THE LURE OF THE CÔTE D’AZUR The au­thor John Banville on writ­ing a TV show about the sun­light and dark­ness of the Riviera

The nov­el­ist John Banville, who has co-writ­ten the new TV se­ries Riviera, on the sun­light and shad­ows of the fa­bled French coast­line

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To Catch a Thief, one of Al­fred Hitch­cock’s worst movies

— and in a long ca­reer he did make some clunkers — is to a de­gree re­deemed by the beauty, el­e­gance and inim­itable style of its main star: the French Riviera, oth­er­wise known as the Côte d’Azur. The film’s plot is the purest tosh, but its lo­ca­tions serve as a trav­el­ogue to some of the loveli­est lan­dand seascapes on the planet. Even the names of the lo­ca­tions where it was filmed could be the cho­rus of a chan­son to be sung by Charles Trenet:

Nice, Monaco, Cagnes-sur-Mer,

Grasse, Eze, La Tur­bie;

Cannes, Saint-Jean-Cap-Fer­rat,

Beau­soleil, Beau­soleil…

Some of these beauty spots also form the back­drop for episodes of Riviera, the forth­com­ing Sky At­lantic se­ries con­ceived by Neil Jor­dan and Paul McGuin­ness, in the writ­ing of which I lent a hand. Som­er­set

Maugham fa­mously de­scribed the Côte d’Azur as a sunny place for shady peo­ple; Neil and I have made it a shady place for, well, shady peo­ple…

The most de­light­ful way to ar­rive at the Riviera is by road from the west. There is the crest of a rise in the au­toroute some 30 miles from Cannes, be­low which the coast all the way to the Ital­ian bor­der is flung open sud­denly, like a fan, its pleats painted with washes of soft green, old gold — those beaches! — sil­ver-white and, of course, bleu d’azur. Down, down one glides, on a susurrat­ing breeze redo­lent of pine-trees, salt air and tawny dust, into a glo­ri­ously tainted par­adise.

The Riviera was al­ways pop­u­lar, from the days of the an­cient Greeks, whose trad­ing posts along the south­ern rim of Gaul gave the world a word, emporium, that was still in use with later traders in the ro­mance of the south, such as Louis Vuit­ton and Coco Chanel. It was Coco, by the way, who in­vented the sun­tan as a fash­ion ac­ces­sory; and it was her lover, the Duke of West­min­ster, who, when one of the Côte’s fab­u­lously fash­ion­able ho­tels re­fused en­try to la grande cou­turière be­cause she was wear­ing slacks, is said, prob­a­bly apoc­ryphally, to have de­clared that he would buy the place and burn it. Ah, those mag­nif­i­cent milords of yes­ter­year! The Côte com­mands the grand ges­ture, or at least the ges­ture that would be grand. Strolling through the port of Monaco on a brisk blue Jan­uary morn­ing — win­ter on the Riviera is like win­ter nowhere else — I came upon a su­pery­acht at an­chor in the har­bour be­ing re­fu­elled by a clus­ter of no fewer than four enor­mous oil trucks. The op­u­lence and vul­gar­ity of these sea-go­ing apart­ment blocks bog­gle the eye and de­press the spirit. Not long ago I over­heard a brace of bil­lion­aires vy­ing with each other as to whose yacht was the more lav­ishly ap­pointed; the movie mogul had a he­li­pad on his, but so too did the prince of Sil­i­con Val­ley — ‘Oh, and also,’ he added, ‘there’s a sub­ma­rine; it launches through a hatch in the hull…’

The Riviera was much favoured by artists of the 19th and 20th cen­turies, writ­ers es­pe­cially, al­though it is a mys­tery how they can have got any work done, amid so much douceur de vivre. Robert Louis Steven­son went there for the sake of his health, and wrote about it in one of his great­est short essays, ‘Or­dered South’. Here he is de­scrib­ing the olive groves: ‘Even the colour is in­de­ter­mi­nate and con­tin­u­ally shift­ing: now you would say it was green, now grey, now blue; now tree stands above tree, like “cloud on cloud”, massed into filmy in­dis­tinct­ness; and now, at the wind’s will, the whole sea of fo­liage is shaken and bro­ken up with lit­tle mo­men­tary sil­ver­ings and shad­ows.’

And then there are the nights. I first un­der­stood how deeply in­fat­u­ated I was with the Côte when years ago I had din­ner one late-spring even­ing in a restau­rant on the beach in Eze-sur-Mer. Dark­ness fell fast and with an al­most au­di­ble swish, as it does in the South; the lit­tle waves plashed, the shin­gle un­der­foot still held the day’s warmth, and a huge moon, the colour of freshly sliced mango, hung above the mo­tion­less sea’s gleam­ing black mir­ror, throw­ing down a track that led straight to the foot of our table. Life has its mo­ments of con­so­la­tion, never more fre­quently than on the Côte, those mo­ments when death is wholly im­plau­si­ble, and even the din­ner bill seems not al­to­gether out­ra­geous.

The 10-part se­ries ‘Riviera’ will air on Sky At­lantic and Now TV in June.

A travel poster for the Côte d’Azur by Julien La­caze

Ju­lia Stiles in ‘Riviera’

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