We need more Welsh stories

Derek Jones continues his appreciation of BBC 1 Wales’ history series which concludes tomorrow

In my review of the first two episodes of The Story of Wales (here) I gave the series a cautious welcome. After 25 years, a new attempt at a television history of the nation was overdue, and, as one who had worked to make the most of The Dragon has Two Tongues at local level, I was looking forward to a fresh approach for very different times.

I welcomed some of the details. Having not previously known about the palisaded enclosure at Hindwell, Radnorshire, I was glad to have it revealed in so spectacular a manner. I applauded the programmes’ stress on Wales’ international connections, and was prepared to allow that, in the interest of presenting the sweep of Welsh history, certain key moments and movements could be given only light treatment.

Audience Reaction

The Story of Wales continues to get extraordinary ratings of of around 400,000 people tuning in, that’s about 27 per cent of the available audience in Wales. According to BBC Wales viewers have  also rated the series more highly than other programmes. So far in 2012 it comes top of the programmes rated in appreciation terms by the Welsh audience. Taking the whole of 2011 into account audiences say they have enjoyed the programmes  more than any other series across the BBC network, with the sole exception of Frozen Planet.

On this last point, I was, I now consider, far too kind. Programme 3 took us from the accession of Henry VII to the birth of Methodism, without even mentioning the fact that there had been two changes of dynasty in between. The description of the beginning of the industrial revolution in Wales, described in programme 4, allowed only a brief shot of Pont Cysyllte Aqueduct to represent the fact that the revolution also took place in the north, even if less extensively. Having tantalised us with a couple of sentences about Richard Price we heard nothing more about a man who was every bit as important as Tom Paine in the history of political ideas.

To be fair, the series became more focussed and detailed in its treatment of, for instance, the siege of Merthyr, and the age of coal. Industrialisation was the leading theme of programmes 4 and 5, but, for this viewer at least, the fact that this amount of concentration was possible in two programmes only threw into relief the lack of it elsewhere in the series. Is it really possible to tell the whole history of Wales in a worthwhile manner over six short programmes?

Overall, then, there were too many headlines, and the development of individual stories was often insufficient. It made matters worse that the headlines were regularly presented in a breathless and hyperbolic manner – Wales was ‘convulsed’; Parys Mountain was ‘a place of magic and alchemy’; the exploitation of natural resources from the 18th Century onwards was ‘volatile, explosive, exciting’ – and so on. The multiplication of adjectives became increasingly wearisome. Wales was presented all too often, as if, dare I say it, it was ‘top nation’.

Similarly, the awe which accompanied the opening up of key documents, such as the Act of Union, got in the way of the thoughts it ought to have provoked about present and future constitutional arrangements. Unquestionably it is one of television’s greatest strengths that it can show us things which are normally hidden from view. But it has an equal responsibility to relate past and present; perhaps the last programme will remedy earlier failures in this respect. For instance, having described industrialisation so vividly, it would be appropriate to discuss the implications of de-industrialisation, and to plot the tenacious hold of poverty over time in certain parts of Wales.

Granted it was not desirable to have two presenters with opposing viewpoints as in The Dragon has Two Tongues, it should surely have been possible to have included more interviews with people who had something useful and interesting to contribute. To say the least, this would have avoided the cumulative monotony of Huw Edwards as sole storyteller, requiring his appearance at every location. More importantly, professional historians would have added authority to the series, an authority which was seriously diminished when Huw was directed to row a boat, shovel coal, or walk with a red flag above Merthyr Tydfil.

All that said, I was glad to have my attention drawn to Richard Price, and will try to get hold of a copy of his Observations on Civil Liberty. I had not previously thought much about the drift of north Walians to the south during industrialisation, let alone the effects of their migration on Valleys culture. It was intriguing to reflect that Catholicism took some rooting out in Wales during and after the Reformation, but that Wales was also the country which embraced nonconformity perhaps more full-heartedly than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Others will have been illuminated by other moments in The Story of Wales, and I only wish, as I inferred in my previous review, that a network of viewing groups had been set up to take the discussion further.

We must assume that this will be the last television history of Wales for another quarter of a century – if indeed it can be accepted that the history of a country with such a rich history can be satisfactorily encompassed with limited television time available. Who knows, alas, whether an increasingly populist BBC will consider making space available for such endeavours?

Casting pessimism aside, what might now – or soon – be done to extend and enrich television’s capacity to tell the story of Wales? The Story of Wales asked us to see the particular in the universal, a task which not all viewers would have found easy. Why not, next time, take a particular place, city, town or village, and uncover how it was affected by, or contributed to, the wider story? Print historians are increasingly interested in microcosmic studies, which might well also make compelling television. In the end, of course, there may well be as many stories of Wales as there are places, but there is surely scope here for some original proposals.

