History of Czech puppet theatre recalled, Stereolab explain Czech influence on new track

In this week's edition of the Arts a curator of a new museum of puppets and the circus in south Bohemia tells us about the history of puppetry in the Czech Lands. And the leader of the English rock band Stereolab explains why a track on their new album has the Czech name Kyberneticka Babicka.

A new museum of puppets and the circus has just been opened in the south Bohemian town of Prachatice. The person in charge of the puppet collection is Lenka Saldova; she told me a little about the history of puppet theatre in this part of the world.

"What's unique about Czech puppet theatre is the sheer amount of folk theatre that existed here and the number of folk puppeteers who travelled around Czech villages from the second half of the 19th century. At the start of the 20th century many families had their own little theatres. Also the first ever puppetry magazine in the world was founded in the Czech Lands, as was the first international puppeteers' association."

Today puppet shows are aimed almost exclusively at children. But that wasn't the case 150 years ago.

"In the beginning it was intended for the whole village. It became more of a thing for children later, in family puppet theatres and in clubs. In the early days you would have seen plays like Faust or the well-known Czech play 'Fair in Hudlice'. But then from the beginning of the 20th century more fairytales were performed."

The performers of such works were wandering puppeteers, who went from village to village and often crossed national borders.

"A lot of puppeteers came here from England, from Holland and from various parts of Germany and Austria. But then some Czech puppeteers began venturing to Austria - the earliest known Czech puppeteer was Jiri Brát and archives there mention him. What's interesting is that most puppet theatres were in the Czech language, unlike real theatres which were often in German. So folk puppeteers helped keep awareness of Czech alive."

Jiri Brat may be the first known Czech artist but he is by no means the biggest name in the history of puppet theatre in the Czech Lands, says Lenka Saldova.

"Probably the most famous Czech puppeteer - about whom there are many legends - is Matej Kopecky. In Prachatice we have puppets made by his grandson, Arnost Kopecky. Like many puppeteers in those days he wandered from village to village and lived in great poverty, and he was forced to sell his puppets. They were bought by the Union of Friends of Puppet Theatre, who gave them to the National Museum."

Among the 3,000 puppets at the museum in Prachatice you will also find work by the great Czech animator Jiri Trnka.

"Maybe it's not well known that Jiri Trnka wasn't just a maker of animated films - during the 1930s he worked at the Divadlo Ferialnich osad in Plzen, where he did a 'variety' show for Josef Skupa. One piece he made is a beautiful figure skater. The pieces we have are actually replicas, because the originals are still being used in the Spejbl and Hurvinek theatre."

The legendary Czech animator Jiri Trnka inspired my next guest, Tim Gane, the leader of the English band Stereolab. The track which opens and closes their new album Fab Four Suture is called Kyberneticka Babicka (Cybernetic Granny) after a classic early 1960s film by Trnka. When Stereolab played in Prague earlier this week, Tim told me a bit about the film, and why it had inspired him.

"This is one of his last films, actually, and it's about a kind of futuristic world of contraptions and all kinds of interesting things. It's a really great film and it's got really great music, but this wasn't why it was called that. It was a film I'd seen when I was younger and I was quite a fan of these type of things.

Kyberneticka Babicka
"Then when I was in Japan in 2001 I saw a DVD of it and I bought it for my son - I like these things so I thought he might, and he likes it - and I was just watching it with him around the time of recording in France and I just thought it was a really nice title for the track I was working on. Because it had the same kind of open-ended, a little bit futuristic but a bit absurd or a bit silly...sounding. And it's got a nice kind of sympathetic nature that would kind of go with the film, this music."

Are you interested in any other aspects of Czech culture or Czechoslovak culture?

"I'm quite a big fan of some Czech posters - I really like both Czech and Polish art in terms of film and theatre and event posters. I'm really a big fan of that sort of style, not that I'm a super aficionado or super knowledgeable about it.

"And of course I like Jan Svankmajer, his films I was really impressed with. I like the general rather crudely observed sort of humour of these things...I think it's quite an nice alternative to the general way to look at things. And walking around the city there are some aspects of the architecture which actually quite mirror that."

I was reading the other day that Jiri Trnka designed the facades on the little houses on Golden Lane at Prague Castle.

"I didn't know that..."

This isn't Stereolab's first time in Prague - you've been here how many times?

"Three before, so four altogether."

When were you first here and what were your impressions when you first came here?

"I really liked it...I nearly got run over actually, it was the closest I was ever to being run over, by two trams at the same time. They were both coming towards me in opposite directions, opposite this club called the Belmondo, and I had to literally just jump and run across the road in front of cars, otherwise two seconds later and I would have been...phut.

"But I thought it was really nice...I like these kind of dark, windy lanes. It was actually weirdly different than the other parts of Europe I would have known."

There's about a ten-year gap between when you were first here and now - how do you perceive the changes here?

"I think that obviously the whole kind of tourist aspect of it has exploded. Everything's now in English and I don't remember anything being in English when I first came...I think the general vibe and feel of the place is pretty much the same. It hasn't gone for a kind of radical yuppie reinvention that you think might have happened.

"They don't measure out the food in grammes as much as they used to, but they still put how many grammes it was, which is still a kind of throwback to the old days, I suppose, that you've got a hundred grammes of pork or whatever. When we first came they would measure it on a kind of scale...it was kind of weird (laughs)."