John Osmond makes a plea for a new television series to engage with the present as well as the past
Fronted by the BBC News at Ten anchorman Huw Edwards, filming of a major £1 million new television history of Wales is underway. Six hour-long episodes will be broadcast 0n BBC 1 Wales early next year, and hopefully across the UK network as well.
Episode 1 will deal with the ‘pre-history’ of the earliest times, the creativity of the Iron Age, the coming of the Romans, and how the Age of the Saints and the Irish connection, from whence came St David, resulted in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ being not so dark in Wales after all.
The second episode will chart the creation of the Welsh kingdoms, the building of Offa’s Dyke, the role of leaders like Rhodri Fawr and Hywel Dda, the Welsh resistance to the Normans, and Owain Glyndwr’s 15th Century rebellion. This was the era when the outline of the Wales we know today was first etched, albeit in terms of defeat. Ever since the struggle has been for survival.
Episode 3 will deal with the age of the Tudors and Stuarts, described by our leading contemporary historian John Davies as one in which the Welsh were “a conservative people, bereft of control over their fate and lacking any centres of wealth.” It challenges the programme makers who want to demonstrate that Welsh history is always on the move and at the cutting edge of change.
Episode 4, dealing with the 18th and early 19th Centuries provides them with more fertile ground. They can plausibly claim that Wales led British radical thought, shaped the American Revolution and became the world’s first industrial nation (oh, and by the way, the Romantic destination of choice for English tourists denied access to the European Tour by the Napoleonic Wars).
The last two episodes will guide us through more familiar terrain, the coal boom and bust between the mid-19th Century and the Second World War, and then the modern era of the creation of the British Welfare State up to today’s era of devolution and re-assertion of Welshness.
The series, which is being produced for BBC Wales by the Cardiff-based Green Bay media independent company, has three directors. Episodes one, three and six will be directed by John Geraint, one of Green Bay’s creative directors, a former programme-maker with BBC Wales; episodes two and four by Sophie Elwin Harris, who has produced and directed programmes for the BBC, Channel 4, National Geographic and Discovery Channels, including Museum of Life, a behind-the-scenes look at London’s Natural History Museum for BBC 2 last year; and the final episode by Jeff Morgan, who directed The Roman Invasion of Britain for the History Channel last year and is currently working on The Tenements, a four-part history of Dublin’s slums, for Irish Television. This division of labour between three directors makes for an extra challenge for the presenter Huw Edwards to give the series a unified driving narrative.
Jon Gower, former Arts Correspondent with BBC Wales and now a freelance writer, has been commissioned to produce a book to accompany the series. Apart from following Huw Edwards’ travelogue through the centuries it is intended that this will pull out particular episodes and personalities and give them in-depth treatment to illustrate the passage of events. Some of them give an impression of being skid marks of Welsh history. Glancing through an early synopsis of the series they may include:
- The recently discovered Roman township outside the more familiar remains at Caerleon. These reveal it to be a far bigger and more significant settlement than has hitherto been thought.
- The 14th Century apocalypse of the Black Death when in the year 1349-50 a quarter of the Welsh population died.
- One Catrin Berain who during the period of Elizabeth 1 (she was said to be a cousin) built up vast estates in Wales as a result of four profitable marriages with men from leading Welsh families – a portrait of her from 1560 hangs in the National Museum.
- Oliver Cromwell’s Welsh connections – he was descended from Morgan Williams of Whitchurch in Cardiff and traced his descent back to the Princes of Powys.
- Catherine the Great of Russia sent inspectors to Wales to discover how the nation was made literate during the 18th Century – itinerant schools linked to the Methodist ‘awakening’ taught half-a-million people to read within 20 years.
- During the 19th Century copper revolution in Swansea Sarah Jane Rees worked on her father’s boats in the town, travelled to Brittany and Holland, qualified as a ship’s captain, and won first prize for a poem at the National Eisteddfod.
Note how, in these examples drawn from the synopsis, an emphasis is given to the role of women. There will be a deliberate attempt in the series to search out and celebrate what the producers evidently believe is a ‘hidden history’, one that is populated by women. Doubtless this reflects the fact that many of the researchers and producers of the series are themselves women. But it also reflects contemporary preoccupations.
All history is viewed through the prism of contemporary experience. The last major Welsh television history, The Dragon Has Two Tongues, made thirty years ago was coloured by its most vibrant presenter Gwyn Alf Williams’ belief that the country was facing a terminal crisis. In his 1984 book that accompanied the series When Was Wales? he looked back at 1979, which saw the defeat of the first devolution referendum followed by success for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives and concluded:
“In a series of votes the Welsh electorate in 1979 wrote finis to nearly two hundred years of Welsh history. They rejected the political traditions to which the modern Welsh had committed themselves. They declared bankrupt the political creeds which the modern Welsh had embraced. They may in the process have warranted the death of Wales itself.”
As it turned out Gwyn Alf was being apocalyptically pessimistic. Although none of us appreciated it at the time, just as he was writing this prophecy of doom Wales was going through a fundamental realignment of identity, with the 1984-5 miners’ strike in particular causing Welsh people to reconsider who they were. Yet the 1979 referendum defeat provoked an unforeseen reaction in which the 1980s proved to be the most creative decade in 20th Century Wales in terms of Welsh self-assertion.
This led directly to the successful referendum in 1997, albeit by a whisker, and provided the foundation for the institutional nation-building in the following decade, culminating in this year’s two-to-one referendum vote in favour of primary law-making powers.
In all of this one feels a quickening of pace, a kind of acceleration of history which is new and likely to have unforeseen consequences. The backcloth, of course, is the two millennia of Welsh experience being unveiled once more in the Green Bay Media Huw Edwards production for BBC Wales. However, reading the synopsis there doesn’t feel to be the powerful linking of the present with the past that a major production like this needs to succeed.
To me, writing in June 2011, it feels as though Welsh history has been like some gigantic glacier, moving with imperceptible slowness, but with the workings below grinding out new shapes and outlines which are only now becoming apparent, reaching for a moment when our country accelerates towards lift off.
This may sound as apocalyptic as Gwyn Alf Williams in his day, but if it is to work BBC Wales’ new history series needs to find an ingredient of this kind, to capture the present moment of Wales through the illumination of its past.
To be fair, the synopsis I’ve seen was largely conceived before the momentous events of the 3 March referendum and the aftermath of the May elections when the Scottish result provided a new twist. And the frontline film makers are only now getting their hands on the material.
Moreover, Huw Edwards himself is no slouch when it comes to programme making. After all, he is the son of the late Hywel Teifi Edwards, a specialist in 19th Century Welsh cultural history who also had a vivid and humourous appreciation of our present predicaments. Let’s hope the spirit of Hywel animates Huw as he gets to grips with the story of our people – a people who are in equal measure exasperating, disputatious, prone to self doubt, but also brilliantly creative in their grasp of imaginative possibility. Let’s hope, too, that he can connect our past with a present that is accelerating towards an unknowable, but nonetheless newly confident future.