The BBC’s portrayal of Wales and the Welsh

On November 2nd the Assembly’s Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee scrutinised the Director General of the BBC. Angela Graham singles out the issue of portrayal.

                His State

Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed

And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:

This month the Director General of the BBC appeared before the Assembly’s Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee. The night before, the University of South Wales described his BBC role in terms so imperial that Milton’s deity came to mind. At this conferral of an honorary doctorate on Lord Tony Hall we were reminded of the Corporation’s magnitude and complexity. To be at its head must require an uncommon set of talents underpinned with relentless determination.

Was this, then, why, at the next day’s scrutiny session with the AMs, I had the impression of repeated collisions as the progress of the BBC ship was impeded by reefs of objections in Welsh waters? Lord Hall ‘gets’ Welsh concerns, he so frequently reassures us, that it may irritate him to find that dissatisfactions and concerns remain. Surely by now we should all have got happily on board?

No. The AMs are right to press him hard on the implications for Wales of the BBC’s decisions on funding, governance and portrayal. Precisely because the BBC enterprise is so complex Wales must help the DG see through its eyes. What can seem crystal clear from afar may look murky at home. Portrayal – how Wales and its people appear and are depicted in BBC media − is a case in point.

Lord Hall referred to quarterly meetings, begun a few months ago, between Charlotte Moore, Director of BBC Content, and the Directors of the Nations and Regions at which the BBC’s ‘portrayal objectives’ are analysed. He promised a report and data which would allow an examination of the justification for, and effectiveness of, one element or another. The portrayal objectives are not public knowledge. Their existence is a welcome sign of how far up the agenda portrayal has moved but why keep them away from scrutiny?

And how frank will the report be? Lord Hall appeared to give with one hand and take away with the other. Yes, there will be information but ‘we need to find it in a way that makes sense for us and sense for you too…’

Rhodri Talfan Davies, Director, BBC Cymru Wales added, ‘And just to be clear on that, in terms of our reporting, the key thing is to tell you about the programmes and the series that are being delivered. It’s not so much the data – the real test is what’s on screen. I think what we can do routinely is to actually publish what it is that is portraying Wales on screen – rather than the metrics on volumes and hours…’

‘We might…’ Bethan Jenkins responded drily, ‘be interested in both.’

Lee Waters immediately pushed further on criteria for portrayal and its relation to production by noting Lord Hall’s citation of the BBC One series Ordinary Lies as an example of portrayal of Wales. Claiming that the series ‘could be set anywhere’, Lee Waters asserted that Belfast-set, Belfast-made series, The Fall is ‘not about Northern Ireland. So how are we going to get that portrayal – rather than just the production, which is very welcome − how are we going to make sure that portrayal happens?’

Lord Hall agreed The Fall is not about Northern Ireland but ‘it goes down very well’ there. Hardly a sophisticated response.

Comparisons between Wales and Northern Ireland require some scrutiny because Northern Ireland has had a great deal of attention from tv drama focused on its political conflict, so material that stresses that it has problems common to the rest of the UK is not unwelcome. Wales is in a different position. It has seen so little drama originating from its own specific circumstances that it must be very cautious about scripts – and a drama slate taken as a whole − which portray it as just like anywhere else, and nothing more.

Although seeing Welsh characters portrayed, hearing Welsh voices and seeing Welsh locations are legitimate and welcome types of portrayal there should be, alongside these, an attempt to share the experiences and viewpoints of people in Wales, emerging from the country’s experience of itself. Lee Waters is right to be worried that the BBC may opt for material produced in and set in Wales but not about Wales in the deeper sense. That would be to treat the country as little more than a set or location-shooting opportunity with novelty value. We have yet to reach a stage at which seeing Wales portrayed, incidentally or directly, in drama and other genres is unremarkable.

Lord Hall did move on to offer a ‘serious answer’, asserting that the BBC has done so well for Wales on hours and money that ‘we’ve even overshot the target’. Not pausing to explain that, he endorsed Rhodri Talfan Davies’s look-at-the-screen approach and added, ‘then I suspect we’ll have disputes about – or proper arguments, rather, debates about – whether Ordinary Lies is really about Wales or is about anywhere else or whatever.’

