Jaroslav Dietl - the father of the Czech serial

Jaroslav Dietl

"I perceive everything as a game and maybe that is the reason why I am not a writer but a screenwriter," said Jaroslav Dietl about his life and work. 'The father of the Czech serial' as he has been labeled was often criticized because of his uncritical attitude towards the communist regime. At the same time he won the affection of viewers who loved his great skill in developing a story. No other Czech screenwriter has ever matched him.

Jaroslav Dietl was born in 1929 and studied scriptwriting at Prague's famous FAMU film school. He once said that writing saved his life because everything else was simply too dull. And he hated boredom from the bottom of his heart.

His career began with comedy for the theatre, followed by movie scripts, dramatizations, radio production and sketches, but his biggest and most instant success was in TV serials. The setting in which his characters were placed usually had to conform to the strict requirements of the communist party, and the protagonists lived ordinary lives that an average viewer could easily identify with.

"In most of the cases when he was asked to write about a setting that he thought it was not possible to write about - for example a communist party committee meeting or an agricultural cooperative, he would find some kind of trick to smuggle in a human story which portrayed the lives of ordinary people. Viewers than warmed up to the story, got interested in it and didn't pay attention to the setting he was forced to write about."

Says Dietl's widow Magdalena Dietlova about his struggle with the demands of the communist party.

"I do remember that there were complaints about two characters, both very important and 'good guys'. According to the party it was not obvious if they were party members, and that was, of course, required. When Jaroslav disagreed, saying that not everybody had to be in the party, he didn't succeed and was forced to write scenes to make clear that those characters were members. So he wrote a scene where Dr Sova, the head doctor, talks at a meeting of the party members in the hospital. After some time he was approached by the people who were putting together a version dubbed into German for showing on West German TV, and they asked him if he could get rid of that scene because it did not make sense to them at all. It had nothing to do with the story."

Many criticized Dietl for not fighting the regime, for not showing his disapproval, but viewers loved his realistic stories taking place in a familiar environment. They would look forward to the next week, discussing various options and outcomes. 'He used to answer every phone call and wouldn't mind explaining why this or that character had to walk out on his wife and two kids.' says his widow and chats on with a warm smile.

Hospital on the Edge of Town,  photo: www.czech-tv.cz
"He always watched his own plays and serials. He used to say that it was not the same experience to watch it in production and to watch it at home at the same time as his audience was watching it. He needed to feel them behind his back and only then did he have the feeling that he understood their reactions. It was a kind of ritual for him. Those of us who wanted to watch had to be there on time. He hated if we were late or disturbed him when he was watching a movie. He was obviously very nervous. It was the only time when he would turn the volume up because he thought it was too quiet. Well, we used to laugh and joke about it a lot but he didn't care because he needed that kind of concentration and he also needed to see our reactions"

Hospital on the Edge of Town,  photo: www.czech-tv.cz
Dietl won appreciation not only in the Czech Republic but also abroad. His most famous serial, Hospital on the Edge of Town, was a big success in Germany. When his German friends suggested that he emigrate, he refused. Magdalena Dietlova recalls his reasons for staying in the Czech Republic.

"He used to say that he wouldn't be able to write about the joys, pains and worries of his neighbors. 'I can write about the people here because I feel it, I know everything about their lives. I know their stories and therefore I can be truthful.' he used to say. 'If I moved to Germany I wouldn't be truthful because I don't feel their background, I don't know their lives. By the time I get to know them deeply enough, by the time I take it all in, I will be 100 years old and that is not worth it.'"

It was without doubt his great talent that earned Dietl so much success but he also followed a strict daily regime - fifteen new pages and editing of the last day's work. It might take a few hours or a whole day, recalls his widow. He was a workaholic and a very competitive man...

"He was notoriously competitive and wanted to win in everything, even at cards or in board games. He was so much into winning that he would very often cheat, even with our children. I used to ask him how he could do that to them and he would reply, 'Because they have to realize and remember those days when it was their father who used to win.'"

Dietl died suddenly at the age of 56 of a heart attack while playing tennis.

"He used to say that he would have been a sportsman if he hadn't been a writer: not an average sportsman, but a champion. And when I disagreed, saying that maybe he would not have had the qualities of a real sporting champion, he replied that he was quite sure, because he would want to win and would beat them all. He did believe in himself. "

Magdalena Dietlova talks about her husband as if he had just gone out to the shop. 'He used to come back home and tell me the story of the morning trip, an exaggerated story, of course. His aim was to entertain not to be 100% truthful.' she smiles.