Historian Dean Vuletic on the Czechs, the Eurovision and Eastern Europe’s Intervision

Dean Vuletic, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

How did Karel Gott become the only artist from a communist state to take part in the Eurovision Song Contest? What was Czechoslovakia’s role in the Eastern Bloc’s parallel Intervision? And why were rockers Kabát such a bad fit for the Eurovision? Ahead of next weekend’s final of the pan-European extravaganza these were some of the subjects I discussed with Vienna-based historian Dean Vuletic, author of Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest.

In some countries, such as the UK, the Eurovision is regarded as being quite camp. Is it the same in other parts of the continent?

“No. Eurovision has different reputations, different images, in different places.

“In the UK, for example, it does have a very big following among the gay community.

“In Azerbaijan, where the contest is very popular and where the government invested a lot of money into hosting it in 2012, it certainly doesn’t have that appeal – at least publicly, because tolerance toward sexual minorities in Azerbaijan is of course much, much lower than in the United Kingdom.

“So it really depends where you go.”

Dean Vuletic,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
Often there’s a perception that voting in the Eurovision is political, that countries vote against other countries for political reasons. Is that a valid perception?

“That is a valid perception, but only in a small number of cases.

“For example, we see votes not being exchanged for political reasons between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

“Or historically we’ve also seen it in the relationship between Turkey on the one side and Greece and Cyprus on the other.

“Traditionally there have also been strong voting blocs in regions such as Scandinavia, and more recently in the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union.

“We’ve never seen Slovakia and the Czech Republic in a final in Eurovision at the same time, so we’ve never been able to test a voting bloc between them.”

“But I think it’s also interesting to see that Central Europe is a region where that phenomenon has not existed at all.

“This is partly because states such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia have not been consistently represented in the Eurovision Song Contest since the end of the Cold War.

“Actually we’ve never seen Slovakia and the Czech Republic represented in a final in the Eurovision Song Contest at the same time, so we’ve never been able to test a voting bloc between them.

Karel Gott represented Austria in the Eurovision,  photo: YouTube
“But certainly between Poland and Austria, Hungary, in Central Europe a voting bloc has never historically existed.”

Speaking of history, in 1968 the Czech singer Karel Gott represented Austria in the Eurovision. How did that come about?

“This was of course the time of the Prague Spring and the Austrian national broadcaster, ORF, chose Karel Gott as a sign of Austria’s support for the liberalisation during the Prague Spring.

“ORF had close relations at this time with Czechoslovak Television. And we remember that it was ORF that was key in broadcasting from Prague images of the Soviet invasion, when the Prague Spring was quashed later in 1968.

“ORF chose Karel Gott as a sign of Austria’s support for the liberalisation during the Prague Spring.”

“So there was a very special relationship between Austria and Czechoslovakia at this time and this was certainly reflected in ORF’s selection of Karel Gott as the representative for Austria.

“Also his song was very symbolic, because it speaks about neighbours not knowing each other, so there was a veiled reference to the Iron Curtain in the song as well.”

In your book I came across one, for me, really fascinating titbit, which was that in the 1970s Karel Gott did a song in honour of Jan Palach and the music was from All By Myself by Eric Carmen. Could you tell us about that, please?

“Karel Gott got some bad press after the end of communism.

“He and other stars, such as Helena Vondráčková, were seen as being very much connected to the communist regime, because they didn’t experience the censorship or the limitations on travel faced by other artists, such as Marta Kubišová.”

And also they both signed the Anti-Charter, right?

“Exactly, they both signed the Anti-Charter declaration.

“However, there were songs by Karel Gott that were censored.

“For example, right after the Prague Spring, in 1969, he made a song Hej, páni konšelé that was seen by the authorities as being critical of politicians, so that record was pulped.

“Then he also produced this song in honour of Jan Palach. That was just before he signed the Anti-Charter declaration.

“So there was pressure on Karel Gott as well to toe the party line.

“I think every person who lives in any system finds themselves in situations where they have to compromise, where they have to weigh up whether they have to take some sort of moral line or whether they should pursue their ambitions, do things for personal gain, for the benefit of their career, for the benefit of their families.

Photo: Czech TV
“It’s difficult to put yourself in this situation, which you haven’t been in, and to decide what you would do or how you would perform in such a situation.

“So I think that the position of any artist in this system was very complex and it is unfair just to criticise Karel Gott as having only profited from that system.”

Parallel to the Eurovision was Eastern Europe’s Intervision Song Contest. I was reading about it and it seems quite complicated to me. Is it the case that it was an international event for just a few years and had previously existed only in individual Eastern European states?

“No. Intervision actually existed in two series.

“The first series was from 1965 to 1968 and this was the series that was led by Czechoslovak Television.

Jiří Pelikán,  photo: Czech TV
“It was established by Czechoslovak Television as an equivalent of Eurovision but not necessarily an alternative or a challenge.

“The head of Czechoslovak Television, Jiří Pelikán, actually wanted Western European states to come on board and to join this contest as some sort of pan-European version of the Eurovision Song Contest, which would promote cooperation between the Eastern and Western blocs.

