Wednesday, July 30

All systems go

30th July
We're on! fixed the details about schedules and delivery, arranged to borrow more money, the ferries are booked. The Director and I will drive to France on Friday, the Camera Boys will drive down with a vanload of kit next Tuesday. Hoorah!

Tuesday, July 29

Time and money

29th July
We're still nitpicking about money and schedules. One rather large hurdle to overcome is the fact that the Big Controller has used her financial allowance for this year so our production will have to go into next year's budget - money can't be released to us until next April.

Monday, July 28

Tension rises

28th July
Friday was fraught, still trying to come to terms with the Big Controller. We need to assume that agreement will be reached and continue with plans to start filming in France next week. People arrive for work early in the mornings. Five of us are beavering away; reading contracts, sorting out insurance, testing equipment, dealing with computer malfunctions and making schedules. The Director, too anxious to sleep, often works during the night.

7pm on Friday evening, people are starting to go home, the doorbell rings, New Wife has turned up an hour late for the appointment she made the previous night. I say 'I'm sorry, it's too late, we're just about to have supper...' her husband says 'I'm sure you can spare a couple of minutes'.

Stunned by their front, or maybe just sleep deprivation, we go to the kitchen. The Director pours wine and the newly weds tell us about their dreams to work together. New Wife feels that we shouldn’t let her lack of any relevant skills stand in the way of us employing her. I'm not sure how to tell her that that is not the issue holding me back.

Friday, July 25

Is it on or is it off?

25th July, Back in UK
Got back after midnight last night, new drama has broken out about terms and conditions, money, budgets... The Director is in London all day today meeting the Big Controller. A few days ago, when we were in celebration mode, he invited everyone who’s had anything to do with the project to a party tonight. This includes a new camera assistant who started working for us while I was away. This one is dark and brooding: slouchy posture, super-baggy low-slung trousers, underwear spilling over the top. He arrives for work first thing and he's bought his new wife along, she is pretty and pouty and spends the day sunbathing in the garden. I spend the day preparing for the party, getting tense about the outcome of the London meeting and developing my plans for running a B&B from the Lovely House.

The Director arrives slightly later than the other guests. I don't get a chance to find out how the meeting went.

New Camera Boy is keen for his wife to join the team. When the subject is broached directly to me I point out that a) we don’t definitely have a project yet but if we do finally hook it, it will have less rather than more budget. And b) if we can afford extra help there are several strong reasons why we should be using French people.

Late to bed - The Director tells me that New Wife persuaded him to give her a job interview  tomorrow evening????!!!

Thursday, July 24

First supper under the lime tree

24th july
I uprooted the thistles and nettles that were foresting the area in front of the house. There is a beautiful but unkempt lime tree whose branches were almost sweeping the ground. I lopped back the branches as high as I could reach and cleared away the rusty scrap iron piled up around it’s trunk. Now I have a shady area for dining with a view over the the potager wall, now we can see the poor old pear tree victims of digger man. Amazingly they are valiantly still producing fruit. As I was gardening I uncovered a massive cedar stump which is in an ideal place to build a campfire, it smells fantastic when burning. On Tuesday, to inaugurate my new dining room I decided to invite the Bontettes for supper.

Mr B is ex-military and probably quite likes a bit of camping but Mme B is a lady with a French manicure, a weekly hairdresser habit and very high heels. I can see their place from mine - they drive the 500 metres to my house. My front ‘lawn’ is quite a challenge to high heels. I set the table under the lime tree, got the fire going and did the cooking right there. The problem with running a dinner party single-handed in a new house is that it’s the sort of learning curve best experienced with good friends. Not having the right implements, correcting wobbly tables, embers getting too cool too quickly all had it's effect on the food. I also forgot to get candles, learned that the outside lights don’t work and that it really does get quite dark once the sun goes down.

The Director called. Apparently the series isn’t quite as ‘in the bag’ as we’d thought. I flew back to the UK late last night.

Monday, July 21

Dancing and sausages

21st july
The village fete is four days of fun. After the sausage meal on Friday night there's a disco at the Salle which I didn’t attend but heard quite well through my shuttered windows. Last night I witnessed my first bal-musette - old time dancing on a packed dance floor where pensioners execute perfect polkas, waltzes and foxtrots. I don’t know how to do these dances and made many men regret asking me to dance because I'm not only taller than most of them, but I’m also clumsy and have no sense of rhythmn.

Tonight for the finale there will be a bigger, better bal-musette, accompanied by a bigger, better sausage and pulse-based meal.

There is a price to pay for all this fun. Arriving at the Salle des fetes to help clear up after last night's festivities I noticed that the volume of cars coming, going and parking has squashed Bee City flat.

