The accidental diplomat: Dom Joly on his “magical” year in early ‘90s Prague

Dom Joly, photo: archive of Dom Joly

Today a successful travel writer, Dom Joly is perhaps best known for the hidden camera comedy show Trigger Happy TV, an enormous hit in the early 2000s. But a decade or so before that he spent an eventful year here in Prague, working as a diplomat with the European Commission when Czechoslovakia was going through a period of major change in the early 1990s. Joly discussed his time in the city, an experience he clearly looks back on with true fondness, in a Skype interview from his home in the UK.

You came to Prague in your early to mid 20s. What had you been doing prior to that?

“I’d left university and gone to live in Paris for a year. And I’d come back and got a job at MTV.

“I was really excited. I thought, Ooh, telly, music – it’s going to be great.

“I was a runner at MTV, literally making sandwiches.

“And I’d forgotten that when I was at university I’d applied to be an intern for the European Commission, I assumed in Brussels.

“Then one day I was in the kitchen in MTV in Camden in London, about to make a toastie for Headbangers Ball and I get a call from this woman.

“She said, This is Susan Beresford and I’m ringing from the Commission’s delegation in Prague. We’ve got your thing and you’ve got through and when will you be joining us?

“And I was like, What, Prague? What?

“So basically this form I’d filled out to go and work in Brussels had kind of wound its way through the bureaucratic corridors of Brussels and for some weird reason – maybe because I spoke languages – they decided that I would do an internship in Prague.

“If someone came and really had a big problem, I’d nod and say I’d refer that back to Brussels. But I didn’t.”

“So I thought, Great. I went downstairs and resigned from MTV.

“They said, Have you got another job? And I go, Yeah, I’m off to be a diplomat in Prague. Which was a first for them.

“Then I had a very naff white Golf GTI convertible. So I just got in that with my girlfriend and just drove across Europe and came to Prague.

“That was one of the few convertibles in Prague at the time.”

What exactly were you doing? What was your day to day job?

“Basically the European Commission had set up delegations in three or four of the recently liberated or ‘decommunisted’ countries.

“They had one in Budapest, I think they had one in Warsaw and they certainly had one in Prague.

“It was the European Commission’s delegation where I think they would try to help with things like PHARE [to assist CEE applicant countries preparing to join the EU] and various aid programmes.

“And they were all, I think, doing a really good job.

“I turned up and had no idea what I was supposed to be doing.

“There had clearly been some terrible mix-up. I think they thought I’d done European Studies at the LSE – I’d actually done Arabic and politics at SOAS.

“I turned up there and was given an office. And I’ll be honest with you, I sat for seven months and I had very little idea what I was supposed to be doing there.

“If someone came and really had a big problem, I’d nod and say I’d refer that back to Brussels. But I didn’t. So I apologise for that.

“They never told me what I was supposed to be doing – I was the intern.

“But on the plus side, I think I did a great PR job for Prague, because I’ve written about it a lot.

“I fell massively in love with Czechoslovakia and Prague in particular.

“And it was just an incredibly special time to be there.

Dom Joly, photo: © paul bednall photography 2011, CC BY-SA 2.0

“I remember the first thing that really hit me when I got into Prague.

“As I was driving in there were all these buildings, apartment blocks, and I was thinking, My God, this place is hideous – I can’t live here.

“Then suddenly I came through and got that view across the Charles Bridge looking up to the Castle and I was thinking, Oh my God, this place is incredible!

“The first thing I noticed was there was no advertising. It was really weird.

“Obviously, every city you go to has got advertising – and it was almost the lack of advertising that hit me.

“It was like having silence. It was only after while I realised that was what was weird.

“And it was in this very odd hiatus time, where Václav Klaus hadn’t taken over and it really was still an almost idyllic period really.

“It was never going to last.

“Once I was late for a meeting. I had a German who was in charge of me – he was very good, called Gerhardt – and he sent me to a meeting at the Ministry of Culture. He said, I’ll meet you there.

“And we went to the Ministry of Culture. I remember it had these weird lifts with no doors – they were like open boxes going up and down.

“I went in and sat in the anteroom, waiting for Gerhardt, and I was ushered into the room with the minister.

“I was like [laughs], No, no, no! I’m an idiot – Gerhardt’s not here. And they said, He’s ready.

“So I go in and it was quite a sort of Bond baddie type room. No carpets, just a desk and this young guy sitting there.

“He sat down and said, Mr. Joly, nice to see you, blah blah blah – he started talking.

“I don’t get nervous but I just thought, This is ridiculous. I got the giggles – I started laughing.

“And he said, What’s the issue here?

“I said, I’m really sorry, I’m going to come clean with you: My boss isn’t here and I’ve no idea what I’m doing. Three months ago I was making sandwiches at MTV – and now I’m here talking to the minister of culture in Czechoslovakia.

“He said, Oh, don’t worry about it – a year ago I was a playwright and now I’m the minister [laughs].

“So it was kind of that feel that I loved about it.

“Frank Zappa and Lou Reed were sort of vague cultural attaches.

