If I were 25,
I'd be writing for television
GEORGES SIMENON was waiting for us in his very comfortable suite. He's been coming here for years, and everyone knows the father of Maigret.
The children aren't here. Marc, eighteen-and-a-half, is preparing for his second bac. Johnny, eight, the godchild of Jean Renoir, and Marie-Georges, four-and-a-half, have been entrusted to their nurse. They work and play on their father's estate in Switzerland.
Georges Simenon is fifty-four-and-a-half years old. His pipe is always in his mouth, and he smokes thus tirelessly. He has written 166 novels, his first at age sixteen, Au pont des arches. He works two and a half hours a day, the time for one chapter. He has a hobby an ultra-short-wave radio receiver with which he can pick up all calls (even those of the police). What happens in a single night is unbelievable, he tells me.
166 novels have been published under the signature of Georges Simenon, and another 200 pulp novels under his various pseudonyms.
"First of all," begins Simenon, " and I am anxious to say this, as I don't want to start off under false pretenses in France I don't have a television. Why not? Because the children waste too much time watching it. But I regret it, because this modern phenomenon is a problem which fascinates me. In the United States the small screen familiarized me with the country and the language. I am very much interested in this new stage for the movies and I must say that American television is an extraordinary power. It encompasses everyone. Every family has one, and sometimes two. Servants require them in their rooms."
In America there are millions of television sets. We have only some few hundred thousand in France. Do you think, M. Simenon, that this new fashion of expression will reach here with the same popularity?
Of course. The French don't take television seriously yet, but very soon they will modify their attitude the development of tele-clubs is already proof. Tomorrow there will be new problems. As TV becomes more and more the home cinema, it seems to me impossible to be able to maintain a sufficient range of programming without advertising. Because television is the biggest money-eater in the world. The production of a dramatic broadcast costs a small fortune, and we don't have yet, in France, the means to pay our actors well.
Millionaire stars... for two years
In the United States, this is not an issue, since the biggest advertising firms have enormous budgets and their own shows. Some stars appear regularly. They earn a million dollars a season. In only one evening an actor has a larger audience than Sarah Bernhardt had in her entire career.
Yet their celebrity is ephemeral. At the end of two years, they are 'finished'. The public doesn't want them anymore. I've talked with big actors and they told me: 'Television interests us, of course; it gives you the chance to earn a lot of money. But... it's a dangerous game. In a few years it can turn us into "men of means," and our ambition becomes to last as long as possible.
The biggest stars last only two years in America, where TV reaches every family. Do you think that in France the same problem will develop?
It's already happening. Take for example a fantasyist that I like a lot, Fernand Raynaud. Unfortunately, we must accept the fact that he is exhausted. You can't go on forever, and very good productions are, in spite of everything, rare things. Grock made his whole career with only one sketch he would not have responded regularly to television offers. He knew too well his profession and his public.
Pay-TV, hobgoblin of the movies?
Is television a real threat to the movies?
Yes. Only big productions, in color and Cinemascope, will be able to hold out against this system that is becoming more important every day. Producers for the big screen must create exceptional, striking shows. Now, mainly in France, the movies have been facing a serious crisis. There are two basic reasons, the lack of new subject matter, and the prohibitive cost for a limited market. So they began to defend themselves against the television invasion. The first attempt was to refuse all films to TV, fearing the appeal of this new media. Then they agreed to give up titles made before some pre-determined date, and so the studios sold their old movie stock to television. Even the most famous feature films on TV didn't manage to stop viewers from leaving home to go see new movies.
In France we are way behind in this respect. Yet the rue Cognacq-Jay TV producers are presenting some very successful dramatic broadcasts, I've been told. It's a beginning.
Movie theaters will disappear and television viewers will become more numerous. I hope that television won't kill the movies completely, but that on the contrary it will provide a beneficial competitor in the area of major productions.
In any event we'll always enjoy the ambiance of a big hall. Family distractions can get monotonous, and the French are not yet all that middle class. And besides, we don't have pay-TV! Thus the owners of the dark halls still have some time to make their preparations against the invasion of the small screen.
The writer facing TV
Will writers suffer from the stupendous success of television?
No, authors can reassure themselves, TV doesn't suppress reading. On the contrary, in my opinion, you read twice as many books when you have a television. The small screen keeps us from going out, but as no one watches all the shows, the result is very satisfactory between two good shows, we can read.
Here's another aspect. The works of Faulkner were not well known to a large public. And then one day, a certain number of his novels were adapted for television. The result was a triumph, and today people all over the world are passionately fond of his stories.
Finally, for the writer, TV is a new mode of expression. The small screen demands a special kind of writing. Someone watching TV in his living room is in a very particular atmosphere and in a "reduced" ambiance. He doesn't react like a crowd gathered before the same spectacle. And TV develops the viewer's sophistication. Nothing escapes him. He can often guess from the first few moments what's going to happen, and in that case the show doesn't hold any interest. It's necessary to prepare for that and to present programs made with the television viewer in mind.
We've passed from the theater stage to silent films, from silent films to the talkies, and now we're wondering at the possibilities of television. Let's not restrain our enthusiasm! Yes, if I were twenty-five years old today, I'd be writing as much for television as for the movies.
translated by Stephen Trussel