Sunday, July 20

Clearing the decks

20th July
Going a bit further afield to check out locations now, photographing the life I find there. This weekend I’ve been heading up into the mountains and the cool watery places looking for good dragonfly habitats. There are beautiful places, areas where riverside flowers are crammed with numerous sorts of wasps and beetles, lilac bushes being visited by hummingbird hawkmoths, but not really finding dragonflies.

I’ve also been sorting out the Lovely House. The windows have all been open since I got here, I’ve put the mattresses out in the sun and heavy old bed linen is getting laundered. Strange and unmentionable things are discovered. I dismantle a mattress mountain, interleaved with the linen I find paintings, clothing, jewellery, tools. I open the cupboards and turf out incontinence pads and douche bags, old medicines. Every flat surface in the main room is crammed with knick knacks, which I pack into boxes. Strange and curious artworks have evolved like the brass bedwarmer hung on the wall with spare light bulbs stuck in it. There’s a big long bit of metal with a hook on one end which I think is a weighing device, it’s hung horizontally, I like this kind of stuff so leave it up. There are curious things in bulk, boxes of penknives, corkscrews made of vine stumps, bundles of ticking fabric and quite a lot of hunting-related curios; stiff uncured skins, implements for hanging carcasses and a furry handled carving set made out of the limbs of little deer.

The Lovely House seems enormous but only a quarter of the building is house the rest is animal housing, granaries, barns and storage spaces. Perfect for making places to keep insects and for filming. There’s a huge long attic-type space full of bits of bathroom fittings, rusty birdcages, old ploughing harnesses, clothing, books and lots of unidentifiable broken stuff. The debris I've cleared from the living spaces seems to belong here.

Saturday, July 19

Village Fete

19th July
The village is en fete this weekend kicking off with an opening night supper. Last night I found myself in the kitchen at the Salle des Fetes washing wine bottles with a dumb smiley woman in bright lipstick. People buzzed around chopping tomatoes, making salads and above all chatting. A woman stirred sausages in a large cauldron placed on a gas burner. The sausages emit so much water that they are stewing not sizzling. Smiley Woman and I filled wine bottles from large plastic containers, helped fuss around with tables, chairs and decorations then went home to get dressed up. Later, when guests arrive they are given two thin plastic trays, one with a salad in it and the other containing the grey sausage and lentils. I took mine and joined three elderly ladies on one of the plastic tables outside. One of them - a fierce-looking lady in slippers is a reincarnatation of Eena Sharples  for half an hour I am a member of their coven as they exchange gossip and sharp observations. It’s huge fun. Suddenly clouds scud over and there’s clearly going to be a storm. Two of my companions have finished eating and head inside but seconds of sausage are coming round, I correctly judge how much sausage I can eat before the raindrops start falling but Eena doesn’t  I dash in to shelter as she struggles manfully on in the rain.

Thursday, July 17

Bee City

17th July
I've been searching for filming locations, just wandering around locally on foot or bike initially. A few yards away from our place is the Salle des Fetes and I notice at the sandy edge of the car park there are lots of mini volcanoes. Furry bee heads emerge now and again. I watch for a while to see who else lives nearby, there's loads of activity, an insect metropolis.

I'm chatting up the neighbours as much as possible, I'm quite keen to make our activities known in the area as I'm hoping to get help/permission to film on their land. There is a woodyard nearby with piles of rotting planks and tree stumps strewn over a large area. This must be home to all kinds of animals, among them woodlice which will be quite important for us. I ask the yard owner if there are a lot of woodlice around. He looks at me blankly, I lift a scrap of wood off the ground and show him one, he still looks at me blankly, he tells me that he has no idea what this creature is.

Wednesday, July 16

We get the gig

16th July, back in France
The month has been tense and life-sapping. Our financial and emotional resources depleted. The new pilot was delivered but the Big Controller is on holiday so we have to wait an unspecified amount of time before we find out if we pass Go. Pacing around in the UK is killing me so I get on a plane to the Lovely House. As I walk through the Arrivals lounge there is a call from the Director 'the Big Controller said "Yes"'.

France is hot, hot, hot. I go to the supermarket and get Champagne to celebrate the ‘win’. Meet Mme Bontette. at the meat counter. The village is en fete this weekend, she suggests I come and help with the preparations on Friday.

Still no phone.

Saturday, July 12

The 'names'

For the last month there have been excruciating negotiations with an agent over the contracts for our famous (read expensive) actors. The Big Controller specifically wanted us to use an actor she'd liked in the Eighties, so we got him and a Lovely Shiny Girl and shipped them over to a Soho studio to voice the new script for us. Mr Eighties arrived looking crumpled, sweaty and anxious. A few cans of Pepsi Max helped initially but things got steadily worse as lines were fluffed, and tempers frayed. It was a quiet journey home.

