The French love Santa Barbara

 By Jean-François Chaigneau, Paris Match, 1988

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Their names are obscure, their faces are interchangeable. Nevertheless, these American actors are stars in France : Santa Barbara, the soap-opera they are the protagonists of, obtains for two and a half years, on TF1, a triumph as devastating as it is unforeseen. Forget Dallas and Dynasty ! Every evening, at 7 p.m., millions of televiewers get passionate about the sentimental and financial imbroglios which oppose the Capwell and Lockridge families. In the course of the episodes, the storyline became so muddled up that the actors themselves eventually understand anything anymore.

But the public is literally bewitched. And this show, which almost goes unnoticed in the United States, is the most watched broadcast today - on every TV channel - by the French young people from 8 to 16 years old. So much so that the sociologists wonder about the mysterious reasons of this popularity which makes, of course, dream about the rival channels. In Cannes, at the MIP-TV, all the distributors fight for the soap-operas susceptible to compete with this one. We analyze the ingredients of this saga without limits which reconciles two cultures.

If we take the case on the way, we obtain, for example, the following scene : a beautiful and fair girl enters the bachelor apartment of a beautiful and brown friend and surprises this latter in bed with another also beautiful and even fairer girl, who, as it is told us, is a former nun who had not pronounced her vows yet and who, moreover, explains to the first one, who seems to believe it, that she is there by chance whereas the beautiful brown guy wakes up, wrongly stunned to find himself with these two beautiful girls close to him... But, before being able to understand this today's hot episode, it is necessary to go back very far.

Everything began on October 14, 1985, at 6:50 p.m.. This day, the French televiewers attend a big ball given in Santa Barbara at countess Armonti's. While all this nice world is occupied with dancing, a shot is heard in the study. Someone rushes there. A man has just died, apparently murdered. Santa Barbara had just entered our homes. If we admitted to watch Dallas, we kept silent about this Santa Barbara. But, little by little, the heroes, with their chitchats, their "so decent” looks, their passions, their frustrated loves, settled down in the daily life, between the fatigue of a working day and the dinner. Today, 680 episodes have been broadcasted. And France abandons itself to Santa Barbara, every day, at 7 p.m., on TF1. The ratings are formal. They oscillate between 19 and 22 points, with a surplus of 3 points in this electoral period. It makes between 9 and 11 million addicted, that is to say one Frenchman on five, newborns included, who embark every evening for this very rich city of the Californian coast where the air seems to have particular virtues because everybody is tall, beautiful, the hair always clean, everybody is most of the time rich there and, otherwise, enough provided to have no real survival problems. Over there, the sky is blue, always, there is a boulevard which lines the sea and dream villas. Moreover, and it is a sign, a stream of stars chose Santa Barbara to build a house there : Michael Douglas, Gene Hackman, Robert Mitchum, John Travolta, Bo Derek, Jane Fonda and Ronald Reagan himself. It is even said that Churchill and Einstein adored this place.

Let us summarize a little : there are at first two families which are in confrontation, rather two dynasties, the Capwells and the Lockridges. The Capwells, immensely rich and powerful business people, are still in full upward social mobility and economic expansion. They are grasping and a little bit sinister. The Lockridges are funny, and even eccentric, and on the bad financial slope but not to the point that we pity them. The Capwell clan is managed by a patriarch who got married five times after having had children of almost each of his respective wives. The Lockridges are led by a picturesque octogenarian whose son, also married and divorced repeatedly, is, for the moment, a widower and a single man. All the descendants of these two families have themselves spouses or wives, lovers or mistresses and legitimate or illegitimate children. However, a couple emerges from this troop. It is formed by a Capwell heiress, Eden, and by Cruz Castillo, a modest cop stemming from a poor Mexican family. We see the misalliance... But the Capwell leader also saw it and he delayed it during three years. Today, we know it, we breathe again, both lovers are finally married, at least in the United States, the episode having not arrived to us yet. We pitied them so much, these Romeo and Juliet from the New World. It is necessary to count also with a rather interesting series of rapes, murders, kidnappings and various affairs.

