On January 2 1965, culture in Czechoslovakia changed forever with the first broadcast on the state-owned Czechoslovak Television channel of the children's show Večerníček (Czech for “the little bedtime story”).
56 years and over 3000 episodes later, Večerníček is still going strong. It's one of the longest running children's shows in the world and has become a cultural cornerstone of Czech society, watched and enjoyed by passing generations of parents, children and grandchildren.
The format has changed remarkably little (mainly due to public uproar whenever attempts are made to update it). In the opening animated sequence a small boy in a paper hat wishes everyone a 'good evening' and ascends some stairs among the stars. We're then treated to a slot of around 10 minutes of beautiful animation featuring short episodes of various animated characters who have since become national icons.
After WWII, the Soviet authorities' focus on cultivating a strong educational and character-building environment for children meant that production companies across all Communist countries were healthily financed to create children's content. In Czechoslovakia, this was especially true as the country already had a strong animation tradition and infra-structure. The film studios in the town of Zlin in particular, became focused almost exclusively on creating children's animation and live action series. To this day, Zlin hosts one of the most famous children's film festivals in the world.
Creating a regular slot on TV to showcase these series was a natural progression. During its heyday in the 70s and 80s, most Czech artists, writers and animators in the industry worked on at least one of the animated series that were shown in Večerníček at some point. The most used technique is drawing, followed by surface animation and then stop-motion, with a level of craftsmanship that is rarely seen these days. A single five minute film can contain up to 3,500 drawings. Live-action stories can date quickly but these animations remain timeless. This is certainly part of its appeal - nostalgia for parents and magical wonderment for children of all ages.
The legacy these animators have left for us to enjoy is immense and is treasured. As Petr Dvořák, CEO of Czech Television, said at the 50th anniversary celebration of Večerníček: "On the one hand, I see this as a huge advantage, because today we have something to build on, on the other hand, it is also a great commitment. Not only in terms of the demands we have on all new stories, but also in terms of taking care of all three hundred and seventy cycles that have been created in our country,"
Today, Večerníček is CT's most popular programme for foreign sales. In addition to all European territories, it has also been sold to countries as far away as Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Japan, China, Korea, and Kenya. Here we look at five of our favourite animated series that have made Večerníček so loved.
Vochomůrka and Kremílek are two elves who live in a tree stump, deep in the forest. The stories follow how the two friends have to deal with life's daily ordeals - baking cakes, planting seeds etc - or encountering other fairy tale creatures. If they get into trouble (which happens most of the time) they turn to their woodland friends or the sun for help.
The series was drawn and directed by Zdeněk Smetana and narrated by famous actress Jiřina Bohdalová who breathed life into the characters. The design is simple yet organic
A total of 39 episodes were created with the first "How Křemílek and Vochomůrka planted a seed" premiering in 1968. The first series of 13 episodes was created in black and white but they were digitally restored and colourised in 2014.
Mach a Šebestová was created by writer Miloš Macourek, director Jaroslav Doubrava, and animator Adolf Born. The animated characters were voiced by Petr Nárožný.
The stories chart the adventures of two schoolchildren and a magical telephone receiver that makes their wishes come true, allowing them to visit various places and have amazing adventures.
The first series of 13 episodes was broadcast on Czechoslovak Television in 1982 and further series followed in 1999 and 2005. In 2001 a live-action feature film was released - Mach, Šebestová a kouzelné sluchátko (Max, Sally and the Magic Phone).
Pat and Mat are almost as iconic as Josef Švejk in the field of fictional national characters.
Our two heroes Pat and Mat (short for Patlal and Matlal, or Clumsy and Awkward) are two hapless handymen whose attempts to fix a small problem always manage to snowball into disaster, before somehow ending up in success. It's a simple concept but is absolutely brilliant and taps into the Czech national psyche - of triumph and optimism through adversity.
The first episode of this stop-motion animation aired in 1976. Its creator Lubomír Beneš died in 1995 but episodes are still being made to this day (currently 77). An infamous 50th anniversary episode was created in 1998 but when the studio went bankrupt, arguments over ownership rights meant the episode has still never been broadcast although a copy that was dubbed from a South Korean VHS has appeared on Youtube.
Pat and Mat even managed to ruffle political feathers during the Cold War when their familiar red and yellow jerseys were thought by some to be an allegory for the tensions between USSR and China. Mat had to take one for the team and the creators were forced to give him a grey shirt until 1989 when it was no longer a political hot potato and Mat got his red shirt back.
Zdeněk Smetana teamed up again with Jiřina Bohdalová for more elf tales in this series that began in 1976. Rakosnicek is a little green spirit creature who lives amongst the reeds by a pond and is in tune with nature. When night falls he gets into all kinds of adventures with the magical creatures around him.
This surface animation series had similar themes and a similar organic style to Pohadky z Mechu a kapradi but this was a little more technically and creatively sophisticated. The humour was skewed a little older and was also more trippy which is why some people like it more.
Two series of Maxipes Fik were created. The first in 1975 introduced us to the giant dog Fig and the little girl Aja who looks after him. First Aja introduces the dog to her world and then as he gets bigger, the two of them head off for some adventures together. The second series in 1982 changed format slightly with Fig waking up each morning and recalling his wild dreams to Aja.
The animation style is quite basic and cartoony but the humour is delicious and appeals to both kids and adults. Actor Josef Dvořák, who voices the characters, found the gruff voice of the dog Fig by accident. He turned up to the recording studio after a long night's drinking session with a voice ravaged by drink and cigarettes and thought his hungover takes would have to be trashed. But the director Václav Bedřich thought it was perfect and insisted he use it permanently.