Television can bring art into the living room, but can television be art in itself? Initially, the medium provided a window onto the world, it broadcasted reality. From the mid-1960s onwards, a number of television directors threw themselves into a search for an authentic televisual language. Music was an important catalyst in this search as music requires movement, and new genres such as jazz and beat challenged directors to try and find contemporary ways of visualising them. On television, shows,In the Netherlands ‘show’ is generally known as a television genre. The performing of music is a key ingredient, but a show could also consist of (elements from) circus, vaudeville, comedy, cabaret, revue or other kinds of popular theatrical performances. A show can be broadcast live or prerecorded, with or without a live audience, from a television studio or theatre. pop music programmes and musical theater provided fertile grounds for experiments with audiovisual language from which eventually the music video sprouted. To illustrate this, Liselotte Doeswijk discusses a number of underexposed or underestimated – and often lost – experiments from Dutch television history.
Because very little broadcasting from the early days of Dutch television (the 1950s) was (pre)recorded and thus archived, we will have to make due with television reviews to try and find out what early television would have looked like. In examining these reviews, I came across a striking number of pleas directed to director-producers,In the Dutch television production process up until the 1970s directors also fulfilled most of the tasks of a producer, in Dutch we could call them television creators, but for clarity I will address them as director-producers. Director-producers were employed by one of the broadcasting associations - AVRO, KRO, NCRV, VARA and VPRO - , or by general broadcaster NOS. AVRO, KRO, NCRV, VARA and VPRO represented the interests and ideological or religious views of their members. NOS provided neutral, national programming and also facilitated the production and broadcasting processes for both NOS and the member based broadcasting associations. urging them to make more use of the unique possibilities for visuals, sound, and movement that the new medium offered. These pleas did not fall on deaf ears, as there were indeed a few people working in television who had the ambition to make more of television than simply radio with images, a conduit for theatre, or the banal little brother of cinema. Director-producer Willy van Hemert made courageous attempts, directing a number of so-called ‘television fantasies’. The reviews are full of praise, for instance, one of the fantasies is called an “original” and “characteristic piece of television”. According to this reviewer, “this originality was not in the least due to [the fact that] the medium of television was put to use duly and to its specific nature via suggestive montages, film clips and fragments, and sound effects” (de Volkskrant, 1952).
These are probably the first attempts in the Netherlands to find an authentic form for the medium. But the obstacles in this quest were large and numerous – there was a desperate lack of money, airtime, manpower, equipment, and studio space. It was, according to the annual report on the first experimental period, like wanting to “pole vault with a walking stick”. In spite of Van Hemert’s fantasies and the wishes of television critics, the old media would dictate content and form of the new medium for the time being.
This all started to change around 1960. Economic prosperity led to an explosive increase in the number of households with a television set, stimulating an increase of broadcasting hours, and calling for expansion of production facilities, and an influx of new talent. In this flourishing period opportunities arose for young television directors, and among them Jef de Groot stood out. His second television show in 1958 was already favourably described as “a piece of experimusement” and "particularly well visualised" (Algemeen Handelsblad, 1958). Shortly after that De Groot became the director for the very popular Saturday evening variety show Weekendshow. For this show he teamed up with Jan van der Does, a graphic designer who had until then worked on titles and live animations, and had just made the switch to set design. The Weekendshow was the pinnacle of broadcaster AVRO’s programming.In the pillarized Dutch society of the 1950s and early 1960s, broadcasting association AVRO represented the liberal pillar. The other pilars and corresponding associations were: Catholic KRO, Protestant NCRV, Socialist VARA. The fifth and smallest association, VPRO didn’t represent a pillar but a group of liberal Protestants. AVRO’s programmes focused on genres that appealed to a general audience and thus excelled in entertainment and shows. Saturday evening was reserved for shows and entertainment. In a behind the scenes reportage (Dit is TV AVRO, 6-1-1960) De Groot and Van der Does show us the elaborate set and preparations for the upcoming show, to be broadcast January 9, 1960. Although the content and form of this edition of the Weekendshow is still very much in keeping with existing theatre genres, the immense size of the set and the attention and effort that went into the design of the show, tells us that the era of limitations and obstacles has come to its end.
An era of major changes in the economic, technical, and cultural fields followed; electronics made an entrance into the home and the workplace, man landed on the moon, and social and cultural boundaries shifted. People were optimistic, believing in a better future and, although not necessarily in agreement on what it should look like, they at least agreed that change was a prerequisite for progress. New opinions, art movements, youth culture, and music consequently found their way onto television with relative ease and speed.
