Long after the demise of the original, the French take on Spitting Image stays rude and ruthless. At the home of Les Guignols de l’Info, OLIVER ROWLAND talked to the team about keeping satirical TV puppetry mean and lean
INSPIRED by Spitting Image, the Canal+ show Les Guignols de l’Info has far outlived the original and has become an institution, satirising the news stories each weekday evening during the current affairs programme Le Grand Journal.
It is presented as a news broadcast, fronted by a puppet called PPD, which is based on now-retired newsreader Patrick Poivre d’Arvor.
The eight-minute show’s production base is a building on an industrial estate north-east of Paris, in Seine-Saint-Denis while the show itself is made nearby in a 3,000m2 studio. On the day I visit the Guignols team’s chosen topics include a new campaign against school bullying, a report which says dentists are charging too much, record numbers using les Restos du Coeur and proposals for tax reforms.
The team are also trying out a new puppet – the new head of employers’ organisation Medef Pierre Gattaz, who they have decided to caricature as very right-wing. They are also reprising a well-received gag about Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, member of the French parliament and would-be Paris mayor, who claimed in an interview to regularly take the metro and to find it “a charming place”.
The Maison des Guignols is a detached building in a workaday part of the Paris suburb where the large space needed costs less than in city centre. It houses offices and the puppets and costumes for the show.
The puppets start life in the 11th arrondissement, in the workshop of puppet maker Alain Duverne. First, a caricature of the subject is drawn, then a clay model of the head is made: that is then used to create a mould into which latex is poured. Eyes, eyelashes and hair are added afterwards.
Arriving to meet producer Yves Le Rolland, I am struck by a large portrait of the show’s ‘star’, PPD, which has pride of place in the main hall. During our interview, a team member comes in with a casting list describing who is doing what. He comments on the new Gattaz: “He’s a bit different, this Gattaz, with the way his chest looks, and his head and nose and everything.”
Le Rolland gives me a whistle-stop tour of the building. In one workshop, staff are cleaning disembodied heads. In the next, there are dozens of heads lined up on tables, including numerous Sylvester Stallones – ‘Monsieur Sylvestre’ has taken on a life of his own in the show, in which he represents a cynical take on US power.
There are shelves stacked with latex hands and walls lined with wigs and various coloured spectacles. Torsos in white undergarments are lined up on shelves near racks of clothes. A costumier shows me how the outfits need openings at the elbows where the puppeteers’ arms go in. The puppets needed for the day are prepared here before being driven over to the nearby studio, the heads in labelled cardboard boxes, for the recording.
Just before 5.30pm, it’s time for our five-minute drive to the studio, which is located near the north end of the Paris Metro’s Line 12, and station Front Populaire. As we pass them, Le Rolland points out the studios where shows such as Secret Story and Danse avec les Stars are made.
At the Guignols studio, the set-up includes a control room with banks of screens from where the producer can observe what is happening around the building and relay instructions over speakers. In a small room next door, the show’s five impressionists are lined up before a bank of microphones and screens on which they can see the action they fit their voices to.
A production team member, Frédéric Ballay, gives me the tour. The building also houses what Le Rolland calls an “Ali Baba’s cave” of props and scenery.“It allows us to reconstruct whatever we need: a room in the Elysée, a bistrot...” Ballay explains. “The puppets are one and a half life-size so everything is bigger – you really notice with things like cigarettes and cigars. At the last minute Yves Le Rolland might need a phone or a certain kind of table for the president, so everything is on hand.”
Much of the studio area is taken up with the stage for Guignols’ larger than lifesize newsroom in which, behind high desks, PPD and his guests are manipulated live during the show by puppeteers. By this point the puppeteers have mostly memorised their lines, but they are also printed out and laid out where they can be read.
Behind this is an area where small sketches called lucarnes – “skylights” are recorded in the afternoon to be played during the show on a screen behind PPD. Today, these include a skit in which a dentist ‘extracts’ 2,500 from a patient with forceps and another of schoolchildren mocking a child whose father “voted Hollande”.
