My odd experience of Dutch Television
http://uk.imdb.com/name/nm0108468/ This should go to my IMDb page
Packed my bags, picked up the big envelope that arrived by post, got in the car and drove to the Ferry for the Netherlands.
Sat in the ferry and read the 'new' set of scripts. Sadly the once tight, well written scripts I had agreed to direct had been transformed into slow, boring, somewhat amateur pieces that should never see light of day on a tv screen. Wondering if I should be involved in something so amateur I drove to the producers office.
Julie van Hermat - a charming lady who had been a production manager in films said that the 'bosses' in Aalsmere had decided the new scripts were better! What bosses I asked - in vain!
During the next weeks I received 18 further total re-writes of Episode One and 3 re-writes of episode two. To my amusement the 19th re-write was written by an ex journalist called Bert van de Vere (I think that was his name) He had been paid to sit in a Greek Island, smoke a pipe and write :- she comes into the room and sits by the window. she wanders into the kitchen and makes cup of coffee. She picks up a picture and begins slowly to masturbate. The scene then carried on exactly as written - a discussion between the woman and her husband about the price of pizzas!
If it had not been so 'sad' I would never have stopped. To be fair Bert vd-whatever - had never written a script in his life and had never been involved in a drama production so I suppose it was a 'brave' effort, if somewhat flawed.
What was even funnier was that each time a new re-write came in total new scripts were sent out to the actors who were due to start rehearsals.
I was faced with 19 versions of ep 1 and 4 versions of Ep 2 - for some reason the rest of the original scripts were deemed to be acceptable (I suspect because nobody had read them)
I began to realise that my employment as a British director (and there are many talented directors in the Netherlands,) was because the 'company' wanted to learn how to make drama in the BBC / ITV system rather than the somewhat slow and pedantic methods then current in Dutch TV Drama production.
My solution to the script problem was to quietly have several of the original scripts photocopied and on the first day of rehearsal, when the slightly bemused actors arrived, clutching 19 different versions of the first episode, was to hand out the copies of the original scripts and say 'that's what we are doing'.
Although every ex journalist, secretary, accountant in the fairly small and very democratic organisation at Aalsmere had re-written the script none realised what I had done!
On a more interesting level the sound and camera crews and lighting people were excellent and very talented. The Netherlands television system was somewhat 'democratic' and the camera crew all worked with full scripts
'so they could decide what size shot to put up next so it would cut with the previous shot'.
Camera cards were unheard off and the concept of placing a mark on the studio floor, for a shot position, was considered an insult to their abilities. To be fair after some resistance they took on board the concept of 'camera cards', just listing the shots for their cameras, and the reason for a mark on the floor.
I worked mainly with a highly professional technical supply company called Video Hilversum. It became a pleasure to work with with them.
Spijkerhoek was full of young people and energy and was a great success - I was able to create a system very similar to the way dramas are produced in the UK. There were several subsequent series of Spijkerhoek over the years and many UK writer friends of mine contributed to the series.
I think the one thing the 'bosses' at Aalsmere learned was that writing is actually a profession - a trade and that although amateurs may feel inspired they should leave it to the writers to write.
A somewhat irritating event with most vd Ende productions was that you would be asked what equipment you wanted and it would be noted and agreed. Later it would be changed by one of the 'Aalsmere' people without consultation! Amazing! Like the writing, a total amateur, would decide what a director needed for a production! Felt like walking up an escalator that was going down!
In spite of all the difficult beginnings I was able to establish a 'style' and production tightness that changed popular Netherlands drama for ever.
Joop never really liked Spijkerhoek I think. He wanted to make soap.
He later did a deal with an Australian company and they came in and made daily for soap for him. He was of course thrilled - he had always really wanted Spijkerhoek to be a soap I think.
Shame really as it was a lot better than that and sometimes had real quality
VRIENDEN VOOR HET LEVEN
The Two of Us
Joop v/d Ende came to me with a VHS cassette of a German comedy series called 'Friends for Life'.
He wanted to 'get into' Situation Comedy and had decided to buy the rights to this production and wanted me to direct it in the manner that British Sit Coms are made.
I reviewed the tape! It was indescribable. Made mainly on location with very long and boring scenes and occasionally someone dropped their trousers! I heaved a sigh and decided it was time to leave the Netherlands!
