Barbara: The Chanteuse and the Television

Television is a quintessentially twentieth century medium. It transcends class, race and geography, uniting people of diverse backgrounds and who are physically scattered in a single act of communion. In the English-speaking world, groups such as the Beatles reached a new audience through television, and, in the United States, the reality of the Vietnam War was brought home to millions of homes. In continental Europe, the growth of television was somewhat slower. In France, for example, fewer than ten per cent of households owned a television set in 1958. But by the end of the 1960s, television had become arguably the most powerful medium in French history, with over ten million French households owning a television set.

Popular music in France was affected by this new medium, no less than other areas of public life. Initially televised music shows were not innovative, merely following the ‘Varieties’ format already established on radio, but soon made more creative use of visual impact to present the music to its best advantage. Popular so-called ‘speakerines’ such as Jacqueline Joubert were recruited to provide an attractive ambience appropriate to the stars of music hall or disc. Standing apart from these fashionable announcers was the presenter of Discorama, the remarkable Denise Glaser, who did more than anybody to raise the standard of popular music programmes in France during the sixties. During her long career, she forged a very strong link with the singer Barbara, whom she evidently appreciated both as a woman and an artist. She did everything she could to present this essentially private artist to a wider audience through television, and in doing so, helped to forge her public image.

In France, Barbara is considered the quintessential live singer. Her many fans can testify to the unique impact that her live concerts could have. Yet, beyond her considerable catalogue of studio albums, she made no less than ninety television appearances between 1958 and 1975, and collectively they form a large part of her legacy as a performer, one that until now has been under-explored. While some of these appearances were transmitted live, most were made without the presence of a live studio audience, and, following the conventions of the time, she often mimed in playback to a pre-recorded track rather than sing directly to the camera. Yet paradoxically this did not lead to any loss of immediacy; rather the lack of a need to focus on her voice led her to work more intensely on her gestures and to project a persona appropriate to each song. The results, particularly in her heyday during the 1960s, could be mesmerising.

Television altered the relationship between singers and their public. Cameras brought an illusory intimacy to music lovers, as they allowed them to see and hear their idols without leaving their homes. As a young singer Barbara gratefully accepted the opportunities which the new medium offered, putting up with sometimes insensitive interviewers and sets that were cheaply constructed and often in poor taste in order to reach as wide an audience as possible. Much later, she disparaged her TV appearances, shunning the small screen altogether after the mid seventies, but in the sixties she stamped her authority on the medium, transcending its limitations to establish a sense of intimacy and dramatic presence with each viewer.

Behind her later wariness lay her awareness of television’s capacity to focus intensely on her face, the lingering close-ups made possible by the higher definition cameras of the sixties trapping her in their merciless gaze and seeming to objectify her appearance to the detriment of her vocal delivery. In her earlier television appearances there are few close-ups, and the programmes attempt to recreate the atmosphere of a live cabaret performance.

Barbara first appeared on television in July 1958, during the programme Le Cabaret du Soir. In that initial appearance Barbara appears stylised and faux-naïve in her delivery of “J’ai Troqué”.  When she appeared on the same show in January of the following year, her appearance remained the same, but her performance of “Chapeau Bas” is notably more subtle and sincere. Henceforth her performances would increasingly be characterised by psychological subtlety and a sense of complicity with the viewer. The studio lighting and the focus and angle of the television cameras make a substantial contribution to this impression.

A single example can serve to illustrate the unforgettable effect of Barbara’s performance combined with the artistry of the television studio. This is a version of “Dis, Quand Reviendras-Tu?” broadcast on the fifth of June on Television Suisse Romande. Notice how the camera starts at mid-distance but comes closer for the start of the first chorus. Yet is only with the second chorus that Barbara establishes eye contact with the camera. For the third verse, in which the pleas to the absent lover are replaced with a sense of wounded pride, she directly faces the camera, rather than appearing in semi-profile as she has done previously. The camera adopts a position slightly beneath her face to emphasise her authority. In the final chorus, Barbara’s voice returns to a tone of pleading and the camera withdraws to give the impression that she has become small and vulnerable.

By the end of the 1960s Barbara’s television appearances were becoming increasingly elaborate, and often broke away from the studio format altogether, which the singer appearing in her own home (L’Invité du Dimanche, with Jean-Claude Brialy) or in Ludwig the Second’s famous castle in Bavaria (Le Chevalier en Quête). She began to appear more frequently in front of a live audience, sometimes as a guest on shows devoted to other stars. This trend culminated in a Top á Barbara of 1974, where the spacious studio and assorted props, including a rocking chair and red feather boa, contributed to a more extrovert image of the singer, which foreshadowed her later appearances at Pantin in 1981, and the musical Lily Passion in 1986.

If these later programmes show an increasingly theatrical Barbara, it can be argued that in all her appearances in front of the small screen, she used the television as a stage. It differed from the theatrical stages in which she was used to appearing only in its lack of a visible audience (unless invited) and in the intrusive presence of television cameras. But the singer, increasingly preferring to control every aspect of her appearances before the public, was ill at ease with a medium which moulded the way in which she was seen by the world, and which interposed a barrier between herself and her public. This barrier, by distorting her image, threatened to break the covenant of absolute sincerity with her audience hymned in “Ma plus belle histoire d’amour, c’est vous”.

At heart, Barbara was far from being the kind of postmodern pop star exemplified by an artist such as David Bowie, whose multiple personas did not necessarily reflect the private individual beneath.  Despite her care to distance her private self from her public image, she regarded that image as an intensification of her true self, not a distortion or a substitute. It was the means with which she connected to her public, a simplified and stylised version of her inner essence, as well as a vehicle for songs which alluded to her own life. Her television career did not exactly betray that identity but showed it in a curiously fragmented form. Some appearances, particularly those dating from the explosion of her fame in the mid sixties, concentrate on her beauty and elegance to the detriment of the delivery of her songs. Later programmes, such as her appearance in a Bavarian castle, or the Top á Barbara dedicated to her reveal a more ‘camp’ image, which at times glides close to self-parody.

Other programmes cultivate an overly intellectual or avant-garde air, including some of her appearances with her friend from the world of modern dance, Maurice Béjart. In many of these programmes, we may see the failure of the programme makers to understand the personality of the artist and their consequent desire to present her as a poet, intellectual or all-devouring femme fatale. Barbara would famously reject these labels via a text accompanying her 1969 concerts at the Olympia, where she refuted the designation of poet or intellectual for the simple title of a woman who sings.

Yet if we do not see her television appearances merely as contributions to her image but, as she would surely have wished, as performances, it is possible to witness a Barbara who transcends the objectifying tendency of the medium through the force and sincerity of her interpretation. In her appearances on Discorama or her performance on TSR in 1965, the lighting, camera focus and judicious editing actually enhance her performance by creating a sense of intimacy with each viewer in a way which her live theatrical performances cannot match. If in the theatre she shared a primarily collective experience with her public, through the television screen she offered a communion with each viewer which was at once universal and uniquely personal. In doing so, she created some of the most compelling television of her age.