -
One of Canal+'s senior executives, Maxime Saada, said that, despite the decision to make the series in English, there was no predilection to choose a British actor for the lead role.
"We didn't find an ideal French actor for the role. We weren't looking for a British actor but rather for a young king -- and George is great," Saada says.
Blagden himself believes he got to wear the crown because he saw himself having a "somewhat gentle" character.
"There's not an ounce of violence in me," he says. "I've never fought in my life. But to play a character so powerful, a little bit of violence has to come through."
So he took up daily training in boxing, which injected confidence into his performance.
"You have to be able to see Louis's character change as he becomes the Sun King," he says.
The writers of the series confirmed that the king they imagined was "a vulnerable man" so that "what happens in his head" had to be seen by the camera.
As well as starting and parrying plots and intrigues, the young King Louis XIV had to handle a complex relationship with his brother and rival Philippe d'Orleans -- played in the series by Welsh actor Alexander Vlahos.
For the writers, the show aims to topple the "giant marble statue" image of the French king known by all and to reveal him as a man.


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