Léo Ferré, Georges Brassens & Jacques Brel: Television Representations, Past and Present

Chris Tinker (University of Birmingham, c.g.tinker@bham.ac.uk)

Léo Ferré, Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel are the singer- songwriters who epitomise what is now widely regarded in France as the golden era of chanson française during the 1950s and 1960s.1 Their iconic status is maintained, as successive anniversaries of their deaths continue, year in year out, to generate media coverage, as well as lucrative book releases and record re-issues. Both the French music industry and the mass media have contributed enormously to overall public perceptions of these singer-songwriters, both during their careers and since their deaths. All represent in different ways the constraints, especially political and commercial, which television places upon the star performer.

This article attempts to discuss the ways in which French television packages Ferré, Brassens and Brel for the audience, and how it has contributed over the years to establishing and maintaining their presence within the public domain. We demonstrate in particular how Brassens and Brel may be categorized as different types of star construct, using Richard Dyer's system of classification. Although Ferré was largely excluded from television during the 1950s and 1960s, for reasons explained later, it is still possible to talk about him in terms of TV representation. Having considered Ferré, Brassens and Brel as living stars, we will finally discuss the televisual strategies which are currently being employed in order to re-construct these dead stars, and to keep them alive within the collective consciousness of France.

The extent to which one can build up a picture of Ferré, Brassens and Brel depends on the existence and availability of recordings on disc or audio/video tape. Specific reference will be made to filmed concert and documentary footage, drawn from commercial or off-air video recordings, as well as archive/documentary material such as that located at the Fondation Brel in Brussels, and the Institut National de l'Audiovisuel (INA) in Paris. This material mainly takes the form of one-to-one and panel interviews, as well as performances, filmed in the music hall, the tv studio, or on location.


1) Television as Censor: Ferré as Rebel

The performance of songs on radio and televison was just one of several areas of cultural and artistic production in France which were subject to heavy-handed, Gaullist State censorship during the 1950s and 1960s.2 Even if singer-songwriters managed to release their records onto the market, the national broadcasting authority, then RTF (Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française), and its successor, the ORTF (Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française), along with le Ministère de l'Information and the 'Enarques', high ranking civil servants, would ultimately determine the amount of air time granted to potential enemies of the State. Almost a half of Brassens's songs between 1952 and 1964 were banned fom the airwaves by the RTF, for their content, either because they attacked the police and the judiciary, or because they were considered indecent.

Although State-run television, which took off in France during the sixties after a relatively slow start, was initially dismissed by the intellectual elite, De Gaulle in particular recognized the potential of television for forming public opinion. For example, Cinq Colonnes à la Une was used to make the general public accept the decolonization of Algeria.3 De Gaulle evidently realised that he had to dominate the audiovisual media to help establish the Fifth Republic and strengthen his own position as its head.

Ferré, Brassens and Brel were writing during an important period of transformation in French culture and society, as well as in other Western countries, when traditional values and modes of thinking were increasingly challenged. Any chansons de contestation were perceived at best as a thorn in the side of the State, at worst as a potential focus for social discontent. The ORTF urged programme makers to avoid playing songs of a political nature, claiming that such sensitive issues could be dealt with much more responsibly by established current affairs programmes. Jean Ferrat, who belonged to the same generation of singer-songwriters as Ferré, was a notable victim of political censorship by the State: he was allowed to sing, but not speak during his 1969 appearance on Invité du Dimanche. His communist sympathies were too controversial and revolutionary, particularly in the run-up to and aftermath of the 'events' of May 68. Indeed, following his TV performance of Ma France (1969), a song in which he summed up all that he detested in contemporary life in France, the production crew were fired and Ferrat was effectively banned from appearing on French television for two years.

