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
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;
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’