John Tusa: Our modernist Baťa estate in UK was exact model of what we’d left behind in Zlín

Sir John Tusa anchored the top UK current affairs show Newsnight in the 1980s before heading the BBC World Service for seven years. Though today a member of the British establishment, he was actually born in Czechoslovakia and moved to England as a small child, when his father, Jan Tůša, was appointed head of UK operations of the Baťa shoe company.

Sir John Tusa, photo: Ian WilloughbySir John Tusa, photo: Ian Willoughby Baťa shoe company in Zlín, photo: Ondřej TomšůBaťa shoe company in Zlín, photo: Ondřej Tomšů Sir John was a special guest of the Jihlava documentary film festival and I first asked him there about his parents, who had been born in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

“They always said they were lucky to have the 20 years from 1918 to 1939.

“They were very proud, of course, of being citizens of Czechoslovakia, and they thought it was a marvellous state, as well.

“So that was something that they looked back on with pride, and also with regret that the things that happened to Czechoslovakia did happen.”

When exactly and how did they leave Czechoslovakia?

“They left in the first six months of 1939. Because my father, who worked for the Baťa shoe company in Zlín, was appointed to run the Baťa shoe company in England.

“This was very fortunate, when you think about it.

“I always thought it was rather funny that the Czechs, the Baťa company, in effect behaved like colonists. They came over to teach the English how to make shoes through mass production.”

“My father went over and he started work. Then he had to make a lot of fuss to get visas for the rest of the family.

“We only came over, I think, in June of 1939. And so that was it.

“People always assume that we were political. Luckily we weren’t. But we were certainly very fortunate to leave when we did.”

In the management of Baťa in the UK was your dad unusual in being Czech? Or were there many Czech managers there?

“There were a lot of Czech managers. I always thought it was rather funny that the Czechs, the Baťa company, in effect behaved like colonists.

“They came over to teach the English how to make shoes through mass production [laughs].

“There was a core of maybe 30 or 40 senior managers who came over from Zlín.

Bata Shoes factory, East Tilbury, Thurrock, England. Built in 1932 by Tomáš Baťa, photo: John Winfield / CC BY-SA 2.0Bata Shoes factory, East Tilbury, Thurrock, England. Built in 1932 by Tomáš Baťa, photo: John Winfield / CC BY-SA 2.0 “They arrived in southeast Essex, where there was very little work, not very much skilled work either, in order, as I say, to teach the English how to make shoes in this new, revolutionary manner.”

What do you recall of the [Baťa] estate in East Tilbury in Essex?

“The peculiar thing was that of course it’s an exact model of the architecture and the buildings in Zlín.

“I always thought that it was very peculiar that we left Czechoslovakia from this modernist, extraordinary place – Zlín – and we arrived in England.

“And did we live in somewhere that was English, a quaint village or anything like that? No [laughs], we still lived in a Czech, modernist Central European estate.

“I think it took me quite a long time to get over that. And I probably only saw the joke very much later.”

How did your folks deal with the adjustment to life in the UK?

“There was never any discrimination, or anything like that, but there was always a certain distance, that these Czechs were a bit different. Which perhaps we were.”

“I think they were probably helped by the fact that they had so many colleagues and friends who were Czech.

“So they could speak Czech to them and for a long time their best friends were almost always Czech.

“I think in another way it may not have helped very much, because it meant that they couldn’t come to terms and get used, so to say, to living with the English.

“Also I must say that people in the area, that is southeast Essex, always thought that my parents’ language and the way they spoke – because of course they spoke Czech-accented English till their dying day – was really rather strange.

“I think that the English themselves didn’t accommodate to these strange people from Czechoslovakia as well as they might have done.

“The worst thing was that our relatives said, When will NATO come and free us from these people, communism? And I remember saying, I think you must understand, that isn’t going to happen – it can’t happen.”

“There was never any discrimination, or anything like that, but there was always a certain distance, that these Czechs were a bit different. Which perhaps we were.”

Did your parents ever see Czechoslovakia again?

“Yes. My father many years later. My mother came back with us in 1961, us being the grown-up children.

“Because I wanted to introduce my wife – we had just got married – to my relatives and to Czechoslovakia.

“1961 was very difficult, by the way. It was the depths of Communist rule.

“The atmosphere was horrible. There was a lot of police supervision.

“Even when we were in my mother’s hometown, Bystřice pod Hostýnem in southern Moravia, the police would occasionally visit in the evening, to make sure that they were there.

“We had to report to the police station and so on. It was not a nice atmosphere.

“And there were loudspeakers throughout the village which would give these instructions as to what people had to do.

John Tusa, photo: Khalil Baalbaki, CzechRadioJohn Tusa, photo: Khalil Baalbaki, CzechRadio “I don’t think you could get away from the loudspeakers probably even in the fields. It really was unpleasant.

“And of course the worst thing was that our relatives said, When will NATO come and free us from these people, communism?

“And I remember saying, Luba, I think you must understand, that isn’t going to happen – it can’t happen.

“I think he was heartbroken. So it was wonderful that we went back, but it was very, very painful. More painful for my relatives than for us, of course, because we could leave.”

