BBC Wales to commission major Welsh history series

New programmes will inevitably be compared with Dragon Has Two Tongues broadcast 25 years ago

BBC Wales is poised to commission a landmark series on the history of Wales, provisionally scheduled for BBC One Wales in peak time in the first few months of 2012. The idea is the brainchild of BBC Wales’s recently appointed Head of Commissioning, Elis Owen, formerly Managing Director at ITV 1 Wales and before that a long-standing current affairs producer and executive with HTV Wales.

“There hasn’t been a major history of Wales television series for over 25 years and there have been many important developments in the story of our nation since then”, he said. “This will be a prestigious project but we’re not being prescriptive. We are seeking ideas covering the story of Wales from pre-Roman times to the present day.”

Owen was at HTV in the mid-1980s when the yet to be surpassed Dragon Has Two Tongues was made with argumentative co-presenters Gwyn Alf Williams and Wynford Vaughan Thomas quarrelling their way through two millennia. Both have passed on since then but Colin Thomas, the producer and director of the series is still, at 70, very much in evidence. He told me that he wasn’t up to having another crack at the project single-handedly but would be willing to act as an adviser or consultant.  “I have an idea,” he said elliptically.

Having two presenters with completely different takes on Welsh history 25 years ago was Thomas’s master-stroke. Gwyn Alf Williams saw Welsh history as a series of ruptures with the people of Wales enduring a constant battle for survival. Wynford Vaughan Thomas, on the other hand, took a more traditional linear view of Welsh historical progress, with a liberal rather than Marxist interpretation. These contrasting perspectives led to many fiery clashes between the presenters, making the series compelling viewing and one that probably itself influenced the course of Welsh history in the pivotal 1980s decade between the 1979 and 1997 referendums.

Colin Thomas recalled that making the 14-part series in the 1980s was “a hell of a slog over three years”. When I told him BBC Wales were planning to broadcast the new series in only 18 months time, in early 2012, he commented, “That makes it even more of a nightmare.”

However, he was enthusiastic that James Stewart, a former television journalist, and Ruth McElroy, who researches history, are organising a debate about the commission at the University of Glamorgan’s Atrium in Cardiff between 5pm and 7.30pm on Wednesday 9 June. “This commission is too important to be left just to the professionals,” said Thomas. “There will of course, be competition between in-house and independent producers to win this contract but we need to share ideas and do some thinking together.”

Closing date for initial submissions is 18 June. Commissions will then be shortlisted for interview. The two best proposals will be given development money with a view to taking one of them to a commissioning stage in the autumn. Proposals must include:

  • An outline of proposed episodes, how many and what length – probably half hour or 50 minutes.
  • How the programmes will convey in a television form the periods before still pictures and archive film.
  • Suggested names of historical advisers and key talent.

The guidelines add that “The programmes should also include, where necessary, differing interpretations of the history of Wales”. However, although the series will be presenter-led the choice of presenter will be made by BBC Wales. “We do not want companies to approach individual presenters,” said Elis Owen. He would not be drawn on the cost of the series but speculation puts it at around £1m.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

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