History and Tv in Belgium

by Muriel Hanot

Public channels.

In the first years of Belgian television, the French speaking managers didn’t believe that they could compete with French TV. So they completed the programme schedule by relaying the signal from Paris. Most of the RTB programmes were until 1956: La caméra explore le temps or historical fictions like Thierry la Fronde. The place of French channels in the French speaking Community is so important that nowadays they attract as large an audience as RTBF and RTL-TVi.

On the Flemish side, things were different: the BRT managers believed in the power of the new media and thought that television could familiarize Flemish people with their cultural heritage and launched home-made news and fictional dramatics, inspired by Flemish literature or by popular culture of the past:

Schipper naast Mathilde (Master after Mathilde, 1955) was broadcasted until 1963. It numbered 185 episodes. The story was located in a small village in the past and told the comic adventures of a retired and obstinate boatman who lived together with his sister Mathilde. The series glorified the quiet life in the village and the simplicity of its inhabitants.

Jeroom en Benzamien (Jerome and Benjamin, 1965) was a series based on a book written by Ernest Claes, a well-known Flemish author. It told the story of retired butchers.

Wij, Heren van Zichem (We, the Lords of Zichem) was produced in 1969. It was also based on Claes’ work. It was the chronicle of the life of a small village, evoking struggles between nobility and peasants, between generations and between Catholicism and socialism. The linguistic dispute is also discussed by a specific character.

19 of the 32 series broadcasted during the time of the Flemish public television monopoly are located in the past, almost in the first half of the twentieth century. 15 of these series are literary adaptations. They show rural landscape, poor but courageous people who are able to overcome their bad fortune through hard work.

Until the middle of the nineties, history was typically part of the public service broadcasting (RTBF) in the French speaking part of Belgium. The general-interest channel was born in 1953. In 1964, it broadcast what is considered the first series devoted to history, made fifty years after that the events happened: 14-18: Le Journal de la Grande Guerre intended to report chronologically, in episodes of half an hour, the major facts of the conflict by mixing up pedagogical presentations and interviews of witnesses. It ended in 1968 with the episode 126.

30 years after this experience, public service, which had lost its state monopoly in 1987 with the beginning of RTL-TV, did the same with the Second World War evoked monthly in Jours de guerre from 1990 to 1995. The technical means had evolved but Jours de guerre made of interviews, reports, reconstructions and archives not departed much from 14-18”. Historians took part in the direction of the TV production completed by a radio broadcast.

The programme was replaced by Jours de paix, then by a monthly magazine, Les années belges which, using archives, witnesses and sometimes interviews of specialists, evoked events that had marked the history of Belgium during its last fifty years, sometimes in relation with current events or commemorations. It disappeared in 2005 without being replaced. In that kind of programmes the heroes are generally collective, they are a city, a region, or a nation (the anonymous men that make the city, the region, the nation) or, if individuals, they are one among many other, they can die but their death leads to liberation, they have mistakes but they succeed… Their story is in keeping with many other ones. All individualities together build history. Most of the time, all individual characters or groups of characters are acting in a collective way. Commemorative celebrations usually point out some individuality. They are invited to talk about the commemorated event and their feelings about. They are living witnesses. They are heroes not only because of the way they acted or the things they lived, but also because they have a duty of collective memory.

Some typical programmes were:

  • the end of war and the post-war period (Hiroshima la bombe des Belges, Auschwitz : témoigner, une nécessité,  L’Ardenne sinistrée appelle au secours, Dernier Noël de guerre, War brides, 40 ans de la Fondation Maeght )
  • the colonial times (L’expo: La mémoire du Congo, le temps colonial, confrontation de mémoires),
  • national political history including the linguistic split (La fin de l’histoire , autour du 175ème anniversaire du pays, La frontière des langues ),
  • past society events (La Croix-Rouge a 140 ans, National lottery),
  • Belgian particular figures (Lambert Molitor, le Persan),
  • international events in which Belgians had played a part (Une base arrière : Toussaint 54 : une série d’attentats secouent l’Algérie; Ces Euros que vous ne verrez jamais ).

School TV that began in 1963 and declined in the seventies used educational methods to evoke traditional aspects of history (old, medieval and modern history). In 1967 it won an international prize with Ce que César n’a pas dit aux Gaulois (What Caesar didn’t say to the Gauls”).

In the sixties and seventies, the public service broadcasting launched also Entre-deux guerre, stylistically akin to 14-18 then 25 ans après, critical analysis of the end of Second World War on the basis of documents produced by BBC and Sous l’Occupation (1971-1972) wich reused critically German original newreels in Belgium during the Second World War. Cinéma du Dr Goebbels did it in the same way. In 1972-1973there was a series on the cold war (La guerre froide).

In the eighties, beside a lot of home-made documentaries on the Second World War, RTBF broadcasted Inédits (“Unpublished”), documentary series devoted to everyday life between 1930 and 1950. It was made of amateur silent films shot at the time and commented by the “maker” or someone of his relatives. It was a “subjective” discovery of the middle-class and its activities during this era which took the viewers everywhere (China, Congo, Lille, the air and so on). It disappeared in the nineties when its producer retired. In 1980 it launched 1830. Chronique imaginaire d’une révolution (1830. Imaginary news on a revolution), as part of the 150th anniversary of the country. It presented historical facts like TV news, with false interviews, false reports but period iconography.

In 1984, RTBF translated and broadcast a 1982 Flemish programme produced by BRT, the Flemish public broadcasting service, Ordre nouveau, which investigated on the collaboration years and interviewed one of its main Belgian figures, Léon Degrelle.

At the end of the eighties and in the beginning of the nineties extremely popular Quiz-shows titled Double 7 and Forts en tête (Strong minded, lasted until 2005) used patrimonial reference to entertain “intelligently” the public.

