Simon Broughton - world music aficionado and committed Czechophile

Simon Broughton, photo: N.Vasques, B.Steinz,

Simon Broughton is a leading British television director whose work includes a number of documentaries on music from around the world, shot in locations ranging from Portugal to Afghanistan. He is also editor of Songlines magazine, a leading British periodical devoted to world music as well as co-editor of the acclaimed Rough Guide to World Music. Broughton is actually a regular visitor to the Czech Republic and has made two documentaries on the music produced in the Terezin concentration camp during the Second World War. He first came to this country as a young student in 1978 to work on a nature reserve in Moravia.

We spoke with Simon Broughton while he was in Prague last week to present a number of his movies at the MOFFOM film festival. We started by asking him what his first impressions of Communist Czechoslovakia had been like:

"It was a culture shock, although you sort of expect that because it was very much a different regime. I remember walking around Prague quite a lot and it seemed a very closed and hidden city. Now it's just bursting with restaurants and cafes. There were so few back then. There were also lots of closed doors and you felt that there was a lot going on, but it was sort of inaccessible.

"When I went down to Moravia, it was a nice international group of people. And we had a fantastic time. It was great being in the open air and beer was less than three crowns [15 US cents] for a half litre. So we just had a lot of fun frankly and made a lot of friends. There's a very close Czech friend of mine whom I met at that time who is still a very good friend today."

You came back again in 1985 to make a documentary on the Terezin concentration camp and the music produced there. How did your interest in this project come about?

"After university, I started working for the BBC. I worked on the arts programmes for BBC radio. There was a Czech festival held in Britain at the time, in the way that this sort of thing is regularly organised. Through that I heard about Terezin and the music that was written in Terezin as well as the artistic life that existed there. I decided I wanted to make a radio documentary about music and the whole arts scene in Terezin. I came out here and had to get official permission from the regime - I still have a strange, old-fashioned-looking press pass that I was given by the communist authorities to come and do it. There was a little bit of talking and checking papers and that sort of thing, but then they just let me get on with it. I hired a car and drove off the Terezin. I'm pretty sure there was no following or prying into what I was doing. Terezin was not a controversial subject.

"At the same, however, we actually did a thing on the side about unofficial or underground theatre in Prague - things like Theatre on the Balustrade and some of the writers and directors who were either banned or working on the edges of Prague at that stage. It was clearly a movement that was going on then. It wasn't a terribly radical thing, although we did have an interview with Havel in that programme. It sort of gave me a taste of the more political side of what was going on here."

You came back seven years later in 1992 and revisited Terezin to make a TV documentary. What made you come back to this subject?

"The reason for coming back was actually the story of Terezin. What happened there where you have this ghetto with an incredible creative life is such a strong fascinating story that I wanted to come back. With television I knew it would go to a much wider audience.

"New things were also starting to be discovered - new music was coming out, stuff that had been hidden in attics. New information about the music that was composed there was being discovered. It was quite an exciting time and I felt very strongly that this music had been unfairly neglected and was actually of very high quality and deserved to be heard.

"Of course, with the change of regime it was possible to come and do it as a co-production with the BBC and Czech Television. In a way it was a great thrill for me - having been here seven years before doing underground stuff - to now be able to work officially with Czech TV and to be a serious collaborator with professionals from a former Eastern Bloc country. It was actually one of the first co-productions of that sort between the BBC and Czech TV."

Your film on Terezin contained a lot of highly charged and moving interviews. Was there any interviewee in particular whose story remained with you after the film was made?

"Working as a filmmaker, you do come across a lot of stories in the course of your career. With some of them you make the film, you do what you have to do and then you somehow move on to another subject. But with Terezin you can even see as I talk how I first made a radio programme and then came back and made a television film. And that wasn't the end of it. I've written about Terezin stuff since then.

"It's a story that has fascinated me; I think above all because of the people I met who were there, particularly a lady called Zdenka Fantlova who was a young actress of about 18 years of age when she went to Terezin. Far from looking back at it like some awful experience in her life, there's a sort of nostalgia for the excitement and the creativity and the things that went on there, simply because the circumstances were so extraordinary. And that's a very inspiring thing. And when you put that alongside the sheer quality of the music that was produced there by some very great composers, Terezin is certainly one of those things in my life that I've done and it has stuck with me. It's not one of those things that I've done and then moved on elsewhere.

"I don't know whether I'll go back and do anything else on Terezin, but it's something that will certainly be a part of my life ever afterwards."

Do you still regularly visit the Czech Republic, either in a professional capacity or for personal reasons?

"I've come back for several reasons. I came back once for a fantastic New Year's party in a friends cottage in the countryside near Karlovy Vary.

"I also came back again to do a documentary about four years ago with Czech TV for a series called European Roots. We did a film about a carnival in South Moravia in a little village called Strany. There's an incredible vibrant tradition there with raw fiddle-playing and pig-killing and slivovitz-drinking. It's very intense wonderful stuff."

You're well known as an aficionado of all kinds of world music. Although the Czech Republic is perhaps not one of the most famous places in terms of indigenous music, are there any musicians or styles of music here that have caught your attention?

"The strongest musical impression I had was actually from South Moravia. There's a fantastic region there called Hanacko near the Slovak border. There's a wonderful youngish violinist there called Miroslav Minks. He's a great player.

"I think it's fantastic that there's been a sort of revival here in this sense. During the communist period all this music became rather cheap and sanitised and corrupted. There's now a new generation of people who are sort of reinterpreting the music and going back to its real rustic roots, not this "fakelore" as one could describe it, which was generated by the former regime."