Well, it wasn’t exactly the Summer of Love, back in 1968, when American film and television actor Robert Vaughn, then known to millions of Americans as “Napoleon Solo” came to Czechoslovakia to play a Nazi officer in The Bridge at Remagen. Four decades later, Vaughn got the opportunity to share his experience in Tracy Spottiswoode’s radio play “Solo Behind the Curtain.” The play aired last Monday on BBC Radio 4.
Now, Spottiswoode told me about “Solo” some 18 months ago when we sat in the kitchen of her Cardiff home (as mentioned here, in passing); by now, I had almost given up on ever getting to hear it, especially since I have visited Prague in the meantime and dined at the Cafe Europa on Wenceslas Square, where Vaughn enjoys a cool drink and the warmth of late spring as the play opens.
In a nod to Vaughn’s most famous role, “Solo” comes on like a 1960s spy thriller, with suave Vaughn feeling “pretty sure” that he
was being followed. In those days, there was nothing surprising in that. An American in an Iron Curtain country, during the Cold War. It would have been unusual not to be followed. What was surprising, though, was just how pretty she was.
Her name is Pepsi (wonderfully portrayed by Serbian actress Vesna Stanojevic), and she is used to being called “bubbly.” Perhaps it is her blood (Pepsi’s father was American communist who, in a moment of nostalgia, named his daughter after the soft drink he could no longer enjoy in his wife’s homeland of Czechoslovakia). The smart if malapropism prone young woman, who serves as the crew’s interpreter, is proud of her country’s relative freedom, but eager to leave with the Americans as those freedoms are being crushed.
Vaughn is an excellent narrator, as his father Walter had been, back in the mid-1940s, when he narrated wartime propaganda plays like “Assignment USA” for the series Words at War, aside from appearing on thriller programs like Murder at Midnight and Gangbusters.
Unlike his father, Vaughn was busy exposing propaganda, rather than delivering it. During the time of the filming, he was at work on his doctoral dissertation, which was later published as Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting. As you will hear, it very nearly got lost as a peaceful spring gave way to a bloody summer.
His is not the voice of a 35-year-old, to be sure; but Vaughn draws you into his story all the same as he recreates his experience shooting in Czechoslovakia . . . until the shooting began in the streets. In August 1968, a short period of reformed communism under Alexander Dubček, known as the Prague Spring, came to an end as Soviet tanks rolled into the city. Not that Vaughn was ready to say U.N.C.L.E. and get stranded in a country hostile to the west in general and a film crew in particular, engaged as it was in firing explosives and blowing up things to restage a war for maximum box office impact.