[WATCH] 'It's a shame - we don't even know our own history' | Salvu Mallia

Has Malta’s most popular television presenter finally overstepped his limits by taking on the mantle of campaigner for the SHout campaign against spring hunting?

Salvu Mallia interviewed in MaltaToday on Sunday (Photo and Video by Ray Attard)
Salvu Mallia interviewed in MaltaToday on Sunday (Photo and Video by Ray Attard)
TV presenter Salvu Mallia interviewed

Salvu Mallia is many things to many people: including, it would seem, to himself. Painter, actor, theatre director, TV presenter, self-appointed spokesperson for Maltese culture, leftist anarchist, champion of the downtrodden… and more recently, one of a number of public figures to have endorsed the referendum campaign to abolish hunting in spring.

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But as tends to be the case with public personalities, the man behind all these masks is not all that easy to pigeonhole. I meet the presenter of Madwarna – TVM’s flagship cultural programme, and the one role that has made of Salvu Mallia an almost instant household name – at his Bugibba home, and find that he is, in fact, every bit as voluble in real life as on TV. 

So keen is he to get the interview moving that I barely even manage to get a first question in. And when I do, it quickly becomes next to impossible to squeeze in a second.

“I was born an anarchist,” he soon tells me when I finally manage to ask him how he views himself. “Even in my role as a television presenter, I consider myself an anarchist. I tore down what I found there before me, and built it all up again from scratch… because I found that one gets the message across much more with a joke and a laugh, than by being serious. But I was born an anarchist, and have always been very left-wing. I’m as left-wing as Jesus Christ. Not left-wing in the sense of the Labour Party, just to be clear. In fact I’ve always had this problem with political parties in general. I like some things about them, but dislike others. But by left-wing I mean that I’ve always been on the side of the downtrodden. ALWAYS…”

Mallia has a certain undeniable flare for drama, and this comes across rather starkly in his manner of speech. The emphasis he places on that last word is particularly suggestive. Before meeting me for this interview, he was busy responding to some of the criticism he now faces – mostly from angry hunting sympathisers – on Facebook. But to Salvu Mallia, involvement in a campaign to protect birds is just a natural progression from the philosophy he has always consciously tried to embrace: a tendency to jump to the defence of the underdog. 

This, he tells me, underpins all the various activities at which he has variously tried his hand… not least theatre, where his choice of plays as a director always seem to somehow involve marginalised or underprivileged sectors of society. 

“The first play I directed was… but wait, let me tell you the story from the beginning. From the outset, I was actually a painter. I spent long years painting, and after a while you end up like a hermit: completely cut off from the rest of the world. I put up three exhibitions, which on the whole were successful… I was considered one of the ‘up-and-coming’ painters… but then, suddenly, something snapped [‘qabzitli’]. I decided I needed people around me…”

A chance encounter at a party landed him a small part in an MADC play. “It wasn’t one of the bigger successes in my life,” he candidly admits. But it did kick-start a small career as an actor, and it wasn’t long before an opportunity arose to direct a play of his own: ‘The Rise and Rise of Arturo Ui’, by Bertolt Brecht.

His efforts were well received, but it was with a stage version of Ken Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ that Salvu Mallia had his first ‘hit’, so to speak, as a theatre director.

“It was a massive success. I remember how [theatre critic] Paul Xuereb came up to me afterwards, hugged me and said ‘Thank you’. And, let’s face it, he wasn’t exactly the type to praise everything…”

Mallia adds that part of his entire directorial approach was ‘anarchic’, also in the sense that he kept such aspects as costumes and stage design to the bare minimum. His set for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a naked scaffolding; for King Lear, just a table and three chairs. 

At the same time, there seems to be a slight contradiction in there somewhere. As presenter of ‘Madwarna’, he seems to have gone for the clean opposite approach: often appearing in lavish and flamboyant 17th century regalia. Has he changed his Spartan outlook over the years?

“No, I don’t see it as a contradiction at all. The reason is very simple, really…” Here he breaks into a laugh… “I have always remained a child. Wearing costumes was always a childhood pleasure of mine. And if you look at other artists… Picasso, Lautrec… they all liked wearing costumes, too. Besides, I find it helps to draw the viewer into the story…”

Speaking of stories, and the need to draw television viewers into them… for all his past theatrical efforts, Salvu Mallia is today best known as the presenter of ‘Madwarna’, which is ultimately a programme dedicated to culture. This seems very far removed from his earlier claims to represent an anarchic streak of the extreme left. ‘Culture’ tends to be regarded (perhaps somewhat unfairly) as something of a niche product that appeals only to a very limited audience. At the risk of generalising, many people tend to switch off when they hear the word…

Mallia nods vigorously. “And they’re quite right, too. Let me tell you why. First of all, it’s a great pity that everyone merely pays lip service to culture. They will claim to appreciate culture, yes; but in reality they wouldn’t be interested in it at all. Another thing is that cultural programmes on TV very often tend to be treated from an academic perspective. As a result, presenters end up speaking an academic language. I am not an academic. I’m not saying this to boast, but the fact is I dropped out of school after Form 3. Initially I was going to become a priest. But then I quit the seminary too. I was supposed to carry on studying, but I never did. Even at school, I wasn’t exactly a shining star. But I was lucky in that, when I left school, someone gave me a book. Before that, I had never read anything at all...”