Friday, July 11


20th June, France
A man with a digger turns up to mend a hole in the dam on 'our' land. He does this by scooping through the wire fence surrounding the potager and filling his bucket with topsoil which he dumps into the hole in the dam. When he’s done, the torn fence lies frayed at an angle towards the ground and there's a black hole showing the ragged roots of two espaliered pear trees left exposed by his work.

I go back to the phone box and call FT again but despite repeated tries I can't get through.

Filming and Phonelines

19th June
Confident that the Big Controller will give us a Deal, The Director goes off to film butterflies. We have no phone line yet and there's not much of a mobile signal around the house so I walk to the phone box to call France Telecom. I keep having to wait out the maximum time on hold before I'm cut off and have to start again.

There is a catchy little tune on that France Telecom hold system - it has formed a tinnitus-like loop in my head.

National Go For A Walk Day

18th June
It’s National Go For a Walk Day so The Director and I join an organised walk in a nearby commune. We meet the military haircut neighbour I’d been introduced to yesterday and his perfectly manicured wife, M and Mme. Bontette. are a very well-groomed couple. At the end of the walk we are invited to join the Maire of the commune for a drink. It is a press photocall. He is expecting to win an election and wants to be photographed for the papers with an admiring crowd of supporters, we are clad in shorts and vests. The Maire is wearing a sober suit but my attention is drawn by his wife, a bold large-framed redhead in an extremely complicated outfit involving many layers, and fabrics.

Health and safety

17th June

I visit the Mairie to find out if there are any ‘dangers’ I should know about such as scorpions or bad snakes. The Maire’s sidekick who looks like the Bic Biro man is there and so is a man with a military haircut who, it turns out, is my neighbour.

Setting up services

16th June
The Director and I go to the nearby town to open a joint bank account and I visit the France Telecom shop for a phone line and internet. I’m told this will all be operational in 48 hours

Getting the keys

13th June
The Director has been working round the clock rewriting the pilot script, and recutting the images - something that has already been done and redone for the last two years of development as various Big Controllers have toyed wih the idea of commissioning the project. Joy and Spontaneity seem to have been gone a long time now.

Despite all the uncertainty The Director and I drive to France to get the keys to the Lovely House. Le proprietaire gets us to sign more papers, takes us to see the rubbish dump and introduces us to the ageing and floppy Maire, there’s something about the way he stands a little bit stooped and holds his hands together in front of his chest that makes me think ‘Vicar/vulture’. Le proprietaire then takes us back to the house where we open champagne and he shows me how to catch crayfish out of one of the lakes.

Everything on hold

18th May
I get back to the UK high as a kite with success. I go into the production office (which is also home to The Director and me) and am met with a sea of gloom. The Big Controller had a lot of problems with the pilot we’d just sent, this was version II. An earlier pilot which had prompted the commission for this series was deemed too short and had to be made longer by a third. Now the new version is too long and we have to halve it. The professional actors we used for the narration are no good, we have to redo it with ‘names, people with profile darling’. This will affect the budget massively and suddenly the whole project is thrown into doubt.

Last month I cleared out two rooms in our house to accommodate the expanding production offices. I’ve just used our savings to secure the deposit and first month’s rent on the Lovely House. I start working out how quickly I could get a B&B going there.

I really, really want the Lovely House

Day 5
Wake to slashing rain at 6. I’m desperate to get out but can’t work out how to open the car park gates so am imprisoned until ‘rescued’ by the breakfast man. The City rush hour traffic has now clogged the roads.

Stop off in a café in a small town and am immediately hit on by men with lorry full of wood. The older more macho one insists that he’ll find me a house and, despite my reservations, I give him my phone number. I spend my day visiting estate agents and making appointments. I stop in a sleepy town and find a wonderful hotel. The plump man that I have decided to name Monsieur Splendido has a thick magician’s moustache. Madame is stiffly coiffed and wears vivid makeup. The décor is essence of sixties; loads of black quilted vinyl on the bar and the banquettes. A large fuzzy-screened telly is switched on. The Splendidos are warm and welcoming, I fall into their outstretched arms.

I have a room at the top of this tall building with views on the surrounding hills. There are fresh flowers on the escritoire which fill the room with their fragrance. My en suite bathroom is black and turquoise. There is a bath – hallelujah!

Tonight the restaurant is closed so I eat en famille with The Splendidos. We sit on the veranda bathed in the evening sun, supper is divine; warm goat's cheese salad with honey dressing, seared duck breasts with pommes dauphinoise, a bottle of Minervois and cheese.