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

17 thoughts on “We need more Welsh stories

  1. Oh, how I agree with Derek Jones. I feel almost apologetic for being Welsh. I winced at the over-dramatisation, over-romanticised view of a small nation that is increasingly obsessed with its past rather than facing the future challenges. Like a dying elephant, we seem unable to stop propping up and promoting economic and social systems that no longer deliver. Clinging to what was, in blunt terms, no more than rape of the country’s natural resources, coal, copper, and slate, and exploitation of its people, does little to help the collective understanding that those days are long behind Wales: it’s time to move on. There’s more to Wales than unions, rugby and castles and its time the media started to portray the nation as a serious player in the modern world of 21st Century. Goodness knows, the current political leadership is doing little to promote this image and we need every bit of help we can get!

  2. There is no doubt the series has been entertaining, accuracy is however an altogether different matter, and the absence of greater detail detracts from allowing those at home and abroad from getting a true picture of our early history. Take as an example the distortions represented in the story outlined in the poem ‘Gododdin’ used as evidence to indicate that Aneurin was a Scottish poet, that Eidyn was an early Edinburgh, and that Cattraeth was Catterick. All total rubbish that has been repeated time and time again, but no more how many times you repeat a lie it does not make it true.
    A missed opportunity to set the record straight!

  3. “Why not, next time, take a particular place, city, town or village, and uncover how it was affected by, or contributed to, the wider story?”

    Have you seen Eddie Butler’s series, Welsh Towns? It did exactly what you describe here – entertaining histories of Cardigan, Pontypridd, Bangor and Newport – it’s only a shame that it seems to have finished with just those four!

  4. Catraeth wasn’t Catterick? Where was it then? And, more important, how do we know where it was?

  5. Grateful for all the comments here. It was always going to be a challenge, and the result is far from perfect. I accept that. This was always going to be a popular television history for a mass audience, and that will always have a bearing on production and editorial values. Derek’s beloved Dragon was a brilliant niche history for a niche audience. It was an inspired commission by Channel Four. But we have moved on thirty years (some of us have, at any rate) and this had to look, feel and sound very different. The audience loved it, which is what really matters. This series is about explaining why Wales is what it is today. If it’s rekindled interest in our national story, it’s surely worked.

  6. Should also have addressed Derek’s point about ‘professional historians’ needed to ‘add authority’ to the series. Perplexed by this, to say the least. Our series included on-screen contributions from: Prys Morgan, Geraint Jenkins, John Koch, Dai Smith, Madeleine Gray, Nia Powell, Martin Johnes, John Davies, Sian James, Lloyd Bowen, Bill Jones, Gareth Williams, Gwyneth Lewis, Sara Elin Roberts… and the list goes on. Wanted to set the record straight and to thank these colleagues for their superb contributions to the series.

  7. As a programme-maker, I never respond to reviews. After all, I’ve had my say – and comment, interpretation, criticism are welcome and healthy. But the experience of being both praised and criticised for things we simply didn’t do prompts me to break my Golden Rule. Huw was not the sole voice. Or present at every location. And Richard Price got a whole sequence, not a couple of sentences. But sadly, the foodstuff details at Hindwell that your reviewer found ‘absorbing’ must have been absorbed from elsewhere: they weren’t in our programme. I am grateful to you for pointing out that, objectively tested, the audience brackets The Story of Wales with Frozen Planet as the two best appreciated of ALL programmes on the BBC in the last fifteen months. Frozen Planet had Sir David Attenborough. We have Huw Edwards. It’s no accident that he is the number one presenter of Britain’s most watched news programme. Quite simply, he is world-class. Through his story-telling skills, we were able to introduce on screen more than thirty Welsh academics (many of them young, many of them women) who generously shared their expertise and insights – something never done on this scale before. Huw’s personal commitment to tell this story has carried a significant proportion of the population along with him – something that should please historians and all those who care about public engagement with Welsh history. The audience thrilled to this series. Thanks to Huw.

  8. It is good to get comments from those who really know what is going on regarding the programme, which is part of the pleasure of a small and increasingly open nation.

    I have one huge complaint. Six episodes? I’d rather have sixteen or sixty! There is so much to say and so much that needs to be said that it is almost a teaser.

    If it encourages people to reappraise their pasts and see what has happened to Wales, especially when compared with the previous TV exercises, this has to be a very good thing.

    Many thanks for these programmes. They are not ends in themselves, but beginnings for wider enquiry.