As for Ferré, his exclusion from the airwaves during the sixties is made all too apparent by the lack of archive footage of his performances. Ferré's particularly outspoken and controversial views, such as his opposition to the Algerian war,4 aroused hostility not only from the Gaullist State, but also from the music industry and the intellectual community. Ferré recalls how TV controller, Jean-Pierre Elkabbach, banned Ferré from performing live on television.5 Despite being subject to this gagging order, Ferré affirms his commitment to free expression through his own songs. One particular song which illustrates Ferré's antagonistic relationship with the medium is the satirical Complainte de la Télé (1966). Personifying French television as a prostitute touting for business, the narrator attacks the controllers of the medium from which he is excluded, and opposes the creation of a 'télécratie', that is, a government by television.6

Ferré cannot resist insulting the faceless ministers, 'les ministres oc- CULtes', who manipulate the medium of television. He alludes in particular to the censorship of television during the Ben Barka affair when Medhi Ben Barka, leader of the Union nationale des forces populaires du Maroc was kidnpapped in Paris in 1965, on the orders of the Morocan Ministry of Interior and with the collaboration of the French Intelligence Service and the Security Police. Ferré also questions the reliability and objectivity of 'serious' current affairs programmes, such as Cinq colonnes à la une, and Face à face.

Not only is politically motivated censorship exposed by Ferré, but also that which takes place on the grounds of taste and moral decency. The song contains a reference to le carré blanc, a white rectangle displayed in the corner of television screens to denote viewing deemed unsuitable for younger viewers.7

Ferré also derides the so-called civilising mission of the government to democratize culture in which traditional forms of 'high culture' such as literary reviews, Lecture pour tous, as well as French classical theatre were the order of the day. He singles out Henry de Montherlant (1868-1971), novelist, dramatist, and member of the Académie Française, who exemplified his distaste for the literary establishment. Montherlant was also probably a suitable object of derision for Ferré since he was put on the list of banned writers for a short time after the war, although allegations of him collaborating with Nazi Germany were never substantiated.

Whilst mocking the prescriptive and patronizing attitude of television controllers who supposedly know best what the public wanted to watch - a good dose of 'highbrow TV' - Ferré is also concerned by a growing trend at the opposite end of the spectrum towards down-market, low- brow television. Through a series of allusions to popular entertainment programmes and presenters, television is held responsible for killing off more traditional cultural venues such as music-hall. Ferré takes a swipe at Intervilles, the popular 1960s French version of the European game show, Jeux sans frontières, recently revived, as well as at the French TV legend, presenter, Guy Lux.

In a somewhat Orwellian scenario, television becomes the opium of the masses, 'un' morphin' qui endort la république', designed to remove the critical faculties of viewers, and to think and speak for them.8 For Ferré, state-run television oscillates between the extremes of high- and low-brow, and ultimately neither reflects nor fulfils the real needs of audiences. In short, La Complainte de la Télé is, to a large extent, emblematic of Ferré's own bitter experience at the hands of state-controlled television during the 1950s and 1960s.

Although largely absent from television during this period, Ferré did appear more often during the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in news reports, when he was promoting a new album or a concert tour. Ferré would no longer represent a threat to the State, given that 1968 was at a safe distance, and that the paysage audiovisuel français was itself increasingly subject to the forces of deregulation. He would be regarded as something of a curiosity, a relic of a bygone age, a soixante-huitard attardé, who would nevertheless command a certain amount of respect, by virtue of his longevity as well as his visceral attachment to his anarchist principles.

While Ferré was an unfortunate casualty of media censorship, especially in the run up to the events of 1968, when he would have been perceived by the state as being at his most subversive, television did provide a forum during the 1960s for both Brassens and Brel to gain recognition from a wider audience, beyond the confines of the cabaret or music-hall.

Brassens, unlike Ferré, was allowed to engage in televised political debate, for example, opposing Jean Ferrat's Communist sympathies with his own personal brand of anarchy.9 Although Brassens's views are forthright, they do not represent a direct attack against the state, whereas Ferré's brand of anarchy advocated insurrection and revolution. Brassens's pure definition of anarchy would seem relatively innocuous, given its emphasis on individualism and non-participation within society.

