"The Beautiful Games"

Created by Guy Lux, Pierre Brive and Claude Savarit in 1962, Intervilles is recognised as the true progenitor of It's A Knockout and Jeux Sans Frontières. The three men - on a visit to the BBC in Great Britain - had been impressed and inspired by the Corporation's Top Town programme, an inter-town talent competition, and set about devising their own variation on the theme. Lux, Brive and Savarit had also been made aware of - and were intrigued by - an Italian television series, Campanile Sera (Bell Tower Evening), which had been airing to good audiences on the RAI channel since 1959.

Creator, Guy Lux

Despite the undoubted influence of Top Town on those behind the creation of Intervilles, there is actually very little to find in it that manifests itself directly in the celebrated French series. Top Town was essentially an inter-town talent contest, featuring singing, dancing, stand-up comedy, and magic routines. The only element that could justifiably be said to have been carried over to Intervilles was the inter-town nature of Top Town. Campanile Sera, however, appears to have had more in common with its subsequent, more famous descendent. For a start, programmes would be staged beneath the bell-tower - the campanile - in the town square, much as Intervilles and its later off-shoots would do. The Italian series also pitted towns against each other, and contests would be both intellectual and athletic.

Intervilles was devised as a friendly competition which would pitch French towns against eachother in a series of challenging, often bizarre physical games on the ground, in the water and in the air which would decide the French ‘top town’. In an era when complicated outside broadcasts were only just becoming manageable from a technical standpoint, Intervilles represented something fresh and original.

Launched on July 17th 1962 on the Radiodiffusion Télévision Française (RTF) channel with a knockabout competition between the towns of Saint-Amand-les-Eaux and Armentières, Intervilles was an overnight hit on French television. It hit exactly the right note with its heady cocktail of extravagant, outdoor party games and tests of skill, concentration and intelligence, not to mention the wild card element of the ‘vachettes’, young cows that would chase and upend competitors unexpectedly. In a sidestep from the familiar Jeux Sans Frontières format, teams contesting in Intervilles could also gain additional points in general knowledge question and answer sessions. The series built each year to a grand final which would feature the highest scoring teams.

It could be said that occasionally, Intervilles was capable of beating all other versions of the series when it came to the unusual. The 1964 final between Compiègne and Royan ended up in a draw and a way was needed to separate the two teams and declare a winner. In possibly the oddest tie-breaker in history, the two teams had to count the beards and shaved heads amongst their townsfolk. Compiègne out-scored Royan on the number of beards, but thanks to the local barber in Royan, Compiègne were comprehensively beaten 250-77 on shaven heads - with each bald pate worth double points! Bizarre is not the word...

The first eleven-week series in 1962 (10 heats and a final) opened to the sounds of the catchy Intervilles theme tune, Shanana by composer Paul Mauriat (1925-2006), which has become synonymous with the series. The initial presenters were Guy Lux, Léon Zitrone, Claude Savarit and Simone Garnier, who stayed with Intervilles for decades and became well-known internationally as mainstay presenters of the French Jeux Sans Frontières heats. The games were designed by the genial, former all-in wrestler, Jean-Louis Marest. A novel idea that was part of the series from the very start was the way in which the televised events took place not from one location, but two. Both competing teams would host half the events in their home town each week, sending half their competitors to the opposing town for the 'away' part of the fixture. The programmes were transmitted live using state-of-the-art television techniques and equipment, mixing from one location to the other via a central control location. Even today, this type of outside broadcast is fraught with difficulties - imagine the pressures on the production staff working with primitive equipment (by today's standards) in the pre-computer age.

The competition has always been run in the summer months, although seasonal competitions such as Interneiges (Intervilles in the Snow) and Interglaces (Intervilles on Ice) have been staged from time to time to similar success. Intervilles fans have witnessed two further offshoots in the new Millennium. Intercities launched in 2005 and has featured teams from France, China, Italy, Romania, Russia and the Ukraine. It has rapidly become very popular in those countries, with exceptionally high audience figures. The most recent spin-off is Intervilles Juniors, a children’s version of the series, which premiered on April 7th 2007 on the TNT Gulli channel.