Chef Cyril Lignac is shown explaining how to make a gourmet meal from potatoes and pasta from the Restos du Coeur. Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg pops up claiming the Restos as a great French success: “We now have more than 2,000 franchises in the whole country. Thanks to our French know-how, there are more of them than McDonalds.” “It’s not such a good sign, it means there’s more poor people,” says PPD. “Yes, but they are French poor people. Cocorico!”
To record the lucarnes, the puppeteers are dressed in black velvet cowls and, with special lighting, they disappear onscreen against a backdrop of the same material. “They have to change their cloaks often because when the velvet gets worn it becomes visible,” says Ballay.
There are two artistes for each puppet, each with one arm – careful coordination is needed for actions such as clapping – and sharing the manipulation of the head (including the mouth) and the eyes. For the live show, a different technique is used – the puppet is lifted high and one puppeteer does both arms, the other the head and the eyes.
The puppets are mostly changed as they wear out, though PPD is remade each year. Their lifetime depends on variations in the latex mix, and I am told Jacques Chirac’s puppet has lasted 25 years. Later, one of Guignols’ 30 or so puppeteers, François Guizerix, tells me that he and his fellow performers have widely varying backgrounds. “I started as an actor, and then I did a puppet show where I played the piano above my head,” he remarks.
In the lucarnes, the performers have to take care not to turn too far to the side – at one point during recording of the “bullying” scene, Le Rolland’s voice is heard calling for a retake because someone’s arm was on view.
Each eight-minute show also features a mini film, pre-recorded on location. “It takes a week of preparation, four day’s filming and five days of post-production, so the authors have to anticipate several weeks in advance,” Ballay says.
Today’s film is based around the anti-racism film La Marche, with a twist that the marchers get stopped in Brignoles by the Le Pens, père et fille. I watch as PPD practises on the main set with his interviewee, Pierre Gattaz, who appears over a desk to one side. “It smells funny here, there are lefties here,” says puppet Gattaz, his voice relayed from the impressionists’ room. This Gattaz apparently thinks the only reform needed is to abolish all taxes and charges on businesses. “I wonder if the new Medef head isn’t a little bit right-wing,” remarks PPD as the “bosses’ boss” abandons the interview, telling PPD to read his interview in Le Figaro instead.
Later, I watch rehearsal of a scene with Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet’s puppet in front of a green screen which, on the broadcast, will depict a motorway scene. Today she is waxing lyrical about the Boulevard Périphérique: “One finds oneself in a fairyland of traffic jams, with a light mist...”. Yves Le Rolland gives briefings with tips on improving performances.
In the impressionist’s room the voice of PPD, TV presenter Yves Lecoq, tells me he has been with the show since the start, performing more than 100 characters. The impressionists team comprises four men and one woman – Le Rolland explains that is because more variety of male vocal timbres is required. Impressionist Sandrine Alexi mentions that Le Rolland himself does some of the women, including left-wing politician Arlette Laguiller and the Queen. “I spend a lot of time listening to people’s voices by Bluetooth in my car,” she says. “Yves just goes and visits them.”
Yves Lecoq, whose Chirac is especially well-known, adds that he met the ex-president himself. “He said: ‘It seems you imitate me,”’ says Lecoq, in Chirac’s voice. “At first he was laughing it off, but ultimately he didn’t look all that pleased about it.” Lecoq also did Beckham during his stint with Paris Saint-Germain. “I liked doing him, he had a distinctive voice. Prince Charles and Blair I did with a generalised English voice – I usually get the British people. I know Nick Clegg, he lives near me. He’s worried I’m going to imitate him.”
Lecoq was originally taken on for PPD, Johnny Hallyday and Christophe Lambert, he tells me. “As for PPDA,” – the actual Patrick Poivre d’Arvor – “at first he was a bit stand-offish about my imitation, but now that he makes the most of the Guignols to keep in the limelight he’s become my mate – he invites me on his shows; I invite him on mine. It means he still exists. You can disappear quickly in this business.
“He finds his puppet horrible and his mother, particularly, thinks he’s not as handsome as the puppet version. As for the voice, finally, after 20 years he admits it’s OK. Sandrine Alexi remarks: “People generally don’t want to admit an exaggeration of their voice sounds like them.”
