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Riviera Daydream

It was a tough assignment. Could I go to the South of France for a week, hang about the Monaco Grand Prix and the Cannes Film Festival, and pick up enough high-life atmosphere to evoke the fun-in-the-sun tang of the Côte d’Azur functioning at full throttle? Reportage, I was sternly told, would not be enough. I would actually have to get in there among the champagne, the expensive restaurants and the exposed women. You will appreciate why I hesitated for so long — a full microsecond.

I left behind me an apparently defeated country. Little did I know that a week of British triumph lay ahead. In Wardour Street, David Puttnam and Roland Joffé were even at that moment assembling the one and only, unfinished print of The Mission, which would conquer all at Cannes. But the last thing I heard as I boarded the aircraft was an announcement that the Government had found a way of relieving the unemployed of their houses, presumably so that they could support the hotel industry.

Short of time, I took a taxi from Nice airport to Monaco. Issued with only a certain amount of cash, I had been told that a taxi would not be expensive. It would not be expensive for Adnan Khashoggi, whose yacht Nabila turned out to be in the harbour when my driver, clearly ambitious to be a Grand Prix star himself, crested the hill above the port and screamed to a halt so that I could admire the view and show my appreciation in his tip.

Still frightened by the horrible velocities he had attained on the autoroute, I was pleased to be looking down on Monaco. The sun was bright, the sea was blue, and all the upthrust geology led straight down to what would have looked like a tub full of toy boats, if they had not been so obviously very large. There were hundreds of whoppers parked all around the harbour crescent and along the breakwaters. Nabila dwarfed them all, and was dwarfed in her turn by Atlantis II — Niarchos’s destroyer-sized home away from home, complete with helicopter perched on top.

Yachts arouse envy among ordinary people and Niarchos’s helicopter arouses envy among yachts. Plenty of yacht-owners have helicopters at home, but Niarchos has his on his yacht. In the next few days I was always able to put a cocky yachtsman in his place by slyly referring to Niarchos’s helicopter or simply asking outright, ‘Where’s your helicopter then?’ They can’t take that. They look at their shiny teak deck as if it has all turned to ash.

I checked in at the Mirabeau, which overlooks the circuit just where it dives into the tunnel under Loew’s Hotel. Too late for Friday’s last practice session, I could see nothing of the racing cars except a sticky stain of rubber on the road. Most of the year the track is just the ordinary roads of Monaco. For the race, a whole kit of parts — miles of armco barrier, grandstands, bridges — turns the roads into a circuit theoretically fit for Formula One cars to race on.

In fact, it isn’t. An 800-horsepower racing car really has no business lapping at an average speed of less than 90 mph. The driver, if he is occasionally to get the gear-stick into top, has to stir it like a pestle for two hours as though trying to make talcum out of granite. Also there is scarcely room to pass. You could run a horse race through the corridors of Buckingham Palace and there would still be a winner, but most likely it would be the horse who got the best start.

Pole position therefore means a lot. So far Ayrton Senna’s Lotus was fastest. Nigel Mansell, driving a Williams Honda, hadn’t even qualified yet. Tomorrow he would be in a hurry. Meanwhile I walked the empty circuit around to the harbour. Half my cash had been blown on the taxi so I was saving money. There were plenty of people, most of them young, who were doing the same. The town abounded with British fans toting backpacks. They looked as if they might be sleeping in the open that night, with only beer for insulation.

But they were well behaved. Football-type hooliganism is not fashionable among motor racing enthusiasts anywhere except Italy, where it gets worse the longer that Ferrari does not win. Britain does well in Grand Prix racing. Except for Mansell there is no British driver on top at the moment, but the three leading marques — McLaren, Williams and Lotus — are all manufactured in Britain.

Exchanging pleasantries about Japanese television with sunburnt Brits as I made my lonely tour, I sympathised with their determination to see the big adventure on a shoe string. But there was no blinking the fact that we were outclassed. The rich, some of them British but all of them really belonging to the international community of tax avoidance, were omnipresent. Along the harbour wall, their moored yachts backed right on to the track, so that from their deck chairs, with a tall glass of champagne held to their pursed lips, they could get a good view as I trudged past. It wasn’t as exciting as watching the racing cars would be, but it was probably more satisfactory. It was, after all, what owning a yacht was all about.

