Friday, 4 March 2016

TV and the Welsh National Narrative

"The awareness of the Welsh as a separate people rests on a belief in the particularity of their own past and traditions."   (Final Report of the History Committee for Wales, June 1990, paras 4.2, 4.5)

For many years I've been more than a little frustrated by the relatively low profile that Wales has had in film and TV, and I know that many others share that frustration.  In the bad old days Wales was portrayed in film cliches -- typified in "How Green was my Valley" -- including coal mines, male voice choirs, women in beaver hats and leeks and daffodils.  Many people abroad probably think that "Under Milk Wood" by Dylan Thomas is the only worthwhile work of fiction to come out of Wales.  A few others have probably heard of Alexander Cordell and his novels, but those books are unremittingly bleak, and portray Wales as a land destroyed by industrialisation and defined by class warfare and social protests such as the Rebecca Riots and the Chartist Movement. 

As we all know, Wales is much more vibrant and multi-faceted than that, and always has been. People know of Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones and  Richard Burton and a few others from the entertainment world.  But the real Wales is still hidden away from a global audience, and in terms of global media exposure it's rather sad that Ireland and Scotland are far better known.  For the past 20 years I have lived in hope that either BBC, ITV or S4C would deliver a landmark costume drama series which would be for Wales, about Wales, and at the same time capable of "selling"  Wales to a global audience.  But nothing has emerged, partly, I suppose, because of the very high costs of costume drama and perhaps because no single drama project has captured the imagination of either programme-makers or commissioning editors.  In the case of BBC Wales we get fine words (1), but BBC Wales under its last three Directors has pursued a strategy of delivering excellent drama for the BBC network and for foreign sales, including Merlin, Dr Who, Torchwood, Casualty and Sherlock.  That has been very good for the reputation of Wales within the TV industry, but it has not done much for the image of the country abroad, and has certainly not satisfied the demand for a big series that will really sell Wales as a small country with a big heart and a distinctive story to tell.  "Destination marketing" and "branding" come into the frame too, and from a long involvement in the tourism industry I can attest that there is a degree of frustration on that score from tourism operators who feel that Wales is consistently under-sold.

Over the last decade, there appear to have been endless think tanks, seminars, committee hearings and ministerial statements on the matter of the Welsh national narrative, the needs of Welsh TV viewers, and the responsibilities of broadcasters like BBC Wales and S4C.  "Screening the Nation: Wales and Landmark Television" was a 2009-2010 study (2) coordinated by the University of Glamorgan in collaboration with the BBC Trust and Audience  Council Wales.  A much-repeated point in the report was that the term "landmark television" appears to have morphed itself from the idea of flagship TV programmes ABOUT Wales into the idea of flagship programmes MADE IN Wales.  In assessing the impact of high-profile dramas like Dr Who and Torchwood (and more recently Merlin and Sherlock) the participants in the study have concentrated on the manner in which the reputation of Cardiff has been greatly enhanced by the investment made in its drama production facilities.  That suggests a degree of complacency -- and even the leaders of the study seem to think that the people of Wales might be happy to bask in Cardiff's glory and enjoy the fact that the capital city has created many jobs in the creative industries and has also pulled in much tourist-related income on the back of a number of popular TV shows flagged up as "Made in Wales." 

And so the expressions of concern continue.  First Minister Carwyn Jones  said last year that BBC Wales should be given an extra £30m to make TV programmes that properly reflect the people of Wales. (3)  BBC Wales Director Rhodri Talfan Davies said in evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee in Westminster in February: “In a sense what’s happened over the last seven or eight years spectacularly in Wales is production has been decentralised and we’ve built a real centre of excellence, particularly in drama and factual. I think the challenge in this charter is to make sure that economic and creative story also delivers a cultural dividend and that we see Welsh stories, our stories, reflected on screen not just in Wales but right across the UK.” 

Christine Chapman AM, Chair of the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee , said: “The significant decline in the BBC’s investment in English-language programming over the last ten years has resulted in fewer hours of Wales-specific programming and a schedule that has failed to capture and explore adequately the lives and experiences of Welsh communities, as well as the changing political landscape post-devolution........ It is about a greater diversity of programmes. We feel at the moment it could be rather narrow." (4)

Angela Graham, chair of the IWA Media Policy Group, in the context of a submission on the future of the BBC in general and in Wales in particular, has also commented on the extent of London-based control and the problems faced by BBC Wales in delivering programming appropriate to the cultural needs and aspirations of Wales. (5)

So where is the landmark drama which will portray Wales -- with all its strengths and weaknesses -- for the people of Wales and for a world audience?  Currently, nowhere to be seen...... although Hinterland has already gone some way to convincing the world that there is more to Wales than Cardiff and a successful national rugby team.

