In my review of the first two episodes of The Story of Wales (here) I gave the series a cautious welcome. After 25 years, a new attempt at a television history of the nation was overdue, and, as one who had worked to make the most of The Dragon has Two Tongues at local level, I was looking forward to a fresh approach for very different times.
I welcomed some of the details. Having not previously known about the palisaded enclosure at Hindwell, Radnorshire, I was glad to have it revealed in so spectacular a manner. I applauded the programmes’ stress on Wales’ international connections, and was prepared to allow that, in the interest of presenting the sweep of Welsh history, certain key moments and movements could be given only light treatment.
The Story of Wales continues to get extraordinary ratings of of around 400,000 people tuning in, that’s about 27 per cent of the available audience in Wales. According to BBC Wales viewers have also rated the series more highly than other programmes. So far in 2012 it comes top of the programmes rated in appreciation terms by the Welsh audience. Taking the whole of 2011 into account audiences say they have enjoyed the programmes more than any other series across the BBC network, with the sole exception of Frozen Planet.
On this last point, I was, I now consider, far too kind. Programme 3 took us from the accession of Henry VII to the birth of Methodism, without even mentioning the fact that there had been two changes of dynasty in between. The description of the beginning of the industrial revolution in Wales, described in programme 4, allowed only a brief shot of Pont Cysyllte Aqueduct to represent the fact that the revolution also took place in the north, even if less extensively. Having tantalised us with a couple of sentences about Richard Price we heard nothing more about a man who was every bit as important as Tom Paine in the history of political ideas.
To be fair, the series became more focussed and detailed in its treatment of, for instance, the siege of Merthyr, and the age of coal. Industrialisation was the leading theme of programmes 4 and 5, but, for this viewer at least, the fact that this amount of concentration was possible in two programmes only threw into relief the lack of it elsewhere in the series. Is it really possible to tell the whole history of Wales in a worthwhile manner over six short programmes?
Overall, then, there were too many headlines, and the development of individual stories was often insufficient. It made matters worse that the headlines were regularly presented in a breathless and hyperbolic manner – Wales was ‘convulsed’; Parys Mountain was ‘a place of magic and alchemy’; the exploitation of natural resources from the 18th Century onwards was ‘volatile, explosive, exciting’ – and so on. The multiplication of adjectives became increasingly wearisome. Wales was presented all too often, as if, dare I say it, it was ‘top nation’.
Similarly, the awe which accompanied the opening up of key documents, such as the Act of Union, got in the way of the thoughts it ought to have provoked about present and future constitutional arrangements. Unquestionably it is one of television’s greatest strengths that it can show us things which are normally hidden from view. But it has an equal responsibility to relate past and present; perhaps the last programme will remedy earlier failures in this respect. For instance, having described industrialisation so vividly, it would be appropriate to discuss the implications of de-industrialisation, and to plot the tenacious hold of poverty over time in certain parts of Wales.
Granted it was not desirable to have two presenters with opposing viewpoints as in The Dragon has Two Tongues, it should surely have been possible to have included more interviews with people who had something useful and interesting to contribute. To say the least, this would have avoided the cumulative monotony of Huw Edwards as sole storyteller, requiring his appearance at every location. More importantly, professional historians would have added authority to the series, an authority which was seriously diminished when Huw was directed to row a boat, shovel coal, or walk with a red flag above Merthyr Tydfil.
All that said, I was glad to have my attention drawn to Richard Price, and will try to get hold of a copy of his Observations on Civil Liberty. I had not previously thought much about the drift of north Walians to the south during industrialisation, let alone the effects of their migration on Valleys culture. It was intriguing to reflect that Catholicism took some rooting out in Wales during and after the Reformation, but that Wales was also the country which embraced nonconformity perhaps more full-heartedly than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Others will have been illuminated by other moments in The Story of Wales, and I only wish, as I inferred in my previous review, that a network of viewing groups had been set up to take the discussion further.
We must assume that this will be the last television history of Wales for another quarter of a century – if indeed it can be accepted that the history of a country with such a rich history can be satisfactorily encompassed with limited television time available. Who knows, alas, whether an increasingly populist BBC will consider making space available for such endeavours?
Casting pessimism aside, what might now – or soon – be done to extend and enrich television’s capacity to tell the story of Wales? The Story of Wales asked us to see the particular in the universal, a task which not all viewers would have found easy. Why not, next time, take a particular place, city, town or village, and uncover how it was affected by, or contributed to, the wider story? Print historians are increasingly interested in microcosmic studies, which might well also make compelling television. In the end, of course, there may well be as many stories of Wales as there are places, but there is surely scope here for some original proposals.