Huw Davies reviews A History of Independent Television in Wales by Jamie Medhurst
I was looking forward to reading this book. I worked in ITV from 1964 to 2007, and, for most of those 43 years, in Independent Television in Wales. Strangely, there has been little impartial academic or non-polemical coverage of this interesting part of our nation’s life. I have been interviewed by several students who were preparing doctoral theses on various aspects of the subject, and I was often perturbed at what I felt to be a one-viewpoint orthodoxy that was calcifying about the whole subject. It was with hope, then, that I approached this book written by Jamie Medhurst, a fully-fledged academic from Aberystwyth University with the imprimatur, it seems, of the august University of Wales.
It’s possible to characterise the history of Independent Television in Wales as a perfect parabola from its beginning as a branch-office operation to its bathetic demise as, well, a branch-office operation. Like so much else in human endeavour it climbs out of the primeval mud, reaches whatever is defined as its zenith and then subsides back into the aforesaid mud. For a historian I would have thought this presents a wonderful opportunity because at least the date of the beginning and the date of the end are pretty easily identified and the terms of reference are not much in dispute. Further, because we are talking about very recent history, the range of extant sources is huge. It’s not, as sometimes in Ancient History, say, a case of having to construct the narrative of a whole civilisation from one potsherd.
I assume, and the author seems to agree, that the true beginning was in January 1958 when Television Wales and the West (TWW) started broadcasting and its faltering end was when the service gradually lost its autonomy by the end of 1998. There may be some who would argue that TWW was a fully independent franchise holder and could choose to run its affairs in whatever way it liked. That is true, but TWW chose to run its operations from London. I worked for TWW as a producer and director and although I was entrusted with the making of literally hundreds of programmes I never once met the Director of Programmes, Bryan Michie, nor was there any evidence of his existence in the form of memoranda and suchlike. I did not even know the name of the Managing Director nor did I ever see him. This is not to diminish the huge contribution made by Wyn Roberts and Dorothy Williams whose recruitment of a group of quality people, in particular, laid very firm foundations for the future of programme making in Wales.
It was very different when Harlech Television (as it was then) took over. The head office was very firmly and visibly based in Wales. Within the known fetters of the quasi-federal network system the company revelled in its autonomy. There were big problems, of course, in that the company had to serve two distinct cultural areas, but these difficulties were largely overcome by creative structural devices and how well these worked should be chronicled elsewhere. What is, I think, indisputable is that for the first and last time there was a Welsh-run, Welsh-based Independent Television service for Wales. Within the constraints of finance and regulation which apply to all television services in the UK, HTV was free to do what it wanted.
I was looking forward to a historical account of this, the most crucial period in the author’s avowed agenda, mainly because it was an interesting, complicated and turbulent period for broadcasting and programme-making in Wales but partly, I admit, because of my own involvement in what went on. In chronological terms the HTV franchise took up nearly 30 of the 41 years that the author takes as his time-line. There are 236 pages in the book. How many does the author devote to this period? Just ten and a half! So what’s going on here?
The answer seems to lie in the book’s introduction where the author makes much of the refusal by ITVplc to give him access to certain formal documents. He seems to be implying, quite sulkily, that “if these people won’t give me the access, I will not cover that period except very perfunctorily”. In my view it was, on the face of it, a daft decision by ITVplc, but I do not know the reasons for their refusal. I’m pretty sure that the reasons could not have been ‘commercial’. What I do know and the author should know, if he is as immersed in his subject matter as he claims, is that the people who are running ITVplc are a completely different set of people from those who were running HTV.
I believe the formal documents to which he was refused access would probably not have helped very much. Most, as is ever the case, were not designed to illuminate the historian. However, if he was concerned with getting at the truth there were many other resources, both written and human, that he could have consulted, which would have been more valid and relevant than those that were denied to him.
There are three living ex-Chairmen of HTV Wales who, I’m certain, would have been willing to share their recollections and documents. There are three extant ex-Chief Executives, only one of whom he consulted. He did talk to other ex-HTV employees. However, none were senior people at board level in the company, nor did they in most instances work for the company for very long but spent their career working mainly for competing broadcasters.
I appreciate that some historians might have an ideological problem with allowing the (capitalistic) bosses to give their account, even though in institutional terms they were the only ones who knew exactly what was going on. Why not, therefore, talk to the normal ‘workers’ of whom there are scores still around and who could certainly mark his card with much knowledge and many documents? The author’s decision not to talk to the very people who knew most about the period seems not just arbitrary but perverse.
It seems to me that the author had a simple choice. He should either have stopped his purported history of Independent Television in Wales one third of the way in and made that clear in the book’s title, or he should have persevered and used the manifold sources that were available to him and made a complete and proper job of it. Instead he chose the worst possible road. He puts forward a passable account of the first 11 years and then presents us with a cursory bosh of the next 30.