In the context of the foregoing, I am currently discussing with two production companies the possibility of making a big landmark costume drama series of maybe 24 episodes, set in West Wales and based on the eight best-selling novels of the Angel Mountain saga (6).  I already have guarantees of support from Pembs CC and from the West Wales tourism bodies, and am in wide-ranging discussions about how to move things forward.  I'm not so naive as to believe that getting big costume dramas made is a simple matter; and of course the only things that matter to a production company are a great story, well told, with top actors and a reasonable prospect of finding a global market and making lots of money!  But I also think that if there is a supportive environment in Wales, the decision-making and fund-raising process becomes that much easier............

The Martha Morgan "brand" is also being heavily promoted in the spring of 2016 via a new "Martha Morgan Country Project" designed to encourage "literary tourism" visits to many of the key locations in West Wales which feature in the stories.  The launch of this new project, with photographs by Steve Mallet featuring Rhiannon James as Mistress Martha, will take place in Newport (Pembs) on April 3rd. (7)


(1)  “We will need to think hard about how we can strengthen our support for national and regional self-expression.”  Rhodri Talfan Davies, Director, BBC Wales
“A national broadcaster should have something to say, not just something to make.  And if that nation is bilingual, then the stories it tells must be too. "  Ruth McElroy
“Creative Industries is one of our fastest-growing priority sectors. We want to establish Wales as an international centre of excellence for high-end TV drama production worldwide and this investment is part of our plan to create a long-term, sustainable TV industry in Wales."  Edwina Hart, Minister for Economy

(2)  Blandford, S., Lacey, S., McElroy, R. and Williams, R. (2010) Screening the Nation: Wales and Landmark Television, Report for the BBC Trust/Audience Council Wales. ISBN: 978-1-84054-248-6.

(3)  22 Feb 2016

(4)  Assembly Members call on the BBC to spend an extra £30m in Wales
3 Mar 2016
Quote:  "We welcome the BBC’s commitment to increase its spend on network productions in the nations and, to this end, its target of 17 per cent of network spend outside England. In Wales, this commitment to greater devolution of drama production has been met with considerable commercial success to date. It is disappointing, however, that despite being produced in Wales, these programmes have done little to strengthen the representation or portrayal of the nation."
Among those who gave evidence to the Committee (chaired by Christine Chapman AM) were John Geraint, Angela Graham, Ruth McElroy, Prof Tom O'Malley, Ken Skates AM, and Natasha Hale.

(5)  Welsh think-tank says BBC is yet to adjust fully to the new shape of the United Kingdom
15 Jan 2016
Welsh Affairs Committee – Inquiry into Broadcasting in Wales, December 15, 2015
Written evidence submitted by the Institute of Welsh Affairs (BIW 17)
Portrayal.  Point 6.5.  "The decentralisation of production has, however, created disappointment in one important regard. Even the BBC would have to admit that it has not led, as hoped, to a step change in the visibility of Wales on network television, particularly not in the field of drama. Series such as Dr Who and Sherlock have been great international successes, and have brought economic benefit to Wales, but they have not contributed to ‘representing Wales to the rest of the UK’. Their success has also obscured the decline in domestic provision specifically for the audience in Wales."

(6)  Project Pack:  On Angel Mountain (Proposal for a multi-part TV costume drama based on the 8 novels of Brian John's cult saga set on the slopes of Angel Mountain)  PDF



Landmark Drama for Wales

 This is a re-posting of a post from September 2014.  It is suddenly all very relevant again, following the recent press coverage and the publication of the Assembly's Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee on the future of BBC Wales.

Wales and Landmark Costume Drama -- fine words and no action

Icons galore -- but no powerful central narrative.  So what's the message?

‘A nation needs its own fiction. It is for this reason that many countries have used fictional narratives to create a self-image.’
Enric Castell√≥  in ‘The Production of Television and Nation Building, The Catalan Case’, European Journal of Communication, 22, 1, 49-68.

In the summer of 2014 Ruth McElroy of the University of Glamorgan re-ignited the debate about the manner in which the national identity of Wales is projected through the media -- and in particular through television programming.  While acknowledging the great success of BBC Wales dramas like Dr Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Merlin and Casualty (and recently Hinterland) she said: ".........the challenge now is to transform this network success into making a new BBC Wales that has something imaginative and entertaining to say to and about Wales and not just from Wales. Because whilst network successes like Doctor Who and Casualty can provide jobs in Wales (for my students included) what they have not really done is tell us very much about ourselves. A national broadcaster should have something to say, not just something to make.  And if that nation is bilingual, then the stories it tells must be too. "
Plan of Action? Responding to Tony Hall
Ruth McElroy calls for a plan of action for English language TV in Wales
July 2nd, 2014

Ruth was building on the findings of a big study published a few years ago, after a programme of research by the University of Glamorgan in collaboration with the BBC Trust and Audience Council Wales:
S. Blandford, S. Lacey,  R. McElroy & R. Williams (2010) Screening the Nation: Wales and Landmark Television. Report for the BBC Trust and BBC Cymru Wales Audience Council.

