Living with Welsh history

As BBC Wales’ landmark history series gets a network showing tonight Gethin Matthews explores the dilemmas of a nation’s past invading the present

The first and central declaration to make up-front is that I was delighted to see the history of Wales presented on our screens by Green Bay and BBC Wales, and with such a heavyweight, charismatic and able communicator as Huw Edwards fronting the series. The six hour-long episodes broadcast during February and March, and being repeated on BBC2 in England this evening, looked great. There was exciting use of computer graphics to re-create the past appearance of some of our national monuments, and plenty of location filming at significant sites all over Wales to ensure a visual feast. Huw Edwards wasn’t the only star of the show – the landscape of Wales looked fantastic.

The investment put in by BBC Wales and its partners is to be welcomed. As well as the television series there were very useful accompanying radio series (on both Radio Wales and Radio Cymru). The Open University was on board to help those captivated by the narrative to find out more. Meanwhile both Cadw and National Museum Wales were pro-active in organising events to complement the broadcasts. Given the general lack of knowledge of the basics of our national history among the Welsh population, these were all welcome advances.

That said, what did The Story of Wales achieve? What was its benchmark? If newspaper interviews with Huw Edwards and the speeches at the series’ launch at St Fagans in January are anything to go by, the key staff and the commissioning editors at the BBC were looking back to 25 years ago, to the last time that a television series attempted to do justice to the entire sweep of Welsh history. In 1985 HTV Wales produced The Dragon Has Two Tongues, broadcast both on Channel 4 / S4C and ITV in Wales. The series, directed by Colin Thomas, brought together the veteran broadcaster Wynford Vaughan Thomas and the fiery Marxist historian Gwyn Alf Williams. The production’s unique selling point was to present two opposing views of history as the two argued their way through the long centuries of Wales’ history – Gwyn in the red corner, decrying the struggles and ruptures in the Welsh past (and present), with Wynford presenting a more romanticised view, emphasising the continuities and harmonious aspects of Welsh history. The chemistry between the pair was priceless. The approach ensured that the history presented was never dry, but always relevant to the realities of 1980s Wales. Other directors have attempted to emulate this approach, of presenting history as a debate, a dialogue, a live matter – but no one has ever come close to matching what Colin Thomas produced in 1985.

I dwell on The Dragon Has Two Tongues, not just because the BBC top brass did so when The Story of Wales was launched, but because the series got around one of the central problems of attempting to tell any history on television – of how to convey the shades of grey that exist in the narrative. Television programmes prefer to tell a story simply, with a nice, clear line of argument.

In contrast with an academic work, where one can explore different tangents in footnotes or engage in a detailed argument considering multiple points-of-view, a television documentary presented by an authoritative voice needs to play it straight and direct – A leads to B, leads to C and so on. However, there are many points of dispute in Welsh history, where the facts are open to different interpretations. This is where Huw Edwards’ strengths as a presenter are not, in fact, an advantage. We are used to seeing Huw giving us the authoritative version of events, backed up by incontrovertible audio-visual evidence. Huw tells us that today in Parliament the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition had a disagreement, and we cut to pictures of Dave and Ed squabbling. However, the facts in the past are seldom that clear-cut, Consequently, Huw’s pieces-to-camera often have to be worded with a sense of woolliness. Fuzziness replaces clarity.

Another foible (much beloved by television history but much sniffed at by academics) is the relentless use of the historic present. I suppose the idea is that it conveys a sense of immediacy and helps to bridge the gulf between the past and the present, but I find that it often muddies the waters. “Glyndŵr is still a rebel in the eyes of many, and his support in Wales is far from universal”. Is that in 1405 or 2012? “Butetown is about to be redeveloped. The housing stock here and elsewhere desperately needs modernising”. Are we talking about the 1950s or now?

There are other series with which The Story of Wales can usefully be compared. In 2000-02 the BBC gave us fifteen hours of A History of Britain with Simon Schama. In 2008-9 BBC Scotland produced ten hour-long episodes of A History of Scotland. There are many positive things to be said about the former, but its consideration of Welsh issues is not one of them. Such was its Anglo-centrism that a review by two historians (a Welshman and a Scot) decried it as ‘Essex Man’s History’. The commissioning of the Scottish history series was surely a response and a corrective to the perceived omission of a Caledonian perspective from the Schama series. However, the presenter, Neil Oliver, did tend to follow what one might term the Braveheart version of history. That’s one of the problems with a ‘national’ history – how do you stop it from becoming a ‘nationalist’ history?

Sometimes The Story of Wales tries too hard to project modern nationalist ideas back into the minds of past rulers. Is it really appropriate to say that Owain Glyndŵr’s “vision of a senedd on Welsh soil has been fulfilled”? However, in general the series does enough to avoid any charges of parochialism.One aspect emphasised time and again is the outward-looking nature of Wales through the ages, and the interchange of influences with the wider world. This is a useful viewpoint, and an antidote to what can be the default position in Welsh history of just concentrating on our large and dominating neighbour to the east (and blaming the English for all of Wales’ woes). Thus, although the series is constantly on the lookout for the things that make Wales exceptional (in particular in the first programme, which skipped from the oldest human burial in Europe to the largest Neolithic site in Britain to the most important Bronze Age copper mine in the world) it does so in a level-headed fashion, within an appropriate European context.