I am not familiar with the ways of higher academe, but since this is presented as an academic work from a senior lecturer at Aberystwyth University and published by the University of Wales Press one might have presumed that the final draft was shown to the chair of the faculty or the relevant Professor. Can one imagine the conversation? Would it have been this kind of thing?
Senior Person: Why is it, Medhurst, that you write the History of Independent Television in Wales and to all intents and purposes ignore the largest section of your subject?
Author: I’m afraid, sir, that the dog ate my homework for that period. However, last night I put together a few pages of impressions from some assorted sources and I’m sure that will suffice.
Senior Person: Very well then. You may go to press. Good luck.
Or the conversation with the Publisher.
Publisher: What the hell do you mean? There’s no bloody way we can sell a book called ‘A monograph covering less than one third of the history of independent television in Wales’! That’s not what we’re paying for, mate. Get working on the other bits straight away.
Author: Don’t worry, butty, you’ll have the completed manuscript on your desk by the end of the week.
Where, oh where, is the rigour?
I suppose that I might have said enough already, but in truth all that has been dealt with is the physical balance of the narrative, so to speak. What of the actual content of the 10.5 pages?
I’m afraid that a thorough critique would take many more pages than the original. The trouble is that it is an example of a dialectical mode that has pervaded the academic commemoration of Welsh affairs over the last quarter century. It may surprise quite a few current academics to know that in terms of historiography there is a huge chasm between the Marxist and the Stalinist approach. This apparently does not prevent some from attempting a synthesis, nor, alas, does it prevent them from failing. Many people who partook in the history of those 30 years must feel exactly like Trotsky’s mates and be appalled at how easy it is to paint relevant events and persons out of the picture.
In fact, the tone of these pages is monotonously negative. Why was I not surprised that the author brandishes at length the two oldest sticks used to beat HTV, namely the opening night programme, and the company’s stance on the Welsh fourth channel, both essentially ephemeral events? The truth is that the opening night programme was entrusted, for perfectly understandable reasons, to travelling exotics from London who were less than competent, and had nothing to do with HTV staff past, present, or future. It was a big mistake, yes, but it provided a lesson which was heeded, mostly, over the next 30 years.
As for the company’s view on the Welsh Fourth Channel, certainly there was an attempt to put forward a different solution. I’ve never understood why putting forward an alternative was not deemed to be permissible. It was well thought out by people who were native speakers and committed lovers of the Welsh language, and this view was shared more or less exactly by a very distinguished academic completely unconnected to the company (not mentioned by the author). In my recollection this viewpoint was never aggressively or covertly pursued despite some (revisionist) attempts to say otherwise. The truth is that in the end there really never was an open public debate on the matter. Moreover, in the event the whole deliberation was short-circuited by what some still see as a totally undemocratic threat of direct action (not mentioned by the author). HTV’s proposition was completely ignored.
Of course, a third of a century later, its irrelevance can be seen clearly from what is acknowledged to be HTV’s total commitment to the success of S4C. Many would say, and have said, that the programmes in many genres made by HTV in S4C’s first decade were the best and most popular ever seen on the channel. Because this view is subjective and I am not a totally disinterested person I shall refrain from cataloguing them here.
HTV Cymru/Wales’ main task, however, was to produce a service in the English language which fitted in with ITV’s network schedule and also reflected the identity and interests of the nation. There are more ways than one of measuring whether this service was successful. One thing is clear: it is not the view of politicians and academics that should prevail here. It was a standing joke amongst us that these people never watched HTV except when they themselves were appearing, and the pressure from both groups to get on screen was unrelenting.
There is no evidence that the author has looked to some of the simplest criteria of HTV’s performance. The company paid an independent organisation to measure every day not only the number of people watching (the ratings) but also the extent they were enjoying what was provided for them through the Appreciation Index (AI’s). To my recollection HTV’s performance was nearly always at least in the top quartile amongst the ITV companies on both these measures.
A detailed rebuttal of the author’s negative view of the HTV years, although easily achieved, would be futile and more importantly could fill a proper book. What follows is a very short, random and incomplete list of points, relating to programmes, which merely highlight the author’s failings. They are confined, as far as is possible, to the easily available historical facts.
- Drama It was perverse (that word again) to mention only King Tut, which was produced in the West of England for the US market and ignore The Inheritors series, the two very successful series of We are Seven, the ambitious and full-budget single films, The Heyday in the Blood, Country Dance, The Shining Pyramid, Ballroom, Better Days, Old Scores all originally funded completely and produced by HTV Wales and all shown on the ITV Network and internationally. If the author wished to extend the list to West of England located dramas why not mention real successes like the multi-series Wycliffe or Daisies in December, both produced by HTV Wales producers? I’m sure the esteemed Pete Edwards was embarrassed that the author chose to paint out his illustrious predecessors Alan Clayton and the late Geraint Morris.