That research examined the representation of Wales in landmark BBC television drama made in Wales. Published in March 2010, the report used interviews with audiences and textual analysis of popular shows like Dr Who and Torchwood, to shed light on the complex relationship between television production, its locations, and the impact of local, regional and national identity. One of the questions at the end of the study was this one:  what is the visibility of Welsh stories outside Wales?  Although the language in the report was very diplomatic, and there was great praise for BBC's huge success in the making of big networked drama productions sold throughout the world, there were many comments which suggested a sense of dissatisfaction about the BBC's failure to represent, through landmark home-grown drama series, the spirit and the soul of Wales in a manner that is neither stereotyped nor over-simplified.   Think Belonging, Pobol y Cwm, and Gavin and Stacey.......

Ruth was also responding to some of the things that BBC Director General Tony Hall said in April 2014 in a speech to the Welsh Assembly, including the following:
"........ I do believe the BBC will need to think hard about how it strengthens its support for national and regional self-expression as it prepares its case for a new charter. And I would like to invite you all tonight to be a part of the debate."

‘............there are some aspects of national life in Wales that are not sufficiently captured by the BBC’s own television services in Wales, and I would include comedy, entertainment and culture in those categories’.

".........English language programming from and for Wales has been in decline for almost a decade’.

BBC Director-General Speech at the Pierhead
On the 50th Anniversary of BBC Wales, Director-General Tony Hall delivers a speech about the BBC’s role in Wales.
April 1st, 2014

In response to this Rhodri Talfan Davies, the Director of BBC Wales, said:
"........looking ahead, Tony Hall was surely right to say that we will need to think hard about how we can strengthen our support for national and regional self-expression as we prepare our case for a new Royal Charter." (BBC Wales Management Review 2013/14)

Fine words but not much action, and in her short piece Ruth was asking for some strategic thinking and for a Plan of Action designed to give the people of Wales the programmes they deserve -- portraying and reinforcing a sense of national identity (including bilingualism and diversity) and at the same time, through effective marketing, selling Wales to the world.  That, one might have thought, would be something of interest to the Welsh Government and Visit Wales.

This brings me to costume drama.  Think about it.  There has not been -- ever -- a landmark costume drama made in Wales which portrays Wales and its "national identity."  A number of observers have commented that the Welsh TV industry (which includes BBC, S4C, ITV and a number of very successful independent production companies) is deeply conservative, to the point of timidity.  Is "complacency" the right word?  Maybe not. The BBC has -- since the days of Menna Richards -- placed its priority on demonstrating its skill in the making of big TV dramas for sale into a global market, and is hugely successful in that regard.  So praise where it is due. But is there at the same time an obsession with steering clear of simplistic and stereotypical portrayals of Wales -- male voice choirs, harp music, coal mines, Dylan Thomas and rugby?  A number of observers have noted that the portrayal of Wales, for the people of Wales, by the main broadcasters lies for the most part in worthy and very conservative documentaries -- Iolo Williams talking about the beauties of nature, Derek Brockway talking about the great outdoors, Huw Edwards talking about Welsh history, and assorted Welsh people (including me!) talking about their hopes and aspirations and about their love for their homeland.  And of course, saturation rugby coverage......  (I'm not complaining about that, but you get my point.)  All very safe and comfortable, and uncontroversial.

There are TV and film dramas, of course, including Gavin and Stacey, Belonging, Pobol y Cwm, Crash, Submarine, but there does seem to be a very strong emphasis on gritty dramas about dysfunctional young people caught in miserable urban environments.  Welsh Noir, if you like, which brings us to The Killing, which brings us to Hinterland (which has the saving grace of being more rural than urban...........)

Back to big televised costume or period drama -- the sort of drama which reminds a nation of its roots, its strengths and its foibles, and makes it feel good (or bad) about itself.  In Wales, nothing.  In England, and endless sequence of series based upon the plays of Shakespeare, the novels of Dickens, Hardy, Austen, Bronte and Trollope, and other "classics" like Poldark, Downton Abbey, Upstairs/Downstairs, When the Boat Comes In, Brideshead Revisited, Onedin Line, The Forsyte Saga, and now The Village written by Stephen Moffatt...........
In Ireland:  Ballykissangel, Father Ted, Game of Thrones, and many series of powerful dramas based upon the Northern Ireland troubles.
In Scotland:  Monarch of the Glen, Tales of Para Handy, Dr Finlay's Casebook, Machair, Hamish Macbeth, Taggart, Rab C Nesbitt.

