Talks with Robert Tamchyna
February 10, 2011
Czech Radio reporter, long-time “confessor” of Václav Havel in Talks from Lány, recalls these meetings in the following interview.
Jan Hron (JH): How did you get to Talks from Lány?
Robert Tamchyna (RT): I don’t know who nominated me in the Radio in 1993 but I suspected that “my” first Talks would not end up well, therefore there would be no new episodes anyway. But eventually I worked on the Talks for about eight years. I remember the first meeting with Mr. President. I had questions prepared, I sent the topics in advance to Ladislav Špaček, and we then met in the presidential house in the Royal Garden. Jacket, tie, hot Saturday afternoon. I was sweating. Mr. President helped me a lot when he said towards his spokesman: “Tell the lad to strip off.” The atmosphere miraculously loosened up. In addition to the classic questions “brought by the current week” I ended with a reflection on the relation between politics and morality and mentioned the suicide of the former French Prime Minister, Bérégovoy.
JH: You were quite young then…
RT: I was twenty-one years old. As I said, I don’t know who nominated me for the Talks, but if there was any reason, it could be that I had always strived for more. I didn’t want to be just a radio reporter, but rather a publicist. That is, not only to ask questions about politics “of everyday life,” but also timeless questions.
JH: The topics were chosen by you, or the Castle adapted them?
RT: I always sent the list of selected topics to Mr. Špaček and he replied - mostly in time - sometimes at the last minute – which ones would probably be appropriate. Sometimes it happened that I arrived, we discussed briefly the proposed topics, and just approved: “Let’s record!” However, at other times it also happened that Mr. President refused five of the six selected topics, saying that it was not the right time for them or that he did not want to comment on them because he had already explained his point elsewhere and would not allow to get drawn to commenting on others' comments. So, in the end, only one topic remained and we quickly came up with new ones. Very often, of course, Mr. President brought his own topics.
The position of an interviewer in Talks from Lány was kind of strange. After the show, newspapers blamed us of trying to act like Karel Čapek and modern-day T.G. Masaryk. And that we were very bad actually. I responded that this was certainly not the case. To prepare “Talks with Havel” in Čapek’s style would mean meeting Mr. President like Karel Hvížďala did, or Čapek with Masaryk in the Castle, in Topolčianky, and so on. But this was something different, this was a journalistic interview which had its limitations. We were recording the Sunday quarter-hour for about twenty or thirty minutes in the President’s daily program. Moreover, a wide audience listened to the Talks, from the last old woman in an unknown little village who was never interested in politics in detail to intellectuals, who on the contrary had a a very precise political and cultural knowledge. This had to be reflected in the questions so that a knowing listener would not shake his head what the idiot asked about but at the same time also the old lady who wanted to hear her President, her beloved Havel, on Sunday afternoon, would understand it.
My questions therefore rather outlined the themes, they did not go into depth because the time of fifteen minutes was not long enough to discuss the current political situation in detail. And there was no time for complementary questions. The scheme was generally: a question and then the answer of Mr. President to one theme. I personally had a bit of a different idea about interviewing the President, but I had to respect the format which could not be changed. The latter Talks in Lány which I did together with Vlastimil Ježek were different and Mr. President was inviting his guests to talk, debate, and argue with him.
JH: How did Václav Havel care about what he would say? Did not he style himself into the role of wise TGM?
RT: Absolutely not. I think that later someone wrote a comparative thesis on “Language means of Václav Havel in written text and Talks in Lány”. The principle of the Talks perhaps was inspired by the radio program “Fireside Chats” with the U.S. President F.D. Roosevelt. And also President Havel was certainly well aware that a radio microphone is a more pleasant companion than a camera. Once, when he did not feel well, he even “talked” in a bathrobe.
Mr. President had a great confidence in us. Over the entire period it never happened that we would be obliged to provide the cut materials for control. Only when I felt that cutting could change the original meaning, I called the spokesman, Mr. Špaček. I don’t know if he consulted the President, but verification was never demanded. Not even in cases when we were talking about such sensitive topics as the Czech-German Declaration, for which the President had a very precise answer prepared in advance. While at other times he talked more or less off-hand, only from small notes on paper, as he was used to formulate. Newspapers then commented on the Talks from Lány, quoting the verbatim transcript of the Czech Press Agency. President, I think, mostly was not happy about it. Journalists published only excerpts from the text, did not adjust it and often did not perceive either silent laughter or a clear irony in the recording.
JH: Weren’t you afraid of colliding with Václav Havel? His authority is such that one rather retreats, tries to be obedient, admires...
RT: Yes, this is exactly the question on the format of Talks from Lány. I think that it was not an interview. Talks in Lány, as mentioned by Vlastimil Ježek, were something different. These were more conflicting or thematically more diverse interviews where the President at the same time interviewed his guests. But as for the regular Talks from Lány, there was no time for any conflicts or explanations. Today I realise that this regular “testimony” was easier than summoning a press conference. But had the President talked every Sunday for a quarter of an hour alone, the program probably would not reach such high audience ratings. It would be a fifteen-minute speech. And so in the Talks we perhaps were not only curious journalist element but also a psychological one which interrupted the President and co-created the speed and rhythm of the whole show.
JH: And did you keep enjoying it after all those years?
RT: I wasn’t there week after week, but rather once every two or three weeks. Three or four people took turns in the Talks. In the beginning I even did not want to be involved in the program because I was aware of all the restrictive barriers. At that time I’d prefer writing a separate book of interviews with the President. Only during the seven years of recording our conversations I realised and appreciated in what aspects it is important for me and that I would have made a mistake, if I had refused it. Perhaps the most interesting moments were when various remarks were said which however were not included in the final Talk. I could see politics and its background from a brand new angle of view than as a journalist and a citizen of this country. I peeked behind the scenes. But it was really just a glimpse.
The question of enjoying – not enjoying... In the moment when a program becomes popular (or until the President and his circle saw the Talks as important) you worked either well or poorly on its content and possible adjustments. I apologize for that comparison, but it’s just like a good talk show on radio or television.
JH: How did your image of Václav Havel differ from the common image in media?
RT: It’s hard to describe. My image of Václav Havel consists of many personal details related to the texts of his plays, speeches, essays, etc. I will recall one of the most personal encounters. I had the opportunity to be with him one day before the death of his first wife, Mrs. Olga. Her departure was expected every day, so we tried to persuade Mr. President to cancel the Talks. Everyone would understand in such a situation. Yet, we met in the villa in Dělostřelecká street. I think that Mrs. Olga was then already back home from the hospital. And this probably reflects what many people talk about in case of own serious health problems or worries about the lives of their dearest ones: work helps man a lot in such moments. The president rejected our proposal and the Talks were recorded. The atmosphere was much more sensitive than usual. I was prepared to lie and say that the recording was damaged because the President's speech was obviously influenced by his emotions. But the Talks were not broadcasted anyway because Mrs. Olga died on Saturday and so on Sunday we instead talked about her life and work for the Committee of Good Will. But I will never forget this meeting.
Of course, I also remember many funny and witty moments, stories from recording the Talks. Maybe enough for a small book. But I have rejected all offers, claiming that I do not remember anything, that I was not too conscientious in this respect. Besides, they are just my personal memories. And who knows if it is not against the etiquette; careful Ladislav Špaček will surely reminsce about all of this one day as he certainly took notes at that time.