Olivier Todd on 68 riots and Vietnam
Former BBC journalist Olivier Todd has documented France's highs and lows. Jean-Paul Sartre called him his rebel son
Olivier Todd was the dashing dark-haired young man with the mellifluous voice and seductive slight French accent, known as the “thinking woman’s crumpet”.
His 80 years have given him the rugged good looks of an elder statesman; his face tanned, hands pale and elegant; but he is a serious thinking man with a bubbling humour that erupts easily.
As a journalist, editor, writer, television presenter and establishment maverick, his reputation is impressive – as is his output: 19 books, including biographies of André Malraux, Albert Camus and Jacques Brel alongside hundreds of articles and programmes for leading journals and television.
He was born out of wedlock in 1929 in Paris to a militant communist English mother – the illegitimate daughter of Dorothy Todd, the lesbian literary editor of Vogue magazine.
His father, an Austrian Jew, had disappeared before his birth and that left the young man with “a chip on my shoulder about this for a long time”.
During the Occupation mother and son lived in a two-bedroom garret flat barely surviving on her English lessons. There was always love but “she was often brusque and I was farmed out quite a bit”.
“I never starved but I remember being hungry.”
The Liberation was “an interesting time, but I have a distressing memory, seeing a young German soldier killed and wondering if he could be my father”.
Whilst at the lycée he became “the ad hoc translator for an American officer,” who provided them with “K rations, raisins, chocolate, spam – ghastly stuff – which we thought was marvellous”.
When he was 18 he fell in love with the daughter of Paul Nizan, an established French writer. Her guardian was Jean Paul Sartre.
At their first meeting in a Paris restaurant the young man opined: “I like your novels but I can’t take your philosophy.” Despite that they met regularly: “Especially when major decisions were to be taken. We must have had about 80 luncheons together.
“He was important in my life – perhaps the father figure I needed.”
Do you think he regarded you as the son he never had?
“No – Sartre had no paternalistic feelings although he used to call me his ‘rebel son’. He would listen and was always kind. “He didn’t like the company of men – he preferred women. He would make remarks about the English side of me, taking milk with coffee.
“He was a genius – he knew it, but he was not vain.”
In 1947 he won a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. “I read Philosophy, called Moral Sciences then – there was nothing scientific about it except experimental psychology, and nothing moral.”
He married his French love but says: “One should not be married at Cambridge. So many lovely babes around.”
However, life there helped him “fight the tendency one may have in France of talking pompous, correct, and rubbishy like some modern French thinkers, such as Derrida and Deleuze.”
This man does not mince words.
The Sorbonne followed his Cambridge doctorate, and National Service in Morocco provided inspiration for his first book, Half a Campaign.
He made notes while on duty in the “huge bordello town” of El Mers and showed them to Sartre who despite “their strong sexual content” encouraged his young protégé, a lycée teacher now, to write a book, that Sartre passed to his own publisher.
It was also in Morocco that Todd was first asked to do some broadcasting for a BBC unit there. He remembers going AWOL from camp to make one particular recording.
The BBC brought him to London each second weekend to be the anchorman on television journal Europa, directed by Tony Smith.
“He encouraged us to ‘send up’ events. Once we did the Tour de France without a single shot of a bicycle.”
He began writing for Nouvelle Observateur but it was too right-wing for his mother, who “made embarrassing scenes”.
Although he was politically left himself he believed a journalist should be impartial and never aligned himself to a particular party.
He became a war correspondent in the Middle East and a letter from Sartre to North Vietnam premier Phan Van Dong let him spend months in North Vietnam.
But the perilous assignments took their toll on his equilibrium later.
Now, he says ruefully, “I miss the excitement of the work, getting off to new places, trying to describe the smells and the rest.”
For a year he compiled and presented Panorama on French television, even inviting Sartre for his first TV appearance.
Meanwhile he worked for the BBC, presenting 24 Hours and the drama of the Paris student riots. “We never thought it was a revolution. I was in Paris in the 5th and 6th arrondissement not realising how little the rest of France was affected.”
You supported the students? “Absolutely. The BBC allowed me to get away with an anti Gaullist line.”
Did it bring about change? “Not political perhaps, but certainly change in education, social change, and sexual freedom. There was less formality, attitudes softened, people started using first names.”
He reflected: “I am fearful for my grandchildren, that without deterrents there could be another major conflict.”
Would he like to be in Iran now? “Not on your life!
“I was in Iraq four years ago, that was enough. Iran’s leaders I find more than obnoxious, but I have hope in Iran’s civil society.” Married three times with four children, an acclaimed writer, his life nevertheless seems to have been dogged by a search for identity.
Finally he found his father and his own nationality. His The Year of the Crab, and sequel Carte d'identité: Souvenirs chronicle the search.
His current book is “a kinda novel”, semi-autobiographical set between 1942 and 1956.
Any regrets? “My impatience, and I wish I’d had somewhat simpler relationships with women,” he admits disarmingly.
How would he like to be remembered?
“My biographies of Brel and Camus – and,” he hesitated “I’d like to think that journalism was a minor art form.”