Face of Flanders
In the past couple of weeks, a bombshell has been dropped on Flemish television – something that’s been talked about for nearly two decades, but which nobody ever seriously believed would come to pass: Balthasar Boma has got himself a girlfriend.
Boma is the flamboyant owner of Boma Meat Industry but is better known as the chairman of football club FC De Kampioenen, which sits centre stage in the sitcom of the same name on VRT’s channel één. Played by former teen idol Marijn Devalck, Boma is self-important, overdressed (he favours suits in primary colours and thick neck-chains) and the least successful womaniser since Mozart’s Don Giovanni, who boasted 1,865 conquests, but whom we never actually see getting off with anyone.
To an outsider, it has to be said, the sitcom looks old-fashioned and studio-bound, the characters cut-outs, the jokes creaky. It feels like the Flemish equivalent of an ensemble show like Hi De Hi! or You Rang, M’Lord, ghastly British sitcoms (which Flemish TV incidentally loves to repeat).
FC De Kampioenen is now in its 19th season, and the latest storyline went like this: Boma is beginning to feel the limits of the borders of Flanders. He decides to emigrate to Canada to raise reindeer. This is disastrous news for the club, which need his sponsorship, so they hatch a plan to keep him home by giving him what he wants the most: a girlfriend.
Enter Goedele Decocq, a 45-year-old anthropologist (played by Machteld Timmermans). The sparks begin to fly. The whole of Flanders is on tenterhooks.
The series’ producer, Rik Stallaerts, is currently on location shooting for Season 20, which suggests that the plot to retain Boma will be successful. But the real question is, why, after 20 years, is this largely silly TV show so successful?
“It’s not only successful when it goes out, it’s unbelievably popular when it’s repeated,” Stallaerts says. “There are now about 250 episodes, and during the summer months it’s repeated four or five times a week.” The original broadcasts regularly achieve viewing figures of up to 1.4 million, which is huge for Flemish TV.
“The reason people love it is that it’s so recognisably Flemish,” Stallaerts explains. “It reflects a typical part of Flemish culture – sitting and having a nice drink together after the football match.”
In fact, though the setting is a local football club, there’s precious little football played; the characters are mainly at home or, more often, in the club’s café, run by the fiery Pascale, who used to have a thing with Boma, and for whom he still carries a torch.
Pascale is one of several of what Stallaerts describes as “strong female characters”. Not to be confused with feminists – the women are castrating harridans, with men who are infantile, ineffectual buffoons. Balthasar Boma is unmarried, rich and employs two of the women – one as his secretary and the other, Carmen, as his unlikely cleaning lady. He’s apparently the boss, but they walk all over him, as indeed does everyone else.
“There was once a version made in Portugal, with local comic actors, and the format was almost identical,” says Stallaerts. The Flemish FC, meanwhile, is very big in the Netherlands. Over the years there’s been talk of VRT producing a Dutch version, but that’s unlikely to materialise.
In any case, the Dutch receive VRT on their cable, so they can watch the original. “They also enjoy it because it’s typically Flemish for them,” says Stallaerts. When the producers do laugh-track recordings (an episode is shown to a live audience so they can record the laughter), Netherlanders come in force. “We get people from as far away as Groeningen,” says Stallaerts.
Dorian Van Der Brempt, director of the Flemish-Dutch culture organisation deBuren, describes the series as "a fictional self-portrait of Flanders. The real-life version of De Kampioenen can be found in the inimitable news programme Man Bijt Hond. For 20 years De Kampioenen has been playing one situation with almost identical characters. That gives you an idea how timeless, and perhaps even universal, the programme actually is."
The 20th season begins airing in September, but, in the meantime, shooting begins in May for the first Kampioenen movie, which will involve all the main characters, but about the plot of which Stallaerts remains stonily silent.