As for Brel, his political activism focused on his own French-speaking Belgian background, and on a country divided over its national identity. Brel's homeland provided the inspiration of a number of songs exploring what he describes in interview as his belgitude.10 Brel launched a particularly vitriolic attack against Flemish extreme nationalists, les Flamingants. Although Brel's remarks caused outrage in Belgium, they did not represent to the authority of French State in any way. If anything, they would serve to reinforce Brel's image as a curious or even exotic Belgian other.


2) Television as Star Vehicle: Brassens and Brel as Stars

While television constructs both Brassens and Brel as politicians, it also packages them as intellectuals and artists, rôles which are inscribed deeply, particularly within French culture. They are also represented broadly according to two opposing star categories: both star-as-special and star-as-ordinary, terms used by Richard Dyer in film criticism.11 Brassens and Brel combine formality and informality, work and play, the public and the private.

An example of this duality (star-as-ordinary/star-as-special) can be seen in footage which depicts Brel as a relatively inexperienced newcomer, as he makes the transition from his father's cardboard box factory in Brussels to the bright lights of Paris.12 As Brel's career takes off, the emphasis moves towards his special star status. Although Brel may appear to depend to a large extent on the medium, with time and experience, he collaborated with professionals in the TV industry, making a series of promotional films, forerunners of the video clip. These would make his song performances more visually appealing to audiences. For example, in Regarde bien petit, Brel, dressed like a caveman, stands on open, rugged moorland, wearing a bear skin and long-hair as he observes a mysterious figure in the distance, approaching on horseback. Brel also uses the television studio to create a suitable setting for Je suis un soir d'été, a critique of embourgeoisement, one of his recurrent themes. An oppressive atmosphere is generated as the camera moves around, observing groups of individuals from various social categories who maintain fixed poses like wax dummies. Brel, meanwhile, distances himself physically from these scenes and passes comment upon them.13

Television also captured, and mediated some of Brel's most celebrated music-hall performances, a process which reinforces his special star status. For example, the title sequence for Brel's televised 1966-67 concert tour includes the singer's name flashing in neon lights, stills of his stage acrobatics, and a triumphant instrumental version of Amsterdam, one of his most famous songs.14 Brel's rise to star status was effectively assured when he decided suddenly to stop touring in 1968. His 'adieux' at the Olympia music hall produced a massive outpouring of affection, particularly from his audiences and fans.15

When Brel stopped touring, he could finally indulge in his passions for sailing and flying. In Michel Polac's literary review, Bibliothèque de poche (1968), Brel is interviewed on board his yacht.16 The images of leisure in the documentary would tend to suggest that Brel conforms to the star as special type.17 However, although sailing may denote the financial wealth which is often associated with star status, in Brel's case, it is rather more symptomatic of a genuine need to experience life to the full. 'Aller voir' and 'vivre debout' became Brel's watchwords. If anything, Brel, the adventurer, tries to cultivate/manufacture an ordinary, down-to earth image in Polac's programme. At the same time, the Polac documentary portrays Brel as an intellectual as he discusses his own literary tastes at length: Brel identifies with the great heros of Spanish and German literature, such as Don Quichotte,18 and Til Eulenspiegel, who he regards as positive role models, because they live life to the full, rather than succumb to embourgeoisement, a recurrent them in his songs.

Like Brel, Brassens cultivates a star as ordinary image.19 Although, as the performer, he is centre of attention, the star-as-special, he also creates the feeling that he is one of the people/audience, the star-as- ordinary and authentic. The television studio constitutes a forum where reality and fiction become blurred. Brassens also emphasizes his rôle as star-as-ordinary through the repeated use of visual motifs: the pipe, the moustache, the cats, the guitar, which are rich in conotative meaning. They help to reinforce and authenticate Brassens's Southern, working class identity, and contribute generally to creating his gentle, avuncular image.20 There exists quite a lot of material of both Brel and Brassens rehearsing either at home or in the music hall, which serves to identify them both as ordinary, and as professional artists who work both according to their own individual method.

