English reigns in French TV series ‘Versailles’

The makers of what will be France's most-expensive TV series ever, "Versailles" have succumbed to the domination of the English language in the global TV industry, meaning the French King will in fact be British.

English reigns in French TV series 'Versailles'
The gates of the Palace of Versailles which has been given a very Anglo makeover for a TV series. Photo: Joel Saget/AFP

Back in the day, the prospect of a French king speaking English would have been enough to trigger a century-long war.

Not any more, as evidenced by what will be France's most-expensive TV series ever, "Versailles", a period mini-series of 10 episodes that will come out at the end of this year.

The makers of the series, about the famous Palace of Versailles outside Paris and King Louis XIV who had it built, have bowed before the inescapable domination of English as the global language of international entertainment.

Thus their French king — one of history's most iconic monarchs — is British. Indeed, most of the the cast is British or Canadian. French performers are relegated to supporting roles or in the background.

The reason for such sacrilege in a country known for jealously protecting its language and culture is simple: France no longer wants to sit on the sidelines of the international resurgence in television.

It has seen the revolution sweeping the small screen, with cinema-grade productions being made by new players including Netflix and Amazon, and it wants to be part of it. And that means adopting English.

It also means spending big. At €27 million ($30 million) — around €2.7 million per episode, each taking 12 days to film — "Versailles" is the costliest TV production put on in France.

That's the sort of cash an "American super-production" would throw at the screen, boasts George Blagden, the English actor who incarnates the 28-year-old Louis XIV.

The only other French co-produced series that came close were "Borgia", a €25 million epic series about a ruthless 15th century pope, and "The Tunnel", a €19-million French-British contemporary crime drama based on the Danish-Swedish series "The Bridge".

Gamble on global sales

The producers of "Versailles" — France's Canal+, Capa Drama and Zodiak Fiction allied with Canada's Incendo — are gambling their new series can
win the same sort of worldwide business generated by the British-Irish-Canadian TV hit "The Tudors" or the British drama "Downton Abbey".

Claude Chelli, of Capa Drama, makes no bones about it. He says the decision to film "Versailles" in English was "to ensure the biggest international distribution possible".

The script itself is also crafted in English by Simon Mirren (former executive producer the US series "Criminal Minds") and David Wolstencroft (who created the well-received spy series "Spooks").

It focuses on the early years of the reign of Louis XIV — the grand and self-proclaimed "Sun King" — when he ordered the vast and vastly expensive Palace of Versailles be built to house his court away from Paris and its intrigues.
No 'ideal' French actor 

One of Canal+'s senior executives, Maxime Saada, said that, despite the decision to make the series in English, there was no predilection to choose British actor George Blagden for the lead role.

"We didn't find an ideal French actor for the role. We weren't looking for a British actor but rather for a young king — and George is great," Saada says.

Blagden himself believes he got to wear the crown because he saw himself having a "somewhat gentle" character.

"There's not an ounce of violence in me," he says. "I've never fought in my life. But to play a character so powerful, a little bit of violence has to come through."

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