This is reflected in the way De Groot's shows developed during the first half of the 1960s. None of these shows have survived, but behind the scenes pictures, reviews and stage designs reveal stylistic and substantive changes. Whereas the Weekendshow in 1960 was still staged in a stylised, slightly frilly village square, Van der Does soon started designing modern, abstract sets with set pieces that functioned as two-dimensional graphics under different types of lighting.Examples can be found here: https://wiki.beeldengeluid.nl/index.php/Gallery:_Jan_van_der_Does De Groot also searched for innovation in the programme's composition, inviting ballet companies and jazz musicians, and he drew inspiration from the themes and cinematography of the French New Wave. When asked what defined the television genre show, De Groot stated that show is: "a combination of different artistic expressions, from theatre, singing, dance, movement, and even the visual arts" ('t Binnenhof, 1962). With the experiments in the Weekendshow he is attempting to modernise Saturday evening television.
De Groot's mixing of genres and art forms was not an effort to make the avant garde more appealing for the television viewer, nor to give his shows an intellectual edge. Instead, what he intented to do with his ‘experimusiment’ was nothing less than elevating the medium of television. By means of finding a unique and distinguished audiovisual language, television could truly become a dignified medium, like theatre or film. Just as Willy Van Hemert had cautiously labelled his attempts as 'fantasies' years before, De Groot and his team also emphasised the experimental character of their efforts. These were to be seen as attempts toward a goal that was still somewhat uncertain.
The reactions to De Groot's programmes from the 1960s were widely divergent, as evidenced in the reviews collected in a liber amoricumThis liber amoricum is a publication designed and curated by Bob Rooyens to pay tribute to the work of Jef de Groot, and features a collections of images, screen snaps, quotes, news paper clippings and anekdotes. by Bob Rooyens in 2001; one reviewer thought them great, the next, terrible. One of the artists with whom De Groot made a number of shows appeared ready for criticism, parrying with, "without experimenting, without restlessly searching for its own form and its own colour, the young medium is already nipped in the bud" (Ton van Duinhoven in Algemeen Dagblad, 1961). Indeed, even critics who disliked De Groots shows, agreed that television must find an authentic form and appreciated his attempts.
De Groot experimented with the synthesis of art forms and devoted a great deal of attention to sets, graphic design, dynamic camera work, montage and direction. Despite this, a unique visual language had yet to be found. There were still obstacles and limitations, such as the absence of colour and lack of efficient prerecording methods. Many of the very elemental special effects and optic techniques possible with celluloid, were unattainable in the 1960s era of live broadcasting. In many regards television was still miles behind.
The missing piece of the puzzle was the discovery of electronic image manipulation. This piece fell into place during the making of the series Hoofdstuk ('Chapter') I to VI, broadcast between 1964 and 1966, of which two shows have been preserved. De Groot produced and directed these with his protégé, the young director Bob Rooyens. In an interview taped at the rehearsals of Hoofdstuk III Rooyens talks about his idea’s for the future of television, "The majority of television viewers consider their television set to be a chocolate box of pleasure in which they like to indulge. We find that annoying; we want to give it a new injection" (AVRO TV-magazine, 1965). This is reflected in the approach of the directors, setting up performing artists in the middle of the studio and letting the cameras travel around and in-between them. Breaking the illusion of the fourth wall, camera operators moved in and out of the frame, and at times the viewers glanced over their shoulders and through their viewfinders. In the other disciplines such as set and lighting design, they also sought people with the mentality to do things differently.
At that time, however, the production protocolThe production protocol was created by the branch of the NOS that facilitated television production for the broadcasting associations. Broadcasting associations provided a director-producer (and assistant) and the content of the programme (a scenario, cast or performing artist), NOS facilitated everything else needed to bring the programme to the screen. The production protocol relegated these tasks to the responsible NOS departments and provided a standardised schedule of deadlines and production meetings, guaranteeing an optimal and efficient use of publicly funded labour, equipment and materials. of the Dutch public production facility stipulated that a director-producer was randomly assigned a set designer and operational crew based on availability. Set designers, lighting technicians, camera operators, and technicians were all supposed to be anonymous, replaceable, and equally good in their job. That was not the case, of course, and this sometimes led to conflicts, especially with the more ambitious producers and directors. De Groot and Rooyens managed to get a number of people of their choosing, who were willing and able to provide the type of ‘new injections’ that Rooyens sought. Thus, in Hoofdstuk II (1965) during a jazz improvisation, set designer Massimo Götz is set loose in the set with a fire extinguisher filled with paint, creating an interesting hybrid of live action painting and a motion smoke machine. In another episode , aired in October 1964, lighting operators Henk de Rover and Ole ter Kuile mount a spotlight onto a track to create moveable lighting, a first for Dutch television.