As we have seen, television constructs and packages Brel and Brassens as various types of star, both star-as-special or star-as-ordinary. Brel plays the star-as-ordinary card, albeit a bourgeois ordinariness, at the beginning of his career with a view to gaining eventual star-as-special status. Brassens tends more to combine the roles of star as ordinary (working class) with star as special fairly consistently throughout his career. The fact that Brassens and Brel were both portrayed as special and as ordinary, reflects the contradictory nature of the relationship which they cultivated with their television audience. On the one hand, the televising of their music hall performances made them distant, unattainable, separate from the masses, even superior; on the other, footage of them at home or at leisure would bring them closer to and make them almost one of the audience.

Having identified the various ways in which television either excludes or promotes Ferré, Brassens and Brel throughout the course of their careers, we shall finally consider how they are reconstructed following their deaths.


3) Reconstructions: Television as Commemoration

The deaths of Ferré, Brassens, and Brel represent a crucial moment in the history of their television presentation as they effectively enter the pantheon of French song, and their iconic status is confered. While their funerals constitute huge media events, so do the successive anniversaries of their deaths. 1998 is, for example, the twentieth anniversary of the death of Brel. INA, the French audio-visual archives, along with documentary makers have played an essential rôle in this reconstruction. Biographically oriented documentaries on Brassens, Brel and even Ferré form part of a series, Les Lumières du music-hall, broadcast almost daily on the education channel, La Cinquième. These often tend to assume simplistically that the singer-songwriter and the narrative voice in each of his songs are one and the same.

The documentary makers use their creative skills in order to repackage the work of a given singer. Archive footage serves a practical purpose, used to accompany a song if, for example, an actual performance by the artist is not available. It is also intended to illustrate the general themes of a given song. Often, however, the lyrics of a song bear little relation to the images on screen. For example, Brel's La Chanson des vieux amants, a song in which an ageing couple look back on their relationship with all of its ups and down, is accompanied curiously by footage of a forlorn looking young woman, pursued relentlessly by the camera, an archetypal male gaze.21 Similarly, the historical footage of war-time France which accompanies Brel's Mai 40, a song which expresses his horror of war, presents a wilfully false, nostalgic view of this period.22 Some of the archive footage, found in documentaries, is distracting to say the least. The cross-cutting of archive library footage with film of Brel's performances is designed to break up any feelings of monotony which the viewer may experience. This is rather strange, if not ill-judged, since most of Brel's stage performances were far from monotonous.23

As a whole, such documentaries help to canonize the work of the singer-songwriters and root them within the collective memory. They also reinforce the notion of a distinctive tradition of chanson française, one which is worth preserving, especially against the threat of Anglo-Saxon cultural imperialism, which has been opposed recently through a series of protectionist quotas. Although such programming may celebrate the work of an individual author, together, they may have an homogenizing effect, in which Ferré, Brassens and Brel become, quite literally, one in a series.

The second type of programming used to preserve the memory of the singer-songwriters is symptomatic of the wave of nostalgia which swept French television during the 1990s.24 Involving new and established figures from the world of chanson, these programmes often include anecdotal panel discussion and interviews, or song performances. Pascal Sevran's La Chance aux chansons continues most weekday afternoons on France 2 to remember figures such as Ferré, Brassens and Brel. Ferré, as a dead star, is now fully reintegrated and remembered through rose tinted glasses, now that he no longer poses any kind of threat or focus for social discontent. New, younger generations of singers pay tribute to les grands classiques by performing cover versions of their songs. For example, Sting performs Brel's Je ne sais pas in France 2's Taratata.25 Sting's performance is appreciated by the French-speaking audience who see him (and his accent) as an exotic other. The audience are also flattered that he is paying respect to Brel, an icon who embodies French-speaking culture. Not only does someone of Sting's international status contribute to the canonization of Brel, but his performance serves to reinforce his own status as a 'thinking', intellectual pop star, given that Brel is often generally perceived in the English-speaking world as high-brow and sophisticated.

While the television commemoration of these dead icons appears, in a sense, to constitute an act of generosity, at the same time, the motives of the broadcasters are less innocent than they may first appear. Responding to political and commerical pressures, they must fulfil their legal obligation to promote a distinctive French musical heritage, and also recognize the power of nostalgia to pull in large, prime-time audiences.

