Brunch

The French Ambassador in a trilingual Bastille Day telecast 

In 2000, the Bonsoir team decided to make a change in the customary Bastille Day (French National Day) programme in mid-July. We thought we’d do away with ourselves as presenters, break all protocol, and let Elizabeth Dahan, the French Ambassador to Sri Lanka host it instead. This had never been done before. Dahan loved the idea and agreed instantly, without even blinking her long eyelids. 

The French Ambassador’s residence at that time was at Alfred Place, just opposite the Durdans Hospital on the Galle Road / Alfred Place bend. It was a majestic building with an imposing façade, tall columns and all… the interior was equally interesting with lots of film-able spaces… just what we needed.

At our weekly brainstorming meeting we dreamt of how this particular programme would take on another and greater dimension if only the hostess were to speak in English and Sinhala and Tamil. This seemed a tall order indeed but when I casually asked her, Dahan shot back, “Mais oui, bien sur…” (but yes of course)… only if you can give me the Sinhala and Tamil lines phonetically written so that I can memorise them”. 

This was a bonus and so we set to work. We scripted the entire programme in English and then selected areas for Sinhala and Tamil translations. The phonetically transcribed lines were then given to the Ambassador who, with the help of her Sinhalese chauffeur Sisira Malalasekera and her Tamil gardener Velu, got them to read and recorded onto her little portable cassette player. 

For a month thereafter she would listen to successive playbacks, repeat her lines with the recorded lines and in the process, memorise them. She worked diligently and very, very hard on this. After a month or so, Madame was near perfect! 

And so when Bonsoir’s viewers switched on their television sets that Bastille Day (French National Day) night in July 2000, the programme opened with the sounds of the Marseillaise in the background and the French tricolore lit up and flying at full mast in the Kollupitiya night sky. The cameras panned down to the main entrance of the Résidence de France

And as the double doors automatically swung open (no one saw the cook and the valet discreetly at work) there appeared Her Excellency Elizabeth Dahan, Ambassador for France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives looking très élégante in an ankle-length designer evening dress. Utterly composed and with NO script in her hand she welcomed the viewers in all three languages. 

The camera zoomed in and followed her into the well-appointed salon where she spoke about the Storming of the Bastille. 

We changed angles as she spoke about the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. This was mixed with shots of the morning’s customary parade down the Champs-Elysées. 

A tracking shot gave the visual lots of movement as she spoke about Franco-Sri Lankan bilateral relations. In between were shots of the morning’s customary “Le Garden Party” hosted by the French President on the verdant lawns of the Elysée Palace. 

She spoke on a variety of subjects related to French National Day and switched back and forth, from English to Sinhala to Tamil. 

Her performance was brilliant. Madame l’Ambassadrice was a star overnight. The feedback we got was huge and very encouraging. This particular programme, I’m told, was highly spoken about in Colombo’s diplomatic circles, for weeks thereafter. We weren’t one bit surprised! 

Note 1: With this programme, I bade my formal au-revoir to Bonsoir. Thus ended a long and eventful 15-year relationship with this programme, which was very close to my heart. To ensure a smoother transition I functioned as a freelance producer cum presenter but it never felt the same. 

Bonsoir was a part of my every living and breathing moment. I am grateful to Bonsoir for paving the way to my becoming what I am today. At that time, I had a great deal of mixed feelings about quitting Bonsoir. I was in a dilemma. 

Today, looking back in retrospect, I believe I made the right choice. Making choices in life can be painful at times. But life is also strange and unexplainable. Life also has to go on… and that’s what I did. 

Note 2: And last night 20 December 2021 as I entered my sixtieth year, this series with The Morning came to an end, and I continue to journey on in life. 

“The Bonsoir Diaries” by Kumar de Silva is a cocktail of chapters, bursting at their seams with pithy asides, a trail of faux pas, and tit-bits from behind the scenes, marinated with anecdotes and drizzled with nostalgia, revealing everything you never saw on your favourite television show… from the ‘80s through the ‘90s into 2000.