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15 November 1999

Come back Major Zeman

A revived 1970s series with a secret policeman as the hero is now the ratings success of Czech TV. I

By Teresa Smith

“I saved the world today. Everybody’s happy now, the bad thing’s gone away . . . Everybody’s happy now: the good thing’s here to stay . . . please let it stay.”

The Eurythmics’ new single accompanies us as we drive through eastern Europe, making a series of films for Channel Four News about ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The lyrics capture the mood of 1989. Everyone was happy then; the baddies had lost, the goodies had won. In Prague, a dissident playwright and humanist was taking up residence in the castle. The velvet-soft revolution of the Czechs, led by actors, writers and thinkers, signalled a new benchmark for European democracy: the grey-suited men were out of fashion.

We are driving to Prague from Germany. It is a depressing affair. First of all, the hire car can’t be left in Prague; it is – according to the man behind the desk – too risky a place in which to leave a car with German number plates. So much for the common European home. We drive through the border, deutschmarks become crowns, one language dissolves into another, and then we see them: young women with spray-on mini skirts and white platform shoes, shivering spectres in the early morning mist. They are the first cultural consumption on offer, along with the grinning garden gnomes sold by Vietnamese migrant market-traders.

A few hours later, Vlasta Gallerova, a woman at the vanguard of the velvet revolution, is sitting in her flat, in the suburbs of Prague. I last spoke to her ten years ago when she was running the Realistice Theatre, organising the theatrical underground that brought about change.

There is sadness in her eyes as she tells me, “What was best about those years was that we had ideas, hopes . . . and after ’89, a great idea was lost . . . all people thought about was economics.”

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Capitalism came as a shock to people like Gallerova, who’d been focusing all their energy on freedom of speech. She was sacked from the Realistice two years after the revolution. Put crudely, there weren’t enough bums on seats: “Theatres used to be full before the revolution. Most theatres now are empty; all people want is to be entertained . . . it’s very paradoxical: the revolution gave us the freedom to express ourselves, yet brought with it an unfreedom, because of the new problems.”

These new problems – how to find a publisher, a sponsor, an audience – are shared by the German novelist, Ingo Schulze. A German who demonstrated in Leipzig in the autumn of 1989, Schulze complained: “These days, everything is controlled by the market. Before, it was ideology. And sometimes, it seems that ideology was not as totalitarian as money. There is a joke we tell now that says in the old days you could say whatever you liked about your boss but nothing against Honecker . . . now you can say whatever you like about the government but nothing against your boss!”

But our fixer has little patience with the likes of Gallerova and Schultze. “Of course you have to make money to be successful in the free market.” There is now a generation divide in much of what was eastern Europe: the young are tired of hearing the disappointment of the old dissidents who risked so much for their future.

On the contrary, the bad old days are now deemed suitable for kitsch nostalgia. Required TV viewing in the Czech Republic is The Thirty Adventures of Major Zeman. Made in the 1970s, with hairdos and groovy theme tune to match, the eponymous hero works for the Czech secret police, tracking down pesky, decadent lovers of capitalism: the dissidents. Broadcast at prime-time every Thursday evening, it’s been a ratings success for the independent Nova TV, although there was a bomb threat to the station on the night the first episode was shown.

To western eyes, Major Zeman has all the appeal of The Prisoner or Randall and Hopkirk. But the Czech series was made in the cultural aftermath of 1968. It must have made for grim viewing if you were producing samizdat literature at the time.

Of all the actors and production team who made Major Zeman, only one is prepared to talk to us. Jaroslava Obermaiova played Zeman’s second wife. She greets us warmly, fresh from dubbing Pauline Collins’s voice in the film Shirley Valentine. Voice-over work is all she can get these days. Her past membership of the Communist Party has been a hindrance to her post-’89 career.

What accounts for Major Zeman‘s popularity? “You know how it is: give the people bread and entertainment, and they’ll forget about their current problems.”

They call it “ostalgia” in Germany. A film just released, Sonnenallee, looks back without much anger at life in East Berlin in the 1970s. It’s a comedy about teenage boys living in the shadow of the Wall, who love dancing to T-Rex and taking home-made hallucinogenic drugs. Though the public love it, some critics in Germany complain that the film makes light of the suffering that went on in the GDR.