- Documentaries The range was enormous and again very ambitious: the Leo Dickinson series of adventure films, all with strong Welsh interest, chronicling amongst other exciting projects the first ascent of Everest without oxygen; the series History of the Welsh in America (6 x 1 hour), shot and shown both in Welsh and English; the fascinating single documentary To Ride a Wild Horse. These are just three highlights. It would be possible to produce a list of hundreds to cover the whole period.
- Music How many other commercial companies commissioned and produced an opera for television? How many commercial companies could get Sir Geraint Evans to introduce and perform?
- Factual This was a staple of the company’s output and it is invidious to choose just one. Nevertheless it is impossible not to mention The Dragon has Two Tongues.
- Entertainment Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey both made Welsh orientated one-person shows for the company. The Elinor Jones interview with Anthony Hopkins stands out in many people’s memory. There were many other programmes including a Peter Tinniswood sit-com.
- Children The Snow Spider, Emlyn’s Moon, and The Chestnut Soldier are just three examples of the ambitious children’s dramas produced by HTV Wales.
- Sport HTV’s coverage of sport, since most relevant contracts were held by other organisations, had to be both innovative and ingenious, and sometimes downright cheeky. It probably succeeded in being all three. The concentration was, naturally, on celebrating Welsh successes and reinforcing our national identity. Throughout the whole of this period the company benefitted from the advice and participation of Gerald Davies, arguably the best communicator of all the great sporting stars of his era. Davies was also on the Board of the company and eventually became its chairman.
- Current Affairs HTV Wales was fortunate to have the best investigative team in the network producing Wales This Week. The watchword was rigour. There was an obligation to enquire diligently, keep immaculate records, and say only what could be proven to be true. A lesson here, perhaps, for many others.
- News The various news bulletins during the day constituted the greater part of HTV Wales’ output. Much (expensive) resource was made available to enable up to the minute news to be reported from all four corners of our country. All the staff’s splendid achievements and infrequent failures cannot be chronicled here. There’s just no room.
It’s already apparent that the omissions are mounting up hugely. I abjectly apologise to all those valued colleagues whose work I have not mentioned. Probably the only way to proceed in a catalogue of programmes of which the company was proud is to convene that great invention, surely Welsh, a committee.
Medhurst’s book is to me deeply unsatisfactory, as is by now clear. Apart from not doing what it says on the tin, it presents a very dark picture of HTV’s aspirations and achievements over 30 years. It cannot be justified from a conscientious study of the available evidence. He has let himself and his profession down.
I would not like to be thought paranoid and perhaps there was some great original sin which we committed, unawares, which still gives an overarching general justification for HTV not being loved very much. I phoned an old senior colleague the other evening to ruminate over this question. His response was short, “Just remember the focus groups.”
I should explain. Most television companies get an independent organisation to arrange for a demographically balanced group of people to discuss their opinion of, and their emotional response to their output and performance. The group is mentored by a trained chair-person and a detailed report is produced. HTV held many of these in different parts of the area over the years. It was always a marvellous surprise to hear the results. Participants were ever ready to say robustly what they thought was wrong, and that also actually helped us very much. But when they were probed further they would invariably come up with words like ‘warm’, ‘trustworthy’, ‘homely’, ’honest’, ‘truthful’. The people whom we had set out to serve seemed to love us quite a bit, and they backed that up by watching HTV more than any other broadcaster in Wales for most of that period.
We decided then, my friend and I, that our problem probably had been with the chattering classes. In Wales there are relatively few members of this particular club and besides, as mentioned above, they didn’t choose to watch HTV very much. Nevertheless, what the hell was their problem? Here was our tentative answer. Unlike the BBC, S4C, academics and local politicians we not only had to decide how to spend the money wisely, we actually had to knuckle down and earn that money also. As one of my rougher colleagues used to say, “We have to kill to eat”.
The thought of commerce and hard graft seems not to sit well with this group. It was somehow unWelsh and exploitative to run a profitable company even though most of the money was spent in the cause of a regulated public service. That general unease seems thereafter to seep insidiously into this ‘intelligentsia’s’ written output. Evidently, though, the thought does not seem to have bothered the general populace of Wales.
Well, we ran our service through the wild variations in revenue over all those years, more than doubling our output by the end and never backsliding on our promises. Despite the author’s dark mutterings, we never cut the programme budgets, mainly getting through the tough times by cutting the overhead. By the early 1990s, HTV was the biggest producer of programmes in the ITV network and this on only the seventh largest advertising revenue stream. Commerce, well managed by motivated people, I daresay, served Wales very well in this period.
In the great scheme of things the HTV era, its glorious or inglorious trajectory – take your pick – was relatively short. Digwyddodd, darfu, megis seren wib – it happened, it finished, just like a shooting star. The evanescent fox was lucky, though, to have had the great R.Williams Parry to commemorate his existence.