Hoofdstuk is a synthesis of art forms that illustrates innovative methods of direction, set design, and lighting, but the search for an authentic televisual language is not yet completed. During the preparation of one of the Hoofdstuk shows, Rooyens visites the technician's studio and asks what all the buttons and controls are for, he points to panel of controls and recalls: "to my great delight, the head technician Theo Jansen turned out to be an adventurer who perfectly matched my curiosity. The control panel turned out to be [...] a 'luminance keyer'. On one side was the 'inlay' and the 'overlay' on the other". 'Keying' by means of brightness made it possible to mix moving images directly during live recording to create cross-fades and graphic titles. Rooyens went a step further with this technique by increasing the contrast of his camera images and filling in the black (or white) parts of the image with other moving pictures, photographs, or graphics. His discovery of the capabilities of the luminance keying control panel was nothing less than a revelation for Rooyens. Because the luminance key effect exploited television's electronic nature, he realised that it was an integral step in the creation of an authentic visual language, freeing television from its purely documentary function.
De Groot and Rooyens were the first, but soon not the only ones, to be involved in electronic image trickery and experimental television, but programmes like Hoofdstuk remained exceptional. They were expensive to produce, required longer preproduction time and a carefully assembled crew, and could therefore only be made every few months, if not just once. If this was to be the future of television, the production proces of this new visual language would have to be able to match the fast pace of television production also: it needed to be done faster, cheaper, and more frequent.
In the meantime Dutch youth fell under the spell of pop music. In 1970 weekly programme TopPop starts to cater to their needs. Viewers could send in their five favourite songs by postcard, andTopPop would then broadcast recordings of the most requested songs in the programma. To this end, director-producer Rien van Wijk invites artists to - lip sync - their songs for the television camera’s in the Amsterdam or Hilversum studio’s.
Although there had been regular colour programming since 1976, the first year of TopPop was still in black and white. Broadcaster AVRO was unsure whether a pop music programme aimed a youthful demographic would generate substantial interest and wasn’t keen on investing much. Van Wijk made a virtue of necessity and, together with graphic designer Frans Schupp, created a house style inspired by op art. The programme opened with a fast montage of black and white TopPop logos, photographs, and clips. Schupp designed a simple but dynamic set with spinning op art patterns in which the artists lip synced their songs. The introductory titles and bumpers featured numerous variations on the TopPop logo in striking typography, op art patterns were superimposed or projected over performances and presentation intervals and a letterbox with a collection of strange objects was regularly part of the collage, giving the programme an outspoken, dynamic yet coherent house style.More examples can be found here: https://www.beeldengeluid.nl/tilt
Van Wijk succeeded in bringing international artists to the Netherlands and the show was an instant hit. Therefore, AVRO decided that the second season (1971/1972) could be produced in colour, making it possible to use the new chroma key technique. This effect is somewhat similar to luminance key, where instead of black or white, it electronically separates the three colour channels (RGB: red, green, blue); it can distort these colours, and key them with a secondary image. Schupp uses chroma key to create a new opening sequence for TopPop in which dancer Penney de Jager is multiplied and seems to dance within a life-size TopPop logo.
It soon became apparent that a song could remain in the top five for quite a long time, meaning the programme would have to broadcast the same recording week after week. Van Wijk and Schupp realised that chroma-key could be used to create more variety in the song recordings. Artists performed once in a lavishly designed TopPop set, and once more in a studio that was completely chroma-key blue. Designer Schupp sees a possibility to make the old large, expensive, and inflexible physical sets superfluous. He designs instead several fantasy objects, made in plaster in a size of circa 40 square centimetre. Schupp then intents to key the artists from the chroma-key blue studio directly into these objects.
It is a good idea, but unfortunately rather unfeasible. It turns out to be very difficult to place an artist, and certainly an entire band, exactly in the right place, and within the correct point of view, on the fantasy objects. Switching shots for a close-up for instance, requires retuning the artists with the objects, and editing afterwards. It could be, and was, done in other programmes, but for a weekly show and international artists who sometimes only had an hour to spare, it was too expensive and time consuming. Moreover, at the time the technique was still in primitive stage – the results often had frayed edges (around hair most notably) and shadows that both detracted from the illusion of a 'real' set. Schupp's objects were therefore given a different purpose – photographed, they form the backdrop for the introductory song titles.Examples can be seen here: https://www.beeldengeluid.nl/tilt As for the song recordings, the chroma key blue parts were keyed in with distinctly flat, 2D graphics. Since these were easy to make, Schupp was able to make new sets of graphics for each song. Sometimes the blue is filled-in with recordings of 3D psychedelic imagery – mirror balls, lava lamps, the letterbox, or moving lights. Chroma-key made it possible that each song looked different, while at the same time adhering to the visual style that Schupp and Van Wijk established for each TopPop season.
