As far as educational television goes, this must be one of the most surreal shows ever made. So surreal, in fact, that a few years ago I wondered whether it had been a weird dream or a figment of my childish imagination.

Les Gammas! Les Gammas!

I asked a French friend if he knew the programme, but he seemed baffled. To make things worse, I recalled an episode in which the dialogue went: “Les Gammas existent. Non, les Gammas n’existent pas.” (The Gammas exist. No, the Gammas do not exist.) – on and on, ad nauseam. 

But an Italian friend reassured me that I wasn’t losing the plot. The TV show did exist. Then someone uploaded the first episode on YouTube – which must have been a relief for a few of my generation.

“Les Gammas! Les Gammas!” is a TV series from the 1970s broadcast in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and various other countries, teaching French as a foreign language.

No wonder my French friend didn’t know it. When I watched it, I was far too young to realise the linguistic-didactic nature of the programme.

The Gammas are aliens who land on Earth – specifically in France. But rather than your typical Martians, they look like prehistoric humans with very long hair, all the way down to their feet.

In spite of their primitive appearance, they have superhuman powers and, above all, they’re very quick at learning to speak French with perfect diction!

The slow and repetitive dialogue makes the programme suitable for beginners and at the same time adds to its grotesque atmosphere.

By learning to communicate with the (French) humans they encounter, these bizarre-looking creatures indirectly become our profs de français.

Indeed, they were my very first French teachers from outer space!