A chat with Pál Laska about television around 1989
2020.06.10.

Brazilian soap operas and Dallas, infotainment and talk shows, cop series and space series – asking script writer and television historian Pál Laska about domestic and imported emblematic TV shows of the eighties and nineties. AN INTERVIEW BY FERENC LÁSZLÓ.

Revizor: In the second half of the 1980s, Hungarian Television (MTV) with its two channels (or a channel and a half) was the only player in the arena of national television, and as such, it was the site and at the same time the architect (or at least an active participant) and sometimes the target of political and social processes during the years of change.
 
Pál Laska: At the TV the changes had started earlier, as during the second half of the 80s topics and people, that up to that point were given no official publicity received a platform. As the joke at the time went, this was the Hungarian BBC, Baló, Benda, Chrudinák. The official public space started showing bigger and bigger cracks. A memorable one was in 1986, when the CEO of the Postal Service was invited to appear on a program about internal affairs, but failed to show up, and the host, Ákos Mester showed the empty chair to illustrate his disapproval. People who had gained experience abroad (like Endre Aczél and István Wisinger) took part in the production of the daily and weekly news reports and they and their co-workers played an important role in Hungarian Television following and documenting the process of the shift in power.
 
R: As an early instance of the modernization and liberalisation of national TV one can mention the cultural show called Studio launched in 1980, which turned out to be bolder both in format and content. Just like in the case of Baló or Mester, the team of Sándor Érdi and his team also went to show that in the 80s many people within Hungarian television endeavoured to create a more modern and authentic television. Of course, in retrospect we can also discern the increased vulnerability of fictional works: fewer were made and they quickly became outdated.
 
Pál Laska
Pál Laska
PL: Documentaries predominated the productions of the time. Fiction on the screen retreated to the background, and due to the rapid changes, already finished productions were changed several times and shown in a way that was different from the original concept. The most glaring example was the TV series Angyalbőrben (In the Army Now), it was given the green light in 1988, it was shot in 1989, and when it was shown in 1990 they changed a couple of expressions in post-production, such as “comrade”, “people’s army”, “people’s republic”. But similarly, the evolution of so-called entertainment shows is also typical of the era. Tamás Vitray’s Telefere in the second half of the 80s was shot in a theatrical setting in front of an audience and discussed specific topics such as alternative medicine or dietary science. And then Friderikusz Show launched in 1992 trying to evoke the classic Johnny Carson/Jay Leno type entertaining late-night shows with all their form and gaudiness. The Friderikusz Show imported the externalities of late-night shows to Hungary and it was the first to apply them successfully. A lot of background work contributed to that, scenery, gagmen and an independent budget. The guests were often stars past their best before date, but they were nevertheless popular in Hungary, and were usually attending some business in the country. (The curvaceous Brigitte Nielsen was plugging her line of cosmetics, David Hasselhoff was here during the TV premiere of Baywatch.)
 
R: Although Hungarian Television had a monopoly in the late 80s it nevertheless set off in a more market-oriented, competitive direction. This was important politically on one hand, but it also affected the strongly educational streak of National Television as well.
 
PL: In the television of the Kádár era it was always important to make high culture more accessible for the audience. The TV broadcasted international conductor competitions and the backbone of Önök Kérték, a prearranged request show, was made up of ballet, opera and poems, comedy and pop hits were only a bonus. But at the turn of the decade, TV had two separate production staffs and channel number two was created with an aim to entertain. A ratings competition evolved between the two directorates, for example on number 2 they started the feature film about 15 minutes before the other one ended on number one. And at that time the conflict was further deepened by the escalation of the “new national” vs. “old communist” debate. Let us mention that in the 90s there were several attempts to promote high culture that almost had a hegemony in the 70s and 80s, for example with the series of short cultural spots called Közjáték (interlude), but these attempts were met with aversion from the audience.
 