The book was called ‘I Flew for the Fuhrer’: the diary of a Luftwaffe pilot in World War II. “By coincidence I recently came across a documentary about the same pilot on YouTube. At the time – I was around 15 – I was obsessed with planes. I read the book, and… that was it. Suddenly I started reading anything I could lay my hands on. Enid Blyton, anything I could find. I started a career in reading. So whatever I learnt, I learnt it after school…”

Mallia takes a certain pride in the fact that his education never really came from any formal training. “Today, I hold that I am lucky that I never went to university. Otherwise, I would probably have ended up talking in the same academic language I mentioned earlier. Apart from the fact that I have to make more of an effort, as many of things I end up talking about are things I am unfamiliar with. Even the places I talk about on Madwarna… many of them will be places I’d never been to before….”

Whether or not its popularity is attributable to the untutored, unvarnished approach of its presenter, ‘Madwarna’ has proved a tremendous hit with the local audience… and, as Mallia is keen to point out, even with foreigners. From this perspective, his sudden decision to enter the political fray, so to speak – even if it’s politics with a small ‘p’ – may seem like something of a risk. What was it, exactly, that compelled him to take an active part in the spring hunting campaign? And was he expecting the feedback (both positive and negative) that ensued?

Mallia argues that anyone familiar with his public persona would have expected no less than an unequivocal endorsement of the ‘No’ campaign.

“If you watch my programme regularly and read between the lines, you’ll notice that I’ve been saying the same thing for a long time now. I may not spell it out in as many words… I prefer encouraging people to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions… but I feel that killing for pleasure is immoral. It can be legal, yes, but it can never be moral. To enjoy killing, whatever it is you’re killing, can never be morally correct…”

In the case of hunting, he adds, the issue is not just about killing but also about inflicting pain. “Once I got a sliver stuck inside my hand, so I know what it is to be in pain. Can you imagine what it’s like for the bird?”

But was he also concerned that his decision might ultimately affect his popularity with the masses… possibly even to the extent that it might affect viewer ratings?

“No. I did think about it a little. But… let me put it this way. One of the plays I once directed was ‘Faust’. We all know the story of Faust – he sold his soul to the devil. I am an atheist myself – everybody knows this, I’m not the type to hold back – so I don’t directly believe in the devil… but I do believe in evil, in good and bad. To me, selling your soul means abandoning one’s principles for personal gain. And we see this all the time. Without beating about the bush… the two parties have both done it. But this is one of the messages I’d like to put across. One’s principles should come first. Not money, not votes, not anything else.”

Many people, he adds, prefer to pay lip service to principles. “We all say ‘we believe’ in this or that... but in many cases it’s just words. People say they believe in God, for instance. This weekend we’re commemorating the passion of Christ. You hear people saying, look at how much Christ suffered, poor thing [‘jahasra’]. How, then, can you go and do the same thing to a bird? How can you do it?”

Mallia concludes that people often don’t think through the consequences of their beliefs or actions. “Do you remember the film Planet of the Apes? When the roles of apes and people were reversed? That’s what people need to do sometimes. Are we capable of reversing roles, and imagining what it would be like if things were the other way around?”

Still, some might argue differently. I myself disagree with the argument I am about to make; but in the eyes of hunters and those who are sympathetic to their cause, there may be a contradiction lurking in Mallia’s take on this issue. For one thing, he presents a programme which is ostensibly about Maltese culture and traditions. Hunters argue that their hobby is itself a Maltese cultural tradition in its own right. By that token… shouldn’t he be defending this tradition, as he has done with so many others? 

“No, no, no, no,” he energetically replies. “No, no, no. Tell you what: by that argument, why not resuscitate other traditions from the past? Piracy, for instance. We should all become pirates once more, and while we’re at it, re-introduce slavery. Wasn’t that a tradition, too? To sell human beings for profit? Come on. We would be deluding ourselves to argue like that. I would argue that a country should grow out of such traditions. Otherwise we may as well go back to the days of head-hunting. Are those the traditions we want?”

Part of the problem, he adds, is that in Malta we always tend to conflate issues that shouldn’t be conflated [his actual words were: ‘inhawdu l-hass mal-bass’]. 

“There are so many lovely traditions which we’ve lost… we’ve even lost our own history. We don’t know it at all. Nobody knows the history of Malta. We had foreign occupiers who did everything they could to make us forget where we’re coming from. We had the Church deliberately keeping people ignorant so it could spoon-feed them with nonsense. In the meantime, we’ve forgotten all our magnificent medieval history. In the Grand Harbour, for instance, there was once a naval battle between the Angevins and the Aragonese which changed the entire course of European history. It’s even known as the ‘battle of Malta’. Yet nobody knows about it. There were three separate revolutions against foreign occupiers… not involving foreign powers this time, but involving ourselves: we rose up as a nation against oppressors. Three times. This is our own history… yet we know nothing about it. These are the problems facing our country…”

Meanwhile, matters are compounded by what he describes as the absurd state of Maltese politics. “I might get into trouble for saying this, but anyhow… these days, I feel that the two parties have practically merged into one and the same thing. On another level, they remind me of the Roman soldiers who played dice for the robe of Christ. That’s how I picture them. The robe of Christ represents Malta, and the two parties are like two soldiers playing a game to see who’s going to win it. I am sorry, but… they might take offence, and as far as I am concerned they can get as offended as they like. I’m just telling them what the people think, if they really want to know. This is not just me talking. This is what I hear in the street…”

In fact, Mallia’s position as a public figure also furnishes him with a platform from which voice popular opinion. Does he view himself as a spokesperson for the Maltese people?

“I believe it’s my duty. A lot of people don’t understand this. But if I have been lucky enough to have a public voice, I can either use it for my own personal gain… so that people say, ah, what a nice person that Salvu Mallia is… or I can use it like a prophet, which means I would probably end up like a prophet, too: i.e., on the receiving end of a couple of blows to the head. But I believe it is a duty of anyone in the media to use that voice to speak out on behalf of others.”