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Johnny Hallyday

This April, as France and Britain celebrate 100 years of the Entente Cordiale, The South Bank Show crosses The Channel.

Johnny Hallyday is a truly French phenomenon: the biggest rock star you’ve never heard of.

Virtually unknown outside the French-speaking world, Hallyday has reigned supreme as France’s King of Rock for nearly 44 years.

He scored his first hit in 1960 at the age of 16, and now, at 60, his success remains undiminished.

Last year he broke records with the fastest selling single ever in France.

In his first interview for British television, Melvyn Bragg talks to Hallyday about his long career, his debut as a child performer, and how seeing and hearing Elvis influenced his musical career.

It is something of an irony, particularly in a country that tries so hard to protect its own culture, that its greatest star started out as an unabashed imitator of American rock n’ roll.

He first made his name interpreting Anglo-American hits for a French audience, from Love Me Tender (which became Amour d’Eté) to his own French rock n’ roll hits such as C’est le Mashed Potatoes.

His wild stage performances created controversy amongst the conservative world of 1960s France, and a star was born. Hallyday is also credited with discovering Jimi Hendrix in a London club and inviting him to open one of his tours in France.

Hallyday’s talent for reinvention has seen him become a tuxedo-wearing crooner, Elvis lookalike, James Dean-style social reject, teddy boy, Motown swinger, tattoo-ed biker, glam-rocker, Eighties trucker, and serial lover.

More recently, however, Johnny – as he is known to his legion of fans - has increasingly turned to French lyricists and composers, whilst continuing to play his favourite rock n’ roll hits.

For foreign observers of France, Hallyday, along with whole idea of French rock n’ roll, has often seemed a joke.

Whilst the more poetic tradition of Chanson epitomised by performers such as Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour has achieved worldwide recognition as a reflection of the French soul, Hallyday remains undeniably a French phenomenon, and one which outsiders do not seem to understand.

But no Anglo-Saxon artist has had such an impact on the population as a whole, appealing to young and old from every background.

Hallyday has lived the rockstar lifestyle to the full: his professional setbacks, colourful love life and periodic scandals have been devoured by his public - but to date he’s always managed to pull himself back from the brink.

Indeed when the whole of France, from President Jacques Chirac downwards, celebrated his 60th birthday last year, his iconic status was assured.

He has sold well over 100 million records and it is estimated that a third of the French population have seen him perform live.

Ironically, it is as an actor that Hallyday is finally achieving success overseas.

Despite appearances in over 30 films, it was only with his recent role in Patrice Leconte’s film L’Homme du Train that he won critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic.

The South Bank Show examines the Johnny Hallyday phenomenon, talking to former Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, and many ordinary French people in a quest to find out the appeal of the man the Figaro newspaper declared to be “an idol for all of France”.

Produced and directed by Aurora Gunn and edited and presented by Melvyn Bragg.

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