This was not a helpful answer to Lee Waters’s reasonable point and seems to put cart before horse.

Lord Hall’s ‘whatever’ is revealing. Is it tiresome that Wales wants to be seen as being distinguishable from the rest of the UK? Many circumstances are indeed common to, and therefore filmable in, any British city, any village. It is easier to produce network drama that makes use of the commonalities among the nations and regions of the UK than to work from the local and specific outwards towards the universal. The easier path can mean a tokenistic inclusion of a few regional identifiers and the loss of a distinctive lens through which universal circumstances are seen. The plots work but the depth of focus is shallow. We’ve all encountered drama which has been bled of local complexity, leaving it eminently digestible but insipid and ersatz. Hovering around Lord Hall is the ghost of the infamous, perhaps apocryphal, London commissioner’s response − ascribed to Alan Yentob −  to a Nineties BBC Wales drama proposal, ‘It won’t be too Welsh, will it?’

The politicians must also be wary of any tendency to regard portrayal as something that applies only to drama. Portrayal happens across genres, as Lord Hall pointed out: ‘Every network genre now has a portrayal objective.’ That is certainly something to keep an eye on and – pace those metrics – to quantify too. The BBC knows the value of the measurable and we are all capable of dealing with assessments of both quantity and quality. We would like both.

Angela Graham is Chair of the IWA's Media Policy Group.

6 thoughts on “The BBC’s portrayal of Wales and the Welsh

  1. The claims of the BBC that they take us seriously as a nation simply because they produce/film a few of their programmes here should be seen for the special pleading that it is. They do it because it’s cheaper, and that’s the top and bottom of it.

    Certainly since the days of the late Owen Edwards, The Centre has seldom taken much notice of our distinctiveness, seeing us as coming somewhere behind Scotland, N. Ireland and even the north of England in terms of significance or interest to them. This leads them to disregard anything which falls even a little outside their world-view of what we are.

    Some of you will remember the very fine comedy series Satellite City from some twenty years ago. To the best of my knowledge, it was never shown on the so-called ‘national’ networks. Perhaps the assembled Tarquins and Annabelles at ‘HQ’ felt – rather like the anonymous panjandrum quoted in Ms. Graham’s piece – that it was ‘too Welsh’. Maybe they felt that the accents would have been too difficult for the English audience (even BBC2 viewers!) to understand (odd, when you think of how many series of Rab C. Nesbitt they transmitted – a show where all of the characters had accents so impenetrable that even Glaswegians needed CEEFAX subtitles). Or perhaps it’s the ‘nothing good can come our of Nazareth’ Syndrome.

    Whichever excuse they might have used, an excuse is all that it would have been, because lack of quality would not have been an issue; it would have stood its ground well against anything coming out of London or Manchester at that time.

    We have, in the last thirty years, seen the BBC’s provision of programmes for Wales, by Wales and about Wales shrivel and – by an inevitable process – what programmes there may once have been showing our nation, our society and our lives to audiences in the rest of the soi-disant ‘United Kingdom’ have disappeared. This may be one reason for the ignorance generally shown about us by the population of England in particular; an ignorance which they demonstrate in unabashed form when they come to visit (or, heaven forfend, live) here.

    But, it must be remembered that the BBC is the State Broadcaster and that therefore while we insist on tying ourselves to that State, we are tied to that broadcaster as well. Perhaps the best we can do is to shout a bit louder to try to embarrass it into taking note.

  2. I was also struck by the performance of both Lord Hall and Rhodri TD. There is a constitutional debate to be had about whether the BBC is really answerable to the Assembly and how that shapes the nature of these hearings. But the question of whether the BBC is politically answerable is a live question.

    Lee Waters distinguished himself by asking some very pointed and pertinent questions regarding Lord Hall’s earlier promises. Lord Hall’s line appears to have been, “I shall delivering in spring 2017, it will be better than what’s gone before therefore the BBC will be congratulating itself and it will be expecting gratitude from the Assembly when it announces that news. Anyone wishing to spoil that narrative will be dismissed as being wrong or patronised as not understanding how the world of media works; politicians, honestly!”