Thomas Brussig, who wrote the screenplay, will have none of this historical correctness: “Everyone loves to remember the good things and forget the bad things. There were so many funny stories about the Wall, I just wanted to write a comedy about it.” Brussig was inspired by Woody Allen’s Radio Days: “The present has no chance against the past; it’s the nature of remembering.”

You can even shop for ostalgia. A few yards from the longest remaining stretch of the Wall – which survives as a non-state-funded art gallery, an essential stop-off on the ostalgist’s tour – you come across an unstable prefab of a shop, Mitropa. Mitropa sells all the things the GDR was comically famous for: bad china and cutlery, orange plastic dessert dishes, even Soviet-style tampons for the curious. The V&A curators should pay the shop a visit.

There are also more thoughtful cultural commemorations going on. We meet the actor, Uwe Steimle, who appears on a late-night satirical show on German television, impersonating the late East German leader, Erich Honecker. Steimle even bought Erich’s old fur hat, as seen on countless newsreel archives, to perfect his act. But this is no German Mike Yarwood; Steimle invokes the ghost of the GDR past in order to criticise the self-satisfaction of the present establishment. Erich may have built one wall but there are others being built now: “This society has become set in concrete; it doesn’t allow for any change. There was greater intellectual freedom in the GDR, because at least change was possible.”

Back in Prague, Vlasta Gallerova believes her people are living in an ideological vacuum: “We are empty, I feel it everywhere.” Recent electoral successes by the re-formed Czech Communist Party bewilder her: “In a way, our revolution was too velvet.”

The problems in the Czech Republic are much like any other ex-communist state: it’s still reeling from the shift to a market economy. Ordinary people, civil servants, teachers, factory workers, are living in the realpolitik of unemployment and inflation.

“We created many winners in 1989, but also many losers,” reflects Vaclav Zak, a founder member of Charter 77, who now edits the journal Isti. These “losers” are one reason why many people have gone back to the ideology that used to beat them. But what happened to the dissidents? “The dissidents were the first people in power, but after a while they had to win elections. To win elections you must use propaganda. Dissidents are intellectuals – they don’t like propaganda – and so they perform badly.”

What about those women prostituting themselves on the Czech-German border? “It is a sad sight, but many of those women’s clients are unemployed East Germans crossing the border in order to feel superior to someone – anyone – right now.”

Sex makes a lot of money in eastern Europe. If you’re a pornographer, Budapest is the place to be. It’s now the centre of the European hardcore industry.

“Paprika, goulash and girls: that’s why people come here,” Sylvie Kerekes, sharp as a pin and a leggy ex-model, tells me. She runs the agency Experience Models. Business is good. The Hungarian girls – they’re never women, always girls – are much better than English or American girls. And cheap. And there are no condoms in porn films shot in Budapest. Could that be why the industry’s migrated here, away from HIV-conscious America?

We film in one of Budapest’s numerous lap-dancing bars. It’s run by a woman, one of Sylvie’s friends. Words like “decadence”, again, flit through the mind. A couple of Englishmen stagger out while we film exterior shots of the Marilyn (what else?) Bar. “You haven’t caught us on camera have you?” they laugh, unperturbed.

Sylvie and her friends have grown up bored by talk of freedom of speech and revolutions. And Lasso Raja, one of Hungary’s leading architects, who was also, prior to ’89, a leading dissident, understands. He’s now left politics. “It was too boring. Yes, we had a velvet revolution in Hungary, too, but it was, in the end, a boring revolution. And yet I’m not disappointed; in a way I was seeking this boredom, this banality.”

Prague is still beautiful. Busking jazz bands proliferate along the Charles Bridge. As well as Versace and Dior, there’s a Tesco and an M&S. Tourists are everywhere. And what of Vaclav Havel, the philosopher-king who triumphantly entered the presidential castle back in November ’89? “The Castle” has become something of a psychological fortress these days. The Prague intelligentsia is eagerly awaiting the translation into Czech of John Keane’s critical and unauthorised biography of their president. Vlasta Gallerova sighs: “I think it’s a shame he doesn’t write any more, apart from the occasional speech. During the past ten years, a lot of things have changed. We don’t talk to him any more . . .”

And there’s a curious post-script to the Zemanmania sweeping the Czech Republic: a special one-off, The 31st Adventure of Major Zeman, is already in preparation with the original cast and crew. In this episode, Major Zeman will be a CIA agent, doing his all to prepare for the velvet revolution. I wonder whether President Havel is watching Major Zeman up there in the castle?

Teresa Smith is a senior producer for “Channel Four News”

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