R: To what extent was social change of the era depicted in contemporaneous television shows? Was it more often reflection or was television able to provide patterns and frameworks of interpretation?
 
PL: Television in those days was reflective in nature. Seeing the TV series of the 80s, such as Linda, which was supposed to popularise the police, the more sociographically inspired Eight Seasons, or even Forma-1, a French-Canadian-Hungarian co-production, the common man of the Kádár era was justified to feel that the bottom ring of the western world’s ladder is reachable for him, he can obtain western comfort, all he has to do is work harder. The shock therapy accompanying the late 80s on the other hand showed that even the ladder itself is out of reach. I would make a sharp distinction between scripted shows and documentaries. Hungarian Television followed the events of the shift in power and strived to provide a many-sided reporting of the continuously changing events, but scripted productions (films, series) failed to place the process of the changes in a wider framework. 
 
R: With the political shift came also the change in the economic system. How did the transition to a market economy appear in contemporaneous TV shows and series? And how did the „entrepreneur” become an indispensable stock character, just like party secretaries earlier and the village vicar before that?

Gábor Koltai
Gábor Koltai
LP: As long as the private shop owner got us products „under the counter“ that were unavailable in state owned stores, the crafty shopkeeper had positive connotations, as stealing from the common goods of socialism did not provoke moral judgement. The character of the shrewd entrepreneur evolved from this little shady, but fundamentally useful role. Gábor Gábor from Szomszédok (Neighbors) – according to the interpretation of Ádám Horváth, who conceived the idea – the man seeing money and opportunities in everything was a sort of didactic ideal entrepreneur. János Koltai in this role tried to revive the character of the “kind trickster” – more or less successfully. And then during the time of the accumulation of capital and in lockstep with the social malaise, “entrepreneur” became synonymous with bad taste, pretentiousness, bragging. Even their representation in the media wore predominantly purple or ice cream colored jackets, tassel loafers, and they talked on their expensive high-tariff mobiles (called yokelphones at the time) sealing shifty deals with compensation bonds. 

R: To me it seems that fictional TV series both reinforced the stereotype and worked against it. 

PL: This gave birth to the series supporting the entrepreneurship of the everyman, Fritz, the Entrepreneurial Spirit – with the contribution of the Lakitelek Folk High School Foundation friendly to the governing party – which was about an ideal, honest owner of a small business. With the help of a playful ghost this series showed in perfectly unrealistic situations how an entrepreneur today should make a living. The series with a market friendly title, Família Ltd, had a typical character, Mr Alföldi, the entrepreneur in a yellow jacket, whose profession nobody knew, but who had a half-official or totally unofficial solution to everything. In Kisváros (The Hamlet) we got to know a different type of entrepreneur. Mr Turcsányi privatized the hotel, he had good social and political connections, he was always courteous with the guests, and he could always talk himself out of trouble. 
 
Perhaps we should note here, that until the ratification of the 1996 media law, there were practically no unified and accepted regulations for advertisements: recommendations, circular letters, directives tried to create some order, but in vein. Products and their slogans made their way to interview shows (e.g.: Three Wishes) and fictional works alike. This way the income from advertising enriched the production companies, not the TV. The most extreme example was in all likelihood Familia Ltd., in which the protagonists ran a grocery store/café: numerous products were shown, their brand said, moreover, current promotions were incorporated into the dialogue. 

R: What kind of new social ideals, norms of interaction and issues were conveyed by the emblematic TV series of the late 80s, early 90s, both domestic and imported ones? Such as Angyalbőrben, You Rang, Mylord? Or Dallas?