Accepted that some of those series pander to national stereotypes to the point where one cringes rather than applauds, but at least they do represent and sell the "national identites" of the nations of the UK while reinforcing national self-esteem.  The blockbusters like Torchwood and Dr Who give occasional glimpses of Wales because that's where some of the filming went on.  But I suspect I am not the only person who complains about a total lack of coherence and vision with respect to the effective marketing of Wales through the medium of TV drama.

So where is this landmark costume drama TV series going to come from?  From the novels of Alexander Cordell?  Tough, gritty novels written with flair, but there is no continuity to them and no single dominating character whose story needs to be told across an extended series, or two, or three.........  Based on Dylan Thomas?  Nothing substantial in dramatic potential apart from the work of genius called Under Milk Wood -- and a lot of whimsy.  The Angel Mountain Saga is really the only game in town -- eight novels set in the most crucial decades of Welsh history (the early part of the nineteenth century) and with a large and expanding fan base.  The market research is already done.   And with a flawed and instantly appealing lead character called Martha Morgan.  She is, of course, Mother Wales -- but in another sense she is universal and timeless, with characteristics that are comprehensible in any culture on the planet.  She is a complex tragic heroine, whose beauty is her blessing and her curse.  She is sexy, compassionate, loyal, idealistic, hard-working, feisty, courageous, protective of those in her care, and completely irrepressible.  But she is also at times deceitful, vain, manipulative, with a tendency towards introspection and depression and an irresistible urge to interfere in things she would be best advised to steer clear of.  Somehow, in the stories, her "angels" manage to keep her alive while mayhem occurs around her (mostly because of her) and others fall by the wayside.   Big TV series need sales potential worldwide, and they must have characters with which viewers in New York, Tokyo, Berlin and Rio de Janiero can empathise.  Martha Morgan fits the bill -- we know that, from the feedback from readers of the series from all over the world.

A landmark costume drama series set in Wales will surely come.  It has to. And soon.  But as somebody stated in one of the commentaries on TV in Wales, wouldn't it be ironic if that series was to be made in Hollywood, for a network other than the BBC?  Ironic?  Let's correct that -- it would be an outrage.

That's enough of a rant from me.  It's a beautiful day, and there are things to do in the garden.  Oh - I almost forgot to mention it -- the rights are still available.  Just get in touch, and we can talk.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

St David's Day and Mother Wales

This is a head shot taken from one of Steve Mallett's photos taken for the Martha Morgan Country project.  The model is Rhiannon James.

St David's Day is past for another year, and next up we have Mother's Day next Sunday.  This got me thinking about patron saints and the manner in which most of our reverence is reserved for men rather than women.  St David is a male patron saint, like most of the others, and that's maybe not surprising given the emphasis put on male rights and achievements during historical time.  There are female patron saints, but they are relatively few in number.  I'm not sure of this, but surely the word "patron" must have its roots in "pater" or father -- so the patron saint is historically a paternal or father figure.  So St David is essentially seen as "Father Wales"..........

So why is there no equivalent Mother Wales?  Well, if you delve back into history there is one shadowy figure referred to as "Mother Wales" -- namely Katheryn of Berain.  This is what Wikipedia says about her:  

"Katheryn of Berain (Welsh: Catrin o Ferain) (born 1540 or 1541; died 27 August 1591), sometimes called Mam Cymru ("mother of Wales"), was a Welsh noblewoman noted for her four marriages and her extensive network of descendants and relations."

She's a bit of a shadowy figure, and none of her husbands or children were particularly important in the history of Wales, so her main claim to fame seems to have been that she was a natural grandchild of Henry VII (via an illegitimate birth), married four times and did rather a lot of breeding.  Some people refer to her as Katheryn Tudor of Berain.   That's certainly not a sufficient basis for anybody to be referred to as Mother Wales.

In contrast, Mistress Martha Morgan of Plas Ingli has a MUCH better claim to be an iconic Mam Cymru.  For many readers, Martha represents "Mother Wales" since she encompasses in her character most of the virtues -- and the vices -- of the people of Wales.  For others she is a very modern heroine,  refusing to submit or conform, and determined to fashion her own destiny at a time when women (even among the gentry) had very few rights.  For most of her life she is a widow who runs her own estate -- something that is virtually unheard of in Regency and early Victorian Britain.  And it is not easy for her, here in the "Wild West", given that corruption is rife and that resentment and social discontent lead to protest and violence in every one of the eight stories of the Saga.