As Doctor Who returns to our screens, Emily Garside shares her thoughts on the career and cultural significance of Welsh screenwriter, Russell T Davies
As the man who burst onto our screens with Queer as Folk in the 90s and followed it up with an array of queer dramas and characters, Russell T Davies has made his name as the ‘gay writer’. Another notable feature of Queer as Folk was that it took a London-centric drama and put it in the centre of Manchester, the place where he lived and worked. But, despite setting several dramas in Manchester, Welshness and Wales still run through the heart of much of what Russell T Davies writes.
The inescapable Welshness of Davies’ writing, is something for which he’s probably as well known as for his championing of the LGBTQ+ community, with occasional overlaps. One of the parallels between his inclusion of Welsh characters or references into his work and how he integrates queerness is the occasional, ‘incidental’ nature in which he does so.
With Doctor Who due to return with Davies as its showrunner once again for its 60th anniversary, will we see a regeneration of that Welsh-centric approach in Who? The Doctor’s return to our screens gives a feeling that television eyes are on Wales once again. With that being said, the industry boom ignited by Who along with screen tourism, confirms that Whovian enthusiasm never went away.
Davies has integrated Welsh characters and narratives in essential ways beyond Doctor Who. Mine all Mine, which is by far the most ‘Welsh’ of his work, is the most obvious. In this quirky Welsh comedy, Davies revisited his roots in Swansea and integrated a crowd of Welsh actors. In the predominantly Welsh cast led by Griff Rhys Jones, including Joanna Page, Siwan Morris, and Lynn Hunter (latterly of his show Cucumber) viewers found an array of well-known actors to Welsh TV audiences and stage, perhaps less so beyond it. The humour and the storyline are also peculiarly and brilliantly Welsh. It also features Gareth David-Lloyd as Yanto Jones in another Davies tradition, fulfilling the other time-honoured tradition of re-using character names. Or did Yanto soft-mutate his name and move to Cardiff to fight aliens? Maybe. The idea of a Welsh Davies multiverse is plausible; after all, he discovered a rift in space and time through Cardiff (in Torchwood)
It was, of course, the return of Doctor Who under Davies as showrunner in 2005 that put Cardiff on the television map. The show being filmed in Cardiff by BBC Wales meant that the city and its surroundings were standing in for Earth and many alien planets, with the Wales Millenium Centre as a futuristic hospital inhabited by Cat-Nuns or old buildings in the bay as substitute for Wartime London. Cardiff eventually got to portray itself in the eleventh episode of the Doctors first series, ‘Boom Town’. The plot of ‘Boom Town’ (a rift in time and space in Cardiff) eventually became the central concept of Torchwood, in which Cardiff took centre stage.
Welsh identity is integral to Torchwood. In contrast, there was a playful irony at work between both series. Doctor Who did its utmost to disguise Cardiff for several years, even when prominent landmarks were on display.
Now, Cardiff was on display for the world to see, and this was clear from the start with the outstanding ‘Torchwood Tower’ situated next to the Wales Millennium Center. This would be cemented by including Cardiff locations in ‘real time’ across the series.
Anyone with a particular nerdy predilection from Cardiff, or even anyone who was an adult between 2007 and 2011, may well still refer to the silver sculpture in Cardiff Bay as ‘Torchwood’. Is it a salute to artist William Pye, who designed the piece as part of Cardiff Bay’s regeneration. But thanks to a little sci-fi show, the fact remains that Pye’s work has been seen more times than perhaps anticipated.
The imposing 21-metre-high sculpture is made of stainless steel; it’s flat on one side, curved on another, and has a constant flow of water running down it. According to Pye’s description, it was meant as part of an impetus to ‘reclaim’ the space from a dry dock to a meeting place. It’s certainly become the latter, especially with people meeting on the ‘magic step’ that leads to Torchwood HQ.
Torchwood had a huge fan following, marking a ‘golden age’ of BBC Wales productions. There was a particular fervour around 2006-2012 in Cardiff when both shows were at their height, and people would flock to watch filming and visit locations. Over a decade on, people still do, and the fans kept it alive. When they think of Davies’ Welsh stories, most will think of that rift in space and time, that mix of ‘incidental Welsh’ dropped into Who and Torchwood.
But beyond the opportunity for Cardiff to demonstrate its on-screen potential, there is a softer and more meaningful side to this universe. The fans.
Better known as ‘Whovians’, Doctor Who fans are dedicated and passionate individuals. Many have made the ‘pilgrimage’ to Cardiff to visit their favourite Who sights. Now, Cardiff has cemented itself in the memories of fans all over the world. Having conversations about Cardiff and hearing people say ‘I love Doctor Who’ fills me and others with a proud sense of Welshness. If you think about it, that’s Davies’ legacy in a nutshell.
Davies subtly (and not so subtly) integrated Welshness across his series. While it was a funny aside or a background character, this did a lot for Wales and Welsh writing. It encouraged the writers behind Davies to own their identity, not hide it. The parallels to how he handles queer characters are clear, he takes both and integrates them into his stories where others would sideline them. But even the subtle visibility of Welsh characters lets actors and writers know it’s okay to put that part of themselves in the story. It doesn’t have to be the punchline (or you can make it the punchline and own it as you do your Welshness).
Emily’s latest book ‘Gay Aliens and Queer Folk: How Russell T Davies changed TV’ is available now from University of Wales Press.
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