Muttering ‘Where’s your helicopter then?’ to myself, I was glad to note that the men were almost unrelievedly bloated of aspect, which took the edge off the fact that their womenfolk, chosen to tone in with the ship’s fittings, looked impressive at certain angles. The women are even better than the men at adopting a facial expression which says, ‘I’m on a yacht and you’re not.’ Some of them can convey this attitude even through sunglasses. In Toytown it is hard not to become childish, and I was feeling pretty vindictive until I got all the way around the harbour and found a lovely yacht — a proper one, with sails — on whose deck John Watson and James Hunt were making inroads into lager.

They invited me on board and immediately my whole attitude changed. What could be more agreeable, more sensible, than to be afloat in such a setting, in such company, with a cold glass in one’s hand? ‘I hate all this,’ said Watson. He does, too: he’d rather be given a car to drive. But failing that, there were worse fates than just being there. Hunt, an ex-world champion turned philosopher, just grunted at the setting sun.

Next day was hot and the cars were howling. By now I am used to the noise an F1 racing car makes and what it looks like going flat out. Television can tell you neither of these things: the sound operator can take in only a tenth of what he hears and long lenses slow the image. On a wide-open, purpose-built track the commotion is frightful enough, but when confined to the Monegasque streets, hemmed in by houses, hotels and cliffs, the clamour curdles the inner ear.

In the pits during the morning session of untimed practice, I had my earplugs in but managed a few shouted conversations. Gordon Murray, designer of the new low-profile Brabham which so disappointingly lacked urge when I saw it in Rio, was now confident that the traction problem had been solved. ‘Cured the initial lack of response,’ he mouthed. ‘Getting better. HALF WAY FIXED.’ Elio de Angelis, dauntingly handsome in his white overalls, put on his helmet and got into the Brabham. It was like getting into a sleeping bag. Senna was still fastest, but as the rest of the stars came in and out of the pits to have their machinery tweaked they, too, began to go quickly.

To find out what that meant, I threaded my way under the crowded grandstand and climbed the hill towards the Casino, with only the armco separating me from the cars. Near the top of the long shallow hill I could look back down towards the pits and watch the cars come snaking up along one of the few top-gear, full-bore stretches of the course. At scarcely 175 mph they still weren’t going as fast as they could, but they were accelerating as hard. For how hard that is, you have to remember the fastest you have ever driven. Even in one of the most powerful production sports cars it would have taken you a certain time to reach that speed. The F1 cars reach that speed in the time it took you to insert your ignition key.

When a pair of knee-high cars racing side by side gather speed that fast towards you, putting 200 horsepower into the road through each wheel and a noise into the sky that sends the birds into exile, you will ask yourself, with any brains you have left, what it must be like doing that, if it feels so awful just watching it.

In the afternoon’s timed practice, the top boys raced for the pole. Senna was still quickest for most of the session but then Mansell and Prost both turned up the wick. Mansell went straight through from non-qualifier to second spot, while Prost, seemingly with no sweat expended, ended up ahead of everybody. There was a sneaking suspicion that the next day’s race had already been decided, since Prost’s McLaren was the car least likely to fall apart. But before the day of the Grand Prix of the racing cars there was still the heady excitement of the night, and the Grand Prix des Poseurs.

In Monaco a lot of posing goes on all the time, but the night before the Grand Prix it reaches a frenzy. Cheapskate poseurs wear T-shirts with American words on them. The American words have usually been put there by somebody whose grasp of that language does not equal his insight into the allure of US cultural imperialism. Last winter in the Dolomites I saw an Italian ski hat that said NO STOP ACTION FOR SKI MAN. I thought there was no topping that, but in Monaco on the night before the race I saw a T-shirt that said PRO DESIGN FOR TURBO MANHATTAN.

The more up-market poseurs adopt white suits, white shoes, Miami Vice half-shaves and small gold ingots worn in the medallion position. They tour the town in cars to boggle the mind: pastel Rolls-Royce Camargues, Lagondas with digital dashboards, replicas of the AC Cobra with an exhaust note like a flatulent buffalo. In front of Loew’s, only Lamborghinis and Ferrari Testa Rossas are allowed to park. A mere Ferrari Dino has to go around the back.