“So it was also about the liberalising reforms that were happening in Czechoslovakia since 1964, about this new openness towards Western European cultural influences that preceded the Prague Spring.

“But the organisers of Eurovision were actually not that excited about this option, partly because they didn’t know if they would continue with Eurovision itself, because it was getting a lot of criticism in the Western European media and they weren’t sure if this should programme should continue.

“The other reason was that they were still skeptical of cooperating with television stations from Eastern Europe, because these were still Communists and they weren’t quite sure how much they wanted to legitimise Communist rule in Eastern Europe through such cooperation.”

Soviet invasion,  photo: Czech Radio
So did 1968 and the Soviet invasion bring an end to that first version of the Intervision Song Contest?

“Exactly. And in 1968 we actually do see some Western European states coming on board, such as Austria, Spain, West Germany.

“That Intervision, which was held in Karlovy Vary, was actually the most pan-European televised song contest to be held in Europe during the Cold War.

“It really was an impressive event in these terms and actually newspaper reports at the time said that the Americans might even join the contest the next year in 1969.

“But of course that was not going to happen because the competition was ended with the quashing of the Prague Spring, which also these liberal heads of Czechoslovak Television being removed from their posts [Jiří Pelikán later became an MEP after moving to Italy]”.

“I’ve seen statistics that in the 1980s a quarter of the Czechoslovak national audience was watching Eurovision.”

If we can go back to the Eurovision, the Czechs joined it in 2007 and since then have taken part six or seven times. But it hasn’t really taken off here. Where have they gone wrong as regards the Eurovision? Is it simply that they’re trying too late to get on board with an institution that has existed for so long?

“The Czechoslovak national audience actually watched the Eurovision Song Contest during the Cold War.

“It was broadcast on Czechoslovak Television from 1965, as part of these exchange agreements between Eastern and Western Europe.

“And it was actually quite popular. I’ve seen statistics that have said that in the 1980s a quarter of the national audience was watching.”

Illustrative photo: Catch 2232,  CC BY-SA 3.0
So it did have a history here?

“It did have a history, yes. But then after the Velvet Revolution viewing figures went down.

“One of my theories is that at the time, with the coming to power of Havel and the people around him, musical tastes in the Czech Republic tended to favour rock much more than pop.

“The pop that was being showcased at Eurovision was similar to the pop that was being showcased at Intervision and that stars such as Karel Gott and Helena Vondráčková were producing in Czechoslovakia.

“It didn’t have that same socio-political meaning in terms of being the music of resistance that rock music had.

“So after the Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic you see that public musical tastes are rather different and that rock is considered the music of cool.

Kabát,  photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio
“Why hasn’t the Czech Republic done that well since 2007? Well the first song was this song was by the rock group Kabát, which just did not fit in at all with the usual aesthetic of Eurovision.

“These older rockers in denim outfits, yelling in Czech, just didn’t go down well.”

But why not?

“[Laughs] Why not? Because Eurovision is a pop song contest, even though the Finns had sent a heavy metal band before, in 2006, and had won their first Eurovision ever.

“But this group Lordy was a heavy metal group dressed up as monsters, singing in English.”

“Lordy were memorable. Kabát were not memorable.”

It was like comedy metal?

“Yes. And it was memorable. Kabát were not memorable.”

If I understand it right, the Czechs have never gotten out of the semi-finals at the Eurovision. You were telling me earlier that this year they may have a chance of getting to the final.

Gabriela Gunčíková,  photo: Radka Tomášková / CC BY-SA 3.0
“No, the Czechs have gotten to the final once, with Gabriela Gunčíková, two years ago.

“This year a lot of commentators are saying that the Czechs have a very good chance of getting into the final with this song Lie to Me by Mikolas Josef.

“I would agree with these commentators. I think that the song is a very strong one. I think it’s the Czechs’ best entry since re-entering the contest. So let’s hope.”

If the Czechs were to win, what would it mean for Prague to host the Eurovision?

“I think it would be fantastic for Prague to host the Eurovision Song Contest.

“First of all because I personally love Prague and I think it is a great city to visit.

Mikolas Josef,  photo: ČTK
“A lot of cities want to host Eurovision because it draws them a lot of tourists. This would not change much for Prague, because it’s already a tourist mecca.

“But I think that it would be a great opportunity for Czechs to get to know the Eurovision and for the contest to increase its popularity among the Czech audience.

“This is a pan-European event. I did research for this book all across Europe and wherever I went whenever I mentioned the Eurovision Song Contest almost every single time the person with whom I was speaking had an opinion about it.

“It was always a conversation starter – whether people like it or not, everyone knows about it.

“The Czechs should certainly not be outcasts in Europe in this regard, so I hope that they too will become more active viewers of Eurovision and partake in this pan-European experience.”

Long-term followers of Radio Prague may recognise Dean Vuletic’s name; he was a journalist at the station for around a year in the early 2000s.