Predictably unpredictable

Remembering Serge Gainsbourg on the anniversary of his birth.

Elegant and tactless, charmingly "ugly", often inopportune like a bad joke coming too late, Lucien Ginsburg was born on 2 April 1928 in Paris to Russian-Jewish parents. "I was born under a lucky star ... a yellow one," he once ironically remarked referring to the star of David he had to wear on his arm as a kid when Paris opened its doors to the nightmare of Nazism.

It was a live performance by Boris Vian that allegedly inspired the singer-to-be: Vian's idiosyncratic provocations and ironic cynicism, Serge Gainsbourg later confessed, were a great influence on his decision to take to the piano in (un)popular fashion. Unapologetically improper, Gainsbourg survived his fame through constant and unpredictable innovation. From smoky jazz bars to symphonic pop, from "le yéyé" to roots dub, passing by Nazi rock and rap, the restless trajectory he drew underscores his inability to conform.

Recently commemorated with a lame and derivative biopic, Monsieur Gainsbourg himself, true to his insubordinate curiosity and obtrusive genius, traversed le septième art on his own, unique, terms. Besides sound-tracking more than 50 films, whose scores often outshined their not exactly memorable visual counterpart, Gainsbourg briefly stood behind the camera. In 1976, borrowing the title from his international hit Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus, he staged an anomalous tale of uncompromising love. Reminiscent of the stiff acting and wooden mise-en-scène of Paul Morrisey's films, Je T'Aime is a bizarre sex-western of startling profundity.

A gay garbage truck driver (Joe D'Alessandro) falls in love with a boyish looking waitress (Jane Birkin) but can only love her via her posterior. While the song had desecrated the trite clichés of love songs with the steamy chorus "I love you, me neither" and scandalised with its impudent groans, the film functions almost in an inverse fashion. Through what at first sight may seem a gratuitous and idiotic narrative device, Gainsbourg composes the ultimate romance, transcending the barriers of gender to celebrate the universality of the noblest sentiment. As the fornicating couple has it: "the important is not where you put it, the important is to love."

A final episode worth considering: Forgotten until 2002, when the Parisian Radio Communauté Juive broadcasted it for the first time, "Le sable et le Soldat" was commissioned by the cultural attaché of the Israeli embassy to the French singer. Written in 1967 with the six-day war against Egypt looming on the horizon, the song is a hymn to the Tsahal, the Israeli army that would shortly after crush Nasser's forces. The lyric runs: "I will defend the sand of the Promised Land against all enemies/the Goliaths from the pyramids will back down in front of the star of David/I will defend the sand of Israel."

Serge Gainsbourg in 1984. Photo: Getty Images
Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game