Jane Birkin remembers larking around in Oxford with Serge Gainsbourg, 1969
I WAS MAKING a really bad film called May Morning in Oxford. I was staying in the Bear Hotel with Serge, my daughter Kate, who must have been about two, and my brother Andrew, who was always with us with a camera round his neck, recording everything. All these very set-up, coy scenes were made to look impromptu. I think the hot-dog seller was given some cash to go and have a cigarette while Serge posed in his van.
Our song Je t’aime… moi non plus was climbing the charts, and they were heavenly times. I remember picnics on the river and the sangria parties that Serge threw for the crew of this appalling film. The whole era seemed such fun and so wonderful, then it all came crashing down with the news that Sharon Tate had been murdered – our hippy heaven just vanished overnight. Nothing would ever be the same again.
I met Serge when I auditioned for a film called Slogan, which he was starring in. He didn’t seem interested in me at all, and in retrospect there was no reason why he should be. He had been made to do screen tests all day long and had just finished one with Marisa Berenson, who could speak French, and was articulate and lovely, so he probably didn’t understand why this toothy English girl who didn’t speak French turned up. I thought he was arrogant, with his mauve shirt and sarcastic expression. Except when I got into trouble over some of the lines he helped me, which was kind. Then I cried an awful lot because I had messed up my life – it was a disaster being married to John Barry, who’d left me with a baby and gone off to America. I cried in one of the scenes – I think Serge thought that was revolting.
Being the star, he could have insisted on another actress, but I got the part so he must have thought there was something there – the makings of an actress, or somebody who cries very well.
It was particularly difficult to do love scenes with him – for Slogan I had to sit on the edge of a bath, naked, while he was safely in the bath with an enormous pair of bathing trunks, looking at me sarcastically. I told the director that Serge didn’t like me and he said, ‘No, he’s perfectly sweet, you just don’t know him.’ He fixed up a dinner, where I pulled Serge on to the dance floor at Régine’s, then to my delight I realised he couldn’t dance and stepped on my feet. His bad behaviour was because of him being so shy – he was very pudique [modest]. He was a darling and I ended up besotted by him.
Serge also loved Andrew and we went off as a threesome for lots of holidays and weekends – sometimes my mother and father came, too. He adored my father; they used to take their sleeping pills together and I would watch them go down at the same time like old owls.
In Serge’s obituary, Bernard Levin wrote, ‘We’ve got a great writer, but is he also a clown? We have a clown, but is he also a singer? We have singers, but are they all the things that Serge was? No, decidedly, no. We do not have a Serge Gainsbourg.’ — Interview by Jessamy Calkin Jane & Serge, photographs by Andrew Birkin, is on show at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Calais until 4 November, calais.fr
I remember picnics on the river and the parties Serge threw. The whole era seemed so fun
Above Birkin and Gainsbourg play customer and hot-dog seller for her brother