My Prague – Tomáš Baldýnský

Tomáš Baldýnský, photo: Ian Willoughby

Tomáš Baldýnský is a well-known TV writer and producer whose most recent work was the hit comedy Kosmo. Over the years he has also been a newspaper columnist and film critic, among various other activities. Our tour of “Tomáš Baldýnský’s Prague” begins in the city’s Letná district at Club 777, a dingy open-all hours bar with slot machines in the back.

Club 777 at Prague's Letná,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“This is my favourite spot at Letná. I live here now and I don’t know if your listeners know this but Letná is full of modern cafés where they serve you flat whites and fair trade soyacinos and stuff like that. And this is the direct opposite.

“This is a spot, open 24 hours a day, with slot machines and roulette. They have beer and they have coffee and you can smoke here.

“People tend to finish their binge drinking here, so when I come here in the morning – because I come here to work, to write, I usually come here at 8:30 or 9 am – I meet people who have been drinking all night and are finishing their drinks.

“I sort of like it, because when I see them I kind of feel like I’m as much of a rebel as them. So that’s why I like it.

“And they have a very eclectic jukebox here. You can hear everything here from racist heavy metal bands to intellectual chanson singers.”

Frankly it seems to me a pretty strange place to come to work.

“It is. But just today I was demoted at Czech Television. They took away my office because I didn’t go there so often. They told me they were changing me to home office.

“But I can’t work at home. And when I was smoking this was the only place I could go and write and smoke.

“The other thing is, I don’t know if you have it, but if you go to these intellectual cafés you see that everyone is like you.

“Everyone is sitting there with their laptops and writing. And I hate that. So I come here and there’s nobody like me.

Interior of Club 777 - the gaming machines are in the back,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“Homeless guys come here. Skinheads come here. So you can just observe people them and write about them, which is much easier than in other cafés.”

As a writer do you find yourself listening in to people’s conversations here?

“Yes, of course. It’s great. But you can’t use it. It’s just a distraction for you.

“You can say to yourself, I’m a writer so I will listen to them and write it down. But you don’t write it, because it’s of no use. But still it’s usually very funny.”

Who are the clientele here? On my way I met an old friend who told me he used to come here sometimes and he said it was a place where off-duty police and criminals came.

“Yes, I believe that. This is the spot where everyone comes. I see drug dealers here and I see, for example, my partner, who is a novelist – she comes here as well.

“So I believe this is the most eclectic place in Prague.”

You were saying you live here at Letná. Letná is maybe the most hipsterish part of Prague now. How do you feel about that development?

“I just sort of hate it. Because I say what every hipster says: I was here first, I liked it here before all of the others [laughs].

“But it’s sort of difficult to live here now, because it’s getting more and more expensive.

“And the people who live here tend to make me furious, when I see them running around on their electric scooters with iMacs in designer bags.

“So I’m sort of thinking about moving somewhere else. But then there is Stromovka park, which is one of the most beautiful places in Prague, so you just can’t lose that.”

Tomáš Baldýnský,  photo: Ian Willoughby

From Letná, Tomáš Baldýnský and I hop on a tram down to Malá Strana. There, just a few metres from Charles Bridge on Mostecká St., is a building that his family have had a close association with for generations – and was Baldýnský’s own home in the past. He leads the way up to a small terrace with a wonderful view across the district’s distinctive red tiled rooftops.

“This is really a beautiful spot and I haven’t been here for two or three years. I just wanted to come by and you gave me a reason.”

In what period did you live here?

“It was the ‘90s. The roaring ‘90s, which I always say were the best years to party in the whole century, I believe.”

Did you feel privileged living here?

“No, I didn’t. Because even though the building was confiscated by the Communists, my grandmother and grandfather lived here on the second floor.

“On the first floor were my great-aunt and great-uncle. So it was sort of like the family house to me and when it was returned to the family that just continued.

“But still, yes, people were envious of me… For example, I screened movies on the wall of the opposite building. We had a digital projector here that at the end of the ‘90s was worth 300,000 crowns or something like that.

Tomáš Baldýnský has a long association with this building on Mostecká St.,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“I recall screening the film Picassos aventyr, which is a Swedish comedy, and people were laughing that much that my best friend almost fell over the railing onto the beautiful Malá Strana roof which is under us.”

What was it like on this street Mostecká, for example in the 1980s, when you used to come to visit your grandmother?

“Malá Strana was just saved. You don’t know this, but the Communist Party wanted to destroy it and build some new panel buildings here.

“One of the biggest uprisings against their will was when a lot of people – I was, like, 12 then – were creating demonstrations here. So they didn’t do it.

“Now Malá Strana is sometimes very beautiful and sometimes it’s very ugly, touristy, with cheap thrills, cheap things.

“But in those times it was really romantically fading away and falling apart. This street was full of scaffolding and bricks were falling from the walls.

“But I was a child, so I recall it with a lot of nostalgia.

“I believe in those times it was better off, because it was full of people who were actually living here. Not like now, when there’s just hotels, Airbnbs and offices.

“There was a cinema, which was later closed down. There wasn’t McDonald’s but a milk bar. So yes, I liked it better then.”