An estate agent takes me to a sterile barn conversion tacked onto the end of the owner's property. It stands in a scraggy bit of garden, there are no shrubs or trees. It has large blank windows which show the large blank kitchen/diner/living room in it's entirety - no hiding places here. Placed as it is on a road on a hill, it could not be more exposed. The owner's attempts to make it homey amount to  ragrolling the interior walls in apple green. Out of politeness I go in, do a minimal walk around and head out as quickly as possible. Returning to her car the agent says,
Isn't it lovely?

Wood lorry man calls, If I’m prepared to do a bit of bricolage on a property he’s arranged some for me to look at. I must meet him at 7pm. Madame Splendido has become my mother so I tell her where I’m going. At the meeting place, which is a café, I wait. There is a lonely man there who immediately asks me if I’m célibataire. As usual I say not and show him my wedding ring. Undaunted he brings me a drink over and tells me all about his divorce, the wife who won’t let him see the children and the battles over money. Wood lorry man is very late but I am thankful leave with him. He drives me around the area, past abandoned places, tells me he knows how to get hold of the owners. They are all beyond a bit of brico, and he's clearly mistaken me for a qualified roofer. We are out for 2 hours, during which time I discover that he’s angry about quite a lot of things, the main themes being; youth/the French tax system/foreigners and how he's made sure that his wife wouldn't be able to put her hands on his business should she decide to leave him.

I have aged several years when we get back to the hotel but feel I should suggest a quick beer, which he accepts. He turns off the engine and asks me how old I think he is. I take a few years off what I think and say ‘60?’ he’s a bit quiet, then he says ‘I’m 43’.

I call the owner of the Lovely House, haggle over the price of his property and arrange a meeting to sign papers.

The Beginning - In Search of The Lovely House

May 06
Arrived in SW France to look for shooting locations for series of natural history programmes about insects – need rural property with land, near forest, water, coast…

First night
Middling-sized town, classic old-style hotel. I arrive at 7pm after a long drive and would like to take a short walk before supper. Madame on the desk insists I eat immediately or forfeit supper opportunity.

Supper is a sad procession of soggy food, I have ordered some decent wine and wish to salvage the evening by finishing with cheese, Madame is shocked and says that I can't have cheese because I have had dessert, I come over all foriegn and tell her that we do it the other way round where I come from and she stomps off returning with an excellent selection of cheese,nicely arranged on a tray.

Room recently been occupied by a smoker. Bed with lumpy wool mattress, kidney-shaped dressing table, mauve plastic chrysanthemums, sink and a bidet. Loo down the hall

Second Day

Bleak rainy morning. Find café, in local paper see box ad;

Maison de Maitre, 2 lacs, 3 hectares...

price considerably more than my budget - shame.

Tour estate agents, one possiblity - grim-looking unfurnished farmhouse with no private land.

Stop for night at small hotel in large village run by sleepy British woman in dirty sweats. Supper is English version of cassoulet - canned baked beans and frankfurters

Third Day

Use bathroom after breakfast, flush lavatory then watch contents of the flush appear in the hand basin.

Visit more unsuitable properties, phone to make appointment to view the Maison de Maitre from the small ad:

The Maison is in a village that doesn’t seem like a village. I drive through twice without noticing it, the houses are strung out unevenly along the road for about two kilometres, I am looking for a central knot of Mairie, church and bakers, that is my idea of a village. When I find the Maison I nearly faint - I made a sketch of the ideal property before setting out - and this is it. Nestled slightly low and protected behind some impressive gates it is large and crumbling, my dictionary translation of Maison de Maitre reads 'manor', this is not a manor but it is a Lovely House. An elderly neighbour, with dark leathery skin and gimlet eyes opens the large iron gates to let me drive in then he disappears, after several minutes the front door scrapes open and he is inside the house. He shows me through large, cold, dark, cobwebby rooms, opening squeaky shutters to reveal mosaic floors and painted ceilings. The light fittings are from the thirties and wonderfully eccentric, one is made up of three swirly marbled glass snails and hangs from the bedroom ceiling. All the furniture is outlined with orange woodworm dust, beds are propped up on books. The grounds are fantastically neglected with rampant brambles, thistles, nettles, spiders and - a preying mantis creeps on to my leg. The 'lakes' are large muddy ponds. It’s all perfect for our production – but way above my budget.

I calm my beating heart, tell the leathery man that this house is too expensive and too damp and set off to find something more suitable.

I drive south stopping in grey sort of town, book into a sad hotel run by a greasy-haired, overweight woman. I go out for air, a funfair packing up adds to the sense of dereliction in this place, a forlorn-looking man appears and trails behind me until I return to the hotel.

Day 4
Spend fruitless day driving around the lower slopes of the Eastern Pyrenees. Stop at one of the cheap motels proliferating on the outskirts of town, cigarette smell so strong imagine smoker must still be somewhere in room. Supper is in the vending machine.
Related Posts with Thumbnails