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The Mysterious Success of French TV Shows on Books: Bernard Pivot

Dominique Baudis and Bernard Pivot (Wikipedia CC BY 4.0)
Dominique Baudis and Bernard Pivot (Wikipedia CC BY 4.0)
Noël Herpe is a french writer. He published Ma vie avec Bernard Pivot (My life with Bernard Pivot), in 2023. 

What was the reaction to the release of your book on Bernard Pivot?

Noël Herpe: I would be wrong to complain because this book is the one that has received the best reception of all my books. It interested journalists from both the left and the right, bloggers, people from radio, as well as print media. The main feedback is to awaken a sort of Rosebud in many different people. Something very deep, very buried, that was just waiting to resurface. But it’s a very polysemic memory because everyone finds their own memory, their own Proustian madeleine. Apostrophes was a bit L’Auberge Espagnole.

You often mention Rosebud from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, the story of a media mogul.

Noël Herpe: With Welles, there’s a demiurge aspect, whereas with Pivot, there’s more of a measured, very reasonable, very French aspect. Compared to certain hysterical presenters, Pivot appears as a model of elegance, discretion, which he wasn’t necessarily. He was a bit of a fisherman for little secrets, already a media man, very clever. He was the first media man as we know it today, but the best because he didn’t let himself be overwhelmed by what could be more vulgar in this profession. Before him, we had television personalities like Pierre Dumayet, like Roger Stéphane, who were not media figures. They were very restrained in their questions. They were a bit like secular priests, asking questions as if in a confessional. But Pivot is the one who will invent, and at this level, he has a rather phenomenal aspect in his work because he invented literary programs as we know it today with this way he has of getting writers to represent themselves, to perform and play their own role for millions of viewers. This hadn’t been the case to this extent in previous shows, even if there were already some beginnings, of course. He invented the concept of literary program as a performance, and from this point of view, it’s certain that he was innovative, but he also developed a certain vision of literature which today has taken more delirious forms, and he managed to contain this format within the limits of decency of the time. There was also a certain ritual with speaking times. That’s why I readily compare Apostrophes to Au théâtre ce soir, which was also a successful show of the 1980s, which ended a little earlier, with a ritual, that of bringing Parisian or theatrical elegance to the “province”, because there was still this division at the time. If we compare Apostrophes by Pivot to Droit de réponse by Michel Polac, who was an old-timer, maybe even older than Pivot. With Polac, we’re already in the excesses we know today, people shouting at each other, hysteria, psychodrama. Pivot invents the performance and today maybe we’ve moved a bit towards psychodrama. Performance is still more interesting.

Pivot was an economic journalist, somewhat taken by chance by Jacqueline Baudrier. He appeared for the first time on Italiques on Marc Gilbert‘s couch in 1972. And we still don’t get what is the “Pivot Effect”?

Noël Herpe: He worked with Pierre Brisson of Le Figaro, who was a great literary and theatrical critic, he knew literary history very well, he was a kind of Jérôme Garcin. When he received Nourissier, he knew who Nourissier was. He gives his place to Edmonde Charles Roux. He is both the “Monsieur loyal” and the witness of this society. His success is probably due to having unbuttoned, having loosened the collar. He spoke to average French people in a relaxed way, demystifying literature, bringing it down from its pedestal. At the time, Roger Stéphane interviewed François Mauriac with an extremely solemn tone. We gave the writer the master’s place. With Pivot, there is this consciousness to whom he is addressing, but there is also the will, which was not necessarily great among his predecessors, to discover young writers, to make new sensibilities emerge and make waves, when he invites Marc-Edouard Nabe or Valérie Valère, suddenly it’s like a bombshell for better or for worse, and it’s suddenly the young generations who come to shake up the old ones. When he puts Guy Hocquenghem against Georges Suffert, he knows what he’s doing. And Apostrophes says what it means, it’s the idea of the Clash. So, there are subdued clashes, clashes with rapier-like finesse, but which can still be quite sullenly violent. When he puts Jean d’Ormesson against Roger Peyrefitte, he expects a certain result. He doesn’t throw too much oil on the fire. It’s not necessary since just confronting people who hate each other will produce television. That’s perhaps also the great idea of Apostrophes, both demystifying literature and at the same time demystifying it in a way that perhaps satisfies a certain voyeurism of the viewer.

You deliberately talk of authors who are homosexual. It is also something that is recognized in Pivot, a certain open-mindedness, having invited Charles Bukowski or Marguerite Yourcenar. Before that, we could mention the appearances of Susan Sontag and James Baldwin in Italiques for the first time, which caused a small scandal because people weren’t used to that.

Noël Herpe: We don’t talk about it, but the INA (National Audiovisual Institute) is full of wonderful archived shows that nobody remembers anymore, and the reason why Pivot’s show worked or marked is mysterious, it’s true.

