History special 1: Stories we thought we knew

Derek Jones applauds with some reservations the new national television history that began this week

There was much to enjoy and to admire in the first two episodes of the BBC’s The Story of Wales, broadcast this week. As might have been expected, the landscape photography was stunning. Huw Edwards was engaging, enthusiastic, professional, less gushing than he had seemed in the on-air promotions for the series. The sites visited, some of them familiar, some less so, were well chosen, and it was particularly good that the results of some of the latest archaeology were on show with the promise of more to come.


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It was noteworthy, too, that the first programme, shown last Monday evening at 9pm, had an extraordinarily large Welsh audience: 27 per cent of the available viewers. That is to say 400,000 Welsh people tuned in, which made this a national event of some importance.

I have reservations about the misty – and sometimes mystical – historical reconstructions. Of course, I recognise the need to make historical events and movements accessible, but am not convinced that we need yet more people dressed up as Roman soldiers. Even in advance, I quailed at the prospect of chaps clad in armour galloping into battle with lances rampant (in the event, this clip was mercifully short).

The Roman soldiers were close to cliché. The use of plainchant as an accompaniment to shots of early monasticism and St David’s was equally so, but also hugely anachronistic. Although some rudimentary form of plainchant may have originated in the 3rd Century CE, it is primarily associated with the Latin church of the high Middle Ages, a world from which the Welsh church was at pains to distance itself for many centuries.

The Story of Wales originates in a very different world – intellectually, politically, culturally – from that inhabited by the makers and presenters of the last TV history of Wales, The Dragon has Two Tongues (HTV/S4C/Channel 4, 1985). Co-presenter Gwyn Alf Williams was then constrained to call his book accompanying the series When was Wales? It reflected a period of some uncertainty about Welsh identity – only one in four of those voting had opted for devolution in 1979. A quarter of a century later we are far from being out of the woods, but we have regained a sense of political, economic and cultural self-respect.

Appropriately then, the new series stresses some of our (extremely) longstanding achievements. The Red Lady of Paviland  (in fact a man in his twenties), who died during the Upper Palaeolithic period, almost 30,000 years ago, is the first human fossil to be unearthed anywhere in the world.  Spotted from the air, Walton Basin in Radnorshire contains the largest Neolithic site of its kind in Britain, and the second largest in Europe. A palisaded enclosure with a circumference of no less than two kilometres was found when digging began there only a few years ago.

The Bronze Age copper mine at the Great Orme, Llandudno is the biggest in Europe to have been excavated, and can be claimed as one of the major industrial sites of the ancient world. Recent excavations at the Roman site in Caerleon have revealed a port of considerable importance for Mediterranean and Atlantic trade.

Inevitably, to present an account of even a country as small as Wales in six one-hour programmes involves considerable application by a broad brush. In some respects this is advantageous. As well as the details, we need some sense of the sweep of Welsh history, and The Story of Wales whisks us usefully over the early millennia. Doubtless the story will become denser and more peopled as the series proceeds. Meanwhile, it did give me some pause when, after the Red Lady had been treated, we were transported swiftly into the Ice Age, and then out of it again. Wales was said then to be uninhabited, and then inhabited again. But by whom and where did they come from?

At the same time, space was found for some absorbing details. Potsherds at Hindwell in the Walton Basin contained traces of meat – sheep, goats and cattle were evidently eaten, as was emmer (wheat), grown on grassland and in hazel scrub, and used in the making of bread. It seems that all manner of feasts and celebrations were held in the enclosure. Fascinating connections were made between the enclosure and tomb at Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey and similar monuments in Orkney, indicating the extent of early knowledge about changing seasons and the midsummer sunrise.

So far, The Story of Wales is particularly strong on Wales’ international connections. A good example is the description of the artificial island (crannog) in Llangorse Lake, only found and excavated in the 1990s. Constructed in 890 CE and burnt down by the Anglo-Saxons around 916, this royal palace of the then kingdom of Brycheiniog had a short life, but an exceptionally interesting one. It had connections with eastern Mediterranean and the Great Silk Road as well as Ireland. Programme 2 also found space to reveal Llanbedrgoch (eastern Anglesey) as a centre for Viking trade.

The trouble, at least for this viewer, was that each of these sites would merit its own series! For example, has there ever been a series which has thoroughly examined Offa’s Dyke? There was only time for The Story of Wales to hint at the stupendous achievement of this 80 mile-long boundary, and it was unfortunate that the exact site for Huw Edwards’ declamations on the subject was not identified.

