Sexed-up: Bill Clinton (Dennis Quaid) and Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) in "The Special Relationship"
In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens's Mr Podsnap harangues a foreigner on the marvels of Britain.
"Our Constitution, Sir. We Englishmen are Very Proud of our Constitution, Sir. It Was Bestowed Upon Us By Providence. No Other Country is so Favoured as This Country."
"And other countries," said the foreign gentleman. "They do how?"
"They do, Sir," returned Mr Podsnap, gravely shaking his head; "they do — I am sorry to be obliged to say it — AS they do."
The pride of the Podsnaps has deserted the British. In his address to the Edinburgh television festival, Mark Thompson, the BBC's director-general, revealed that market researchers had questioned hundreds of Britons when they returned from foreign holidays and found that they were not happy to be home.
The returning tourists said that the climate, scenery, transport system and customer service were all better abroad. There was only one significant area of national life that they still thanked Providence for bestowing on the British. "Of all the topics covered in a survey this summer," said Mr Thompson with a note of triumph, "it was British TV that scored the highest. Sixty-two per cent who had watched TV abroad as well as in the UK said they thought television was better here. Only eight per cent disagreed."
How many British tourists could understand Spanish or Greek television is a question he left unanswered. But having watched French television for a fortnight, I can see why Thompson was euphoric. British journalists complain about the space-filling on the rolling news channels and the tricksiness of Newsnight. They would stop if they saw the shallow and dull reports on French television. France cannot match the sharp, smart satire of Britain and America, either. Instead of David Mitchell and Paul Merton, there are dumb sitcoms which would not have been made for British television in the 1970s, let alone the 2010s.
For all that, on consecutive nights I watched a film adaptation of Les Misérables starring Gérard Depardieu. The writer and director made no attempt to inject sex or violence. When the story called for long scenes filled only with dialogue, that is what they shot without fast cuts or switches in camera angles. The same was true for an adaptation of Marcel Pagnol's Le Château de ma Mère, which admittedly the most permissive director in the world could not sex up.
A respect for history characterises French drama documentaries as well. I saw a reconstruction of the downfall of Roger Salengro, a minister in Leon Blum's Popular Front government in the 1930s. In an anticipation of Vichy, the French far-Right used false allegations that he had been a coward in the First World War to drive him to suicide. The night before that I watched a dramatisation of the life of Françoise Sagan, who awoke to find herself famous after her teenage novel Bonjour Tristesse had become a sensation. Sagan had many lovers, male and female, and took large amounts of drugs but the film did not dwell on the sex or the cocaine.
The controllers of French cinema and television thought that the French ought to know their history, and should see adaptations of the classics. As French producers, they had a duty to continue the best traditions of French culture, and the audience had an obligation to watch because watching would make them better citizens.