But it’s not so mysterious if we’re honest for five minutes, it’s a literary coup at the time of the ORTF’s (French Radio and Television Broadcasting) breakup following the rise of Valery Giscard d’Estaing and Jacques Chirac to power, which advocated a new format with only one variety show (Chancel), one literary program (Pivot), and one entertainment show (Le petit rapporteur). We won’t say totalitarian, but a bit monopolistic.

Noël Herpe: I don’t quite agree, but that’s a point of view. Pivot seems to me to be more of a continuation of the ORTF insofar as it’s a show that appeals to all audiences, everyone watched it, despite the breakup, it continues to be watched by everyone, which doesn’t suffer like Au théâtre ce soir. There were many directors at that time, I know the subject well because I wrote a book with Jean-Christophe Averty, who felt threatened, like Lorenzi, the great dinosaurs of fiction television, and all the creation of the 1970s, but Pivot, he rather continues the cultural mission of the ORTF with a certain panache. We can’t say that he only receives right-wing writers, by the way, you don’t go that far. It’s very ecumenical. Of course, he receives Giscard, but he also does a magnificent show with Mitterand who was not yet president. It’s one of the most beautiful episodes of Apostrophes by the way. So, I don’t quite agree. I think it would be very clever to know Pivot’s political opinions. It’s rather his neutrality that makes his strength. That he was protected by power is possible, but that’s another matter.

The Summer of the “Nouvelle droite (New Right)” in Apostrophes in 1979, is an extraordinary springboard for Bruno Gollnisch, Alain de Benoist, after Solzhenitsyn or before Simon Leys. Pivot was a preacher of anti-communism. Can’t you see that ?

Noël Herpe: It doesn’t seem to me to be the cardinal point of the character, that’s not what interested me the most in writing this book anyway. I note that he makes clash shows and that he receives people who can shock like the show on the New Philosophers and Glusckmann who starts shouting at the guests or the face-to-face with Maurice Bardèche and Bernard-Henri Lévy. One could blame him for inviting Maurice Bardèche but that’s what makes his shows absolutely fascinating. We have classes of opinion, generational conflicts, people rethinking how to think about World War II that imposed itself from the 1960s, people who remain trapped in the opinions of their time. The purpose of a television show is to give voice to all sensitivities, and I don’t have the impression that Pivot takes one side or another. Maybe he has his opinions, that’s possible. But we can’t say that he expresses them in a way that is disturbing or predominant.

Have you been in contact with him?

Noël Herpe: No, I didn’t really want to, I know he was happy with the success of the book, he reacted favorably, but you know, I think he’s quite withdrawn today and once again I didn’t write this book to please him or to make a sort of comprehensive study. I forbade myself from rewatching the shows while writing the book otherwise I wouldn’t have finished. I only talk about the shows I saw at the time or that I had seen again in the meantime. And they are just memories. But I especially didn’t want to fall into the fantasy of exhaustiveness. One of my writer friends reproached me for not revisiting each show one by one, that was not at all my intention and I think if I had done that I would still be there.

We can’t know who this friend is?

Noël Herpe: No, but we can guess.

How do you define yourself?

Noël Herpe: That’s a broad question, I’m a cinema writer, I’ve done critiques, talked about the history of cinema but what interests me is writing about cinema, television with my own sensitivity. I’ve just written a book on cross-dressing in cinema, both very personal and very erudite, not too much I hope. I always try to elucidate a part of my own history. One could say that I’m a bit of a historian of myself but that would be a bit pretentious. I like this somewhat unstable position between various registers.

We could pronounce the favorite term of the 1970s and which represents this period well, transdisciplinarity, or even transversality.

Noël Herpe: That’s not a very nice word, “discipline,” it’s somewhat off-putting, however, I do remember the word “trans” even if at the time it didn’t have the same connotation as it does today.

But at the time, that’s all we talked about.

Noël Herpe: Yes, today among the new pedants, they would rather talk about intermediality, things like that. The label that I could accept at a stretch is that of transfuge (defector,) or éternel transfuge (eternal defector). I always get bored with one activity, so I always need to heal from one activity with another.

We can also say that you describe the life of Pivot quite cinematically.

Noël Herpe: Yes, indeed, I think it could make a film. There are sets, that of my adolescence, with my father, a dentist, a bit depressive and without clients and patients in the Latin Quarter, with the students, it’s very visual. We even did a show with this text at the Maison de la Poésie which worked quite well, it could also be a theater show but I wouldn’t be against making a film out of it.

Moreover, the set of Apostrophes slightly copied that of Italiques, called the first American-style talk show, in the style of Johnny Carson’s program, as if in a movie set.

Noël Herpe: It’s a rather minimalist staging, I would rather say it’s theatrical, insofar as there are shots, a depth of field, but rather a scenic depth, with the audience on stage, the eye is attracted to several planes of the scene. But the cinematic part is especially just after Claude-Jean Philippe’s Ciné-club, the cousin from the ‘province”, the poor relation because he doesn’t have a very brilliant appearance but he is rich in his cinephilia. He opens an exit door from this somewhat stiff literary salon.

