Pick of the Month

El grupo 'The Plastic People Of The Universe' (1998) Foto: www.kandl.cz/plasticpeople

Pick of the Month is a new feature which takes a quick look back at some of the highlights in our programming over the past thirty days or so. Some of the things we have included in this month's selection are our look at right-wing extremism in the Czech Republic, the visit we paid to the mint in Kutna Hora, and interviews we had with British film director Leslie Woodhead and the Czech translator of Tom Stoppard's new play Rock'n'Roll, which was inspired by The Plastic People of the Universe.

You may have heard us reporting last month on architect Jan Kaplicky's controversial blob-like design for the new National Library building. In her Letter from Prague, however, Pavla Horakova preferred to focus on the state-of-the-art library services that will be offered at the new facility, which will house around 10 million books which can be retrieved for readers within five minutes of ordering them. A far cry she says from her days as a student when she used to visit the current National Library in the historic Klementinum building near Charles Bridge:

"In my time, the Klementinum's so-called "hall of services" was a huge space with rows and rows of ancient card-index boxes. In them you could find thousands of file cards, the size of a postcard, in different states of disintegration. To be fair, some were only a few decades old, but there were a lot of those whose colour had turned to yellowish brown after they had been touched by thousands of fingers. Most were typewritten but many also filled out in 19th-century calligraphic handwriting.

When I found my desired book in the box, I copied the numbers and details onto a form which I then slipped into a sort of a letterbox. I was to come back hours or even days later to pick up my book. At that point, I was often told that it had been lent to someone else, or that I used the wrong card-index box and chose a copy which cannot be taken away. After several failed attempts like that, I just gave up on the National Library altogether."

Full article: www.radio.cz/en/article/89157

In an edition of Panorama early in March, Dita Asiedu looked at right-wing extremism and the neo-Nazi skinhead movement in the Czech Republic. Many experts on the subject whom Dita interviewed say that the problem is not as acute as it was in the early 1990s, but that there are still some nasty racist elements in Czech society.

One of the people Dita talked to was Chinese woman Liu Xu, who has been living in Prague for around eight years.

"I have not had that many experiences with skinheads but my colleagues have. Three or four years ago, one of them was walking out of the Mustek metro station when a skinhead, who was around 25 years old, started to beat him up. There were people around them but they didn't know what to do and didn't help. Another woman, who was around forty years old, was standing in front of the main gate of her home at around nine o'clock in the evening. She was looking for her keys when two young boys came to her and hit her in the face. They broke her nose and because she wore glasses, some parts of her face were cut. The police found them and one of them was very young. He was less than 18 years old and the other one was around 20 years."

And you yourself have not had any encounters?

"My experiences weren't that terrible. A few months ago, I was walking along Wenceslas Square. There was a small group of around ten people who were shouting something but I didn't know what exactly they were shouting about. They didn't look very friendly so I turned off Wenceslas Square in the direction of the main post office. They followed me and I was really scared. So I walked until I found the entrance to the post office. I jumped in and was very relieved."

Full article: www.radio.cz/en/article/89096

For an edition of Spotlight last month, Jan Velinger went to the UNESCO-listed town of Kutna Hora, which boasts the spectacular St. Barbara's Cathedral as well as a macabre ossuary, which houses sculptures made from the bones of around forty thousand people. Thanks to silver mines in the area, it was also the site of the royal mint in medieval times. Jan paid a visit to the old coin-striking works there, which is open to the public.

"At the Mint, we are just about to see a demonstration of how master-minters worked. Traditionally, fifteen were employed hammering out an incredible 2,000 coins over twelve hours a day, times seven days a week. Says Rudolf Bezvoda, who greets tourists viewing the mint, many of them eventually lost their hearing from the constant clanging of hammers. And, although they were extremely well-paid in their day, not many lived to what one would call a ripe old age. But it was perhaps even worse for local prisoners.