Despite several breaks in the series production, amazingly Intervilles is still being produced to this day, with the 2007 series final having been broadcast on Monday 27th August 2007 on the France 3 channel. There have been over two hundred editions since 1962, and of course its legacy is a global one, with versions of Intervilles having been produced as far afield as Great Britain, Europe, Australia and North America. Intervilles has, to date, been produced and transmitted in three distinct periods:

  • 1962-1991
    Transmitted by RTF (which became ORTF in 1964)

  • 1995-1998
    Transmitted by TF1 (the main channel of the ORTF)

  • 2004-present
    Transmitted by France 2 (2004-2005) and France 3 (2006-)

The first era of Intervilles drew to a close in 1991, lasting some nine years beyond the original Jeux Sans Frontières series, and crossing paths with the revival for four series. As always seems to be the case with JSF series, Intervilles was rested by the RTF due to spiralling costs. Fortunately, in this case its demise was not to last for too long.

"Back in Town"

Intervilles Logo 1996Fans of Intervilles only had four years to wait for the return of Guy Lux's much-imitated inter-town contest after the programme was first cancelled in 1991. In 1995, the series was successfully revived by the TF1 channel (the main channel of the ORTF) and French summers suddenly seemed so much more like they used to be. A much-loved part of Twentieth Century vie française was well and truly back.

As is usually the case with a revival, with it came a reboot. The most notable change from the Intervilles of old was that the TF1 version ditched the tradition of the events being held simultaneously in the two competing towns. Henceforth, the recordings would be made in a single location with a home town and an 'invited' town. Meanwhile, new presenters replaced the old, with Gilles Amado becoming the master of ceremonies, while Jean-Pierre Foucault defended the home town each week and Fabrice would defend the invited town. Also on hand were Nathalie Simon and Olivier Chiabodo, the referee.

There's an old adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and when Intervilles returned afresh after four years away, this was definitely proved correct. The first edition of the new series, featuring a confrontation between Valenciennes and Saint-Amand-les-Eaux, garnered a remarkable audience of over nine million viewers - a record for the series. The audience figures were sustained and, pleased with the series' showing, TF1 commissioned four extra programmes to be recorded in the winter, to be broadcast as Interglace late in 1995. Some elements of the new Intervilles were familiar - the famous 'vachettes' making a totally expected return to throw an element of unpredictability into the proceedings - others less so, such as The Challenge, a recurring physical test in each programme.

The Intervilles 1996 series was again a great success, and a third series, for 1997 was commissioned and saw Thierry Roland replace Fabrice, who had decided to leave the series. The games remained much the same and the Challenge this year was for competitors to slide the furthest possible distance along a long soaped track (a game that was later revived for the Channel 5 It's A Knockout).

Olivier ChiabodoJust when everything looked rosy for the series, Intervilles soon found itself unexpectedly at the centre of a scandal focusing on referee, Olivier Chiabodo (pictured, right). Shortly after final of the 1997 season at Disneyland Paris, the long-running French satirical journal, Le Canard Enchaîné, published an article  which accused Chiabodo of cheating during the 'intellectuals' section of the programmes. The newspaper published photographs from the 2nd July 1997 heat which they claimed showed referee Chiabodo indicating the answers to the questions to the Puy du Fou team (who were playing against Ancenis). There were suspicions that Chiabodo may have previously helped the Puy du Fou team on two other occasions - in the Intervilles finals of 1996 and 1997, both of which they had won. This brought Intervilles into disrepute and undermined the public's respect for the honesty of the series. Olivier Chiabodo's employment was terminated by TF1 after an internal review, although he has always tenaciously protested his innocence. Reacting to the scandal in public, TF1 defended its honour and obtained a symbolic 1 Franc settlement from Le Canard Enchaîné in 1999. 

'Chiabadogate' is widely seen as the reason that when Intervilles returned in 1998, it was with a shuffled pack of presenters and officials. Chiabodo was replaced by Laurent Mariotte with Robert Wurtz employed as Official Referee in order to make a statement that everything would be above board. Meanwhile, with Thierry Roland occupied with the FIFA World Cup (staged in France that summer), his place was taken by Julien Courbet, and Delphine Anaïs stepped in for Nathalie Simon who had left Intervilles due to pregnancy. Only Jean-Pierre Foucault remained from the 1997 line-up.

It was maybe due to the refereeing scandal, perhaps due to falling public interest in Intervilles, but the 1998 Intervilles series saw a week-on-week fall in audience figures, which were never better than average. Consequently, TF1 decide to rest Intervilles as a regular series, although they do return it for an extravagant one-off Paris/Beijing special in September 1999, a co-production with Chinese television. Despite high hopes for the programme, the special received unimpressive viewing figures in France and it was this that finally convinced TF1 to close the door on Intervilles for good. Once again, the series was to return, some five years later, but on a different channel, France 2.

