Owen Edwards’ contribution to Welsh broadcasting

Geraint Stanley Jones and Euryn Ogwen Williams look back on the broadcasting career of S4C’s first chief executive

Geraint Stanley Jones writes: Owen Edwards, who died this week aged 76, will be remembered by a generation of viewers as one of the most successful, charismatic, and popular television presenters in the Welsh language. A consummate communicator and professional, his popularity dominated Welsh screens during the sixties, first of all as presenter of Granada Television’s Dewch i Mewn, and then as presenter of BBC Wales’ long running daily news programme Heddiw. It was during this time that he and I became colleagues and friends. It was a time of boyish exuberance and enthusiasm for the new media.

During the seventies Owen deserted life in front of the camera for the more sombre existence of an administrator, first of all as a programme planner and subsequently the BBC’s Head of Programmes, Wales. Though never completely comfortable in either role, they served him well as an apprenticeship for his subsequent appointment in 1974 as Controller, BBC Wales, when he flourished once again as a careful and fair manager. It was during his period as Controller that the BBC launched Radio Wales and Radio Cymru.

He had led BBC Wales through a difficult period of linguistic turmoil in the run up to the creation of S4C and it was no surprise, therefore, that, on the creation of the new channel he was invited to become its first chief executive, in 1981. Owen and his team laid solid foundations for a channel which, before long, ceased to be looked upon as an experiment but as an integral part of the fabric of broadcasting and of Welsh life in general. They ploughed a new and independent furrow in the history of Welsh language television with remarkable success.

Throughout his career Owen displayed great loyalty towards public responsibility and service. He had inherited from his father and grandfather a remarkable understanding of the meaning of ‘duty’ in public life. It guided him throughout his years as a broadcasting  executive, and the sadness is that, because of illness, he was unable, in retirement, to extend his experience and expertise to pastures new.

He fought gallantly with a serious and debilitating illness for over twenty years, and at the end of it all, perhaps the most forceful memory I have of him is of the enormous courage he showed in doing so.

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Euryn Ogwen Williams writes: Looking back from 2010, it isn’t easy to understand fully the significance of Owen’s decision to move from Controller of BBC Wales to become Director of a three-year broadcasting experiment for Welsh language programmes. His move from the most senior post in the nation’s broadcasting firmament was the single most significant event in ensuring that S4C is still here 29 years later.

Owen believed in S4C. It was the crowning achievement of his distinguished broadcasting career. As he said himself, it was a blank sheet of paper and there were no traditional institutional restrictions to hold him back. He could create a new broadcasting solution to social and linguistic conflict. He was inspired by the sacrifices of a generation of protest, but was also keenly aware of the expectations of the linguistic majority.

He also realised that creating a ghetto for Welsh language programmes was a danger and that many of our keenest minds had reservations about the effect this would have on the language in the longer term.

His vision was of a channel that was distinctively Welsh with Welsh language programmes giving it a bright young and inspirational identity. He wanted the people of Wales to feel at home with it and, as he said on the opening night on 1 November 1982, to warm themselves on its hearth.

He didn’t want to create a mini BBC (or ITV for that matter). Neither did he want to fit its programmes into gaps in Channel 4’s schedule. He wanted a partnership between all the Welsh broadcasters and a new, then unproven, independent sector in different parts of Wales. It was a family coming together to serve the people of Wales.

First and foremost S4C was a television channel and not an exercise in linguistic engineering. However, the effect of this broadcasting solution would have far reaching consequences for the language if it could inspire and a attract a new generation of Welsh speakers.

Owen did not want a big empire in Sophia Close, the first HQ. Production would take place all over Wales, while S4C would be the focal point for commissioning and transmitting the output. The small ‘family’ of committed and loyal young people started at 40 and grew to 80 over time. His natural management style was to engage with the staff on a daily basis. There were no executive dining rooms for Owen! He knew his staff by their first name and many, who had not known him outside S4C, called him Mr Edwards.

He had the natural authority of the inspirational and charismatic leader. In his case it was based not on fear but on respect for other people’s talent – a respect that was returned in full. His charm and integrity and simple trust in people was refreshing in an industry that is not renowned for being that straightforward. He was happy leading from the front and used his presenting skills to full effect to promote his mission.

He was a broadcaster through and through and was much respected by his colleagues throughout the industry in the UK. This gave the channel the credibility that it needed from the start. The most crucial relationship for the fledgling organisation was with Channel 4. Consequently, the fact that he and C4’s Chief  Executive Jeremy Isaacs had started their careers at Granada in the late 50s – Owen as presenter of Dewch i Mewn and Jeremy as a young director – was the foundation of a close working relationship between the two channels in the early years.

Owen, of course, was the son of Sir Ifan ab Owen Edwards, the founder of the Welsh-language youth movement Urdd Gobaith Cymru, and the grandson of the historian, author, and publisher O.M. Edwards. Yet, although he was very aware of this family tradition of responsibility, it did not seem to weigh heavily on him.

He was the necessary figure for this moment in Welsh broadcasting and his mission was S4C. Only time will tell how the institution he established will adapt to different times and different political circumstances. He achieved what he set out to do in seven short years. Sadly, the onset of Parkinson’s at an early age prevented him from contributing further to the cultural life of his beloved Wales.  No-one will ever know what we missed.

Geraint Stanley Jones was Controller BBC Wales from 1981-85 and Chief Executive of S4C from 1989-1994; Euryn Ogwen Williams was Head of Programmes for S4C from 1981-1991

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