While this survey of how television excludes, promotes, and commemorates Ferré, Brassens and Brel has a relatively small focus, it illustrates how the medium, even when deregulated, adopts a distinct agenda which is political, and eventually, commercial. Each artist may benefit professionally and financially as a result of television coverage, but his relationship with the small screen can be considered, at best, as one of mutual exploitation.


Notes and references

  1. Although each of these auteurs-compositeurs-interprètes developed his own individual style of song-writing and performance, their association was cemented, somewhat artificially, by their one and only, much hyped 1968 interview together with François-Roger Cristiani. See Cristiani, F.-R., Brassens, Brel et Ferré réunis pour la première fois, radio programme, RTL 1969, published in the French magazine, Rock et Folk, n.25, February 1969. These three giants of chanson have effectively been immortalized in the nostalgic, black-and-white group portrait (Jean-Pierre Leloir, 1969), taken during this media event, now widely available in postcard and poster form.
  1. Other notable victims of censorship include Paul Carpita whose film, Le Rendez-vous des quais, was banned from 1955 until 1980 for depicting dockers from Marseilles who refused to dispatch military supplies for use in the Indochina war. Henri Alleg's book, La Question, which contained accusations of torture during the Algerian War, was censored in 1958. Such was the level of media censorship that journalist Maurice Clavel, in a famous outburst, stormed out of a television interview in 1970.
  1. See Kuhn, R., The Media in France, Routledge 1995, p.119.
  1. See, for example, Ferré's Les Temps Difficiles (1961). Such was the opposition to Ferré's stance on Algeria that the OAS, L'Organisation armée secrète, staunch defenders of l'Algérie française during the decolonization of the 1950s and 1960s, bombed the Alhambra music hall (Paris) in 1961, shortly before he was due to go on stage.
  1. See Bravo, C, Merci et encore Bravo, Antenne 2, 1991.
  1. Kuhn, ibid.
  1. See the satirical poster, 'Pas de rectangle blanc pour un peuple adulte - indépendance et autonomie de l'ORTF'' in Forbes, J. & Kelly, M,. eds., French Cultural Studies: an introduction, OUP 1995, p.187.
  1. A view reminiscent of that expressed by R. Vaneigm in opposition to the optimism of A. Touraine, See Rigby, B., Popular Culture in Modern France, Routledge 1991, pp.79-87.
  1. See Worms, P., Georges Brassens, television documentary, 1990.
  1. See, for example, Le Plat pays (1962) and Il neige sur Liège (1965).
  1. Dyer, R., Stars, London, BFI Publishing, 1979/1998, p.49.
  1. See Brel interviewed by presenter, Jacqueline Joubert, in Mesnil, C., Brel, un cri, RTBF 1985.
  1. For both Regarde bien petit and Je suis un soir d'été, see Santelli, C, Jacques Brel à Bruges, 1975.
  1. See Marouani, P., Jacques Brel: Olympia 1966-67.
  1. See Kirgener, C, & Sallée, A., Brel: Quinze années d'amour, GMT/Antenne 2, 1988.
  1. See Polac, M,. Bibliothèque de poche (Jacques Brel), 1968.
  1. See Dyer, op.cit., pp.38-48, for a discussion of stars, success and images of sport and leisure.
  1. Brel starred as Don Quixote in L'Homme de la mancha (1968), a French version of the American musical, Man of Mancha written by Dale Wasserman, Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion.
  1. See the clip of Brassens, singing La Marche nuptiale surrounded by his real-life copains in Worms, op.cit.
  1. See ibid.
  1. See Rossif, F, Jacques Brel, Pouchenel 1982.
  1. Ibid.
  1. See ibid. an example of this cross-cutting technique in Brel's Rosa.
  1. eg. TF1's Salut les Copains, based on the popular 1960s Europe no. 1 radio show.
  1. See Legouar, Jean-Jacques, Taratata Spécial Jacques Brel, France 2,