A story that gives us power

John Osmond reports on yesterday’s launch of a new ‘once in a generation’ television history of Wales

“We are a people with a story and that story gives us power,” says Huw Edwards, presenter of BBC Wales’s new six-part history of Wales, to be broadcast from 27 February. This one-liner gives you a taste of the style and stamp that he imprints on his generation’s version of who we are.

Excerpts were shown at a launch event in the Welsh history museum at St Fagan’s yesterday. The audience of movers and shakers from the worlds of media, academia and politics would have recalled the last ‘once in a generation’ more argumentative series, HTV Wales’ The Dragon Has Two Tongues co-presented by the historian Gwyn Alf Williams and media personality Wynford Vaughan Thomas.

BBC Wales director Rhodri Talfan Davies recalled that he had seen it in 1985 when he was still at school in Cardiff and quarrelled with his history teacher who had denounced Gwyn Alf Williams’ Marxist interpretations.

Of course, this new series is of and for its own times. If yesterday’s excerpts are anything to go by it will be as visually stunning, with the addition of up-to-date computer graphics that bring our ancient monuments to vivid life, from the Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon to Strata Florida in Ceredigion. But it strikes a different tone.

When The Dragon Has Two Tongues was made Wales was in a state of emergency, with the rupture and demise of the great coal and steel industries that had defined who we were for more than two centuries coming to an abrupt end. As Phil George, co-producer of The Story of Wales put it yesterday, “In the 1980s we were surrounded by a sense of loss and a narrative of decline.”

Today, however, we are living in more confident times, despite the world going through an economic free fall. As George added, “There’s a new confidence and a more secure sense of ourselves and our story.  We’re not just a rain battered people living behind Offa’s Dyke.  We’re a small country alive to a big world.”

The final episode in the series has Huw Edwards interviewing the poet Gwyneth Lewis inside the Wales Millennium Centre, to which she contributed the iconic inscriptions on its exterior frontage – In these stones horizons sing and Creu gwir fel gwydr o ffwrnais awen (‘Creating truth like glass from the furnace of inspiration’). She tells us that today, in the wake of the creation of the National Assembly, we have a new freedom to play with our sense of identity.

As I reported last June (here) the series traces Welsh history from the earliest times to the present day, “from the ice age to the information age” as Huw Edwards has it. To professional historians there will be little that is new, but that’s not the point. For a whole generation failed by the Welsh education system in imparting to them a knowledge of their own country, it will be the first time they will be exposed to the full richness of their heritage.

The spine of the story is Huw Edwards himself, not only in terms of his masterly skills as an engaging presenter, but for his impressions, observations and judgements. In one episode we find him seated, hands in white protective gloves, in front of the of the 1536 Act of Union (more accurately ‘Incorporation’), that was exhibited by the National Museum in St Fagans last year. You can see that this most urbane of commentators, who has already seen more than a dozen people will pack into a lifetime, is visibly impressed. “This is the most important document in the entire history of Wales,” he tells us.

In another setting we find him, improbably wearing a life jacket, rowing in the early morning across Llyn Celyn in Meirionnydd. Its waters drowned the village of Tryweryn in the late 1950s and sparked into life a nationalist reaction whose wave is still spreading ripples across the Welsh consciousness. Looking down at the waters Edwards observes that Tryweryn drowned is more famous that it ever could have hoped to have been when it was alive.

As well as the hour length programmes, the series will be reinforced by a parallel Radio Wales series and other related programmes and website coverage, a book by the writer Jon Gower, together with a tie-in with the Open University in Wales, and a series of events across the country. Negotiations are in train with BBC 2 to network the series some time during the Autumn, after the Olympic Games are out of the way. Altogether this promises to make The Story of Wales the Welsh broadcasting event of 2012.

But will today’s generation still be remembering it in 25 year’s time in the way that The Dragon Has Two Tongues has lodged in the minds of the generation that was emerging in the 1980s? One way that it might would be if National Museum Wales, which is currently in the process of relaunching St Fagans as Wales’ national history museum, seizes the opportunity presented by the series. It could be a linking strand for the new exhibitions that are presently being put together that have the same ambition to present the history of our country from the earliest times to the present day.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

3 thoughts on “A story that gives us power

  1. A good report on yesterday’s exciting launch. However, as Rhodri Talfan Davies himself was keen to point out, the series is a ‘partnership’ between BBC Cymru Wales and The OU in Wales (with the producers Green Bay Media) that draws on OU expertise and investment (it is rather more than a “tie-in” with The OU in Wales).

    The OU and BBC have a long and rich tradition of working together on TV and radio productions, such as Coast, Frozen Planet and the Money Programme, and this is the first bilateral co-production between BBC Wales and the OU in Wales, an exciting new chapter for all of us here at the University.

    Keep an eye (or an ear!) out for the Radio Wales series ‘Histories of Wales’ starting on Feb 19th, which pulls out some of themes from the TV series and is also made in partnership with The Open University in Wales.

  2. John’s final question is the one that really matters. Will this series make a lasting mark, as ‘Dragon’ did? The context is very different: investment in Welsh history (in some of our Welsh universities) has evaporated, with predictable consequences. We must revive interest in our national story, not least among younger generations. That is my principal goal, to provoke new interest and engagement. Nor can we ignore the demands of a broad BBC-1 audience. People forget that Gwyn A and Wynford were broadcasting to a Channel 4 network audience and the script tended to assume a lot of knowledge. We really are in a different world in 2012. Thanks John for constructive response and generous comments: let’s hope the series lives up to them.

  3. “Today, however, we are living in more confident times, despite the world going through an economic free fall. As George added, “There’s a new confidence and a more secure sense of ourselves and our story. We’re not just a rain battered people living behind Offa’s Dyke. We’re a small country alive to a big world.”

    I’m not so sure about that. Gwyn Alf’s worst fears have come true, we live in an increasingly atomised society where the bucolic tones of the Welsh language have been replaced by Estruary and Lancastrian English and young people are leaving in their droves. A land of call centres and bureaucracy that plays up to an imagined English stereotype of itself.

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