Manufacturing sense out of the chaos of the past

As the latest examination of Welsh history continues on BBC 1 Wales tonight, Angela Graham reflects on the interpreters

In 2010 I produced a documentary for S4C on an aspect of 17th Century Welsh history. At the request of one of the historians who acted as programme advisers I wrote a 10,000-word article for an academic journal whose editorship she had just assumed – a case history of a happy collaboration between TV people and academics at the service of the audience. It led me to reflect on my experience of working on TV documentaries in Wales since 1982, just as S4C was launched.

It also sharpened my focus on history on television in general and, in particular, history on television in Wales, in both Welsh and English. I found myself writing about what history has been presented on television here, and especially about which periods television has overlooked or presented only from within a certain perspective.

My next job was on Green Bay Media’s bid to make the BBC series on the history of Wales. As Development Producer on the eventual series The Story of Wales I have had the privilege of liaising with dozens of academic historians and the opportunity to reflect on the presentation of the full sweep of Welsh history on television, including earlier ground-breaking series such as The Dragon Has Two Tongues (HTV Wales/Channel 4, 1985) and Wales! Wales? (BBC Wales, 1985).

At the opening of The Dragon Has Two Tongues Wynford Vaughan-Thomas says that history is “divine gossip about the past among gentlemen” – a statement that his co-presenter, Gwyn Alf Williams vigorously countered. And he went on to assert:

“The past is chaos. We in the present make sense of that past by manufacturing a history out of it. We do that by putting questions to it and the kind of questions you put depends upon who you are, what you are and when you are.”

I agree. So, I wondered, in terms of the presentation of Welsh history on television in Wales, who has been asking what when? Which subjects – and which questions and perspectives – have made it on to the screens here and which have not? And why?

Certain periods of Welsh history have been under-researched by academics or, in some cases, researched only by those from shared backgrounds. Labour and Nationalist perspectives have dominated Welsh historiography. How many Welsh historians are Conservatives? How many are black or Muslim or Catholic? Certainly, one can put oneself in the shoes of others and this effort of the imagination can be very fruitful but it is a choice that has to be deliberately made.

The questions put to the past are indeed affected by who frames them. So when history transfers from historians to the television screen, does television have any responsibility regarding the blind spots of historians themselves?

As I worked on my article I had observations of my own as to what topics have been ignored or over-attended, to those which have gained greater appreciation from decades of watching television in both languages (not only documentary but also ‘period’ drama). I have enjoyed watching the Welsh engage with their past on screen and contributed to it myself. But who decided what would get made and when? Why were certain events well-covered and others not? Why were certain questions posed to history and others not? But first and foremost what programmes had actually been made? Could I assert that a certain period had been, consciously or not, side-lined if I didn’t check first? I was particularly interested in history on S4C, given its remit and audience and its 30 years of output. Here was an opportunity to consider the intertwining of a channel, a nation, and its history.

I asked the archivists at S4C for a list of history programming – but none exists, at least not in the form of an accessible roster. The information is there but not kept in the simple format I imagined. I imply no negative agenda. There are good reasons for this and the archivists themselves are interested and helpful, as are those at BBC Wales and ITV Wales where I got the same answer. Strikingly, I seem to be the first person ever to put this question to the archivists of these three channels. Whether this has been done in the past I can’t say. The answer from the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales was similar. A very simple set of questions that could be put to one or all of the channels, including:

  • What history programming have you transmitted since 1982?
  • Why was it commissioned?
  • Why were certain periods and subjects not commissioned?
  • What impact were programmes judged to have had?
  • Where did the initiative come from – the channel or the historian?
  • Can television stimulate historical research or must it always be dependent on historians setting the parameters?

I assumed that academics must have investigated and published plenty on the link between historiography in Wales and Welsh television but, as far as I can ascertain, this is not the case.

If the channels are willing, a systematic list of history transmissions could be assembled. If academics are willing, an investigation of how Welsh history on television has contributed to the self-understanding of the people of Wales could be advanced. There are already excellent studies on aspects of this, but not in the way I am suggesting. Observations could be drawn for future practice and future media education.

I am particularly interested in how this relationship between television and self-understanding has developed via S4C, firstly through documentary but also through historical drama which is equally affected by the source and nature of the questions that are put to the past. It depends who’s asking and who one thinks is paying attention to the answers – particularly pertinent in terms of the nature of the S4C audience.

That article I wrote was not published because the journal vetting team did not think it suitable. It was written, after all, not by a historian but by a television producer – which had been precisely the reason for its commission! The relationship between the ‘mediasphere’ and the ‘profosphere’ is a story for another time – a tale of the encounter of values, aims and expertise.

I would be delighted to learn that I am quite wrong in thinking that my questions could be a task for an academic because the work on answering them has already been done, or is substantially underway.

Angela Graham is Development Producer on The Story of Wales (currently being broadcast on Mondays at 9pm on BBC One Wales) and teaches documentary-making at the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University.

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