Director Denise Waddingham on 75 years of the British Council in Prague
On Sunday June 13 it will be exactly 75 years since the British Council first opened in Prague, with a ceremony attended by President Beneš and other dignitaries. The Communists forced the UK education and cultural outreach institution out of Czechoslovakia in 1950, but it later returned and since the early 1990s has helped thousands upon thousands of Czechs obtain UK qualifications. Just ahead of its 75th anniversary, I spoke to the current director of the British Council in Prague, Denise Waddingham.
The British Council was founded in the 1930s. When did its association with Czechoslovakia begin?
“We were founded in 1934 and we started working with the then Czechoslovakia from, I think, 1938.
“During the war the British Council supported European institutes that were created in the UK and I think we began working with the Czechoslovak Institute from 1938.
“My understanding, from the archives that I’ve seen, is that many Czechs who were in exile in the UK during the war got together and had musical events, literary events – and we helped support that.
“So we actually got to know Czechoslovaks quite well during that time.
“When we set up the very first British Council and the first British Institute in Prague, in 1946, the people who came to establish the British Council were people who had worked very closely with Czechs during the war in the UK.”
What do you know about the beginnings of the British Council here in Prague in 1946? What kind of things was the organisation doing here?
“I believe that we would have come out to Prague fairly shortly, I suppose, after the end of the second world war. Then the British ambassador came as well.
“So we had the British Council office. We were originally on Dlouhá třída, near Náměstí Republiky. I think we had a small office there, because I’ve seen all the correspondence.
“And then we eventually managed to get the new premises at the Kounicky Palace on Panská, which is very beautiful and obviously now houses the Mucha Museum.
“So we established a British Institute, which was really the public-facing side of our work, and we started working with the university, with teacher trainers, and started supported English language learning.
“Then we had a library with books – so actually giving access to English materials and books.
“Many Czechs in exile in the UK during the war got together and had musical events, literary events – and we helped support that.”
“And we started doing a lot of cultural events.
“For me it’s fascinating that so soon after the war… I was thinking about this last month, with the anniversary of the Prague Uprising – to think that 10, 11 months later, here we were.
“I know that in May 1946 we brought a very famous UK conductor, Sir Adrian Boult, to conduct the Czech Philharmonic at the Prague International Music Festival.”
Also I guess the opening of the British Council on Panská was a quite a big deal? It was even reported on by The Times.
“That’s right. We opened on the 13th of June, 1946 and President Beneš and Madam Beneš attended, as did the prime minister, as well of course as the British ambassador.
“So that’s great. We had the president, we had the prime minister – it was a big deal, as you say.”
Also I guess Beneš would have really appreciated the work of the British Council, having been the head of the Czech government in exile in the UK during the war?
“Absolutely. He was a big supporter.
“I know that later that year, in the autumn, it seemed like there were a lot of cultural events as well, and he attended some of them.
“There was a film festival where we screened a number of films that had queues of people trying to attend; I think he went to some of those.
“We had a theatre season in which we showed Othello and Hamlet; there were a number of gala performances and President Beneš attended one of them.
“And there was a waiting list of 14,000 people trying to get to these theatre performances!”
That’s amazing. What happened after the Communist takeover in February 1948? I’m sure the Communists didn’t look very favourably on a Western organisation such as yours.
“That’s right. We came under increasing pressure, of course, from the authorities. Things were very difficult.
“There was still a great deal of demand from the Czech people, and support.
“Beneš was a big supporter.”
“I know that there were lots of anglophile societies all around the country and we were helping to support then: providing materials and expertise.
“But yes, of course we came under close scrutiny.
“There were a couple of scandals that I’ve seen some press clippings for, and in Bratislava our representative was actually shot, at some point.
“That was also reported on in the press and I’ve seen it in the archives, but I don’t know too much about it.
“But clearly it was a very difficult time. It was a challenging time for the staff that we had here and we had quite a lot of London-appointed staff, obviously, at the time.
“Eventually in 1950 we were formally asked to withdraw from Czechoslovakia and had to close down all of our institutes and remove everyone from the country.”
But then you came back in the 1960s. Did the British Council stay through the following decades, or did it have to leave again during normalisation?