“Every café had the man scratching his goatee, often with a pipe.”

“There was something – in fact the very word bohemian; there was something just pure and bohemian about the place.

“One thing I really remember was I’d been to a lot of places and every time you got somewhere you’d be enjoying it and some guy would go, You’ve just arrived, have you?

“You’d go, Yeah. Then they’d go, If you’d been here three years ago – that’s when it was really cool.

“And what I loved about that Prague moment was when I got to Prague it was the only time in my life I thought, I am here at the right place at the right time – this is the moment to be here.

“It was incredible.”

Was there much of a whiff of the Cold War still in Prague when you arrived?

“Prague just has a whiff of the Cold War about it anyway.

“As you obviously know, and everyone knows, Prague just looked like a film set from every spy film you’ve ever seen.

“I arrived in winter. You crossed the Charles Bridge and there was mist and corners and people huddled – just everything felt like you were straight off the set of Harry’s Game or whatever.

“But yes, there was this Cold War thing as well. I’m obsessed with politics and the whole political situation was so interesting anyway – I just couldn’t stop thinking about stuff.

“I had this stamp, weirdly, that someone had sent me years ago and I’d had it on my wall with a collection of other stuff.

“And it was Hitler looking out from the Castle down over Prague.

“All those things were very weird – coming to Prague and realising that so often you were standing in the footsteps of famous photographs that you’d seen.

“Like the water tower were people looked into Václav Havel’s flat [the StB spied on Havel from the tower at Mánes] – I was obsessed with that, I thought it was really interesting.

Café Slavia, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

“I can’t remember the name but the café on that side…”

Slavia, maybe.

“Slavia, yes. I couldn’t imagine what sort of encounters had gone on there in those days.

“It was just one of the most evocative cities I’ve ever been to in that way.

“Then Wenceslas Square itself – so famous for the actual scene [during the revolution] when everyone was jangling their keys. And when the Russians came in stuff happened there.

“So everywhere I went in that city… I don’t think I’ve ever been more blown away by a city.

“In other cities I’ve had great preconceptions and they didn’t live up to it.

“I just didn’t know about Prague – I didn’t know about it.

“It’s very rare you go somewhere with almost zero knowledge and get so, so blown away by a place.”

Prague in those days had a reputation as a really wild place. You were a young guy in your twenties. What kind of stuff were you getting up to outside of your work?

“Well, there wasn’t much work [laughs]. It was out all the time.

“I used to go to a place called Jo’s Bar.

“When I lived in Paris there was a place called Violon Dingue which was full of American students – and there’s no way I’d go to that.

“But weirdly Jo’s Bar, even though it was run by Americans, kind of felt quite authentic. It was one of the very first bars that opened up.

“That was the centerpiece in Malá Strana and kind of I’d hang there a lot and then from there go off to various places.

“I had an amazing evening one time.

“I went to a place called Bunkr and as far as I know it was one of the politburo’s original nuclear bunkers and it had been turned – in glorious Czech style – into a night club, which I thought was great.

“I remember going there and beer was, you know, eight pence a pint.

Václav Havel, photo: Pavel Matějíček, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“I went there to see the Velvet Underground. Now unfortunately not the sort of definitive line-up of the Velvet Underground – this was Mo Tucker and Sterling Morrison.

“But still, you’re thinking, I’m in Prague, the Velvet Underground – the links between Lou Reed and Václav Havel, I’m in Bunkr, a politburo place, I’m drinking beer for eight pence – it doesn’t get better than this.

“So I watched it and it was a great gig. And at the end Mo Tucker goes, We’d like to thank you all very much and obviously we have very special links with Prague – and we’d particularly like to thank a man who’s supported us and who we’ve supported: Václav Havel.

“And they point. I look to my left and there’s Václav Havel in this kind of dilapidated black bomber jacket. He’s the president, or whatever he was at the time, and he’s just in the mosh pit, standing there!

“I literally just stood there speechless. You couldn’t have had a more perfect Prague evening.

“I was like, No-one would ever believe that story.

“But it happened. It was crazy.”

When you were here was that already the time of all the young American writers, the so-called Left Bank of the ‘90s and all that stuff, with an American poet, or several, in every café?

“Because I’d spent a year in Paris… You know, everyone going to Paris is still desperately trying to cling on to that sort of left-wing bohemian thing. And that left Paris 40 years ago – that’s just gone.

“I speak fluent French, I love the French, but Parisians are wankers – I’m sorry – and it was a horrible place to live.

“So when I came to Prague I didn’t expect that.

“But actually when I got to Prague I think it felt like what I imagined that amazing period in Paris felt like.

“It felt bohemian. It felt like artists were in charge, briefly.

“And yes, every café had the man scratching his goatee, often with a pipe, which was a very affected thing, and – this was pre iPhones, obviously – a notepad.

“They’d just be sipping a beer or a Becherovka or something; normally a Becherovka, just to be poncey.

“They’d be looking out and scribbling something. I knew that it was probably just said, I’m so lonely [laughs].

“I was obsessed with driving my car across the Charles Bridge.”