János Körmendi
János Körmendi
PL: Due to its borderline nature Angyalbőrben carried on the traditional plot of the hero stories of the socialist era. The sly rogue on the lookout for loopholes finally integrates into society as a member of a team. In the cacophony of the shift in power this was accompanied by the overtones of camaraderie, the nostalgy about the mandatory military service and the tireless annoying of the powerful. Dallas with its debut on New Year’s Eve, 1990 practically accompanied the years of change, and the financial chicaneries, conning one another, conflicts within a family were also entertaining. J.R.’s character was the embodiment of a typical entrepreneur, a money grabbing, power lusting man only made acceptable by his relationship with his mother. Financial skirmishes were present in European series as well, these often showed the clashing of the new, up and coming, honest with the aristocratic traditions covering up sins of the past (such as The Guldenburg Inheritence from Germany or Châteauvallon from France). And the decade long continuous success of You Rang, Mylord? is a good indicator of the state of Hungarian society. The typical motifs are the lack of an exemplary elite, the insistence to old values, a socialistic egalitarianism of “upstairs” and “downstairs”, and the shock provoked by unconventional  behaviour (the close female friendship of Cissy and Penelopé was portrayed just as shocking as the behaviour of respectable Teddy chasing after maids). The mixture of sophisticated wry and uncouth humour and not least the excellent dubbing work make this series popular to the present day. 
 
Romantic foreign series, such as the Canadian Road to Avonlea or the Australian The Thorn Birds stood out with being stable and steadfast amid the rapidly changing circumstances, while the Italian La Piovra merged fiction and real life by depicting organized crime and mafia showdowns that were no strangers to Hungarian streets either.  
 
The first Brazilian soap opera that made it to the Hungarian screens in the mid-80s was Escrava Isaura, and it became so immensely popular, that Hungarian TV kept showing similar series in the 90s as well: Sinhá Moça or Mulheres de areia.

It is important to note that the average viewer was unaffected by the various genres of „television series“. Sitcoms such as Taxi or Mork & Mindy were „television series” just like the mini-series Escrava Isaura or Dallas with its seasons and weekly episodes. This made a lasting mark on Hungarian “sitcoms”: Família Ltd or Married with Children in Budapest became jokes told on set with canned laughter. In other words, the virtues of the original genre were lost in Hungary: the reaction of the live audience, the quick and witty ideas of the writing staff, the improvisation of the actors who were forged into a team. 

R: How did the image of Hungarian television change once the commercial channels were kicked off?

PL: A serious, but family friendly image had a large role to play in Kádár-era television, and perhaps it even served as a pattern for the society treated like children. A typical instance would be the quirky, droll Imre Antal and the solemn but smiling Júlia Kudlik, a host couple who laid down the framework of entertainment shows for decades. It is no coincidence, that when in 1997 the commercial channels were launched, the ratings race was one by TV2, the channel that continued with the more traditional, family friendly image. 

During the transition period two channels competed with one another under the roof of the same institution, and perhaps this internal strife led to the prolongation of the media war. One thing is for certain, between 1993 and 1997 we had the most recent American series (ER, X-files, Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure) complemented by Hungarian made talking heads with a sociographic strain (Dosszié, Apropó, Az én mozim). Scripted Hungarian drama series were, however, very rare – of the series counting more than 100 episodes and shown regularly, Kisváros is worth mentioning, even though it turned irrecoverably into a soap after the first season. Another similar series, Űrgammák (Space Gammas) had an incomprehensible plot, and can be regarded as a motion picture money laundering scheme. Generally speaking, the whole of the 90s was rock bottom for Hungarian made series. (The eighties saw an increase in the number of TV films that were literary adaptations shot entirely in studio, and following 1989 nothing came to replace these, so national television showed even the newest Hungarian films in unfrequented time slots.) 
 
With the advent of commercial channels, the program structure was watered down culturally and quantitively. Hungarian made trivia games gradually disappeared and series of questionable quality popped up: Around the year 2000, for example, we witnessed the proliferation of Mexican and Brazilian soap operas. So viewers watched and got to like foreign series. Then in the 2000s came the phase of mobilizing this passive capital through reality shows, game shows and call-in shows generating revenue via value-added text messages and calls.  

Translated by Péter Papolczy