I watch them record lucarnes, Lecoq moving effortlessly from PPD to a robust Chirac and an incomprehensible Giscard d’Estaing. Le Rolland gives last-minute tips, reassuring a voice performer doing Gattaz that yes, his impersonation is indeed funny.
As 8pm approaches, I am watching Le Grand Journal on Canal+ in the control room and the opening sequence starts to roll. PPD introduces bullying as the day’s big topic and we cut to the recorded scene before he moves on with a catchphrase: “We’re in 2013, you’re watching the ancestor of the internet, good evening.”
Le Rolland takes a well-earned rest and eight minutes later, it’s all over - until tomorrow.
‘I think the British are better at humour...’
Yves Le Rolland, Guignols’ producer since 1995, believes in thrift and ‘feeding off the misfortune of others’ – the team is, he says, happy when the country goes downhill
SPITTING Image ended in 1996 but Guignols is still going strong. Why do you think that is?
It was inspired by it, but it’s not the same thing. Spitting Image was sketches, not a news broadcast. What was most famous for puppets at the time was the Muppet Show, which gave rise to the Le Bébête Show [which used, from 1982, a cast of Muppet-inspired puppets satirising politics]. Alain de Greef [then Canal+ director of programming] then saw this show Spitting Image [1984-1996], with real caricatures, hand puppets and a caustic, malicious tone. He said to himself that was what he wanted to do – no puppets looking like animals, and in a self-contained universe, no mixing of puppets and humans.
The first couple of years didn’t work that well, but once he decided to structure it as a real “JT” [journal télévisé – TV news show] it started to work.
Is caustic, satirical humour something that especially appeals to the French?
It’s hard to say. I think the British are better at humour; they’re funnier, they make fun of things more, they’re ironic, and they’re ready to bring in touches of nonsense. Our models are more British than French. Personally I think you can’t beat Monty Python. It’s the tops for comedy. French humour is a bit more basic. But the French do like political humour. There’s a real tradition of it – the chansonniers [cabaret singers specialising in satire] go back a long way; making fun of those in power.
We do wonder though why is there no show like ours in the UK. But it’s complicated and expensive to put on. We need a lot of storage. We are like a film company and everything has to be adapted to the puppets, the props have to be a bit larger than life-size and most are purpose-made. We need the scenery to be up high [so the puppeteers can stand below the puppets]. And the show has been going for 25 years, so we have a lot of material. We try not to throw things out, to reuse props. It’s a very professional show, very well-organised, but with an element of cobbling things together. We don’t use special effects; it’s done the old-fashioned way.
How many people are involved?
Each month there are about 350 payslips – it’s enormous. But most of them aren’t working full-time on the show. Ninety per cent are intermittents du spectacle [performing arts workers on short-term contracts].
How many puppets are there?
Around 320 characters and 200 anonymous ones. We make about eight to 10 new ones a year. Recently we made [radio presenter and journalist] Jean-Jacques Bourdin and today we are introducing Pierre Gattaz, the new Medef president. The four writers and myself decide who is becoming talked about a lot, and needs a new toy.
From time to time, if we urgently need a character we don’t have, we might use stock puppets and make a joke out of it, but otherwise we try to have them made; it’s better, if they’re someone that’s going to crop up.
Is PPD ever going to retire?
You never know, but our puppet has taken a life of his own. There are several like that who gradually move further away from the original. Chirac, for example – in real life he’s very ill, he can hardly walk or talk. Ours is in good shape. It’s a liberty we take. We get swimming coach Philippe Lucas to comment on all sorts of things while the real one doesn’t talk about much outside swimming – he has just become a character.
Do you get feedback from celebrities?
No, they keep their thoughts to themselves or maybe don’t like what we do. Recently, [French politician] Borloo said he thought his puppet was ugly and it annoyed him. But each to his own. I take his point, but it’s not our job to please people.
How does your day start – you discuss the papers and decide on topics?
That’s the job of the authors, to understand what’s in the news and what they want to talk about. I’m like a conductor – they write the music and I get 300 people to play it and make sure the right message gets across. They start writing around midday and bit by bit we prepare the ingredients for the news broadcast and from 5.30pm we put the recipe together.