“I did the same thing. That’s how I started meeting people in Prague.

“I’d sit at bars and I’d have a pack of fags but no lighter, so I could ask people for a light.

“I’d have a notebook so I didn’t look like a loser. I’d have a Penguin Classic of some sort, just lounging on it.

“Yeah, I became one of those – and even grew a little goatee.

“But I loved it. Do you know what, it was honestly magical.”

You mentioned the Mo Tucker show. Were there any other memorable gigs that you went to? I know you’re really into music.

“Who else did I see?”

Nick Cave seemed to be here every year.

“Oh, I did see Nick Cave. He was an early one who came.

“I saw a couple of Czech bands that weren’t too bad. I remember buying their CDs to try and look very alternative when I got back.

“I didn’t actually go to that many gigs when I was there. There weren’t a vast amount in that first year. It was still so new.

“I can’t think… I just drank a lot [laughs], as far as I remember.

“In 2003 I did a show called Dom Joly’s Happy Hour – I was investigating alcohol around the world – and in that I went back to Prague and went to some of my old haunts.

“I went to a place called Velryba. I used to love that place.

Charles Bridge, photo: Štěpánka Budková

“It had a massive mirror above the bar and you could sit and people watch, subtly, in the mirror.

“By that time I was writing, so I’d go and spy on people there.”

A few years later you started working in TV comedy and you had huge hit with Trigger Happy TV, a show based on pranking people. From what you’re saying, you probably didn’t do much of anything in your work, but in your work did you ever do anything prankish, or of that nature?

“No, it wasn’t pranking, I was just behaving like an idiot, I think.

“I was obsessed with driving my car across the Charles Bridge, which is not a prank – it was just something I wanted to do.

“I did once get nearly across and got arrested.

“And then I had to claim – the only time I ever did it – diplomatic immunity. Because I did have diplomatic immunity, which was insane.

“But they looked at me and just couldn’t believe it, and quite rightly so.

“They made me go up to the delegation, which was up near the Castle and the poor guy who was at reception at the delegation – I was sort of brought in by the scruff of my neck and they were like, Is this idiot with you?

“And they went, Sadly [laughs].

“So they had to let me go.

“So not really pranking in that way, no.”

How come you left Prague? Was it simply that you were on a short-term contract?

“Well, my contract was for, I think, nine months. When it finished I stayed on for another three – I stayed for a total of a year, basically.

“I didn’t have a job at that stage and I’d saved up enough money from working at the Commission so I just bummed around for a couple of months.

“I drove around the country, going to weird places.

“And then yeah, I think it was time go to home and try and start my life, really.”

You seem so positive about your experience here? Was there anything, though, that you didn’t enjoy about living here?

“The pollution was bad. I really remember that.

Prague, photo: Kristýna Maková

“I lived slightly above by the Castle, as you dipped down into the sort of bowl of the city, and there were days when they were doing, I think, odd or even number plates: you could only go one day on, one day off.

“It was the first time I lived somewhere where I was actually affected by pollution.

“You could sort of see it. You’d descend into the smog. It was very L.A.ish. It was really thick.

“Actually, one of the problems I found early on in Prague was there were very few places where the food was, you know…

“I love my smažený sýr, my fried cheese and chips and stuff, as much as the next man.

“But there was a bit of a time where I was like, You know what, I need something healthy.

“And there was one Icelandic restaurant, right in the middle of town, and it saved me, because it did a lot of fish and simple stuff like smoked salmon.

“So occasionally after the heavy Czech food I needed to detox a bit.

“Actually I found this book when I was there that I think was called How to Live Healthily in Prague, or Healthy Prague.

“It was like the first concept of eco Prague. And one of the things it told me about were these amazing people that owned horses about half an hour outside Prague.

“So to kind of de-stress I’d get out and go riding all day, which was amazing.

“But no, honestly, I have very, very few negative memories.

“My only negative memories are just that I kind of feel embarrassed that I didn’t do anything to really help.

“But to be honest I was never going to – I’m just not made like that.

“But I’ve spent my entire life being a sort of cultural ambassador for Prague.

“And much as it’s been occasionally ruined by stag party invasions and stuff, it’s one of the most magical places I’ve ever been.”

It sounds like you’re like me in that I feel simply privileged to have been in this city in the early 1990s, at this amazing time of change.

Wenceslas Square, photo: Štěpánka Budková

“Yeah. One of the things I love going back to Prague now is I look at young people sitting in bars, having a great time, and I sidle up to them and I go, Are you enjoying it?

“They go, Yeah, yeah, yeah – love it.

“And I go, You should have been here in ’91. Wow – those were the days.

“So I’ve become that old bastard [laughs] that does that sort of stuff.

“And the other thing that I regret is that there were Czech lessons in the delegation, which I sort of took.

“Czech is the most extraordinary language, in the sense that it’s probably the most useless language in the world to travel in the rest of the world.

“You never meet a Czech speaker [laughs].

“But I once bumped into Jana Novotná at Wimbledon and I impressed her with my, Bohužel, nerozumím česky.

“That was pretty much my only line [laughs].”