There are, however, other aspects to the Phantom beyond that of providing an innocuous entertainment. First, it is an exercise in nostalgia. The series is an adaptation of Eduard Fiker’s 1945 book Fantom operety: Román-groteska, a title that could be translated as ‘novel-farce’, but the word ‘groteska’ is also used in Czech to described silent-era slapstick comedy. Fiker was involved in writing the screenplay for the TV series, which in many ways evokes a world that by 1970 was already lost. The story uses that classic Hollywood trope, also backward-looking: it is a musical about putting on a musical. But what is displayed on screen is no communist paradise. Contemporary audiences would have been amused by the deference of the theatre servant, Kváča, who addresses everyone in the ultra-polite third-person plural form (in Czech, this is called onikání, and was already obsolete in the 1970s). Other characters use various registers when addressing each other; certainly, it is all far away from the communist ideal where everyone was supposed to address each other as ‘comrade’, and in the familiar second-person singular.
Second, it returns repeatedly to the question of whether the operetta is a high or a low art, an issue of central importance to the Phantom on Film project. Thus, Láce, the main character, who is a crime-fiction writer (hardly a high art form) is disdainful of operetta; indeed his revenge as Phantom is, in the word of the theatre’s secretary, that he ‘has stolen the older, the less stupid [operetta] and written a new, even stupider one’. The director of the theatre, Halant, is corrupt and vain. Yet when he welcomes Láce to his ‘modest temple of art’, it’s hard to read it as irony. Halant also says that, yes, his version is different from the Stockholm show (which forms the basis of his own), but, ‘in doing it this way, we have raised the operetta to the domain of valuable art’. And the stage director, Plíšek, whose responsibility is to try to hold the whole edifice together as it falls apart due to Láce’s shenanigans, might be unbearably pompous, but seems genuine when he acknowledges at difficult rehearsals that ‘one must make sacrifices for art’. One of the players, Kvíčala, clearly thinks the show is beneath him: he’s none too keen to learn his lines, and wastes no time informing us that he is an ‘opera singer’, i.e. someone normally involved in higher art than this. Yet, much to Plíšek’s desperation, he’s also keen on his lunch break, so that he can go and have his pork knee (a classic Czech delicacy), to which Plíšek has to acquiesce, saying: ‘Those who want to gorge themselves on food may do so. And I might as well jack it in.’
The show might be utterly daft, and too long—given the rather unequal lengths of the episodes (1: 34min, 2: 35min, 3: 43min, 4: 38min, 5: 52min, according to Czech TV website, but why they are of different lengths is unclear), one wonders if anything at all ended on the cutting-room floor—but the players include well-known actors, ones that Czech TV viewers would continue to welcome onto their screens right up until 1989. It is certainly not forgotten: it was re-run repeatedly, most recently in 2011. And while many other old shows are available on the Czech TV website for viewing free of charge, this one is not. Indeed, someone at Czech TV even thought it could be monetised, and it has been issued on DVD.
Since 1989-1990, when Communism collapsed and the Czechs endorsed capitalism, silly shows like Fantom operety haven’t disappeared from the small screen. Rather, totally new forms have arrived on commercial TV channels, built around the US model and paid for by US capital. But that’s an entirely different chapter in the story of Czech TV.