    There was one remark by Rhodri TD that revealed both his willingness to publicly demonstrate his loyalty to his boss as well as taking a dismissive attitude to the elected representatives of our country. Lee Waters raised some quantitative questions about the BBC’s non-news output. As Angela points out, Rhodri TD’s response was ‘just look at the screen’; a kind of never mind the width, feel the quality approach.

    Those involved in the media will obviously have their criteria when making their decisions. What they don’t seem willing to tolerate is that elected representatives have different criteria. What is not acceptable is for public officials to take the attitude of shut up and use our criteria instead, as Rhodri TD did.

    What should be the Committee’s approach the next time these two appear? I would suggest that the committee needs to develop its own narrative based on its own evidence and its own criteria to counter the Director General’s “I’m here to tell you that we’re doing a great job so show gratitude” approach. And it will need more than one well-briefed AM who understands the meaning of scrutiny if this committee is to establish its authority in this field. Had there been other AMs willing to support Lee, the tone of the discussion may well have been very different.

    So to be positive, it’s early days and the committee will need time to find its feet. But there will need to be considerable improvement if they are not to be rolled over so easily by the sweeping all before me approach of the Director General.

  3. And if things do come to pass, then I hope that the BBC also remembers that programming for the English speaking audience in Wales does not mean anglicised in every sense, such as accents or attitudes towards politics, life, culture and heritage. It shouldn’t be viewed as a means of presenting a falsely anglocentric view of Wales. I have got so used to hearing the words BBC Cymru Wales being used together in promotional links that I found it very strange last night to hear the Cymru being dropped in the voice over for the ending of a BBC Wales promotional clip – I hope that was simply an oversight and not an unnecessary anglicisisation.

  4. Am enjoying this series. Article above offers interesting take on perceptions of a drama’s setting; to say that it could have been set anywhere is a good point, but then again could that be true of alot of central stories in a fiction? I feel it is the backcloth of supporting cast and locations that conveys where something is set. Cardiff is a city like other large cities in England / Scotland / NI that will attract folk from all over: given that, I don’t feel it unrealistic to have set this drama in a workplace which exhibits a wide demographic. ALso, I find the backloth to the series excellent: the supporting cast do an exceptional job to me to make up the mix of ‘Cardiff Welsh’; also, given the settings and the locations used, I find it just as realistic to say ‘it could only ever have been set in Cardiff’ ! As I mentioned, I have enjoyed the series; it has some great performances and I feel it gives a positive and interesting slant on the city.

  5. What we need is not Assembly Committees, Directors of Regions, and ‘portrayal objectives’ – there goes your licence money – but for the BBC, as a self-proclaimed national broadcaster, to burst out its own bubble.

    For all the productions labelled BBC Cymru Wales, they could be being made on another planet as far as most aspiring Welsh directors, producers, and writers are concerned.

  6. It would appear that BBC CYMRU has unlimited ‘cash’ for its main programme on welsh rugby,i.e SCRUM V as evidenced by its last one on Sunday after end of Autumn Internationals. Not withstanding that truth/honesty are in very short supply with BBC CYMRU’s in relation to WRU/welsh rugby as they seem to want to be part of the ‘rugby family’,whilst at same time being paid huge salaries to pass their views on to people who pay the TV Licence Fee, The presenter who usually asked the questions to well ‘vetted’ guests has been augmented by another female (so meeting equality targets) so we have two paid people asking EXACTLY the same inane questions. Productivity/Value for money obviously not for our masters in LLandaff.There was an improvement in Peter Jackson being present who ‘shocked’ the appointed one’s by being brutally frank about highly paid players/coaches who are not performing!!. There needs to be thorough inquiry into the whole structure/performance of BBC CYMRU and S4C to try it more representative of the 90% of the population who have no interest in its ‘obsession’ about ‘welshness’,and also rugby football.

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