Brisk and a leetle risque
Wake up you leetle Breetish brats!" These are the unexpected words of welcome from the ebullient and utterly inimitable Antoine de Caunes, presenter of Channel 4's racy new series for teaching French, Channel Hopping.
With a brilliant new comedy approach, the series moves away from the use of contrived jokes into a brand of contemporary humour youngsters find funny rather than embarrassing. They actually look forward to the next programme - one reason why this is one of the best modern language series so far produced by schools television.
Irreverence is the name of the game, and by alternating between native French and his own particular brand of music-hall French-English, de Caunes acts as hilarious commentator and compere for each programme. Since the level of his French is, at times, difficult for most GCSEStandard grade pupils, there is a pantomime feel about his comments - jokes about teachers' clothes and bad language are sometimes directed over the heads of pupils for the enjoyment of watching teachers.
Each programme includes a variety of clips from French television, which de Caunes describes as "just as terrible as British television". Top of the bill is the Neighbours-style teenage soap opera, Classe Mannequin, in the unlikely setting of a school of modelling. Amid love affairs and tempestuous relationships, the future models wrangle, among other things, with the practical complications of taking a course in stage kissing. While the language is fast and furious, the action is all very visual and therefore easy to understand. Key words and phrases are provided at the start and end of each clip.
For the cartoon fanatic, de Caunes dons a yellow jumper and a ridiculous red quiff, adopts a white cuddly toy dog and proceeds to introduce clips of Les Aventures de Tintin - the second regular feature in all the programmes. Tintin's French is perhaps not the most vital for the learner at this level, but the cartoons capture the imagination.
To lend a "serious" angle to the regular format, a documentary piece introduces a variety of off-beat subjects - the sport of mountain-biking on snow, for example, upon which de Caunes pours humorous scorn, or the recent development in French schools of providing breakfast for pupils.
A disparaging view of the worst of French television games shows is another regular item but the most consistently funny and original feature, which sets Channel Hopping apart from its predecessors, is Eddie Izzard's "Survival Guide to French". Izzard acts the part of the ignorant Englishman, de Caunes plays the archetypal Frenchman and, in comic scenes in the baker's, the patisserie and the cafe, the whole rationale of language for communication is highlighted: un croissant or une croissant - who cares as long as you're understood? This is good fun and is appreciated by even the most discerning and sophisticated pre-examination fourth-year pupils.
Izzard presents a combination of jingoistic Brit and fairly accomplished French speaker to whom pupils can relate. It's the "just have a go" philosophy, sadly lacking in most British attitudes to languages.
According to the best critics of all - those sitting at desks - the overall appeal of Channel Hopping is its Rapido-style pace. Programme clips are just the right length, and the slick de Caunes link-ups are appreciated as much as the clips themselves.
Perhaps less liberal-minded teachers will find the documentary piece on the Boutique de Preservatifs sometimes too hot to handle. The presenter of a French programme addressing his audience while nonchalantly pinging a condom - who would have thought it?