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Smart thinking from the people running the content business.

No Shelter for Belgian producer Tim Van Aelst

Accomplished Belgian TV producer Tim Van Aelst and his company Shelter made their names with comedy hits like Benidorm Bastards. Here, he explains why he recently decided to shut the prodco down.

Tim Van Aelst

A historian, a bio-engineer and a landscape architect walk into a production house… What happened next was no joke: Tim Van Aelst founded Shelter, one of Belgium’s most successful TV production companies of the past 15 years.

A shock wave went through the industry when the 44-year-old writer and director closed it down last month. The company, founded in 2009, was not in decline – quite the opposite – but Van Aelst wasn’t going to wait for that before making his move.

“It’s been such a blast, and it’s wonderful to end at a peak,” says Van Aelst from his home in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium. “I see companies go down and I think, ‘You should have stopped earlier!’”

In its 13-year existence, Shelter produced seven programmes that together won more than 35 international awards, including Emmys and Golden Roses for hidden-camera titles like Benidorm Bastards (which aired on 2BE) and Did You Get the Message? (VTM) and sketch comedy show What If? (2BE). Collectively, Shelter’s programmes account for some 100 sales to foreign territories.

The majority of those are down to pensioner prank show Benidorm Bastards, produced locally as Off Their Rockers in the US, where Van Aelst travelled to direct and the show for NBC and later Lifetime TV. ITV in the UK also aired its own production of the format, as did broadcasters in the Netherlands, the Nordics, Turkey, Brazil, Spain, Canada, Italy and Estonia.

It’s worth noting that Benidorm Bastards was Shelter’s first programme – a remarkable start for the then new production house.

“Nobody knew us. The guys I partnered with were a bio-engineer [Bart Cannaerts] and a landscape architect [Tom Baetens],” Van Aelst recalls with a laugh. “The bio-engineer, he was doing some stand-up and he was funny. We partnered up and we just had a blast.”

Benidorm Bastards has been adapted in several countries, including the US and UK

Van Aelst had entered the TV landscape after graduating college with a degree in history. His first gigs were getting coffee and lunch, but he just wanted to be in the room. “I really wanted to do TV, but I had no training, no experience whatsoever. I just worked my way up.”

He eventually co-founded a production company called Toreador, which made the Belgian version of UK hidden-camera comedy Trigger Happy TV. Toreador’s parent company dissolved and the creators scattered, with Van Aelst signing on with Belgian commercial broadcaster VTM to create Shelter.

From the beginning, Van Aelst and his team wanted to improve the quality of the comedy genre. “What was lacking in Belgium was an eye for detail in sketch comedy,” he says. “We approached it with eye for soundtrack, for music, for camera movements. We saw drama series and thought we’d shoot like that. Everybody was still using fixed cameras, with boring angles. It was all about the joke.”

He didn’t invent sketch comedy in Belgium, but he was the first to insist it could go beyond the country’s borders. That was the difference between Shelter and everybody else. “People were kind of laughing at me at the beginning when I said we’ve got to sell this. I wasn’t modest about our international ambitions, which is very un-Belgian.”

In fact, Van Aelst credits a lack of experience for making it all work. “That is one reason I needed to shut Shelter down after so many years. I want to have that feeling of starting again. A beginner lacks experience and technical skills and that kind of stuff, but you can buy that, you can learn it. What you can’t buy are ideas. And ideas, great ideas, are coming from people who are like, ‘Fuck all of this, let’s do it this way.’ They don’t know any better. And then you take risks.”

Hidden-camera show Did You Get the Message?

He has other reasons for wanting to call it a day at Shelter. He ran the company together with his partner, Sofie Peeters. She acted as producer, he as writer and director. The pair had a baby earlier this year, and they also suddenly lost a dear friend who was only in his 50s.

Peeters asked Van Aelst if he would want to keep going at Shelter if he knew he would not live beyond 50. “And I thought no, I want to be open to new projects.”

Over the years, Van Aelst has turned down many offers to write or direct series and movies, both at home and abroad, because of the pressure of running a prodco. “Of course, people were sad to see Shelter go, but it’s time to move on and do some different things,” he says. “Life has so much more to offer. We literally chose time over money.”

And there should be no shortage of projects for Van Aelst to work on. Belgian TV is more popular than ever, and international viewers are digging Belgium’s surreal, Scandi-like take on everything from thrillers to political dramas and dark comedy.

Van Aelst credits government funding through the Flanders Audiovisual Fund for much of Belgian TV’s upward trajectory, but also the general Belgian zeitgeist. “That combination of dark and funny, we’re good at it. It’s in our genes to be like that. It goes back hundreds of years.”