So it was a neighbourhood still in those days?

“Yes. It was famous for the close, tight community that was living here and very slowly falling apart in the ‘90s.

St. Nicholas Church and - in the distance - St. Vitus Cathedral can be seen from the balcony,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“We had a family friend who was a countess. She was 80 years old and she lived on Tomášská St.

“Then when they decided to enlarge the Parliament building all the people who were living on that street were moved out and she had to move to a panel building on the outskirts of Prague.

“The panel building had very low ceilings and here her flat had had ceilings that were four metres high. And she had to have some of the pieces, furniture that was one or two hundred years old, cut in half so that it would fit in that flat.

“She died one year after she moved there. She couldn’t cope with the fact she wasn’t living here.

“So that feeling of mutuality was really strong.

“Even though I don’t live here anymore, still when I pass some buildings I see some of the remaining neighbours.

“There is a butcher’s shop on Karmelitská St. where my grandmother used to work and her co-worker now owns it and still runs it.

“So there’s something left.”

What do you know about the history of this building?

In the background is one of the towers on the Malá Strana side of Charles Bridge,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“There was another building here that was torn down and this one was built in the beginning of the 20th century.

“We have this great family story. My family was partly Czech and partly German and my great-grandfather was Czech and my great-grandmother was German.

“They had this deal that they would raise the kids half and half – that the boys would be raised Czech and the daughters would be raised German.

“My great-grandmother was a Nazi. She really loved Great Germany. And great-grandfather was a real Czech nationalist. So they had this really difficult marriage.

“And when Adolf Hitler entered Prague, after it was occupied by German forces, he was going in an open car on the so-called Royal Road, which starts at Old Town Square and goes up to the Castle.

“So he had to pass our house. And when he was very near great-grandmother opened a chest and she had hidden a Nazi flag there.

“She, like, shoved it out of the building so Hitler would see that there was a Nazi living in the heart of Prague.

“And when my great-grandfather saw it, he shoved it back. And she shoved it out.

“So Hitler was going past the building and this Nazi flag was going in and out.

“And then great-grandfather knocked great-grandmother down and dislodged her jaw. That’s the family story.”

Národní třída,  photo: Daniel Baránek,  CC BY-SA 3.0

The final stop on our journey through “Tomáš Baldýnský’s Prague” is the downtown boulevard Národní, perhaps most famous today as the spot where the Velvet Revolution kicked off in November 1989. When we arrive I am unaware of why our guide has selected the location.

“Two reasons. First, we are standing in front of a building which is very, very important for Czech cinema.

“Národní 28 used to be the place where Czech distribution was run during the time of Communism.

“So it was the building where it was decided that Raiders of the Lost Arc would be distributed in Czech cinemas – which is why I’m doing films now.

“This building was important for my career. Because this building is where I became what I am now, which is a writer-producer of TV series.

“I had an office here that was meant to be my producer’s office and I was supposed to read the scripts of others and tell them if they were good or not.

“I became that frustrated that I didn’t like them so I started to write them myself, which is what I have been doing ever since. So I had an office here.

“And the second reason is we are standing on Národní třída, which for my generation is a very important place.

“I must say I’m not really nostalgic. I’m not really a history-conscious person.

“But each time I go on Národní třída I think if it hadn’t happened, my life would be terrible. And now I must say my life is quite OK. So this is my second reason.”

For people who don’t know – and I’m sure there are very few of them – this is where the revolution began in 1989. What were you doing at that time?

Národní třída,  November 17,  1989,  photo: Czech Television

“I was here. I wasn’t beaten and I’m not a hero, but I was present and I was a member.

“It was a beautiful evening until the cops showed up… Yeah, I was here.”

Tell us more about it – for example, how close were you to the police?

“I was at the beginning of the street and we’re now at the other end. The beatings started in the middle of the street.

“But you know, the fí… I almost said fízls… the cops who beat people weren’t in my close proximity.

“We just ran away, because that’s what you did at that time.”

Did you have any sense on that day, on November 17, 1989, that it would have great consequence?

“Yeah. It wasn’t just that day but we had this feeling that started in the winter of that year that it had to collapse.

“You had all those East Germans emigrating and leaving their Trabants here. You had August demonstrations, then October 28 demonstrations, so we knew that it would be near.

“We were discussing it with friends and I said that it couldn’t be this [demonstration that started the change], because it would be too symbolic.

“It would be November 17, which was this incredibly important date from the beginning of World War II, in 1939 [when the Nazis executed nine Czech students and sent more than 1,000 to concentration camps].

“So I said it couldn’t be exactly 50 years after that because it would look stupid in history books. But it happened.”

Prague,  photo: Katerina Ajzpurvit

My final question, Tomáš – how do you view the way Prague has developed since that time as a city?

“It’s great. It’s a living city. It’s modern. There aren’t people killing each other, much.

“It’s not destroyed that much, even though there are a lot of new buildings I hate to even think about.

“Generations are changing and parts of Prague are in fashion and out of fashion.

“It lives and it’s beautiful and I wouldn’t live anywhere else. Except maybe Canada.”