Joop came to my office and I explained as politely as I could that I was not going to do the show and in my opinion he probably shouldn't either!
The showman that Joop was, he said 'well if you think it's awful come up with something that's better - tomorrow - and we will do that'!
I called my agent in the UK, Rolf Kruger, explained I was probably coming home but Joop wanted some Sit Com ideas. We chatted about the shows Rolf had copies of on his client shelf and came up with -
The Two of Us,
Fools and Horses
and a couple more.
(interestingly every show on our list had the rights purchased and was later made by Joop in Aalsmere!)
Rolf and I felt
The Two of Us
was possibly the simplest to do.
I was going to have to introduce and entirely new technique!
(25 minute Sitcoms were not made - shot before a live audience- in just over an hour - in the Netherlands at that time! Sometimes they did shoot several episodes at the same time before the same audiance)
Joop was in my office the next morning - I told him of the options and recommended
'The Two of Us'.
He took all the tapes away with him. The next morning he called me and said he had purchased the rights and would I direct it please? The only thing was it had to be called
Vrienden Voor Het Leven
(Friends for Life)
as he had signed a contract to produce a sit-com by that title!
I had never directed 'Sit Com' in the UK but knew several people who had, so I got on the telephone to the UK and picked their brains.
25 minute Sit Coms have a few basic sets in a studio - and a live audience. They are shot after a days camera rehearsal in front of the 'live' studio audience in about an hour to an hour and a half.
There were a few problems with Netherlands Television production techniques at that time. The first was that they did not use Booms.
(Platforms that support arms with microphones on the end that wrack in and out.)
The camera crews of Video Hilversum were now accustomed to camera cards and marks on the floor and I found a couple of 2nd hand booms for them to rent/buy from of the UK.
Vision mixing was also a problem. In Comedy the timing of the 'cut' can be everything to make a joke work. Whilst there were very talented mixers in the Dutch system none of them were really sympathetic or had been trained to follow cuts scripted by directors and reactions of actors.
The Management of Video Hilversum asked me to find a sound man and vision mixer to train their people.
Very shrewd move and I got on the phone to friends at Yorkshire TV and arranged for a sound supervisor and a vision mixer to come over for the first couple of recordings. The Video Hilversum folks took the new techniques on board very quickly.
I am proud to say that this system I introduced in of recording Sit Coms way back in 1990 is now the only one now used in the Netherlands Television productions.
To be fair I did not invent it merely imported it - this was much easier than creating the system of work on Spijerhoek as there was no time for the 'executives' at Joop vd Ende to get involved.
Julie van Hemert was a very able assistant to me during this time and supportive. She handled the translations of the original English scripts and helped with the casting of the smaller parts and running the finances.
It mainly worked well except for the time the central joke in one episode was that a character was totally bald - she sent me a young man covered in hair! He was very shocked when I told him to go and get his head shaved!
We had to recast!!
To be fair Julie was busy with other things and did not always have the time to read or understand the jokes in the scripts. She organised the financial side of the productions which was a relief as directing, I think, 24 episodes on the trot was pretty demanding.
The only fly in the ointment was that is was decided 'Bert v/d of the Pipe' should shoot the opening titles as the show sponsors 'Renault' wanted to be certain their vehicles were properly featured.
Poor old Bert went off with tracking cars, 20 extras, steady cam and lots of editing time and produced a 6 minute opening title sequence for a 25 minute show, with all the cars in long shot!
Renault were furious and threatened to withdraw sponsorship.
A major part of the series budget had been spent on this 'mistake' so I borrowed a Renault from one of the crew and did the 'Eddy & Ellen arm wrestling on the bonnet of the car' shot in one of our lunch breaks and the titles problem was solved..
Vrienden went on to win all sorts of awards and prizes and the show is still occasionally repeated.
After directing a couple of series of The Two of Us, Joop asked me to do... After Henry...
was to be made at Aalsmere featuring the famous Netherlands actress
Joop was determined to have her for the lead in this series what ever it took.
Trudi had not done a lot of television and was afraid that television situation comedy was possibly not her field.
It took Joop weeks of negotiation to get her to agree. I was somewhat diffident about doing another sit com although the 'After Henry' series is charming and much more sophisticated than Vrienden.
THE BURGERMEISTERS DILEMMA.