What about the two themes of Rachmaninov for Apostrophes and Waldteufel for the Ciné-club ?

Noël Herpe: There had already been that for Les Dossiers de l’écran, which was a bit the first talk show in its own way, except that the film was before and then they commented on it. The difference is undoubtedly more in the position of the host, it’s certain that in Les Dossiers de l’écran, there was a stiff aspect like a post, from Joseph Pasteur or Alain Jérôme.

Of arbitration…

Noël Herpe: That’s it, they represent an old vision of the ORTF, with this idea of the old-fashioned gentleman. Whereas Pivot, which changes everything, doesn’t have that stiffness, and he’s someone like you and me. And people could identify with him.

He never felt superior to his guests, since he wasn’t.

Noël Herpe: Absolutely, exactly.

I would like to come back to this shift after 1970, where we go from the Atomic Age, the Space Age design to a new aesthetic, with themes by Ennio Morricone in Italiques, François de Roubaix, a more electro style.

Noël Herpe: Yes, and Francis Lai whose music is used for the Cinéma de minuit, and Claude-Jean Philippe’s show, L’Encyclopédie audiovisuelle du cinéma or the song by Apollinaire. For a young man, the prestige of the theme is very important, these reassuring effects of repetition that give the impression of accessing another world.

You said that for you Pivot was a character from Flaubert.

Noël Herpe: He has a bit of Mr. Homais, even if he’s much less peremptory, between Homais and Bouvard and Pécuchet let’s say but he’s much smarter than he looks, he rarely asks stupid and conventional questions. The only one I would reproach him for is his Sainte-Beuve side, the way he asks psychological, or even somewhat sexual questions, I tell the rather catastrophic passage of my friend Dominique Noguez, whom Pivot terrorized by pushing him into his entrenchments and pushing him to reveal what he didn’t want to reveal. And that’s a side of him that I find a bit less sympathetic, and today it has perhaps too much importance.

Could you be a little more explicit?

Noël Herpe: Regarding Noguez?

Yes.

Noël Herpe: You’re acting a bit like Pivot here?

Yes.

Noël Herpe: Well, the little sexual secrets, and Pivot must have understood that it would make good ratings and he pushed him a bit in that direction.

We’re talking about an outing live on air, is that it?

Noël Herpe: Yes, he tended to push the writer to reveal his private life, some writers are suited to it and others not, it’s certain that with Simenon he had a good client, but sometimes it’s quite violent when he asks him:

So when you found your daughter’s body who committed suicide did you not feel a bit like Commissioner Maigret ?

Well, there you go, one hears that with a certain perplexity.

One wonders if he doesn’t have an empathy problem?

Noël Herpe: He’s doing his job, but well, that’s not the aspect I find most interesting about him.

That says a lot about him. You talked about Charles Bovary in relation to him.

Noël Herpe: It’s true that there’s something Bovaryan about all these women who fantasized about him on Saturday nights. What interested my father was Bukowski, for me it was more Claude Mauriac. Everyone found their happiness. I did a biography with Antoine de Baecque on Eric Rohmer but I wouldn’t spend my life doing that. It wasn’t so much Pivot’s character itself that interested me in writing this book.

Antoine de Baecque who wrote a very good biography of François Truffaut. So again, we can see that you’re a cinema man.

Noël Herpe: Those are my first loves, that’s for sure.

There’s a certain irony in you. We know the sworn enemy of cinema is television. Godard so well depicted it as an object before which we prostrate.

Noël Herpe: I’m glad you say that, I defend television from that time less today, besides I don’t have a television anymore, but I love to immerse myself in the treasures of INA, in terms of friction, it’s extraordinary, and which allows me to move between the three arts that fascinate me: literature, theater, and cinema. And I don’t quite understand why we continue to hold all this heritage with such contempt, in such ignorance, my cinema colleagues don’t care at all whereas it’s also a fantastic tool for analyzing the history of cinema.

Does the “paranoid” power fear revealing its archives?

Noël Herpe: There was a long time of archive retention, the work of Madelen/INA is fantastic for valorizing all this. But I also like to work on lesser-known works.

What was Pivot’s relationship with thought, knowing that philosophers spoke rather poorly of him and most of them didn’t want to take any steps to appear on his set, I’m thinking of Derrida, Sartre, Deleuze…

Noël Herpe: He welcomed whoever came, Pierre Bourdieu and Pierre Boutang, he was immune to pressure.

Does this description you give not perfectly correspond to the Nouveaux philsophes ?

Noël Herpe: Oh yes, he was rather attracted to media philosophers than to more secretive people and it’s true that when he invited Vladimir Jankélévitch he must have suspected that he would be a good client. What he wished was that the writer knew how to stage himself.

So Jankélévitch is the father of mediatical philosophers?

Noël Herpe: Yes, absolutely.

About the Author
Alexandre Gilbert is the director of the Chappe gallery.