Marek Eben - the Czech Republic's "Mr. Nice"
Coilin O'Connor's guest for One on One this week is Marek Eben. Although Mr Eben is well respected as an actor and musician, he is perhaps best known in the Czech Republic as the host of a hugely popular chat show on Czech TV. Mr Eben's genial on-screen persona has made him one of the country's best loved public figures, and he has won numerous broadcasting awards. Even though he has enjoyed massive success as a chat-show host, Marek Eben originally trained as an actor and still makes regular appearances in Czech theatres. Coilin met up with him in the café at Prague's famous Studio Ypsilon theatre, where he frequently performs, and started by asking him why he decided to pursue a career on the stage.
"I was absolutely catastrophic at maths, physics and chemistry. So I knew I had to choose a school without these subjects. The Conservatoire was the right place for me. Instead of mathematics, we had musical science and the history of music or drama. That was much closer to me. I don't think I was someone who dreamed of being an actor and being in the National Theatre or something like that. But it seemed to me to be the only choice I had."
You're also extremely popular in this country as a chat-show host. Nevertheless, despite your popularity, I have one or two Czech friends who say that you are far too nice to your guests and that you don't grill them enough. Is this a fair criticism?
"I think they are right. If I were a professional journalist, it would be my duty to ask unpleasant and rude questions. But I am not a journalist; I'm an actor, and, if I invite someone [on my show], I feel that he is really my guest. If I invite someone to my home, I don't ask him about his first or second marriage or all his failures. I don't like to ask people rude questions. Maybe from the point of view of journalism, this is not strictly correct, but I don't care."
It's interesting that you are widely thought of as being one of the country's "nice guys," but at the same time you are also an actor. Do you ever get to play bad-guy parts?
I read somewhere that you once played a character who spoke in a very vulgar manner. Was it true that people were shocked at that?
"That's right. It was a play called 'Window,' and my character was using quite a lot of naughty words. I loved it, but I remember looking at the audience and I saw the shock on their faces. 'What did he say?' they were asking themselves. 'Did he really say this awful word?' It was quite a pleasure for me to do it."
In your time as a chat-show host, what has been your most memorable or favourite interview and why?
"Well, there's been a whole bunch of them, because most of the people who come on my show are chosen by me. So I like them all. Otherwise, I wouldn't invite them. But there were some 'BIG' guests, whom I never imagined I'd be able to interview. Take Sting, for instance. It was surprising that he was willing [to be interviewed]. You can't imagine the pressure he was under. He came from Warsaw, where he had played a concert, and flew to Brno. He then went straight from the airport to the [concert] hall, where I was waiting for him. If I were to put myself in his position, I don't know if I could be as pleasant as he was. He was really very nice. A month ago, I had the chance to interview Bill Gates, who is another 'big' guest. I must say he was also very pleasant. Usually you don't have any problems with the big guests themselves. You have a problem with all the managers and the people who look after the media and so on. If you can break through this barrier and get to the people themselves, they are generally very pleasant in 90% of cases."
You are quite well known in this country as being openly Christian. Where did you get your faith from, and what was it like under the old regime?
"Well, everyone in our family was Christian. My father was Catholic, my mother was Catholic, my grandmother was Catholic... I was raised in an extremely harmonious family environment. I never heard my parents quarrelling with each other or someone screaming at someone else. That is something quite rare. I thought when I was a kid that this was normal. Later, I realized that it was absolutely abnormal. But I was given a chance to see how religion works in real life. And as it works, it was quite natural for me to want to live the same way, because this is what works and this is how to survive this life. It wasn't easy in the 1980s, but the pressure was not so heavy in those days as it had been in the 1950s, for instance, when it really was a question of being arrested [for your beliefs] or not. In the 1980s, you might have lost your job or had problems at work. My father couldn't get a better career until 1989. But he could work and that was OK. So I wouldn't say I suffered. It was not easy and the churches were pretty empty, but it was not a question of being arrested or being free. Things were a little bit complicated for me, but not dramatically."
The Czech Republic is very unusual in that it is still a very atheistic nation. Do ever get an odd reaction, when people find out about your beliefs?
"I don't think so. First of all, people are used to it because this is a question I am quite frequently asked. So they know I'm religious and are not surprised by it. I also think that if you don't force your religion on other people or try to make them like you, and if you let people have their own opinions whilst keeping your own, then they don't care. I wouldn't say that people wonder at me and ask how I could be so stupid that I am religious. I don't think things stretch that far. People [here] are mostly atheistic, but when you talk to them they quite often say things like 'Well, you know I kind of have a belief in God. It's my idea of God. I couldn't say I'm atheistic. I have my God.' Well, I guess I just prefer to have a Catholic God..."