An H Van is as much part of French cultural history as the 2cv.  Designed in 1942 by the body builder Franchiset and inspired by the rippled fuselage of German Junkers aircraft its exterior panels get their strength in the same way cardboard boxes do, by corrugating thin sheets to create rigidity.  Its petrol engine was the same as the Traction Avant and the later DS except that it was turned 180-degrees with the gearbox at the back, not the front.  I probably saw my first H van in 1960 when I took the Golden Arrow from Victoria Station, this time over the bridge above Sevenoaks Way, to stay with my aunt and uncle in Paris.  He was a Group Captain in the RAF stationed at SHAPE, the forerunner to NATO based in St Germain just outside Paris.  They collected me from Gare de Nord in his new white Citroen DS.  I was thrilled by the car’s overwhelming feeling of the future – soft spongy carpets, combed nylon door cards, wrap-around windscreen, touch-sensitive electro-hydraulic controls, digital speedometer behind a magnifier…and that extraordinary suspension.  Along De Gaul’s ruthless new expressway by the Seine and up into the suburbs it whisked us.  Beyond its hushed royal blue and beige interior flashed a totally French planet filled with creamy blue Panhards, grey 2cvs, pastel duo-tone Simcas, navy blue Renault 4cvs, big black Peugots…and H-vans in a kaleidoscope of colours.  Unlike Britain, France appeared to have taken a turning marked ‘This Way to Science Fiction’.  Even its Mobylette mopeds were coloured gold.  I had left a country where everything was brown and black, and entered a place where music, food, cars, fashion and people were cool.  When we got to their flat my uncle’s Grundig radiogram was tuned using a strange luminous green tube on the front, oscillating like a tiny radar screen until it stabilsed on the prefect signal.  These futuristic French images locked themselves into my brain leaving a template of what France promised.  The memory would never fade, but when I returned in 1968 the template didn’t fit at all.

Six years after my first visit to France I won a place at the Royal College of Art School of Film and Television and in late 1968 my fellow student Richard Loncraine and I set off to start shooting his graduation film about the Royal Picardie Hotel in Le Touquet.  Chris Morphet was on camera and I was recording the sound.  We also took along Marie Danserou, a French Canadian film student who could speak better French than we could, but turned out to be a liability after she was found shoplifting and the Gendarmerie deported her.  We drove to Lydd in Richard’s new VW van and waited for the first Silver City flight to Le Touquet.  The planes were Bristol Freighters with a big door at the front to allow cars to drive on.  The Royal Picardie, known as “Le plus belle hotel du monde” – like Le Touquet itself – had been designed as a playground for the rich.  But the hotel, finished in 1929 and opened in 1930, was to become an instant victim of the depression.  Never completely finished, it staggered on until the economy revived in 1939 only to be plunged into war and occupied by the Nazis as one of their Atlantic wall operational HQs.  Inevitably bombed by the RAF, its undamaged part was reopened in the 1950s by an indomitable local woman called Madame Menardie, then closed again when she ran out of money.  It was a sad story all round.  But like all sad stories it made a great film for Richard that was eventually re-cut and broadcast on ITV by Alan Whicker.  On evening Richard and I met and interviewed Madam Menardie.  Among stories of the hotel in its heyday she told us about a dish named after her when she was the concierge at the Picardie in the late 1930’s. It was simply called Sole Menardie.  She was obviously proud of this accolade and described the dish.  It sounded pretty simple and was still being served in a high-end restaurant along the coast, so we drove there and ordered it – thick cream, butter, shallots, lemon juice and seasoning flambé heaped onto a grilled fillet of sole.  Having probably drunk too much it was indigestible!

In many ways the hotel’s story was a timeline of French aspirations before, during and immediately after the war.  By 1969 a motly demolition squad was occupying the place and we filmed them throughout until the hotel lazily collapsed several hours after having its concrete columns blown out with explosives.  The demolition team’s vehicles were battered matt grey 2cv vans and H-vans treated with total contempt, and at one point six of them actually managed to capsize an overloaded 2cv after a long lunch.  As they climbed out they simply removed their tools, baguettes and boxes of plonk in plastic bottles, then rolled the crumpled car into a ditch and left it.  By the late sixties the French loathed these antiquated vehicles – as they saw them – and if these workmen were anything to go by, yearned for a type of car the British had developed: thickly padded Jaguars, Farina shaped Austins and Rovers.  They were clearly embarrassed by their own groaning tin vehicles, and in a funny kind of way, so was I.  The French rush towards the future had petered out.

With the rebuilt H-van gone from the Brentford body shop the 2cv went in.  Early results were unpromising.  Like the H-van, the car had paper thin metal under the bubbling paint, much of it crumbling to the touch.  But John the panel beater started work, and within a month the rear end was evolving into a better-than-new Citroen 2cv6.  The floor panels were replaced and the new panels – grey and satisfyingly stiff – spread as the work continued.  It gave me an odd feeling, watching this process: something apparently inanimate defeating entropy; a feint ghost of that dark and satanic factory where these cars were conjured from tin then roughly disgorged into the streets as remnants of a Citroen ethos long since gone and, by the mid-eighties, positively disliked.