As a journalist you were involved in the early days of Newsnight, where you were the main presenter in the early 1980s. That must have been very exciting, and also a high pressure job. What do you recall of that time?

“The wonderful thing about that programme was that it was a new programme and it dealt with news and current affairs in a different way.

“It integrated them into one, so it broke all sorts of rules inside the BBC.

“Therefore all the people who worked on it and all the people who were editing it weren’t interested in the old ways of dividing up the news from current affairs.

“We all felt that if we had a good idea we could put it on the screen – we could do an item about it that evening.

“That was absolutely invigorating. It meant that everybody that worked on the programme knew they had the opportunity to be original, maybe to break the rules from time to time, and that was what was wanted.

“It was an exhilarating six years, it really was. We really believed in humour, in irreverence, in originality, and that was a terrific atmosphere to work in.”

In the mid-1980s you became the managing director of the BBC World Service. How do you look back on that period?

Photo: Kateřina Křenová, Czech RadioPhoto: Kateřina Křenová, Czech Radio “It was very demanding. It was very hard work. But everybody at Bush House, which is where the BBC World Services worked from, was completely united by belief in what we were doing.

“And that was to give the best possible open, free, accurate information to all our listeners. There was a sense of dedication to the listener, wherever they were.

“That feeling of ‘we are doing the best for them’, not ‘we are doing something that we are interested in’, though we were. That it was the listener who came first.

“That was why we would fight for our independence, which was never in question.

“But from time to time we’d have to say to, say, the Foreign Office or to other parts of the BBC, This is us and this is why we do as do and we will continue to do it.

“We fought very hard to maintain that independence, because we knew that that was what mattered.

“Listeners after all aren’t stupid. Particularly listeners who live in a closed, authoritarian society.

“Hearing news which was accurate, and which was giving them a different view of the world than the one that was presented by their own official media – this was a high responsibility, but it was also a privilege to be able to broadcast to them in that way.”

I was reading that when you were managing director of the BBC World Service you had to, or you chose to, cultivate then prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Why did you need do that? And how did you find her?

“I thought it would be quite sensible given that in the end our funding came from the government. And she was not a friend of the BBC – by no means.

Sir John Tusa, photo: Ian WilloughbySir John Tusa, photo: Ian Willoughby “Therefore I thought it was even more important that she should know exactly what the World Service was doing, why the government funded it and the sort of things that we did.

“She was actually quite open to this, I think because the very first invitation we gave her was to say, Come and do a programme where you answer questions from listeners in the Soviet Union.

“I think this really attracted her. This tickled her sense of risk, perhaps.

“So she came to do that. That worked well and then about a year later I thought, It’s time to have her again – and this time we would have time to tell her what the World Service is about.

“And she was a very strange… no, she wasn’t a strange woman. In some respects she was very direct.

“If she decided that she liked and admired something, that was that – she would have made up her mind and she would stick to it.

“So I never had any difficulties with her. And she never complained about World Service coverage. Not at all – quite the reverse.”

You also headed the Barbican arts centre for many years. How did you find the difference between the two roles – being a manager or managing director and being a journalist? Surely they require rather different skill sets?

Barbican Centre, photo:  Tom Morris / Flickr/ CC BY 2.0Barbican Centre, photo: Tom Morris / Flickr/ CC BY 2.0 “I think actually they were very nearly exactly the same, and I’ll tell you why: journalists and people in the arts are very similar.

“They all work because they believe in the values of the activity they are engaged in, whether it is providing the news or creating the best possible art.

“So they are all driven by this ideal and these values.

“Also, nobody is in journalism or the arts to make money. Because there isn’t money there [laughs].

“So there is really belief. That alone made it very, very simple.

“You know, both organisations were united by this absolutely core belief in the importance of the activity we were engaged in: the best possible art matter, the most true, accurate journalism mattered.

“And the people who produced those things were actually first cousins.

“So knowing how to work with them, and to create an environment where they could do their best work, was comparatively simple.”

You left this country at the age of two or three. How does it feel being back here today?

“It’s always very nice. I never pretend that I am more Czech than I am. That would be foolish.

“I’m European because I am Czech. And also because I am British, but Czech is, as it were, the doorway into being European.”

“But there are all sorts of aspects, I think, probably even to the way that I behave, and aspects of things that I learned from my parents, that I learned from my father, which I probably can’t even accurately identify, that make me – and sometimes I’m told this by English people – distinctly different. And probably, probably, a bit foreign.

“At one level of course I’m British and people say a member of the British establishment and so on and so forth – but a rather different one.

“That is very precious to me. And probably even more precious because, after all, the Czech Republic is one of my ways back into – and to remain – in Europe.

“And being European. I’m European because I am Czech. And also because I am British, but Czech is, as it were, the doorway into being European.”

And, you were telling me earlier, you’re getting Czech citizenship.

“I know. I will have my Czech passport, which I will use very proudly, in a matter of a few weeks.

“No more than that. Long before Brexit – if it ever happens – happens.

“But even so, I want to have a Czech passport and I am very pleased that I shall have one.”