“My understanding is that we were back by the early ‘60s. We would have been operating out of the British Embassy.
“I haven’t seen the archive material for these years, but I know that we were up and running again and doing the kind of cultural relations work that we’ve always done, arranging from expertise to come from the UK into the country, and for Czechs to go to the UK.
“And of course things changed dramatically after 1989.”
I presume the fall of communism wasn’t just a great boon for millions of people in the region but was also great for the British Council, because you must have had a huge hunger for English in this part of the world?
“We really officially reopened, and opened a very large teaching centre and UK qualifications work, from 1992.
“Actually in 1992 there was a government-to-government agreement on cultural cooperation between the then Czechoslovakia and the United Kingdom.
“That’s actually a cultural agreement that we still operate under and it gives the British Council the right to work here – and gives the Czech Centres, for example, the right to work in the UK.
“So we established our premises, which many people remember, on Národní in 1992 and we started teaching directly to the public.
“We had a theatre season in which we showed Othello and Hamlet. There was a waiting list of 14,000 trying to get to these performances!”
“But also of course what was really important at that time was the support that we gave to the ministries of education right across Eastern Europe, and to universities and teachers and teacher associations, to support the change from Russian being the second language to English being the second English.”
You mentioned the old British Council centre on Národní. I used to go there and it was a lifeline. I was there probably three afternoons a week, reading The Guardian or The Face or whatever. Also I think it’s the first place where I ever used the internet – they had a couple of computers there. I have a lot to thank the British Council myself, I’ve got to say. You were telling me that you began your career with the British Council in Bratislava but trained here in Prague – what are your memories of that time?
“It’s kind of funny how it’s come full circle for me. It wasn’t really planned or intended.
“But yes, my first job with the British Council was as an English teacher in Bratislava and it was in 1999 – not so many years after the big changes – and it was really interesting.
“I didn’t have a lot of training, but it was probably my first ever business trip with the British Council.
“It was terribly exciting at the time: to come on the train from Bratislava to Prague and to stay in a hotel and to go to the centre on Národní for a weekend’s teacher training.
“There were a bunch of teachers. I think we were from Hungary and from Slovakia and from the Czech Republic. That was good, yes.
“It was fascinating for me and very nice to have returned so many years later as the director here in the Czech Republic.”
Today what is the main thrust of what the British Council is doing in the Czech Republic?
“Really the mission of the British Council hasn’t changed since we were given our Royal Charter in the 1940s.
“It really is around promoting cultural relationships and understanding between peoples of different countries, promoting a better knowledge of the United Kingdom, developing a wider knowledge of the English language and encouraging cultural, scientific and technological and other educational cooperation.
“In the Czech Republic our current work is very much led by the continued demand for high-quality English teaching and UK qualifications, which you’ve mentioned.
“Every year we deliver over 10,000 UK qualifications in the Czech Republic, working across the country with our partner centres, from Olomouc to Pilsen, for example.
“There were a couple of scandals that I’ve seen some press clippings for, and in Bratislava our representative was actually shot.”
“The British Council operates across 110 countries globally and actually reaches into many more, working remotely, so we’re always shifting our resources around the world, according to where the greatest demand is.
“Obviously in the 1990s Eastern Europe, Central Europe, was an absolute priority, because of the massive changes that were going on here.
“But we have to shift priorities where they’re most needed.”
My final question is, How much continuity do you feel there is between what the British Council was doing here in this part of the world seven decades ago and what you are doing today?
“As I said, the mission hasn’t really changed.
“How we go about it, the methods, have changed quite dramatically as changes in technology have enabled people to do things you just couldn’t even imagine so many years ago.
“The Covid crisis has completely transformed the way we’ve been teaching for the past year.
“Now all of our lessons are online, though we will definitely be going back to face-to-face classes, hopefully in the summer.
“But it was unthinkable to imagine that you would be able to deliver teaching directly to a thousand students, and to children as well, online.
“There’s a very good relationship, I think, between the UK and the Czech Republic in general.
“But our activities have continued and the core of what we do – wider knowledge of the English language, culture, arts and education – is still there.”