Casino square towards midnight is where the posing reaches a climax. Out of the fabulous car and up to the front door of the Casino goes the poseur and his amazing woman, invariably looking as if she has just teleported from the catwalk of a Paris couture collection. How the men can look so crass and the women so elegant is a mystery. Or maybe it is not a mystery, and you and I are idealists.

Race day was perfect. The principality, a natural amphitheatre, was full to the rim. The steep grassy slopes among the cliffs were jammed with people who had all paid to sit there. Ex-world champion Jackie Stewart told me that he had once checked out the cliff-dwellers and found half of them wearing Rolexes. Jackie represents Rolex and will not rest until the other half are wearing Rolexes too. The schedule was meticulous. Prince Rainier reached the start line at 15 hr 10. At 15 hr 15: Hymne Monegasque. At 15 hr 17: Fin de l’Hymne Monegasque. The green light shone at 15 hr 30 and Prost led away, never to be headed except temporarily when he stopped for tyres. It was a procession, as forecast. But there was nothing dull about it if you were standing close.

The character-building spot to be is just after Casino square. Arriving in the square after the high-speed climb described above, the cars go light on their wheels as they dive downhill into the avenue des Spélugues — which sounds like what would happen to you if one of them crashed. Short in the chassis, the cars twitch visibly. So did the crowd, the first time Nelson Piquet came through in his Williams Honda. The inverse aerofoils on a modern GP car are supposed to hold it on the ground no matter what, but Piquet’s car was airborne. I could see daylight under all four wheels as the car came towards me like a contour-flying jet fighter whose low-level radar was playing chicken with its pilot. Seconds later there was daylight under my feet as I retreated down the hill to my hotel, where I watched the rest of the race on television, with the window open for authentic background noise.

Outside my window the cars were going past in real life. But on screen I could make some sense of who was going to finish where. Prost had it in the bag, with Rosberg second in the other McLaren, followed by Senna and Mansell. All as safe as a fairground roundabout. Then, outside the hotel, right next to where I had just been standing, Patrick Tambay’s Lola did a barrel roll at head height and landed on its wheels, upright but a write-off. Very glad to have seen this on television, I scuttled downstairs to take a look at the reality. They were cleaning up the junk. Tambay walked away, a lucky man. One of the old cars would have killed him. The new ones crumple and burn less easily, but the force contained within them is so violent that they can never be quite safe. There will always be less hazardous things to do. Looking at the spilled oil, I could see how the Cannes Film Festival might be less of a worry.

After an unbeatable train ride along the beaches, Cannes loomed, full of movies. Billboards bulked large along the Croisette. The American stars had stayed at home but their faces had made the trip. Only Sylvester Stallone’s face looked shrunken. Outside the Carlton Hotel a cardboard cut-out of Stallone was pretending to be someone called Cobra, who apparently outguns Rocky and Rambo combined as a force for justice. It was easy to laugh at this, but more difficult to imagine the scale of security precautions that would have been necessary if Stallone had turned up. Those grenades on his belt would have been used up in the first five minutes. They would have needed the Sixth Fleet out there.

Martin Scorsese wasn’t present either. But then he doesn’t fly anywhere, because people might be smoking somewhere on the aircraft. It’s cigarette smoke he’s afraid of, not terrorism. His After Hours was the first film I saw and I could scarcely have made a better start. A surrealist nightmare descended from Buñuel; it has the demented coherence of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. I watched enthralled from high in the plush gallery of the high-tech main cinema in the Palais, and thought that if it took all the nonsense of Cannes to support an experience like this, it was worth the price.

The nonsense is pretty intense, however. If you’re pushing a movie called College Boys Go Nutsoid or Monster in the Closet (IT’S COMING OUT!), you need a big girl inside the T-shirt to get attention. Down on the beach, startlets bared their breasts to the cameras, but since all the other girls on the beach had bared breasts anyway, it was coals to Newcastle, or cupcakes to Cannes. Upping the ante, Grace Jones, a kind of black Arnold Schwarzenegger without the femininity, kept postponing her first appearance, and completed the tease-play by actually keeping her clothes on — a communications breakthrough.

The magnificent prop ship from Roman Polanski’s film Pirates was anchored out near the lighthouse. Polanski himself was installed on the first floor of the Carlton but left for Paris when it became clear that the flick had not clicked. Having interviewed him for television when the film was still a dream, I was granted an audience as he moved out. ‘See it in Paris. They like it there. Here the atmosphere is all wrong.’ He could have been right. There were too many other pirates in town.