In 1992 and 1993 RTBF broadcast Ces années-là, compilation of hits taken from its archives. On the Flemish side, BRT did the same with Histories.

By the end of the nineties, L’Europe de la Toison d’or (Golden Fleece Europe), co-produced by BRT and RTBF mixed up period iconography and contemporary images to reconstruct past centuries. In the nineties, a restructuring plan cut back the spending of RTBF. Advertising encouraged broadcast of more commercial programmes and history disappeared from the public service. Only a patrimonial and tourist broadcast La roue du temps  that talked from time to time about medieval history remained until 2004. History slipped to specialised channels. The public service kept commemorative reports and prestige documentaries bought to other channels or production societies. In 2004 a fictitious documentary called Roi blanc, caoutchouc rouge, mort noire (White King, red rubber, black death) produced by Peter Bate (Periscoop Productions) revisited a dark side of Belgian national colonialism. That documentary featured a fictitious court of justice that judged King Leopold II with prosecution witnesses. It was broadcasted on both RTBF and VRT (the new name of the Flemish public service broadcasting).Facing controversy, RTBF warned viewers before launching the programme and organised a debate with specialists.

In 2006 RTBF launched Moi, Belgique, a narrative TV series told by a French speaking national star, Annie Cordy, who introduced an emotional tune in the programme. There were heroes, mysteries and twists to tell, in seven episodes, the periods that lead from the birth of the nation to present identity problems.

Since 2003, RTBF revisits its archives by rerunning them on the second channel of the public service (“Zoom arrière” / “Zoom out”). After the broadcast, the director, the producer (or a journalist) comment the context and the content of the programme. Fictional series or films have often been broadcast on the public service as on commercial channels. But they weren’t produced home: RTB(F) has never invested in such expensive productions

Commercial channels

No similar attention is paid to history on French-speaking commercial channels. RTL-TVi broadcasts major external productions on World War two, (documentaries or fictions) and commemorates Belgian events in a mixture of information and entertainment.

In 2007, RTL-TVi celebrated its twentieth anniversary with RTL-TVi 20 ans, rerun of its most popular programmes.

Other commercial channels (AB3, AB4) that appeared in 2001 and 2002 do not mention history, except by broadcasting external productions like the French Les enfants de la television.

Pay-TVs (BeTV and Belgacom TV) propose thematic history channels: Toute l’histoire on Be T,V, Histoire on Be TV and Belgacom TV. Their audience is limited because of the small impact of this broadcasting which is complementary to the basic cable.

Local TV

The landscape would not be complete if we did not mention the 12 local channels of the French-speaking Community. Those are private but have public remit. Born between 1970 and 1980 they have developed local information programmes and broadcast home-made production with patrimonial intent. Many broadcast programmes devoted to historical views such as quiz-shows, reports, commemorations, rerun productions, commented archives… For example, Antenne Centre TV broadcasts a game called La mémoire des rues (“Streets’ memory”) that explores the past of streets of the country; TV Lux has produced a documentary series called La Bataille des Ardennes (The battle of Ardennes), Télé Mons-Borinage broadcasts a magazine called Quartier d’histoire, histoire de quartier (Districts of history, history of district”) that travels through different district of the region. All the 12 local channels treat history on their particular way: subjects are always of local interest and because of their lack of means, they often use iconography, investigation, interview specialists or witnesses and rerun some of their own productions. So historical programmes look like report magazines based on oral history.


History seems to have disappeared from the Belgian audiovisual landscape. It has been replaced by sporadic current affairs reports (related to very contemporaneous history) and by commemorative celebrations. The phenomenon seems to be due to financial options (historical documentaries or serials have high costs for small audiences and are not valuable on international audiovisual markets). It is also indicative of a bigger interest in memory than in history. For oldest channels it points a new way of commercialising their own archives.

If we except their participation in the writing of series like Jours de guerre, historians were seldom invited at TV: they intervened in debates like Ecran témoin (until 2004) that followed a film on a specific theme, sometimes a historical one, or commented some news reports that treated from time to time a historical matter. Interventions of experts asked to explain the facts on the basis of pictures and sounds they comment are quite unusual. The only debate (Witness Screen) has been replaced by discussions in studio about old programmes broadcasted integrally just before (Zoom out). Commentary is the most common formula. In the oldest programmes voice over was generally a peremptory and anonymous one. Recent programmes use more friendly or inquiringly voices. Commentaries are often playing with other narrative accounts. The most frequent (past and present) is the inquiry of a journalist who questions witnesses, actors, specialists and shows pictures or original footage. The commentator is a journalist that reports on his work.

Fiction is predominant on the Flemish side. Reconstructions give the impression that the story unfolds before spectators. Some programmes rerun entirely TV documents. History (memory) is told just like it is happening with our own eyes. In Années belges, this look at the past is reinforced by the addition of a musical hit in the background.

Historical games are also successful when they evoke local traditions. Nonetheless these games seem not to be exportable considering the local interest that they are mobilising. Quizzes like “Streets’ memory” that focus on very specific and local anecdotes (linked to the region where the local channels are based) are not broadcast on other local channels.

Europe is often seen only as a political instrument. Political topics are usually considered boring. So the snapshots at events that were decisive for Europe could be interesting to all viewers provided they were not only political. Topic of European transmigrations could be integrated in these events, as well as the topic of wars, social events, and acts of political leaders.

Oral history is a necessary material, it enlivens history, makes it closer to everybody’s life. The docudrama could be a good way to attract viewers. This kind of story allows to follow easily history as a story. It could be easier to build a serial.

Serious debates seem not to be adequate. They are followed by few people in Belgium. But entertainment evenings (commemorative ones) that are illustrated by bits of archives or reports are quite well followed.

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