Revealed: Giant creator's hidden grief that dwarfed his Sea Odyssey

Royal De Luxe founder Jean Luc Courcoult tells Larry Neild why he plunged into the Mersey and of his plan to buy Mayor Joe an Irish Setter

Written by  Larry Neild | Follow @larryneild | Monday, 14 July 2014 00:00

HE rarely talks to the media so the opportunity for Liverpool Confidential to be granted an audience with Jean-Luc Courcoult, director of France-based Royal de Luxe, was unmissable.

A five-minute chat we were offered, in the fitting surroundings of Liverpool’s Empire Theatre. Half an hour later the master of the Nantes giants was still busily chatting away.

In 2012, Courcoult and his three huge wooden puppets caused a sensation on the streets of Liverpool with Sea Odyssey, his take on the sinking of the Titanic. In his conversation with Confidential he spoke about a devastating event kept out of the spotlight two years ago.

While hundreds of thousands of people were thrilled watching the Little Girl Giant and Xolo the dog trying to find her Diving Uncle, Jean-Luc was grief-stricken at the sudden loss of one his closest friends and colleagues in Royal De Luxe, Etienne Louvieaux, right here in Liverpool.

Etienne, 54, had been the wizard of special effects in the company since 1981, responsible for fire, trickery and magic, and described by those who knew him as a genius.


Royal De Luxe's special effects master Etienne Louvieaux died suddenly on the last giants' visit to Liverpool. Coulcourt kept the tragedy under wraps

He was never to return home, taking ill and dying, quite suddenly, in the Royal Liverpool Hospital, two days after Royal de Luxe arrived in England. While the entire French team were coming to terms with the shock, Jean-Luc’s decision was to keep the news from the public gaze, lest it overshadow the air of excitement.

Thus, at the very last moment of Sea Odyssey, Jean-Luc made headlines by jumping into the River Mersey. It was, he admitted last week, an act of mixed emotions – grief at the loss of Etienne, the end of his Titanic spectacle and the realisation that many people from the ill-fated liner had themselves perished in the Atlantic.

This month’s visit by Royal de Luxe will tell an equally moving story about the impact on families in Liverpool of World War One. 

But Jean-Luc hasn't ruled out a third visit to the city. Back in France one of his latest creations is a 20ft black boy used in a story about Nantes’ involvement in the slave trade. An adaptation could be a walk-on street story in Liverpool.

The answers were in French (as you might expect) with Jean-Luc’s able interpreter translating.

LC:  After you came with Sea Odyssey in 2012 did you ever think you would come back to Liverpool?
JLC: Yes. I have been in love with this city. It is like a relationship between a man and a woman, there is an attraction. This is how it works, there is an attraction for some cities more than others.  There is a kind of quiet bond for me in Liverpool, something like being wrapped in blanket in which there are other things, like the Beatles, a quiet thing, among other things, and it makes me feel relaxed.

When you first came up with the concept of giants in city centres  did people think this is crazy, how can you do this?
Since I started my career, even from the very beginning when I was in the street, people were always saying I was crazy and it wouldn’t work. So I am not really worried about these people. 

What is more difficult is finding people with technical means to make it happen, and also to have the entire city working together and having all the services of a city to work together to make it happen.

Jean-Luc Coulcourt with Liverpool culture boss Claire McColganJean-Luc Coulcourt with Liverpool culture boss Claire McColgan 

Sea Odyssey was a stunning show. Will this year’s event beat it?
It is hard to say. It is like a football game, you can’t predict. This time, for this show, the storyline is deeper. We are exploring the heart of Liverpool and the story of the city. 

With Anne Marie for example (Royal de Luxe storywriter Anne Marie Vennel) we are working on the memory of the memories.

We have worked with older people, not about their memories because they did not witness the war, but about stories that were told to them by their parents and grandparents, family stories. We collected all of these.

These family memories represent a piece of people’s lives and this is a part of reality, of history even, if these memories can sometimes be changed to a different time and adapted. So any stories you can feel and see are a piece of reality from these memories, if that makes sense.

Has it been difficult to use street theatre and puppets to tell the story of World War I?
It wouldn’t be difficult for me to speak about World War I because I am fascinated by history and I read a lot about the 1914 war. I like to read to understand how those people gave their lives, to die at war, and why they could do it.The First World War was the first major horror and led to the globalisation of the world.

Will the story be a tearjerker, will it make people cry?
I hope so.

Is it true you wanted to buy Mayor Joe Anderson an Irish Setter dog as a gift?
Yes it is true. But the dog may have been unhappy. A dog like that requires a lot of care and big places to run. Maybe the Mayor would be too busy.

The Royal De Luxe boss wanted to buy Joe Anderson one of theseThe Royal De Luxe boss wanted to buy Joe Anderson one of these

 

Liverpool has got an International Slavery Gallery. Would you like to come back to Liverpool with your Black Boy giant?
Yes, that would be something I would like to do. I like the idea. Nantes, as a port city, also has an important story about slavery. But even if Liverpool has a similar story (to Nantes) the giants’ tale would have to go to the roots and the history. You can’t tell the same story.

Do you plan to jump into the river again this time?
No, I’ll try to think of another surprise, maybe flying. When I went into the river, it was a voluntary accident. One of the first creators working in the company since the beginning passed away. So it was very upsetting and very hard. 

So at the end of the show it was a mix up, really sad in a way, but there was also great happiness to see the people of Liverpool and to give all of this joy to all of these people. 

Deaf for three months after thisDeaf for three months after this

It was also in my mind about the loss of a very great friend who was always here creating stories and helping us to create extraordinary stories. So at the end of the show, everything was finished and the girl had gone away to the Mersey.  It was maybe to say au revoir to someone I loved, but maybe also something spontaneous. 

It was also related to the story, about these people from the Titanic and the people who died in the sea like that. In one second I understood this would be the end of the show. So everything got mixed up in my head and I jumped into the Mersey. 

It wasn’t a great risk. I was rescued straight away, but I couldn’t hear anything for three months, So in a way I paid for it. 

Don’t worry I won’t jump into the river this year. But maybe I’ll try to fly from a tall building.