Not that Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan are pirates. The GoGo Boys are above all that. Their company, Cannon, still churns out programmers. In P.O.W. The Escape, David Carradine carries a bigger gun than Rambo on a smaller budget, proving that Cannon doesn’t make lousy movies — it makes derivative lousy movies. But Cannon’s profits are nowadays being ploughed back into higher ground. Their prestige picture for the year is Zeffirelli’s version of Verdi’s Otello, for which the GoGo Boys staged a press conference that Verdi could have set to music.

Zeffirelli, Plácido Domingo and Katia Ricciarelli were all present, answering questions in four languages. A beautiful blonde Spanish journalist quizzed Plácido about las dificultades of singing opera on film. Plácido explained that all the difficulties were sorted out by Franco — by which he meant the director, not the dictator.

Franco himself was a bit overhung with gold bracelets but eloquent in praise of Cannon. ‘The blood of cinema today.’ Golan sat silent through all this but when his cavernous mouth finally opened he stole the show. ‘Franco will direct Aida in Egypt. Not even he yet knows this.’ Zeffirelli looked suitably stunned. ‘It will be a gesture,’ added Golan, ‘for peace.’ The whole Middle East crisis solved by a movie! What a concept!

British independent producers are worried that Cannon will take over their whole film industry before long. The GoGo Boys are their own producers and don’t need anybody else. But the world needs the British independents, as this festival has proved. I could have done without Sid and Nancy, a reconstruction of punk rock nihilism which tries to shock all the time, as if shock, by definition, were not a variation on normality. Presumably I was meant to hate it. Nor was Mona Lisa the masterpiece it has been cracked up to be. But Bob Hoskins deserved his best actor award, and low-life London never looked more seductive.

The world is fascinated by the self-proclaimed decadence of Britain, perhaps because of a suspicion that it might spread, and will need art to make it tolerable. The Mission could not have been more welcome. Everyone wanted it to do well. There is something appealing about the way the British film industry gets through on a wing and a prayer. The whole of Goldcrest riding on one movie — it’s like the Battle of Britain, with David Puttnam as ‘Stuffy’ Dowding.

The lonely airfield analogy was furthered by the British Pavilion, a marquee on the beach which became a home away from the hotel for British film people. Imagination had once again made up for lack of funds. The tent was open to the sea and sky at the back, an effect widely applauded as a theatrical coup. Actually the gap was meant to be glassed in, but the cash ran out.

Luckily it didn’t rain. But things can’t go on like this. Next year the Australians will undoubtedly have their own pavilion set up, sponsored by Foster’s or Castlemaine. Their industry, however, was reborn not through sponsorship but through tax relief. Britain should do the same. Some of the money that would pour in would come from those medallioned characters whose yachts had tied up for the party, but at least it would be flowing in the right direction.

Just once I hitched a lift to Antibes for lunch at Eden Roc, where a young American producer, who was staying at the adjacent, laughably expensive Hôtel du Cap, said, ‘There’s no point staying in Cannes.’ He had come to Cannes to stay out of it. Defiantly I picked up the enormous bill with a credit card, which the waiter handled as if it were radioactive. I had to borrow some cash. From then on I ate sandwiches in the Britpav.

There is a lot to be said for travelling light. But the British can’t have a snug, self-contained industry like the French, whose big movie of the festival was an opus by Claude Lelouch about what has happened to the lovers of Un Homme et Une Femme during the past twenty years. It turns out that they have spent the whole time preserving their personal appearance.

Britain speaks the same language as America and can’t have a closed market. Like the racing cars, the films must take on the world. The bravery is already there. From the indy producers all the way down to the girls who run the Britpav, everybody in the British film industry works like stink. All that’s needed is enough money to absorb the law of averages. As the racing teams know, there are some you must lose if you want to win.

As I left Cannes, Elio de Angelis lay between life and death after a shunt during testing at the fast Paul Ricard circuit. He was a rich boy whose need for accomplishment came from within. Nothing else but work can give fun in the sun its full savour. It was a thought to hold on to, as the handsome racing driver’s plight proved that the difference between the poseur’s glitter and the real glamour of achievement comes from risk. But the time I landed at Heathrow he was dead. Back to reality.

Observer, 25 May, 1986