A Santa Barbara actress, Kristen Meadows, explains : "The heroine whom I play, she says, slept with Cruz with whom she had a child. But Cruz does not know it. She married then Mason who, as for him, had a baby with Julia... What a mess ! Even me, I don't find myself there." Then, it is necessary to go to ask for clarifications to the members of the Santa Barbara fan club, whose head office belongs to Auray, Brittany, France. The president is twenty years old, the oldest member is 35. They are "santabarbaraddicts" and they play to ask questions to know who is married with whom or who cheated on who, and what's the name of the actor who... In brief, they are capable of putting back the lost ones on the straight way. In the United States, Santa Barbara, broadcasted on NBC from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. every day, is only one of twelve soap-operas to be aired on the three big American networks. Moreover, the main roles receive a maximum 15000-dollar fee by episode, that is to say five or six times less than the Dallas "monsters". The actors specify themselves : "In the United States, we almost go unnoticed. There is hardly only in supermarkets that the housewives recognize us. And it is hardly more brilliant in England; while in France, we are taken for stars."

Ah ! To see France and Paris, sigh the aforementioned stars, especially since their life holds now mainly to the taste of the French people. Indeed, five writers called for a long time on the imagination of the public. And the French letters arrive massively, every week, to Santa Barbara. So, the deaths of the script are not necessarily the voluntary exits of the actors and actresses who cancelled their contracts. They are also the murders ordered by the audience. "If the audience does not love a character, we kill him", says Bridget Dobson, Santa Barbara's co-writer and producer. This is how is the audience of the soaps, merciless and sovereign as Caesar. So the French audience, because of its loyalty, order at a distance to the Santa Barbara makers. "It is because of the French viewers, the producer still says, that we eventually married the both main heroes. For this public, the main thing is to love".

For the rest, it is not very demanding and especially not on the credibility. It is so, for example, that the authoritarian Capwell patriarch was performed by four different actors. It's the same of most of the other roles. Joe Perkins, another actor, declares : "I had four different fathers, I almost died ten times and I was kidnap six times". Another one explains that he left his role just as his character is in bed kissing a fair beautiful young woman. In the following scene, the young woman and the bed are the same but the young man was replaced without other explanation. Probably transformed by the kiss... It is true that in France, the voice does not change, always doubled by the same actor.

And nevertheless, the serial specialists wonder why this soap-opera (so called because, in the United States, it is interrupted with advertisements of washing powders), concocted on the edges of the Pacific, caught the eye of French people. So, we analyze. In this set which reminds Nice, France, or the summer would be eternal, the public likes seeing spreading out the rivalries of two clans. He also likes the economic stakes. But it adores especially the endless stories of the passions, the hatreds, the jealousies and the loves.

For Pascale Breugnot, program manager of TF1, "although there are resemblances with Dallas, the French people identify itself more gladly with the heroes of Santa Barbara. Their characters being clearly shown from the beginning, they react as we expect it. And then, there is especially an infallible recipe of the soap-operas : love, plus love, plus love, which, frustrated, then favored, then broken, then begun again, never tires." It's nothing of other than the recipe, repeated and adapted to the television, of the novelists columnists of the last century. Finally, there are especially the actors. In Dallas, some are ugly. In Santa Barbara, they are all beautiful, prototypes of beautiful thirty-year old, of beautiful fifty-year old, of beautiful male and female sixty-year old, who are moreover lookalike, as stemming from a laboratory of "clones" for soap-operas with physically asepticized characters. Perfect nose, perfect eye, perfect jaws. As for the American women with added vitamins, they have legs with an ideal curve, such as the breast and the hair. All this is complacently licked by the camera, from the head to the foot.

"Santa Barbara, who will tell me why I have the malady of living", sings a male voice with desperate accents, to the French opening credits. A profound malady of living by proxy and which does well few damages.

Will Eden Capwell and Cruz Castillo succeed in overcoming the adversity and in realizing their love completely? It is the question which shakes all the members of the fan-club of "santabarbaraddicts". Fascinated by the adventures of the tenebrous policeman, played on screen by Adolph Martinez, and of the rich girl, played by Marcy Walker, 800 French televiewers write every week to the wealthy Capwell heiress. For the first time in the history of television, this script of an American series is thus modified to be made-to-measure at the request of the French public. Eden and Cruz will definitely get married and the episode is already shot, even if it did not arrive on the French screens yet.
Eden is the favorite character of the regular viewers of the show, and the only one whose glory really reflects on her interpreter. But this former model who made serious studies was not disturbed at all by the love scenes with Adolph Martinez. She got married during the shooting of Santa Barbara to a young 25-year-old actor, Billy Warlock, and is perfectly happily married.