Thursday, 11 June 2009
Old Hacks Relax: A Provence Play
We drove zillions of miles to the French Riviera. We stayed four days. It was unforgettable, in an oddly dramatic way.
It was much like being in a play. A very English play, in a country house, with a cast of colorful characters.
The setting: a multimillionaire vacation home set on 13 manicured acres above St. Tropez, in southern Provence. Terraces, swimming pool, main house and guest quarters, tennis courts, tree house (fully habitable), vineyards and olive groves, staff. English owners in residence one month per year; for June it is lent to friends of friends.
Long, sunny weekend in early June. Evening. Cicadas roar, the automatic sprinklers mutter, ice tinkles against glass and a woman´s laughter is heard.
Cast of Characters:
Mike, former managing editor of a leading London tabloid newspaper, now a successful novelist and painter of growing renown. In Provence to attend a gallery opening featuring his latest collection of oil paintings. His friends and family are gathered to help him celebrate the event, he is entertaining them at the borrowed house with his
Wife, Sandy. A kindly, petite figure, she is recovering from cancer treatment, making a good show of enjoying herself but feeling the strain of so much entertaining.
Two of their Daughters are on hand as well, helping to serve the guests:
Kate, a career girl of 30-some years, and
Jane, a fashionista who enjoys yoga and alternative therapies. Both are pretty and bright and at ease in the setting.
Jane´s boyfriend Johnny, a strapping blond fellow from Yorkshire who enjoys sailing and cigars -- witty and very helpful with the pool and wine-serving duties.
Other Mike, Mike´s art dealer, a large, red-faced Dutchman who made his fortune in advertising, and now purveys art and taste to the expatriate English and German retirees throughout southern France. Does decorating, drives at top speed in his top-of-the-line Audi, and makes sure to be seated near the best wine. Very generous with his opinions.
Penrose: former news correspondent and ladies´ man at the tabloid; until recently married to a television game-show host. Guileless and merry, he is rehabbing a Georgian warehouse into a new art gallery in one of England´s more trendy towns. Other Mike is keenly interested.
Peter: himself a former TV actor and drama critic, he´s a good-looking yet tragic figure, having survived his wife´s sudden death and a long bout of depression. Things are looking up for him these days, as he´s got back to flying his own airplane, and has found a new sweetheart, whom he´s brought along with him for the holiday:
Jackie is a school teacher from the fashionable town where Peter lives, down-to-earth and intelligent. She sketches the scene and characters with a practiced hand. Lets on that Peter may be suffering from new health problems.
The other level of the guest quarters is inhabited by Felicity, a spunky, tiny 70-something former fashion editor who helped create the Carnaby Street English fashion scene in the 1960´s. She is frail these days, (often accompanied by Johnny), but couldn´t pass up the chance for a nice holiday in France. She is catered-to by her Lady Companion, JoAnn -- a woman whose plummy accent shows she´s probably better brought-up than most of the rest of the company. (She does not speak when Other Mike behaves unspeakably to her.)
Other guests arrive in the evenings, for cocktails and dinner:
DeLano was a foreign correspondent for many years, now lives in a villa nearby.
Graham, a well-known literary critic and writer, who lives in London, Bermuda, or Italy depending on the season. His wife is a former handball champion and real-estate dealer who handles only "heritage and prestige properties."
Deke lives up the hill, a still-active producer who´s had his suntanned hand in dozens of movies, TV shows, and live acts dating back to the 1970´s. He´s a charming raconteur. His wife is finishing a book, and spends most of her time on her mobile phone... but wives in this play are very much secondary characters. It´s the men who are the stars, and always have been.
Paddy, Mike´s lifelong friend and right-hand man through many years at the tabloid. He´s driven here from Spain in a lowdown furgoneta with Rebekah, an American hack and wife number four. They stay in a hotel in the town nearby, as there´s not enough room for them at the villa.
It is a nice holiday. No one gets too drunk or too insulted, but enough wild stories are told of past exploits to keep everyone laughing and on his toes: Peter was the lover of 60´s film star Julie Christie, but no one believed it at the time, until she gave unmistakable proof. Penrose once sparked a romance with a well-known staffer, and the amorous pair used Delano´s office as a trysting place, wrecking the furniture and knocking pictures off the walls. Paddy and Mike figure in a new book about the drunken excesses of Fleet Street in the 60s and 70s, and their fictionalized lives are hashed-over at length. Much good wine is taken. A great deal of swimming and sunning is done.
And such is life in a villa in Provence in June, inhabited by hacks. Waves of lavender bow in the breeze. A ship´s lights are visible far away off the cape, moving past St. Tropez and deeper into the Mediterranean.
It was just like being in a play. Or a game of Clue, even.
Except nobody was murdered.