Programme 2 covered a much shorter timespan than programme 1, a mere seven centuries. Entitled ‘Power Struggles’ it certainly lived up to its name, and it did well to plot the ebb and flow of the beginnings of Wales’ consciousness of itself. However, the story is familiar and the telling of it was curiously old-fashioned. Kings, heroes, battles, castles were dominant as perhaps they were in reality – the history of Wales obviously cannot be told without reference to Rhodri Mawr, the Llewelyns, Owain Glyndwr, et al. The achievements of Hywel Dda are, equally, indispensable elements in the story and were well told. In an ideal world, the series might have made at least a glancing reference to the great Dafydd ap Gwilym.

On the other hand, the emphasis of much modern history-writing has switched to ‘the structures of everyday life’. Apart from a necessary reference to the vital contributions of the Cistercians of Strata Florida to the economic life of Ceredigion (there was no mention of Valle Crucis, although considerable work has been done on its granges). Neither was there anything in programme 2 to match the insight into the life of ordinary people which programme 1 had conveyed in its discussion of Walton Basin. Some of them, doubtless, were pressed into military service, but the ‘cannon fodder’ got lost in the programme’s drive to establish Welsh identity. Meanwhile, for all Hywel Dda’s pioneering emphasis on the rights of women, they are very much absent, so far, from The Story of Wales

I have already paid tribute to the production team for their energetic pursuit of suitable locations, 130 in all. They must have passed up the chance to film at Sycharth, Owain Glyndwr’s headquarters, a most photogenic place, especially from the air. It was also odd that they did not mention his birthplace, Glyndyfrdwy (between Corwen and Llangollen), especially since they have otherwise been so assiduous in drawing out the relationship between the local and the universal.

The great merit of The Dragon has Two Tongues was that it was co-presented by two historians, Wynford Vaughan Thomas and Gwyn Alf Williams, who had radically different interpretations of the history of Wales. Their arguments to camera, and with each other, were not only hugely enjoyable but genuinely illuminating on the nature of history itself. Clearly this manner of presentation could not have been repeated after a mere quarter of a century. The Story of Wales is more traditional narrative history. That’s fair enough, but I mean no disparagement of Huw Edwards, or his directors, when I say that I occasionally felt the need for a dissentient voice or two

Was it entirely appropriate, for instance, to start the first programme with the first lines of Under Milk Wood, setting off a train of thought which included a small town, starless and bible-black? If we are considering the land of Wales, did not the story begin millennia earlier than the Red Lady? Why was there no reference to the axes and butchery tools found at Pontnewydd Cave, near St Asaph, left there during the Lower Palaeolithic period, a mere 225,000 years old?

Can discussion of Roman Wales be really meaningful, therefore, if reference is not made to Chester (Deva), or Wroxeter (Viroconium), major Roman barracks and towns, from which the conquest of Wales was embarked upon? To be fair, the lack of linkage here was more than repaired in the comprehensive treatment of linguistic, literary and other connections during the Brythonic period.

Perhaps, on the other hand, I am raising such questions because I was well trained by Wynford Vaughan Thomas and Gwyn Alf Williams! Certainly their good-natured banter (‘Oh, nonsense, Wynford!’) remains very vivid.

But The Story of Wales does not suffer by comparison. Reservations apart, it promises to be remembered in different ways, some of which I have rehearsed here. Meanwhile, good for the Open University whose booklet of the series is announced after each programme; they appear to be keeping alive the practice of broadcasting back up and follow up, otherwise now almost extinct. (It is a pity, though, that Jon Gower’s book of the series was not vouchsafed a mention after either of the first two programmes.)

Memo to the BBC: Huw Edwards has said, ‘The Story of Wales needs to engage audiences in Wales and beyond’. He is surely right. How, therefore, can you possibly justify transmitting this important series in Wales alone? It would surely have been interesting to the Scots at this time of constitutional debate. Instead, they were treated to the joys of Motorway Cops! Elsewhere, BBC-1 played Jeremy Paxman’s Empire, in the slot allocated to The Story of Wales. To watch both in parallel (Empire is being shown on BBC-2 Wales on Tuesdays) promises to be highly illuminating, not least when The Story of Wales comes to Lloyd George. A pity the English will miss out.

Derek Jones was Editor Programme Support at Channel 4 1982-1995.

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