LA ROCHELLE, France -- Three miles off this city's Atlantic coast lies a crumbling Napoleonic fort that has lived through many incarnations -- once an arsenal, once a prison, once a German bombing range, once a playground for a rich French dentist.
None of those past identities is quite as unusual as its current one: An elaborate sound stage for one of Europe's most popular TV game shows. These days, Fort Boyard is best known as the location of "The Game."
This is no ordinary program. Contestants do not answer trivia questions or spin a wheel. They get chased by rats, covered with snakes, clawed by scorpions, threatened with live tigers and are put through a host of indignities.
What's the point? Money. Contestants go through various "adventures" in an elaborate search to decipher clues and hunt down several keys that unlock a treasure chest. So far the biggest jackpot has reached $3.5 million. All the winnings go to charity.
The "actors" -- the dozens of live creatures -- have arrived for their summer shooting schedule. Workers have been toiling through the fort's dungeon-like bowels, installing trap doors and buffing up the cannonballs for dramatic effect.
Apparently, viewers love watching the contestants -- usually strapping celebrity athletes -- immerse themselves in horrifying exercises.
"I'll give you an example of one of the most disgusting ones," says Roch Fortin, a producer for the Swedish television company MTV. In one show a contestant was strapped to a chair and put inside a box full of flies. To see a clue, the contestant had to blow flour off a Ping-Pong ball in the box. "So, you take a big breath," he says, "and you swallow the flies."
The show has proven that, among other things, skin-crawling make-believe torture sells. Television crews from 10 countries battle storm-wracked seas to film their own versions of the show, which airs in 26 markets.
The show is wildly successful in France and this year was the second-most popular program in Sweden. In 1993, it was the most-watched program in the history of Sweden's TV4 network.
That success wasn't duplicated on U.S. shores. Five years ago, ABC aired a Fort Boyard pilot with Cathy Lee Crosby as the host. The show bombed and was roundly criticized as a too-bizarre version of "American Gladiators."
The European version has a similar feel. Spinoffs produced for Spanish audiences put female competitors in bust-enhancing get-ups. The British version opts for more modesty, giving its competitors rubber bras to go with their body armor.
With its spandex-clad athletes and pounding music, the show is one part rock video, one part Dungeons and Dragons. Because of the outlandish set-up and remote location, production doesn't come cheap. Fortin said it cost nearly $1 million to shoot an episode.
From a distance, Fort Boyard looks like a 120-foot-high stone ship. To reach the oval-shaped fortress, camera crews take a large boat to a nearby island called Ile de Re. They then transfer to a small inflatable craft to skim the rocky waters surrounding the fort.
A crane pulls the crews to the top of the fort, in much the same manner that rescue helicopters lift flood victims from swollen rivers.
The idea of building the fort surfaced in the 1600s, but the French did not have the necessary technology until 1801. Construction began three years later and was completed in 1859. By then, advances in munitions had made Fort Boyard obsolete. It was never put to active use.
Later, the government turned Fort Boyard into a prison. The windows of its 66 cells still stare eerily out to sea. The prison was expensive, however, and didn't last. During World War II, German bombers used the fort for target practice. By the 1960s, a dentist bought the place for about $1,000. But in 1989 the French government bought it back for one franc, and by 1991 the first TV program was ready to air.
Preservationists aren't bothered by the historic fort's game-show identity. After all, the show prompted a full-scale restoration of the aging fortress.
" 'The Game' is pretty cool because it saves the fort," says Anja Petiteau, a French maritime historian. After taking many a three-hour trip to reach the fort, she knows every inch of the fort's dark, dreary corridors, which are lighted by the occasional klieg light.
Petiteau believes the show could be headed for greatness if the United States gave it another try. "Just imagine that lady Oprah in a room full of snakes," she says.
The snakes are not poisonous, the spiders are harmless and the tigers are kept in line by a German trainer who feeds them lots of whole turkeys. To date, no one has been seriously injured. Still, the presence of so many beasts on an isolated island can be unnerving. When television guests first arrive, one of the first things they are told is that if they hear roaring when the cameras are not on, they should run to the nearest room and lock the door.
Sometimes the effect of this game is too much for its contestants. A woman from Norway wasovercome with panic after trying to get a clue from a room full of scorpions, says Fortin. The creatures, which had caps glued over their poisonous stingers, still had sharp claws. The woman got scratched, started to bleed and promptly concluded the worst.
"She fainted," Fortin says. "I patted her on the cheek and I said, 'Are you OK?' And she said, 'No I'm not OK. I'm going to die.' What it was, really, was less than a mosquito bite."
Despite its macabre elements, European athletes see the program as good for a career. Professional sailor Magnus Olsson remembers strangers in Sweden recognizing him after he appeared on the program in 1991. The Swedish sailor, who at the time had just completed the grueling Whitbread Round the World Race, took his team on the show. But first, he had to convince them.
He plucked the discarded invitation from the garbage and persuaded his teammates to put on the silver spandex overall costumes for the taping. The team agreed, got into the spirit and won $36,000 Swedish Kroner, more than $4,800.
"They tried to put us in as many disgusting situations as possible, but they got the wrong guys," says Olsson, adding with half-serious machismo, "We never feel fear of the tigers."
His teammates were locked in prison cells, forced to swim through underwater tunnels and sent climbing upside down on the ceiling. Not too pleasant, but great television.
"People here say, 'Don't call me tonight, I'm watching Fort Boyard,' " says Petiteau, the local historian. "Really, one could never imagine getting so involved in a TV game."
Pub Date: 6/17/98