When Jane Met Serge

Sixties icon Jane Birkin takes us through her magical first date with French pop hero Serge Gainsbourg as she releases an album revisiting his work...

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by Emily Phillips |

‘I turned up in Paris to do a screen test in French (for the film Slogan), when I didn’t speak French. I thought I looked a twit when I turned up to the studio. I hoped there’d be a slight accident so I wouldn’t have to go through with it.

I thought when Serge saw this baby doll turning up in a rather ridiculous dress - I’ve seen the test it’s quite awful - that he would think I was silly (and he’d be right). He’d just come out of a bruised relationship with Brigitte Bardot, so neither he, nor I were particularly up for anyone else. I started to cry and mixing up [my recent break-up from Bond composer] John Barry and the film test. Serge thought that was disgusting, rightfully.

So, I went back to London. Then I was told by (the director Pierre) Grimblat that I’d got it! Serge hadn’t posed any problems.

There was the revolution in Paris in the May, so the film started in June. I came back with my daughter Kate and also my brother Andrew who was working on a film about Napoleon with Stanley Kubrick and we were all holed up in the same hotel. Serge thought Andrew was my boyfriend, so was pretty pissed off, and also very disagreeable in general. He wasn’t disagreeable, he just wasn’t agreeable.

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Jane with Serge in 1970 ©Getty

We had this scene where Serge was sat in the bath, with an enormous red, white and blue swimsuit and I had to perch on the end – nude as usual – with him looking sort of upwards towards me, at a disagreeable angle. I said to the director ‘this is all very hard going.’ He said he’d fix us to have dinner with Serge and that he was much nicer than he looked.

So, we had dinner, it might have been at Régine, I don’t remember. Then Grimblat ellipsed himself into the night and I pulled Serge towards the dancefloor. Serge was saying ‘no, no, no,’ he didn’t like dancing, whereupon he walked on my feet - it was a slow - and I thought, ‘how wonderful.’ All this thing of being high-faluted, sarcastic and arrogant-looking was all because he was frightfully shy, which was just the most attractive thing in a man. Shy and funny... And I started to laugh.

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Jane and Serge in the early seventies ©Getty

So, we went on to Rasputin which was a Russian nightclub, where all the musicians knew Serge. He got them all on to the pavement as we took our next taxi and made them all play. There were about 20 violinists, and he stuffed 50 franc notes into all their violins saying "they’re prostitutes like me."

Then we went on to another club called the Calvados where all the musicians were South American and he knew all their songs too. And there was a wonderful musician called Joe Turner, and he was there and Serge was at the piano with Joe and within a few seconds they were playing four-handers. It was just wonderful.

After that we we went to Madame Arthur, which was an extraordinary “travesty” nightclub, where Serge’s father had played the piano, so all the drag queens came whizzing towards Serge saying ‘c’est jou!’ all dressed as ladies, I couldn’t believe it, it was an incredible sight. One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock and they were all kissing him, and I could tell that he was "a chou", that they all loved him.

Afterwards we went to the market which was starting. Serge gave all the butchers with carcasses on their backs champagne.

After that, he said "I’ll drop you off at your hotel." I remember saying "no" and thinking how brave to say no like that. Serge took me off to the Hilton hotel, where the man behind the desk said ‘same room as usual Mr Gainsbourg?’ I thought ‘oh no, oh no, this is the most awful way to begin anything.’

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Serge an Jane ©Getty

I went off to the bathroom, and when I came back he was fast asleep, we’d drunk so much. It gave me time to stuff something under the door to keep it open, whizz off to the drugstore to buy the record I had been dancing to (which was 'Yummy Yummy Yummy I’ve got Love in my Tummy', something silly) put it between his toes, before I went back to my hotel and refound Kate.

I was walking on air. It was absolutely wonderful: a magical night. He was able to efface little by little, everything that had been so dismal with John and I think I was able, little by little, to efface everything that had been so dismal with Bardot. After that it was all bliss.’

Birkin/Gainsbourg Le Symphonique is out on April 12th on Parlophone France. Jane Birkin performs at the Barbican with the Heritage Orchestra on September 26th.

READ MORE: How To Dress Like Jane Birkin

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