Accelerating through the skid marks of Welsh history

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.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

8 thoughts on “Accelerating through the skid marks of Welsh history

  1. I hope the series is as daringly revisionist as the current BBC NI “Story of Ireland” with Fergal Keane – designed to completely re-assess the historiography of Ireland. Wales could do with some fresh historical analysis, too much of it is foucessed on the sames old issues, events and debates.

  2. I was aware of the History of Scotland and History of Ireland programmes and had been wondering if we’d get a History of Wales version, so I’m very glad to see that we will be.

    However, it absolutely has to be given the same prominence as the other two programmes i.e. broadcast across the UK network. Otherwise the BBC is presenting the history of Wales as less interesting, less relevant and less important.

  3. There is a tendency in this sort of program to deal with History as though it is something that is confined to the past, when as all of us who are no longer young know only too well, it is unfolding every day – and the producers should consider a postscript episode considering the implications of the March 3 referendum, and the Scottish result in May, for the future history of Wales.

    Apart from that, it sounds like a most compelling series – as was ‘history of Ireland’ and Neil Oliver’s Celtic Britain. Thank you for the information, John.

  4. Gwyn Alf Williams was quite right. The Welsh have repudiated socialism, their creed of the first half of the 20th century; they have largely failed to embrace nationalism. They are towed along behind Scotland in a sort of watered down devolutionism. But the devolved parties all sound similar; none has any policies for national revival beyond begging for more money and they are regarded with indifference by over half the electorate. If this is accelerating towards lift off, I wonder what stalling to a crash looks like.

  5. Origin stories are difficult, but I hope that the planned BBC series addresses when the Cymru started to call themselves that name. Taking my cue from Harold Carter’s excellent review, Against the Odds, and perhaps from O.M. Edwards, it might enhance the discussion of “our” history if it was presented as Hanes Cymru, or Hanes y Cymru, than the History of Wales and the Welsh.

  6. There are serious errors in the traditional accounts of the history of Great Britain, much of which has been attached to North of England and to Scotland but rightfully belongs to Wales and the Borderlands. The errors start from the arrival of the Romans on the Welsh Border and become compounded as they proceed through the centuries. Then those errors get even more compounded as history travels through the Angle period, wherein your Offa’s Dyke runs into trouble when it usurps the credit due to Severus, Carausius, and Theodosius, et al.
    As an example:- every book/article on the subject of Caledonia fixes it rock-solid in Scotland, not so! Consider all that has been built upon that notion and locked tight into the history of Scotland.
    Think first of the story of Agricola en-route to Mons Graupius, a catalogue of misinterpretations.
    Think then of Arthur, of Old King Cole, and of St Columba how are they going to figure in this series of programmes?
    If you are going to tell the history of Wales you cannot at any time from AD 47 to AD 358 divorce it from the Borderlands.
    What is the Institute of Welsh Affairs and for what does it stand, is it commercial or governmental?

  7. As a Welshman I am delighted that the BBC is producing a series on the history of Wales and the Welsh as we ourselves see it. I do however, have some serious concerns that the series will, in its first and second episodes NOT make make it clear that THERE WAS NO Wales or England or Scotland during the period leading up to the Roman invasion or throughout the period of Roman occupation and beyond into the 5th and 6th centuries. There was only the island of Britain and inhabited by the Britons or ‘Brythoniaid’ who spoke Brittonic or ‘Brythoneg’, the Celtic language that evolved over time into Welsh, Breton, Cornish and Cumbrian. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes appearing on the scene gradually towards the end of the 5th century. Origin stories are often difficult to tell because they are so often caught up in myth. The very long period of time when ALL of the island of Britain was Celtic in speech, culture and religion (albeit partially influenced by the Roman occupation) is however no myth and needs to be clearly stated in the forthcoming TV series. I would urge the producers to consider this and to refer to possibly the most authoritative book on this period of our history (and NOT be dissuaded by its ‘arthurian’ title) written by the late John Morris, who was Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at University College, London. The book is titled ‘The Age of Arthur; a History of the British Isles from 350 to 650 a.d.’ It relates and explains how this Britain gradually evolved towards the nations we know as Wales, Scotland and England today. It tells us, the modern Welsh, how we have a British history older than Wales itself, and that our historical presence in what eventually became England (not forgetting the land that became Scotland) is one that shows very clearly how inaccurate England’s own origin myths are. Now if that information were to be networked across the UK, it would set a Celtic cat amongst some English pigeons for a while (and arguably some Scots pigeons too..) – but hey, if ever a people needed to get some correct historical perspective….the English do!

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