Veronika Hyks: the past is not always a foreign country

Veronica Hyks

Although she was born in Britain and has never lived in the Czech Republic, the actress and broadcaster, Veronika Hyks, is every bit as Czech as she is English. She speaks Czech without a hint of an accent, and gives every impression of being totally at home in Prague, even though it has never been more than her “virtual” home. Veronika Hyks tells David Vaughan how this came about in this week’s One on One.

Veronika Hyks,  photo: author
While many of those who fled Czechoslovakia after the communist takeover gradually lost their Czech identity, this was not the case with Veronica Hyks’s parents. Despite leaving all they owned in Prague, they somehow managed to keep their Czechness unscathed. Even sixty years later, the family remains remarkably Czech – with the tradition being kept alive by Veronika’s Czech-speaking daughter Natasha. When she came into our studio, I asked Veronika Hyks to tell the story.

“Well, my parents were both from Prague, actually from Vinohrady – my father from Francouzská Street, my mother from Slovenská Street – just round the corner from where we are now. They met in the church on the square Náměstí Míru. But they left after the elections of 1948. My dad was a pretty good tennis player – he was an international player – and he had the opportunity to go and play in Yugoslavia. He came back and said, ‘I think, maybe, it’s time to leave.’ They left in 1949 and they travelled around Europe a bit. They started in Belgium, then went to Paris, and lived there for two years, which was marvellous, apparently. Again my dad was playing tennis, and he met some lovely English tennis players, who said, ‘Come to England. It’s a bit dull, but it’s safe.’ And so they came to dull and safe England, and I was born. But they talked Czech to me. They always spoke Czech to me, right from the start.”

So it was a Czech oasis in the middle of London…

“Yes, there were a few friends, people who knew each other from Prague and had drifted into England really.”

And you came to Britain with your grandmother too – or did she come to join you later?

“My grandmother came in the mid-fifties and she lived with us until she died in 1982. And of course, she helped me a lot with the language, because I spent a lot of time with her.”

It sounds as though it must have been a schizophrenic kind of childhood. I can imagine you growing up with Czech parents and a Czech granny, in a household with dumplings and all the other traditional Czech things, but being in the middle of a completely non-Czech world.

“Yes, and I still like dumplings. Obviously, I don’t eat them because they’re far too fattening, but I absolutely adore all those delicious Czech tastes. But I don’t think I felt schizophrenic particularly. I went to an English school afterwards and I became this bilingual person, who could slot in pretty easily.”

And being bilingual has played a role in your life since. You’re an actress. You work with your voice and I know you can move effortlessly in and out of many different accents…

“I think it helped me enormously. I speak quite a lot of languages, and I’m sure it’s because I was bilingual from the ‘get go’, as the Americans say.”

How many languages do you speak?

“I speak six and I’m learning Mandarin, which, of course, is fearsome, terrifying! It will take me years.”

August 1968 in Prague
What’s inspired you to do that?

“Well, I feel that there are a lot of them, and I want to be able to talk to them when they all turn up on our shores.”

And so, when you left school, did you go on to drama school?

“I went to university, where I read drama and modern languages, always keeping my options open. I did actually go to a drama school in Paris after I’d finished university, which was bizarre because it was a mime school, where you don’t speak at all and I’ve pretty much spoken for all of my career. So I found out that I didn’t want to be a mime artist at all.”

And how did you experience the events of 1968 in Czechoslovakia? It must have filtered through to your family – both the horror of the Soviet invasion and the hopes that had preceded it.

“I think I was in Italy when it happened on that day in August. But we had been here in the spring, because of the Prague Spring, and it was so exciting. I had been to Prague several times from the age of about 13, but then suddenly in ’68 we came and it was exciting.”

And you really shared the optimism…

“Absolutely, because at that time, suddenly everyone was talking, even people who had been locked up and so on. You know, you’d be talking to someone who was giving you petrol and he would tell you that he was a professor of physics and was doing this. Everyone was just chatting. Everyone was so alive with hope. And then… terrible… terrible… I remember that.”

And in the years that followed – the period of so-called “normalization” – were you able to keep up links with Czechoslovakia, or did it get harder and harder?

“I think the ‘70s was quite a tough time. The fact that I spoke Czech was kind of against me. I was a young fledgling actress and I also worked a bit in tourism, and I found myself coming here with a bunch of American tourists. And I thought it was perfectly normal that I would speak Czech to the authorities, to the border guards. And that got me into a lot of trouble. ‘Why do you speak Czech? Who are you?’ – all that sort of thing, and they used to go through my address books and things. And I realized that I was sticking my neck out for no particularly good reason. But I can also understand why it is that some people who had left years ago were more loath to put their name to Charter 77. They didn’t want trouble. You get journalists these days saying, ‘Well, what did they do? They never said a thing.’ But it’s only if you’ve been through things, if you’ve been frightened, that you really want a quiet life. You don’t want to get involved again.”

And you’re married to an Englishman….

“I’m married to an Englishman…”

And you have a daughter…

“And we have a daughter, who speaks Czech.”

Which is amazing, because you were born outside Czechoslovakia, your daughter was born outside Czechoslovakia – now the Czech Republic – but you both speak Czech.

“We do. Her Czech is side-splittingly funny. It’s quite fluent. She’s just been working here for a year. The grammar, of course, is terrible, because it’s very complicated, but it’s very fluent, and the marvellous thing is that she has what I had. She comes here and doesn’t feel a stranger.”

And how does you husband cope with having all this Czech family?

“Ah, very mysterious! I think he understands more than he lets on. He grunts a lot. He doesn’t say a single word in Czech, but if you say, ‘Pass the potatoes,’ for example, when you’re making lunch, then he will pass the potatoes, without actually admitting that he understands!”

And your mother is still alive and well in London, so your husband also has a Czech mother-in-law, the classic Czech “babička”. That must be quite interesting as well…

“Yes, except that my mother doesn’t acknowledge being a babička. My mother says, ‘[in a strong Czech accent] I am in denial. I don’t talk about old age.’ And she’s fabulous. She doesn’t call herself ‘Babička’, but we call her ‘Babi’.”

And she’s never lost her Czech accent…

“She’s never lost her Czech accent. I always make fun of her, and she says, ‘Why are you making fun of me?’ And I say, “Because it’s charming and lovely.’ But she’s in good health, and they’ve had a good life in England – but here [Prague] is still important.”

In your career you’ve acted in television and film, and I believe you specialize in particular in audio books.

“Yes, I do a lot of audio books, which I like doing very much, because I moved more and more into broadcast and documentary work. And talking books involve a bit of acting. It has also led to something that I believe is also going to start here, which is audio description – making TV and film accessible to visually impaired people.”

So it is literally describing what is going on…

“It’s a sort of voice under, talking about the visual aspects for people who can’t see very well.”

I know that it is already pretty well established in Britain. Is it also gradually catching on here in the Czech Republic?

“Well, I was hearing today that the legislation is planned. It won’t happen without legislation, because all these things are extras that cost money, but I know there are people with the technique and wherewithal to do it, so that will happen here.”

And can you ever foresee moving back to Prague – or are you quite happy to come here from time to time?

“I think that once you’ve been in more than one place, that’s what you’re like. I guess I can’t imagine being anywhere a hundred percent all the time. But I know all the streets where my grandmother used to go to school. I know all the family history. So it is a part of me, without actually being a part of me.”

And finally, should I call you Veronika Hyks – or should I say Hykš or Hykšová?

“I did try the Hykšová years ago in England, but it was just too difficult, so Hyks it is…”

Thank you very much indeed for talking to us.

“Thank you.”