TopPop attracted remarkably high ratings during its first few seasons but was rarely seen nor discussed as artistic expression. The great merit of the programme lay less in its artistic quality than in its pragmatic application of the elements that formed the new visual language of television. The show proved that chroma key and other experiments with visual language on television were viable. Thanks to its popularity, TopPop normalised the kind of creative visualisations that were still exceptional in the '60s. The link between dynamic, imaginative images and pop music became very natural for a generation of television viewers that grew up with programmes such as TopPop.
Because of its hasty production and sometimes improvisational nature, TopPop does not pass the test of time as well as the Hoofdstuk shows. The democratically chosen songs and consequently rather eclectic musical composition of the show was a hurdle; it was not easy to create a striking house style for TopPop in which all musical genres could come into their own with equal success. The artists obviously noticed this. The most powerful ones or the ones who preferred to control their own image, started making their own audiovisual recordings, duplicated them and sent these to the numerous local pop music shows like TopPop. The music video as we know it was born. Although TopPop remained on television until 1988, the rise of the music video in the second half of the '70s caused it to lose its unique appeal and ratings dwindled.
Music videos are indebted to the experimental pop programmes of the '60s and ‘70s. These illustrated what was possible and music videos pushed those possibilities even further. As a result, the development of audiovisual techniques took a different, more international turn that became increasingly disconnected from local pop music shows like TopPop. But that did not mean that the audiovisual adventure was over for television; the search for a unique televisual language continued through another genre – musical theatre.
Exciting things had been happening in the theatre since the mid-'60s; there too, makers had busied themselves with breaking down barriers, mixing disciplines, and searching for innovations in content and form. Annemarie Prins, for example, used sound recordings and film projections in her plays, and it is therefore not surprising that she was attracted by television. After completing a directing course with a television adaptation of Die Sieben Totsünden (1933) a musical play by Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill (De zeven doodzonden van de kleine burgerman, VPRO, 1970) she immediately became one of the most talked-about television directors in the Netherlands.
Prins had the same techniques at her disposal as the makers of TopPop, enabling her to treat the television screen as a blank canvas. She composed motion collages, combining images from the camera with prerecorded animations and graphics. As with Hoofdstuk and TopPop, this required close collaboration with graphic designers, set designers, light and image technicians and the like. The team that worked with Prins on her graduation work remained mostly loyal to her in the following projects. In 1971 them collectively created the teleplay De legende van de geliefde van de machinist ('The legend of the train driver's lover', VPRO, 1971), which took them no less than five months. Such a far-reaching democratisation of the television production process was, of course, inefficient. The production protocol at the time stipulated a five-week turnaround between the first set consultation and the programme's final recording (TopPop was sometimes made in only a few days). Nevertheless, in the early '70s, conditions were favourable, allowing this kind of exceptional experimentation.
The Netherlands' unique public broadcasting system is host to several broadcasting associations founded on ideology or religion, some of which were interested in progressive television (such as VPRO with Annemarie Prins) and / or popular genres such as show and pop programmes (such as AVRO with Jef de Groot and Bob Rooyens). In addition, the neutral broadcasting organisation NOS was tasked with broadcasting topics of national interest that remained unexplored or that were unfeasible for the other broadcasters, such as the daily television news and sports events, as well as the arts and culture. Jan Venema was in charge of arts and culture at NOS and he reserved broadcasting time and a budget for an arts programme called Eigentijds ('Contemporary'), which was screened around seven times a year between 1968 and 1974. Venema observed “a blurring of the various boundaries between the different art forms. [...] Terms such as 'total theatre', 'total poetry', and 'total music' can be found again and again in today's discussion on art, and we hope that Eigentijds may one day lead to 'total television'" (from the introduction of Eigentijds: Poppetgom, 1969). Apart from a few purchased programmes and some conventional recordings, most broadcasts in the Eigentijds time slot were indeed examples of ‘total television’. In some cases television directors (such as Wilhelmina Hoedeman, Bob Rooyens, and Rob Touber) were given the freedom to create something special. But Venema also invited external parties such as theatre groups, to create or adapt a piece for television with the help of experienced director Fred Bosman.
