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17 Jul 13

Life Begins at Seventy

The life of Timothy John Byford, a Belgrade resident for 40 years whose work entertained generations of young Yugoslavs, is retold in a new book and documentary.

Nemanja Cabric
BIRN Belgrade
Timothy John Byford: Life begins at seventy. | Photo by Nemanja Cabric

Timothy John Byford is a 72-year-old Englishman whose TV shows were adored by the kids who grew up watching them across the former Yugoslavia.

Although he quit working in television more than two decades ago, generations of Yugoslavs who were children in the 1970s and 1980s still remember his creations with fondness to this day.

His stature is underlined by the fact that Belgrade television station Studio B recently finished a documentary movie focusing on his life which will be aired by national broadcaster RTS in the coming months.

As well as “Neven” (“Marigold”, 1973), the show that brought his work to every small screen in Yugoslavia, he also made “Babino unuce” (“Granny’s Boy”) and the legendary “Poletarac” (“The Fledgling”), which was awarded a ‘Prix Jeunesse’ prize in Munich in 1980.

For ten years, he also worked at Sarajevo Television, where he produced the shows “Sunday Magazine”, “Musical Notebook”, “In Search of the Dodo” and “Open the Window”.

Today he is still living in Belgrade, successfully battling a rare type of cancer and at the same time teaching children English, writing and publishing his works on his website and advising the national broadcaster on programming for children.

He said that he tried to improve the station’s poor children’s programming by suggesting an educational show about history for children, but it turned out that RTS doesn’t have the funds or the airtime to put such a plan into practice. 

“Such shows have a small role in people’s lives today. If you go through the channels you will see that in prime time there are at least four or five political programmes. There are few new things, mostly repeats,” he said.

Byford hasn’t directed or written shows since 1990 - a conscious decision, he said, because he wanted to do something else.

“I’ve given up TV since then, and started working directly with children,” he explained.

Besides teaching English, he has translated books and published some of his own writing. Since 2005, he has been fighting multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow that has caused him much pain and suffering but from which he has started to recover.

Cuddling his little Yorkshire terrier, he said: “I walk every day with Billy, for six kilometres every day, and he brought me back to life.”

He also spends a lot of time surfing the Internet and updating his website, on which he already published two books, poems, seven short stories, and a huge collection of retellings of dreams that he collected systematically from 2005 to 2012.

What brings all these creative efforts together, he said, is the need to relive his life and get to know himself better.

“We just get caught up in life and society and what people expect from us,” he said.

“Writing these two books is taking stock of my life and realising the things that conditioned me. If you realise this conditioning, you are getting closer to who you really are, but are encouraged not to be,” he continued.

His recently-finished autobiography currently goes by the working title of Timothy Byford: Warts and All, although he cheerfully suggests that he might consider changing it to Life Begins at Seventy.

The memoir follows the course of his life from his early days at Sandle Farm, Fordingbridge in England, through his years working for the BBC in London and finally to Belgrade, the city that he made his home at the beginning of the 1970s. 

On the other hand, his other book, Pigs Eat Banana Skin, is a fictional self-portrait, based on details from his life mixed with imagined situations; a combination of humour, poetry and real life.

The years of dreaming:

Besides his official autobiography and the self-portrait, his website contains seven short stories under the name “The Golden Candlestick” as well as a large collection of dream recollections that he started writing down after he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

With a wide smile on his face, Byford explained that he started collecting his dreams eight years ago when he was hospitalised for the first time.

“For example, when I would wake up in the middle of the night, I would write a couple of notes about what I had dreamt, or record them on tape, and it continued until 2012,” he said.

Although Byford believes that his dreams could be of some value to psychologists, he put them down on paper them mostly because he “needs to, and has to”. However he stopped last year, because he couldn’t remember them as clearly as before after waking up.

“It was the illness that brought the dreams. The fact that I am now not remembering them might mean I am getting healthy again,” he said.

The dreams also stopped when Billy the dog joined his family and made himself the primary responsibility in his life.

Fortune’s wheel turns:

Byford says that when he first came to Belgrade on business back in the 1970s, he thought that he would never return to the city again.

“When I finished my first co-production, I told everyone that it was the one city I’d never go back to. It was dirty then and had ugly architecture... It was more like a village than a big city,” he recalled.

However, in Belgrade he met Mila, his future wife, and despite his previous expectations, he moved to the city permanently.

“Love was the initial reason, but I also realised I could also further my career better than at the BBC. There I would have continued working on what producers wanted. Here I did everything I wanted to do, and was accepted,” he explained.

He noted how Belgrade has grown since the war, and said that because so many new buildings have been built, it is now more of an international city than before.

This year it is 40 years since the start of the educational children’s show “Neven” (“Marigold”), which was based on a prominent 19th century children’s magazine run by poet Jovan Jovanovic Zmaj.

The anniversary provided the hook for Studio B to make its documentary film about Byford.

“The movie is an extension of my autobiography, and was inspired by Lavinia Davenport, the wife of the UK ambassador, after reading it on the website,” he said.

Using interviews to trace his memories from his childhood in England to his current hometown Belgrade, it looks set to be a document of a fascinating life.

Byford’s website: www.timothybyford.com


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