  9. Another superficial, simplistic, sentimental production from the BBC Wales nationalist propaganda unit..
    I’ve just watched another BBC Wales report considering a Wrexham – Deeside – Chester city region. Eyebrows were raised that the possibility of such a cross border economic entity might threaten the “identity” of those on the Welsh side. The report acknowledged that border crossings were occuring more than ever these days – Really! And even referenced “The Story of Wales” by explaining that cross border activity was now more about commerce than killings! It is 2012 for Gods sake.

    Welsh History is utterly fascinating but it’s a pity that every opportunity is taken to undermine a pro-British context. One might be forgiven for thinking that there were no coal mines in England or that when ordinary Welsh people were suffering at the hands of a British Parliament the vast majority of English people were not suffering aswell. Their collective struggle is one that unites but the propaganda unit isn’t interested in a history that unites, only one that mythologises the unity of those who happen to live on the Western side of a largely symbolic border.

    Huw leaves us with the proclaimation that “we are an ancient people”. Who is Huw – those people that now happen to live on the Western side of the border? Does that mean that those on the other side of a border are not ancient? Are you trying to assume some form of racial or ethnic entity for people living within the current Welsh border? Any serious British History would rip that to shreds. We are a mongrel nation who share a very small island as he well knows. Then Huw asks the million dollar question – he’s been leading up to it for quite some time and here we go – “So, are we Welsh or British?” Errr both, Huw. I was particularly disappointed that in the first episode we are informed about the strange spiral markings at Paviland, Barclodiad y Gawres and Bryn Celli Ddu. Huw tells us that these markings are similar to burial chambers in Orkney and Ireland. Very true but of course he misses one out – the only burial chamber displaying these markings in the whole of what is now England – the Calderstones in Liverpool. Proof that the links between Liverpool and North Wales go back 30,000 years!

  10. Thanks Iain. Logic??? So… in your cosy ‘collective’ view of the world, the story of Wales is ‘…one that mythologises the unity of those who happen to live on the Western side of a largely symbolic border.’ And you accuse others of propaganda? You’re having a laugh. It’s 2012, for God’s sake.

  11. Just watched the last episode of “The Story of Wales”, and I have to say that in the main I thoroughly enjoyed the series. But there’s a big BUT why did you not cover some of the most important parts of Welsh History? For example the Welsh revival of 1904 which had a tremendous impact on the Welsh people at the time. There were other earlier Revivals that also impacted, not only Wales but other countries as well. So why did you avoid mentioning these significant events in Welsh history? Also where was any mention of Dylan Thomas and other Welsh identities who did so much to bring Wales to the attention of the World. I don’t recall seeing any Welsh ladies in their Welsh costumes that too had a part to play in some of the conflicts the Welsh had with invading forces. If you are going to tell the history of a country why neglect certain areas that were an important part of its history?

  12. Just finished watching the Story of Wales. My Welsh speaking grandmother emigrated from the South Wales coal fields in 1908 to Australia. I have her diary and letters she received fom her family in Wales over the next 40 years. This is the first programme I’ve seen that gave me an understanding of my Welsh heritage. We never hear anything about Wales in Australia except for the Welsh rugby team and denigrating jokes about the Welsh in English TV shows. So thank you. I’m very grateful to have been enriched through watching The Story of Wales.

  13. I have enjoyed Huw’s commentary immensely. Tonight was of particular interest. I am age 83, and my father ( A Llanelly man ) always told me that my Great Grandfather Daffyd Jones was a leader of the Rebeccah Riots, and he was arrested and sentenced to ten years deportation. I am so proud of the guy, but I know so little about him, so if you can tell me anything more about this great ,man, or tell me where I could possibly obtain more info. on him, I would be delighted. Tonight, KI just bowed my head in thankfulness for all those who fought and suffered and died so that we could enjoy the standard of living we enjoy today………….not to mention the right to vote. Thank you B.B.C., and thank you Huw Edwards for your first class presentation. John J. Jones/ Plymouth, Devon

  14. An excellent series but perhaps should have been called ‘The history of South Wales’. Having been born in Flintshire 63 years ago and having lived in England for the past 42 years I can’t understand why little was mentioned of the historical and industrial wealth of North Wales. Flintshire was the only other county after Glamorgan providing industrial wealth and growth to Wales. Very little was said of this!

  15. Brilliant series, as an English woman who lived for many happy years in Wales, it has been a marvellous opportunity to see and learn so much about Wales, as in England we seldom hear of Wales on the BBC. However, I was curious to hear Aberystwyth University described as being the oldest university in Wales when St. David’s in Lampeter dates back to 1822. It really would be lovely if more programmes from BBC Wales could be broadcast on the English BBC channels.

  16. Nothing mentioned in series that the Welsh were the original Britons who lived all over England and Wales, Welsh was spoken all over England and Wales until the Anglo/Saxons drove the Welsh westward to what is now Wales, Cornwall and south west Scotland

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