Do you have technical problems sometimes, with it going out live?
Rarely. We had a big technical hitch a few months ago but in theory, it’s like a play – it gives us certain limits to work in. We go as far as we can in rehearsals, then perform the show.
Do you think the show has a big impact on how people see politicians?
I don’t think so; a few years ago, maybe there was a bit of influence, but there were fewer TV channels and no internet. Everyone [else] was serious. Now, everyone messes about; there’s Twitter and Facebook, everything goes faster; there’s news everywhere and journalists try to be funny. There’s a kind of generalised levelling and it feels like we’re all doing the same thing.
We try to keep on course. The important thing is that The Guignols is clearly The Guignols. We don’t report the news – we make fun, we caricature. I know loads of right-wing people, for example, who think Sarkozy’s really funny on the show – it doesn’t stop them having a laugh. And people on the left laugh at it too.
Ideologically we’re not easy to place. Of course, we had 12 years of the right, so people say we’re left-wing, but since we’ve had Hollande they say “gosh, they’re actually pretty right-wing”. It’s just that we satirise whoever is in power.
Hollande might seem quite bland and hard to caricature, but you get humour out of him...
In the end we’ve made his lack of personality into an asset. The fact he’s a bit non-existent, we’re not quite sure what he wants. We’ve made him a bit indecisive, a bit daft, I have to admit, but obviously our stock-in-trade is exaggeration. It’s a Guignol puppet show, after all, which is something that there is a real French tradition of, with the gendarme and the burglar and so on [the original Guignol is the French Mr Punch].
You often make fun of Hollande’s weight. How he lost a lot for the election and has put it back on...
We try. It’s like Sarkozy and his height. When we notice they’re obsessed by something, we make use of it.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his sex scandals was a gift to you. He is always shown in a dressing gown saying ‘I’ve just got out of the shower’...
Yes, that kind of thing gives us some outlandish characters. To be honest, we don’t like things to go smoothly, we’re happy when things go wrong, there’s strikes, the country’s going downhill – we have something to talk about. Unfortunately we do somewhat feed off the misfortune of others, but that’s the principle of political humour.
Another personality you make fun of is PSG footballer Zlatan Ibrahimović, who is shown as arrogant and aggressive, using his own name as a verb, which has gone into the dictionary...
That’s the power of The Guignols – that we sometimes create a word. “Zlataner” took off. We show him very sure of himself and powerful.
You parodied Chirac as “Superliar” at one point. Do you sometimes have tough decisions as to whether an idea might be considered libellous?
We can go a really long way in France when it’s caricature. The law protects us well and we’ve never been sued for libel. And as long as people are laughing, the politicians come out well; even if he’s being called Superliar. It’s like with women, if you make them laugh, you’re off to a good start. We’ve had a few prosecutions for making a brand look bad. Companies are touchier.
We do have lots of ideas we don’t use because we think they go too far and aren’t justified. But we have to come up with something every day, and it’s not fantastic every day; we try our best but there are highs and lows. An idea which looks really bad in the morning can seem acceptable at noon and excellent at 5pm.
You’re focused on France, but you satirised Beckham when he was at PSG. How did the French see him?
He was quite an easy target – more a product than a footballer. But we like footballers, we have a lot of respect for them.
Oddly, we don’t have Cameron at the moment. It seemed to us vital to have Merkel, but Britain is a bit on the sidelines – in Europe but not really in it. We don’t have the impression, maybe wrongly, that our political life depends on him, whereas Merkel is essential. Blair seemed to be a stronger personality, from the French perspective. Obama we show as being like a hero from a Hollywood film, very show-biz. We haven’t got William or Catherine yet; there’s not the interest in them in France that there was with Lady Di: they seem a bit distant to us.
How do you try to keep the show fresh?
We’re present on the social media and when we parody songs we try to pick younger kinds of things; and we renew the personnel. There aren’t many comedy shows that have been going for 25 years; we’re in the tradition of long-running US shows such as Saturday Night Live; real machines, with constant changes in the teams which keep them alive. We try too to bring in new blood, but it’s not always easy to do.