Geraint Talfan Davies, on a trip to Tyneside, sees the shape of things to come in Wales unless broadcasting cuts are fought
Returning to old haunts, I recently spent a long weekend in Newcastle upon Tyne, to see a new play by a good friend, and former colleague at BBC Wales in the 1990s, Michael Chaplin. He had managed to compress two volumes of Chris Mullin’s captivating political diaries into a sharp and cantering two-hour piece that was premiered at Newcastle’s small, but atmospheric and influential Live Theatre.
I had worked with Michael first at Tyne Tees Television in the 1980s, and he followed me to BBC Wales a few years later, before finally breaking loose from the corporate world of broadcasting to become a full-time writer. He penned the Monarch of the Glen series for BBC Scotland, and much else for radio and television, before being drawn back to his Tyneside roots. For Michael has an umbilical connection to his own square mile. He is the son of the Durham novelist Sid Chaplin, a former miner who, in novels and short stories, captured the travails of the region through both the inter-war years and the 1960s.
It was a deep understanding of life beyond the metropolis and of the physical and mental scars left on mining communities that gave Michael such empathy with our situation in Wales when he worked here. By now he is something of a cultural champion for the north-east region, writing regularly for Live Theatre, founding chair of the region’s film agency, Northern Film and Media, and president of another Newcastle theatre, the People’s Theatre.
This particular weekend was a busy one for him: not only a pre-performance discussion session with Chris Mullin and the theatre’s artistic director, Max Roberts, but also, the following day, the launch of a book that Michael has written – title, Come and See – on a much loved Tyneside institution, the Tyneside Cinema. This arthouse cinema, a mix of art deco and Persian design, is approaching its 75th birthday, having opened as a news theatre in 1937 – the brainchild of Dixon Scott, an intelligent and well-read cinema pioneer.
Through the passion of its staff it managed to survive changing fashions, and by now it is the only cinema within Newcastle’s city boundary, all other screens having migrated to tarmac acres on the outskirts. It is an important cultural institution, playing much the same part as the Chapter cinema does in Cardiff, and perhaps even more deeply embedded in the affection of locals, not least because of its city centre location. Michael charts a romantic history, not only of the cinema but also its Coffee Rooms, a genteel institution in themselves, less rumbustious than Chapter’s gargantuan bar.
While I was enjoying a nostalgic weekend in Newcastle’s dramatic cityscape, in Wales the Western Mail was carrying a double-page spread on the threatened cutbacks at BBC Wales. The connection between the two become clear at the book launch as I listened to Michael relating his rich tale, one of the history of cinema itself as much as of a cinema.
Michael is a fine story-teller, and if he had been launching this book more than 20 years ago, he would undoubtedly have also had interest from the regional ITV company for which we both worked. Turning the tale into compelling television would have been a must for those who, until a decade ago, took pride in well-crafted documentaries that brought such stories to an eager audience. Instead, a stone’s throw up the steep bank, above the quayside where Live Theatre sits, the studios of Tyne Tees Television are now rubble, the company itself a casualty of the steam-roller of commercial consolidation.
That was a huge loss to a region that was in large part defined by its ITV company for nearly forty years. The cultural life of the north-east has not collapsed, but it has lost an important conduit between its artists and its people. That is why the prospect of shrinking the capacity of BBC Wales to act as such a conduit to a nation is so depressing, and one to be fought.
A post-script. Back home a few days later I took a short cut through the cinema complex in Cardiff Bay, where the studios of Red Dragon Radio are housed. For years, as you walked past, you could pause to peer through the window at the presenters and disc jockeys jabbering their way through the day. This time there was no light in the window. Red Dragon Radio is now Capital FM, a unified brand across the country, the programmes provided – a breakfast show apart – by automatic feed from London, by jocks who know nothing of the streets in the city the station was meant to serve.