'Local crooks who had been caught had to help by placing or setting the coin and if the minter happened to miss they got the full hammer's blow across their fingers. There's even a saying in Czech that when you're bad you get whacked across your fingers. The prisoners had to put up with it for a month and if they weren't crippled by the end of it they stood a chance of getting pardoned!'"

All I can say is "ouch".

Full article: www.radio.cz/en/article/89532

Respected British director Leslie Woodhead's docudrama Invasion recreates the events of the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Woodhead's film was based on the testimony of Zdenek Mlynar, a member of Alexandr Dubcek's inner circle and one of the architects of the Prague Spring who defected to the West in the 1970s. For our One on One feature last month, Coilin O'Connor spoke with Leslie Woodhead when he paid a visit to Prague and asked him how reliable Mr Mylnar's version of the events of August 1968 was:

"He really was a superb witness. He remained a committed Marxist and had some wonderful circumlocutions. I'll never forget him saying how - when they were sitting in Dubcek's office on 22 August 1968 - 'the contradiction sharpened considerably.' I asked him what the heck that meant. He said, 'A dozen Soviet soldiers burst through the door with Kalashnikovs.' Only a theoretical Marxist could describe such an appalling event in such a cold way. But he was a marvellous witness and through his very detailed account of things we were able to build a drama documentary to try and tell the story of Prague 1968."

You actually revisited the film in 1990 when you had a meeting with Dubcek. What was it like meeting the man himself and what did he make of your film?

"After the Velvet Revolution, which of course I followed with tremendous interest, we got a call from Dubcek saying that he would like to see Invasion, which was kind of extraordinary. It then became clear that Dubcek had seen something of the film when he was in exile in Bratislava as it had spilled across the border from Austrian television. Now he wanted to meet the people who had made it. So I came to Prague with some colleagues and we sat in Dubcek's and viewed Invasion together with him, which is something I'll never forget. "He was riveted to the screen and immensely interested in what was going on. He followed every nuance of the story with little exclamations and nods and absolute absorption. I'll never forget the moment when we showed the scene where the Soviet leadership marches into the meeting with the Czechs. Dubcek was looking at the screen and he muttered the word 'Demagogues!' under his breath, which was a thrilling moment. He kept saying 'It was just like that; that's right!' which was tremendously validating as you can imagine."

Full article: www.radio.cz/en/article/89252

The Plastic People of the Universe are known all over the world as the Czech rock band who were the catalyst for the Charter 77 human rights movement, which came into being after the communist regime clamped down on the group in the mid-1970s.

The "Plastics" were also the inspiration behind Czech-born playwright Tom Stoppard's latest drama Rock'n'Roll, whose Czech version premiered at the end of February. Rock'n'Roll focuses on both the Czech and British intellectual milieus of the 1970s and captures the creeping disillusionment of that era, which emerged in the wake of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. For his Czech Books feature, David Vaughan talked to the Czech translator of the play Jitka Sloupova.

"I was fifteen in 1968, but I still remember this enthusiasm, which didn't decline after the occupation. It went on and on. Normal people were still slightly optimistic. It's very well put in the play - how it went on until April 1969, when Dubcek was forced to resign."

One of the strengths of the play is that it shows to an English-speaking audience very powerfully how in a totalitarian society you can't assume that the authorities will leave you alone if you just remain quiet. Sooner or later you become compromised. That is something that Czechs are already very familiar with, so to what extent can that message be translated to a Czech audience in the Czech version of the play?

"Well, I think very well, because it reflects Czech literature, dissident literature, and I think even the official literature had such themes. So I think when seeing this one realizes that there is, of course, also a way not to get into trouble, but it's a sort of death of your social life, of your inner life even. For instance, there is a scene which takes place in Prague. It is Jan, the Czech hero, meeting a British journalist. The journalist is looking for a story, and Jan reacts: Jan: There are no stories in Czechoslovakia. We have an arrangement with ourselves not to disturb the appearances. We aim for inertia. "I think everybody still remembers this state of soul, so I think that's also what works in Stoppard's Rock 'N' Roll here in Prague."

Full article: www.radio.cz/en/article/89003