A common weakness of television documentaries is that they privilege the actions of particular ‘great men’, emphasizing these individuals’ role in determining the course of history. To give an example that will be familiar to anyone who has seen one of the multitude of less insightful documentaries about World War II, the conflict is often reduced to a personal conflict between Hitler and Churchill.

In Welsh history, there are many instances where complex issues can be over-simplified. For instance, there have been occasions when the collapse of the proto-state of Gwynedd in the period 1277-83 has been presented as the result of the personal battle between Llywelyn ap Gruffudd and Edward I. The Story of Wales treads a fine line here. On the one hand the structural weaknesses in Llywelyn’s position are taken into account (that is, his lack of financial and other resources), but then we are introduced to the pantomime villain Edward, “fierce of temper and violent: he wants to crush this new Prince of Wales and win back power over all of Britain for himself”. This is a point where the insight of a medieval historian would have been useful, to highlight the complex conjunction of long-term trends and short-term factors that made Llywelyn’s demise inescapable.

Having said that, I found the use of expert voices throughout the programmes to be very informative, and superior to the Schama / Oliver approach which kept the single presenter driving the whole narrative. Some of the research presented is genuinely fresh and new to the lay audience. For example, I found Professor John Koch’s explanation of the seaborne migration into Wales to be refreshing. It was also laudable that the series included so many female voices, in contrast to both the Schama / Oliver series and The Dragon has Two Tongues.

The final programme highlights some of the sensitivities that come to the fore once a figure like Huw, who needs to be seen as impartial, is brought on board as the frontman. There are external pressures on the programme-makers to ensure that the product is not controversial. Green Bay and Huw Edwards had their knuckles rapped back in 2008 (non-co-incidentally, at the same time as the BBC was receiving a thumping for the Brand/Ross debacle) for not showing due fairness to the Thatcherite point-of-view in the series Power and the People and also (astonishingly) for Huw’s urging the electorate to use their votes.

In The Story of Wales the final programme’s take on the Thatcher years is mild to the point of blandness – and actually Huw disappears from view for a while as Professor Dai Smith pops up to take the reins and tell us of how the old kind of Wales ‘dematerialised’ following the defeat of the miners. It is left to Dai to explain that “You could certainly taste a sense of despair in Wales at the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s” as the old institutions and certainties collapsed.

Huw ventures to suggest that “the government’s determination to restructure the labour market becomes a divisive issue”. However, the Conservatives gain plaudits for encouraging inward investment, allowing the growth of a Welsh quangocracy and spending on the Welsh language. Then suddenly it’s 1997 and there’s a bright new dawn. There is nothing here to upset that sole letter-writer who was so miffed at the presentation of Margaret Thatcher in the Power and the People programme, but the programme is the weaker as a result.

The series is determined to finish on an upbeat note, with a final summary that stresses the positives but stretches the facts to breaking point. “We’re an ancient people, more certain of our identity than at any point in the past 1,000 years”. Really? What about the enormous literature produced by O. M. Edwards and his coterie during the ‘Edwardian High Noon’? Wasn’t their conception of what Wales was and where it was heading stronger and clearer than the current mish-mash of ideas? Is this a result of the programme’s focus on the country’s Politics (with a capital ‘P’), rather than the trickier process of gauging the subtleties of the mood of the people.

What will be the legacy of The Story of Wales? The best that can be hoped for is that it will inspire many Welsh people to discover more about their past, with the assistance of the project’s partners. Let us hope that this is not the end of the story. After all, the six programmes are very much a whistle-stop tour, and there is so much more that deserves to be said. BBC Wales does have a decent track record of commissioning programmes that tell parts of the history of Wales. It is important that they continue to do so to fill in the gaps, particularly given the Corporation’s privileged position as the dominant supplier of information to the people of Wales. Long may their partnerships with the other educational bodies prosper.

What will remain in the memory of this particular series in a few years’ time? I honestly don’t know whether it will stick in the mind. The impressive graphics will surely be superseded by ever-more flashy techniques. I can’t recall many individual flashes of brilliant oratory which demand to be quoted.

Once again, I return to The Dragon has Two Tongues. There were so many quotable passages in this series. Ask any Welsh historian of a certain vintage and they will be able to tell you their favourite, whether it’s Gwyn Alf seething with indignation while standing on the remains of Capel Celyn; Gwyn Alf, soaking wet, addressing a Merthyr crowd with relentless passion about his experiences on the Normandy beaches; or (my favourite) Gwyn Alf’s breath-taking and inspirational summary of the impact of Owain Glyndŵr on the Welsh psyche.

Of course, I may be overly-pessimistic, and perhaps the upbeat conclusion of The Story of Wales will prove a rallying-cry to inspire the Welsh to greater deeds in the future. One can only hope that Huw’s final words, “The story of Wales has only just begun” will be validated.

Gethin Matthews is a lecturer through the medium of Welsh at Swansea University, a post funded by the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol. His research interests are the history of the Welsh overseas, particularly in the gold-field communities, and the impact of the First World War on Welsh society and culture.

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