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One Man’s Trash

In the dark days of John Major’s Britain, Channel 4’s Eurotrash took aim at Britain’s relationship with ‘the continent’ and created a low-art surrealist classic in the process.

American socialite Ivana Trump (left) is interviewed by Antoine De Caunes, on the set of the TV programme 'Eurotrash', Paris, France, 3rd October 1996. Ivana is the ex-wife of American businessman Donald Trump. (Photo by Alain Nogues/Sygma via Getty Images)

Eurotrash, which has now been re-issued in its entirety on DVD and is also available to stream, started in 1993 and, initially at least, aired on Friday nights at 10.30 PM on the ever-interesting Channel 4 of the day. It was one of the first programmes to be explicitly pitched at the ‘post-pub’ crowd, or at least, given the timing, those who had either come home early disappointed or had never made it out in the first place. The early nineties was largely a very pub-oriented time, the era of a burgeoning, hedonism-driven lad and ladette culture running alongside the early stages of the attempt to make Britain more European, at least in terms of its licensing laws and extended opportunities for consumption via a café culture. If that sounds like a rather grandiose scene-setting for a programme perhaps mainly viewed for the nudity it contained, the context is important in establishing why Eurotrash’s subversive irony felt especially pointed and delightful at the time.

The show’s main host, though it also featured an extended run of co-hosting by the irrepressibly impish Jean Paul Gaultier, was the brilliant and exceptionally charming Antione de Caunes. De Caunes had previously presented Rapido, a music show with a focus on both anglophone and European acts, and was one of the few, if not the only, non-native speakers on TV at the time, wittily playing up to, and also mocking, British xenophobia and the misplaced assumption of Anglosphere musical supremacy. Anti-European, especially anti-French, sentiment was at its height in certain quarters. Infamously, in 1990, under the headline ‘Up Yours Delors’, the Sun had urged its readers to turn to France and raise the middle finger to the (French) president of the European Commission.  With a fairly thick accent and impeccably nuanced English, de Caunes waded knowingly into this persistent conflict around Britain and its relationship to ‘the continent’. Suave, handsome, and with a deep understanding of British humour and culture, his mere presence on TV screens was enough to aggravate those who still thought of nationalities in terms of Frogs, Krauts, and Eyeties; who considered any food more flavoursome than a par-boiled potato as foreign muck; and who were appalled by ‘foreign birds’ who didn’t shave their armpits — while also being furtively obsessed with relaxed European attitudes to sex and pornography, especially in that great mixed-sauna of the sweaty British imagination, Sweden.

Eurotrash positioned itself in an even more satirical and seditious relationship to Britain than Rapido had, playing to the prejudice and prurience of one strand of the population while also debunking and discomfiting another, those whose shallow and snobby Europhilia saw Europe as innately more civilised and cultured, and who longed to shed their own shameful association with the blinkered and vulgar British by dissolving their identity into a larger Europeanness. In presenting us with a cavalcade of grotesque crooners and porn stars, fetishists, ludicrous oddballs, and outsider artists, the show claimed that Europe was both weirder — worse, more fascinating, wild, colourful, camp, and queer — than it was given credit for, exceeding the narrow imaginings of both Eurosceptics and Europhiles. The show’s vivid visual style, and use of edits and sound, emphasised a pop-surrealism that edged into the disquieting, one jaunty step back from being disturbing. The show also used a host of comically exaggerated British regional accents in the dubbing for the different segments, adding another layer of incongruous absurdism but also pointing to a certain continuity of the lowbrow and kitsch that runs across the channel anyway; we too had the Sunday Sport, Leigh Bowery, Ben Dover, and Val Doonican.

Eurotrash ran for over ten years, with a host of one-offs and a cast of returning characters (notably the Belgian combover king, crooner Eddy Walley), and proved immensely popular, becoming something of a national institution. By the time it ended in 2004, Britain’s relationship to Europe was rather different, easyJet and free movement having made us much more familiar with each other. Eurotrash was part of that friendly levelling and mutual recognition, offering, from the outside, a brilliant critique of the boorishness of Britpop and Cool Britannia, the pomposity of what would become FPBE, and the petty repressed provincialism of Little England. True Punk TV without a safety pin or sneer in sight, it was, and remains, an impeccably tailored triumph.