Whilst the protracted negotiations with Trudi were going on I was able to talk to Joop about slightly more interesting projects and he agreed to buy my concept for a show for the 50th anniversary of the D Day landings.
When the Netherlands were occupied by the Germans in WW2 the 'state' still had to continue to function.
Schools, hospitals, roads, universities, theatres, police etc. These all had to be run by the mayor and town hall of each town or province. The dilemma for the Burgermeister was when did co-operation for the good of the Netherlands people become collaboration?
The local police still have to keep law and order. The actor is instructed to play in a play selected by the German occupying force. If he refuses then he and his family starve and anyway, is that collaboration?
There are wonderful stories of young men hiding out in the North of Holland and resistance operations carried out in the towns and cities during the occupation aided by Netherlands police force turning a blind eye!
This is a fairly sensitive subject in the Netherlands because of the way Dutch Jews were revealed to the Nazis. Consequently it has been thoroughly researched. There are fine, scholarly, histories available and I purchased or read them all.
The biggest problem would be the script writer(s) - I had met several talented writers over the years in Amsterdam and felt that possibly the way forward was a collaboration between Netherlands and British writers with a Netherlands story editor.
Trudi became available and wanted to do 'Ernst'. It was a agreed a pilot would be made - Trudi could 'see' it and Joop could 'sell' it and later we would make the series.
Rehearsals commenced and with such an experienced and able actress it was apparent the show would repeat it's UK success.
The recording night was difficult as dear old Joop insisted on being on the studio floor during the recording of the show.
The showman that he was, he started to give Trudi notes during the recording!!!
Faster, funnier, louder and other helpful comments!!!
He never quite understood that microphones pick up more sound than is apparent. Just because he could no hear everything from the sidelines he thought the microphone could not 'hear' either.
Trudi would try to obey and stop half way through a scene to ask Joop if it was OK!!
Then the lady who had done the translation then started to correct Trudi on her dialogue (some of which we had changed in rehearsals to get back to the wittier original)
Instead of taking an hour to record the 25 minute show it took nearly two! However the superb scripts and Trudi's talent made the pilot work very well and after I had edited it - Joop was able to sell it - Trudi liked it and the full series of 24 was all set.
During the rehearsals a man had wandered into the rehearsal room un-announced.
Later Joop explained he was the new head of drama (I forget his name - Frank something??)
Assuming that light entertainment was a different department from drama I nodded and just explained that rehearsals are a fairly private affaire but if this new 'Head of Drama' wanted to come to the technical run through he was welcome.
After the editing was completed, the 'Frank' character from the rehearsal rooms, stopped me in a corridor and asked me to change a couple of things in the pilot episode. Slightly surprised I thanked him for his advice and did nothing except to ask my assistant who he was?
Apparently he had produced a couple of not very successful things in the past - really had no track record at all but like so many executive people at Aalsmere he felt he was an expert and liked giving advice.
He later came to my office and said there was a misunderstanding. He was the new 'Head of Drama' and that included comedy. Joop was going to take more of a back seat in television as he wanted to try to make a name for himself on Broadway in the USA.
I was indeed the producer/director of 'Zonder Ernst' but now Joop would not be around I was to 'obey' Head of Drama.
My desk was covered in research for
'The Burgermeisters Dilemma'
I asked when we could have a meeting about it? The 'Hoof van of Drama' sighed.
'It really is not suitable for television. It is not interesting - I have much better ideas. Now please make the changes to the pilot of Zonder Ernst. You have to learn what works in comedy in the Netherlands'!
I sort of had the feeling I had not hit it off with this Frank guy! (wish I could remember his name)
He was certainly not the brightest but he appeared to have a lot of power and mouth! An hour later Joop called me into his office.
'You vill obey orders from the head of drama'
'Why'? After Henry is a sit com. I can be head of sit coms and your new guy can create drama to be head of.'
Joop went berserk - started to pace the office and shout. He did not speak very good English in those days and became even more stressed with his inability to convey his wishes!
I had to
I suggested that maybe we should both have a cooling off period!
I was owed about 6 weeks leave and went on holiday only returning to receive a 'good bye' present of a couple of bottles of cheap wine!
Leave them laughing when you go!!!
Back in the UK I had done some Emmerdale and some Eastenders as well as an interesting series for the BBC called 'One by One' and greatly enjoyed working with Jimmy Club of Chipperfields Circus family.