One of the external parties on Venema's radar was theatre group Scarabee, founded in 1965 and consisting of a number of visual artists who wanted to do something more than just paint and sculpt. Their theatrical pieces occupied the middle ground between theatre and visual art en employed a wide range of innovative, and often quite spectacular, elements. Fata Banana was one of those spectacles, based on a selection of poems and texts by Dutch artist Lucebert, visualised in highly stylised, painterly scenes. An original feature was that the audience was given the ability to choose between two different audio tracks using a switch box and headphones. A few interventions were necessary for televising Fata Banana, firstly that the piece was shortened to half an hour, and secondly that instead of headphones, the play was broadcast on two networks simultaneously, each with a different audio track. When the caption on screen read, "You can now choose", viewers could switch channels.
The reaction to Fata Banana was rather mixed. Some critics understood it as "a satirical view of consumer society" (de Volkskrant, 1971), but the most commonly used adjectives were "confusing" and "bewildering". Critics were, however, unanimous on its "ingenious", "promising", and "razor-sharp" formal language and technical execution. A good example is the scene in which a film with a close up of a white piece of knitting is projected onto the stage and performing actors. As the knitting is pulled out row by row, the actors disappear into the dark background. The effect is reminiscent of Bob Rooyens' use of image contrast in Hoofdstuk, manipulating parts of the televised image with the luminance keyer. At moments like this, Fata Banana seems to parody the visual language of television. But while the use of televisual imagery in the theatre was amusing and surprising, on television these effects fell flat. It turned out that musical theatre could not simply be translated into a 2D medium, and technically-minded theatre makers were not necessarily good at making television programmes.
Still, Fata Banana is interesting in regard to music videos for two reasons. Firstly, its element of interactivity – in a live concert or performance, there is interaction between fans and artist, while television viewers have a more passive role. Fata Banana viewers regained a bit of interaction by flicking between channels, similarly TopPop viewers were active in their choosing of the songs for the programme. The addition of interaction is also important to later music video culture; by the 2000s, you could request videos on MTV and The Music Factory (a Dutch channel devoted to music (videos’s), operated between 1995-2011) through text messages, and nowadays the genre flourishes on platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo where users (helped by algorithms) decide for themselves what they choose to see.
The second reason why musical theatre like Fata Banana can be seen as a source of inspiration, or a prelude for the music video has to do with staging. Despite the experiments with form in Hoofdstuk and TopPop, these programmes remained focused on the performing artist, the elemental setup was based on the classic stage performance. Musical theatre in the vein of Fata Banana proved that music could be visualised differently, without depicting singers, instruments, or dancers, but via small narrative scenes, associative streams of images or poetic collages.Filmmakers such as Oskar Fischinger and Mary Ellen Bute pioneered years earlier with abstract visualisations of music. As these kinds of productions were created on celluloid and not broadcast on television, nor widely seen and popularised, and therefore emitted here. Hoofdstuk and TopPop explored the visual language and techniques that could be used to visualise performances, whereas musical theatre explored the possibilities of visualising music, rhythm and atmosphere.
Television and music videos
'Total television', such as the teams of Annemarie Prins and Studio Scarabee made, flourished briefly in the '70s partly thanks to Eigentijds, and could be seen on television from time to time until the '80s, when space for these kinds of programmes became increasingly limited. Audience ratings became more important as a fierce competition broke out between broadcasting organisations, with only VPRO still prepared to broadcast these kinds of expensive, time-consuming, and not very popular programmes. Budget cuts in the 1980s made it increasingly difficult for broadcaster NOS to act as a patron of television art. Meanwhile, the rise of music videos meant that exciting musical visualisations moved from regular programming to dedicated music channels such as MTV, rendering shows and pop programmes such as Hoofdstuk and TopPop superfluous. Television turned from a laboratory for explorations in a new audiovisual language, to a mere conduit of reality once again. In contrast, the music video as a domain for experimentation and innovation is flourishing like never before.
Read and see more
Watch TILT: TopPop, videoclips avant la lettre from the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision
TopPop performances can be seen on AVROTROS' TopPop YouTube channel
Watch TILT: The groundbreaking Eurovision Song Contest sets of Roland de Groot, at the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision
Read more about television design at vormvanvermaak.nl
bobrooyens.com, personal website of Bob Rooyens.
B Rooyens, Jef de Groot. Brügemann (2001).
R Groothuizen, Avro's TopPop. Tirion (1999).
Interviews and correspondence between Frans Schupp and the author.
delpher.nl, Dutch newspaper archive.
Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision collection.