"New Millennium, New Intervilles"

When Intervilles returned in 2004, under the auspices of France 2 and Mistral Productions, it still retained its ability to surprise the audience. Whether that surprise was a particularly welcome one is open to debate, for the big news was that despite featuring French teams, the productions would not be recorded in France. Mistral Productions elected to stage the series in the same location, Europa Park - a popular theme park located near Rust, Germany - which they had utilised for their Deutschland Champions series (another series based on Intervilles). This meant that with each subsequent phase of the series, Intervilles had moved further from its original idea of being broadcast from the two competing towns simultaneously.

The presentation team for the first France 2 series were almost completely new to Intervilles, only Robert Wurtz, arbitrator in 1998, returning from the previous version. Master of Ceremonies was 43-year old Franco-Egyptian television presenter, Nagui Fam (known in France simply as Nagui - pictured, left), whose involvement with Intervilles would later expand when Mistral Productions took Nagui's production house Air Productions on board as co-producers in 2005. Also on board were Juliette Arnaud and a troupe of pom-pom girls, the Simones, who also appeared in Intervilles 2005 under the name, Les Cortisannes.

Programmes in the 2004 series were criticised for being too formulaic and repetitive. Each week's edition was split into five sections: a swimming pool game, a game on a spinning platform, a question and answer session, a game with the vachettes and the Wall of Champions game. These games lead to three relay races, the winners of which would qualify for the next heat. Success in the five games meant the opposing team is handicapped in the relays.

The 2004 final was held in mid-August, in Europa Park once again. This saw all the victorious teams fight it out in the first half of the programme, with the best two teams taking on each other in the second and final part for the ultimate prize. The Wall of Champions game was the final decider, and it was Le Creusot, an industrial town in the Bougogne region of France, that ended up enjoying the victory.

When the show returned in 2005, Nagui remained as Master of Ceremonies, joined by Patrice Laffont and much sought after DJ, Philippe Corti, with Robert Wurtz and Olivier Alleman refereeing. The biggest news, however, is the return of Nathalie Simon, who had last appeared on Intervilles in 1997. The producers had clearly learned a few lessons from their first year, not least of which was that it was eminently sensible to stage Intervilles events on French territory! Consequently, the series reverted to the format adoped in the mid-Nineties TF1 years, with a 'home' town and an 'invited' one. This move certainly pleased the traditionalists and had a good effect on the crowds, who were more partisan than the (understandably) slightly disinterested mostly-German audiences for the 2004 shows. The 2005 Intervilles culminated in a final which was staged in Provence at an arena in Arles. This year, Saint-Quentin tasted victory and audience levels had been sufficient to guarantee another series.

The 2006 series of Intervilles was aired on France 3, which has been the series home ever since. The presenting pack was again shuffled for the new series and this time it was Nagui's turn to move on as he was otherwise engaged with his new daily game show, Tout le Monde Veut Prendre sa Place. The case of the other significant non-returnee, Patrice Laffont, was rather less positive. Laffont reportedly had no desire to leave Intervilles, but the producers decided that at sixty-five, he was too old for the programme and didn't suit their aims for it to appeal to a predominantly youthful demographic. Laffont was understandably affronted, and commented that the affair left him with a bitter taste. The producers struggled to replace the pair, however, being turned down by at least two of the potential presenters they approached - Patrick Sébastien and Anthony Kavanagh - before appointing Julien Lepers and the comedian, Tex to the series, along with Vanessa Dolman who would host the Fil Rouge. Nathalie Simon and Robert Wurtz were retained from the 2005 team. This new Intervilles line-up of Corti, Dolmen, Lepers, Simon, Tex and Wurtz proved popular and remained for the 2007 series.

The new series commenced in Touquet, a seaside town in Northern France, which played host to Saint-Quentin, and ended up in Nîmes for the final (pictured, left), where the Mont-de-Marsan team repeated their success of 1998 to become the 2006 Champions. France 3 were delighted with their audience figures, which, while modest and well below those gained in the Nineties on TF1, were significantly better than the average ratings for their channel.

In association with Mistral Productions, France 3 planned a Winter competition for 2006, athough sadly this came to nothing due to pressures of time and finances. The 2007 series, not to mention a children's version called Intervilles Juniors, were on the horizon, however.

On the face of it, Intervilles shows no signs of going away and every sign of continuing. The 2007 series has been another success for France 3, and Guy Lux's original series has survived long after its high-profile equivalents in other countries have fallen by the wayside. Indeed, it has even outlived the great man himself - Lux sadly died in 2003, a year before he would have seen France 2 revive his creation. It is a glowing testament to his imagination, vision and creativity that Intervilles not only continues, but thrives in the New Millennium.

by Alan Hayes
Adapted from Wikipedia entry