I was taking a well earned holiday in Bambola, my sailing boat, cruising around the Greek Islands when I got a message to ask if I was interested in directing another comedy series in the Netherlands for a new company.
The contact was the lovely Esmeralda Costa, who had worked with me first on Spikerhoek as an ASM and later as a superb production manager on Vrienden voor het Leven.
She had come from the theatre to television, which is by far the best route, and was very much the up and coming young face of Netherlands TV.
Still in holiday garb I got a plane out of Athens to Amsterdam and had dinner with Gys the producer of the show. He had cleverly found an original comedy series from Swedish Television and purchased the rights.
A slightly high brow but socialist TV channel, the Vara, had decided it was for them and had done a deal for a pilot which if successful would lead to a series of, I think, 12 episodes.
The original Swedish VHS cassettes I was shown had English sub titles and were well constructed and amusing.
The Story was about a postman called Jansen who was married to a beautiful if slightly snobby bank manageress who's maiden name was also Jansen.
The team of Swedish writers had come up with a quality, original series -different from the English style of sit com and would probably go well with Netherlands audiences. I felt.
It was ages since I had been in Amsterdam, a city I love, so I accepted with pleasure.
Casting is always the hardest part for a foreign director. Partly because you are not immersed in the work of the actors of that country. In the Netherlands the 'screen test' is everything and part of a directors job is to direct likely candidates for each role in a screen test then shoot it. Makes casting very hard work and instant acting more attractive than considered rehearsed acting.
Try telling that to the Producers!
This casting was different - plainly the only contender for the postman role was Peter Bolhuis who had a sense of timing and comedy that was unbeatable. Liz Snoink, with whom I had worked before, turned out to have a real sense of comedy and added real style and class to the show. We found two clever young people to play the kids and were all set.
Working with someone like Esmeralda is always a pleasure. The total professional with a vast knowledge of Actors and what can be done she makes it so much easier for the director, cast and crew.
We made the Pilot fairly easily without too much hassle and then waited whilst the Vara assessed the product!
They invited a panel of randomly selected viewers to a private viewing of the pilot episode and then asked them their opinion. Not a system I am used to but I guess it is one way of making decisions. The reactions of the panel were favourable and we got the go ahead to make the series.
My only criticism of the system Gys operated was that he got a very prominent Netherlands actress/ poetry writer/artist to do the translations and instead of sticking to the original scripts as broadcast by the Swedes he required 'improvements'.
I had found on Vrienden and Zonder Ernst that the best formula was to stick as closely as possible to the original scripts as written by the comedy writer.
When presented with excellent scripts many people are so 'inspired' they feel they have the talent to make them even better. This is seldom the case.
Of course scripts written by a foreigner may require some adaptation to fit into their new country but on the whole comedy writers, who are successful, write better than people who have never written a comedy script in their lives.
Apart from the slight script problems which were nearly always solved by going back to the originals Jansen-Jansen was a very happy show. Peter was superb and Liz was the perfect foil for him. I really enjoyed working on the series.
Happily the success of the first series led to another - the only problem was we were making our episodes faster than the Swedish were making theirs and we ran out of scripts half way through the 2nd series.
Gys found some Netherlands writers and also asked Peter Bolhuis to write an episode.
Peters script was brilliant - Of the same high standard as the original Swedish scripts and in many ways funnier. His sense of comedy as an actor was even greater as a writer. Our script shortage was solved.
All Peter had to do was write a script and play the lead each week.
I really cannot remember how many episodes we made 24? 30? It was all a real pleasure.
Gys employed the Video Hilversum crew and we had a studio in Amsterdam so I could almost cycle to work. Esmeralda supervised the casting of guest artists and ran the production.
After a while I was able to let her direct some scenes and eventually complete episodes. She has turned into a fine director and the sort of talent that broadcast television cannot find enough of.
Peter was a big hit as M. Jansen and Liz, as always, was very successful, popular and glamorous.
By this time I knew so many of the guest actors from previous productions and all the technical crews -
The production was an absolute pleasure to direct.
Gys and Esmeralda got together and had a baby. Peter came to visit me when I was sailing off the East Coast USA and from time to time I still receive royalties from all the productions I made in the Netherlands.
It was all a really good experience.
http://uk.imdb.com/name/nm0108468/ This should go to my IMDb page