Of ‘Zeppos: The Mercator Track’ one of the most famous characters in Flemish TV history makes his comeback, this time on the silver screen. But how did Captain Zeppos earn his legendary status?
On October 21, 1964 dives Captain Zeppos for the first time in Flemish living rooms. The captain couldn’t have chosen his moment better. The medium television will in fact celebrate its eleventh birthday exactly ten days later and can gradually call itself a mass medium after some growing pains. Whereas in the previous years television sets were only available for the happy few, they are now a lot more affordable and can be found in more and more living rooms.
That in those living rooms there is a lot of Captain Zeppos is zapped has to do with the limited supply at that time. “There was hardly any Flemish fiction on TV at the time,” says Peter Van Camp The Children of Zeppos wrote a book about the youth serials of the public broadcaster. “Those who wanted programs with a bit of excitement and adventure could only go to foreign productions such as Bonanza or Ivanhoe.† Captain Zeppos changed that. “The captain was a kind of James Bond avant la lettre,” says Peter Bouckaert, producer of the new Zeppos film. “An enigmatic figure who could ride horses, fencing and drive cool cars. That had never been seen in Flanders.”
The captain’s timing was optimal on another level. Captain Zeppos was not the first youth serial that rolled off the band at the then BRT. Experiments with biweekly follow-up stories had been going on since 1955. These experiments ensure that at the start of the shooting period, Captain Zeppos a well-organized team is ready, brought together by Bert Struys, a legendary director who later also stood at the cradle of series such as Fabian of Fallada† The Sword of Arduwan or Johan and the Alverman† “The team he brought together was brimming with talent,” says Van Camp. “And with Captain Zeppos were able to show them for the first time what they were capable of.”
Not only the team behind the camera was brimming with talent. A whole series of big names also appeared in front of the camera. Starting with Senne Rouffaer, at the time a fixed value on the boards of the Brussels KVS, who took on the role of the captain. But actors such as Vera Veroft, Cyriel Van Gent or Vic Moeremans had already more than earned their stripes in the theater. That they made a trip to television was – again – the credit of director Struys. He was also working at the KVS and found it just as useful to recruit his television actors there.
In the book The Children of Zeppos Rouffaer explains what the advantages were. †Captain Zeppos I played while playing Richard III and Hamlet in the KVS. During our hour break at the KVS we rehearsed the serials in a small room of the theater. Scenes were put together, the dialogues rehearsed and the places worked out where we should stand. Then we had one day to do that in front of the camera.”
By the way, it was not the intention that Rouffaer would go down in the history books as Captain Zeppos† It was actually the intention that Rouffaer would direct the game for the series. After all, theater actors were not used to switching between different scenes and different emotions and could use some coaching from Rouffaer. The role of Zeppos was initially reserved for Ward De Ravet. But when he had to undergo hip surgery just before the recording period and action scenes were no longer an option, Rouffaer had to jump in.
The acting of Rouffaer and co. not only did the viewing figures peak in their own country, it also aroused interest from abroad. “At that time, the British public broadcaster BBC had a hard time casting famous actors in its youth series,” says Van Camp. “They turned their noses up at that. In Captain Zeppos it was full of experienced actors, which is why the British were so charmed by the series.” The series was dubbed into English and found its way through the BBC to Nigeria, Australia and even Iran. The series was also shown closer to home in Germany and the Netherlands. “As a result, Senne was often recognized abroad as well,” says Rouffaer’s son Bruno. “Whether in the Black Forest or at the Eiffel Tower, Senne was addressed as ‘captain’ everywhere. In Paris, we even went running with the whole family when a gang of Dutchmen suddenly spotted us.”
The most iconic scene in the series has to be one where the captain drives his Amphicar into the water. The Zeppos sailing car was one of the absolute eye-catchers of the series. But although Zeppos and his amphibious car in 2022 seem inextricably linked, there was no trace of the Amphicar when the captain appeared on the screen in 1964. In that first season, our hero had to make do with an Austin Champ – the British answer to the popular American Jeep. It was only when screenwriter Louis De Groof read an article in the newspaper about an amphibious car with which the German police patrolled both the road and the water in the port of Hamburg that the idea arose to bring such a thing to the set of zeppos to get. Once there, the sailing car immediately became a phenomenon.
Bruno Rouffaer, who takes on the role of Frank in the series, still vividly remembers a series of recordings with the Amphicar in the Ghent port area. “Thousands of people stood on the side of the road waiting for the car to go into the water.” Despite its popularity on the television screen, the Amphicar – a German product – never became a sales success. In total about 4,000 copies were made, until the manufacturer pulled the plug in 1968. Once in the water, the car was too difficult to drive, made water at the slightest wave action and also required a lot of maintenance. For example, a whole series of moving parts had to be supplied with new lubricant after every boat trip.
A few notes from the opening tune of Captain Zeppos enough to catapult you back to the black and white early days of television. The tune is so firmly ingrained in our collective memory that everyone can whistle it effortlessly, even those who are not nearly old enough to play the tune. Captain Zeppos-have actively experienced hype. However, the tune had nothing to do with Zeppos when it came into existence. “The song is actually called ‘Living it Up’ and was written by the German composer Bert Kaempfert”, says Robin Broos, journalist and expert on all kinds of film music. “At that time there was no budget to have a separate soundtrack composed for television series. And so the sonorizer – in this case it was Pieter Verlinden – had to look for music that suited the series. That’s how he ended up with ‘Living it Up’, which was released in 1963.”
That way of working may seem strange now, but Broos points out that the 1960s were really different times in terms of music consumption. “There weren’t many opportunities to discover new music. You couldn’t just poke around in some online music catalogs. There was a lot of new music that people did not know at all and that you could easily use as a tune for a television series.”
The fact that Zeppos’s tune has stuck with you this way has of course also to do with the quality of the song. Kaempfert was therefore a big name in the music world, explains Broos. “He has written some classics such as ‘Strangers in the Night’ for Frank Sinatra or ‘LOVE’ for Nat King Cole. But his specialty was easy listening music of the kind that sticks in your head forever. Like the Zeppos tune or the music you hear when you walk past the fairy tale of the Indian Water Lilies in the Efteling.”
A series like Captain Zeppos would nowadays be accompanied by a whole range of lunch boxes, drinking bottles, fancy dress costumes and action figures. But even before this kind of merchandising was officially introduced, the public broadcaster realized that the figure of the captain could also be used next to the television screen. In the aftermath of the series, a number of Zeppos books were released. Based on the scenarios by Louis De Groof and enhanced with photos from the series. And those books sold like hot cakes, says Bruno Rouffaer. “During the weekend I drove, together with Senne, from one Standaard Boekhandel to another. And it was always the same scenes; long lines of people queuing for a signature from the captain in their copies. I was also allowed to sign. I did that as Frank, my character in the series. Usually I added a dog paw of our Saint Bernard Aster who was also featured in Captain Zeppos.”
Zeppos: The Mercator track, in theaters from Wednesday.