Year 1961. De Gaulle rules France. Through the Ministry of Information he rules the state-owned single TV channel. It means that he rules everything there, sometimes personally, checking the contents of the evening news and the length of the skirts of the anchorwomen! At the same time, André Malraux rules France's cultural life, and in terms of dictatorship, it could be worse!
As a strange result, on the French TV, we had at the same time some sort of almost soviet daily news, and some of the best programs ever seen on a TV screen. A single channel, no ads, no ratings race, no commercial sponsors dictatorship, a captive audience, in this context some exceptional creators in the vanguard appeared and get carte blanche to experiment: Jean Christophe Averty, Daisy De Gallard, Jean Prat, Marcel Bluwal and many more. And the audiences got hooked on it! Still today, many people regard those passed black and white times as a golden age for the French TV.
In this year 1961, on October 31, at 8:30 PM, a peak viewing time, begins in every house with a TV set (around 3,000,000 in those time, only black and white) a strange ceremonial: In order to get the (primitive) surround sound of the show as it'll be broadcast, the spectators have to tune a FM radio laid behind them to get the back sound, the front sound will come from the TV. During the past week they have been trained to proceed through trailers and announcements. Then begins seventy minutes of the weirdest moment one can imagine on a TV screen, unthinkable today: the oldest Greek tragedy The Persians, written by Aeschylus 2500 years ago, in the Leconte De Lisle's translation, sung and declaimed by a cast of the greatest French actors of the moment wearing strange masks and costumes, accompanied by an unusual musical score for the ears of the main part of the audience, all this in an unique and bare set: the tomb of an antique Persian king, and 6,000,000 French TV viewers hooked on it. The next days, it was on everyone's lips, press and critics comments were ecstatic. Two months later, a record of the soundtrack was released and it sold like hot cakes.
OK, some nitpickers argue that before the end of the show a significant part of the audience must have switched off and gone to bed because it was too artsy for them, it was also Tuesday evening and the people had to go and work in the morning... Maybe true, but in fact nobody knows, in these days in France they weren't those machines for TV audience ratings. And the saying runs that the President De Gaulle wasn't that happy: He said to his ministers that he would have preferred a show funnier than that one on the "strange dormers" (sic)! Anyway "Les Perses" became an instant myth and is still today a myth and a benchmark in spite of very few rebroadcasts. What makes Jean Prat's "Les Perses" that historical masterpiece? The screenplay, the cameras work, the light, the costumes, the actors play, most of them members of the famous "Comédie Française", the text adaptation, the perfect diction of difficult lines, the haunting musical score written by Jean Prodromidès, the groundbreaking surround sound... the minor details of that work are a perfection.
In 1991, 30 years later, the director Jean Prat committed suicide, despaired of the state of desolation of the French TV which had been for a while the best TV of the world (along with the BBC... of course!). In 61 Jean Prat gave us "Les Perses", today, in 2009, we have to content ourselves with "Secret Story (aka Big Brother)", signs of the times... Rest in peace, Jean Prat!
NB: Some months ago, after 50 years, a DVD has been released, available on Amazon, unfortunately locked on Zone 2, no English subtitles and mono sound.
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