Real Valleys

Theatre | Better Than That? The Real Valleys

‘Call me that again, and I’ll hoof you in the fucking Mavis!’ is in some respects a great line of dialogue; in many more ways, it is not. Cardiff fringe theatre company Dirty Protest’s evening celebrating ‘The Real Valleys’ begins with an argument between a boyfriend (Michael Humphreys) and girlfriend (Gwawr Loader). F-words are exchanged liberally, enthusiastically, vindictively. It isn’t long before the girlfriend drops ‘the C-bomb’.

The opening exchanges of Sam Bees’ short, the first of the evening’s six, elicit the hoped-for response from the audience. Just as you begin to think the horribly stereotyped characters and clichéd, unrealistic dialogue are only serving to undermine Dirty Protest’s stated mission to let ‘Valleys talent talk about what the valleys is really like’, that actually this is just as denigrating as the MTV show to which it has set itself up in opposition, a third character intervenes. Michelle Mcternan plays the Director. It becomes clear that this is a representation of a representation. This is Dirty Protest doing MTV doing the Valleys. And it is very far from ‘reality’.

‘Does that imply,’ says Michael Humphreys’ character incredulously, revisiting this article’s opening line, ‘that he might physically kick her in the vagina?’ What follows, as the ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’ – ‘real-life’ friends between whom there is some ‘real-life’ frisson – dissect the script, betrays a sharp understanding of the nature of so-called ‘scripted reality television’ of the type that has bequeathed us not only The Only Way is Essex (ITV), but also Made in Chelsea and Desperate Scousewives (both E4) and Geordie Shore (also MTV). Now, to much fanfare and controversy, the format has arrived in Wales.

‘The Valleys Are Coming’ announced the billboards; ‘The Valleys Are Here’ proclaimed the local resistance campaign. Who better to lead the resistance to outsiders attempting to script reality than a bunch of real scriptwriters who are actually from the places being depicted?

The title of Bees’ opening piece is ‘On Set’. As it goes on, it becomes clear that the characters’ discomfiture is not simply with the fact that there is ‘quite a lot of swearing’ and phrases that ‘real’ valleys people ‘wouldn’t say’, but also that the show’s Director reads the stage directions. There are meta-narratives at work here. You’ve heard of a play-within-a-play; this is a script-in-hand within a script-in-hand.

The distance between the MTV and Dirty Protest depictions of the valleys are further underscored by our surroundings. In contrast with The Valleys’ luxury apartment setting and half a million viewers, the Halfpenny Theatre – downstairs at the Bunkhouse, a hip retro backpackers’ hostel on Cardiff’s St Mary Street – is furnished with beat-up old Chesterfield sofas and tin baths upholstered with faux-Victorian cushions. ‘It’s not like a proper theatre, but we’re not a proper theatre company,’ says Tim Price in his introduction. The evening’s two sittings garner a sell-out audience of less than two hundred.

Dirty Protest is very much the David to MTV’s Goliath, and the company waste no time in occupying the moral high ground. At the end of the show, it is announced that 5% of the evening’s takings will be donated to Valleys Kids, the charity to whom MTV are being petitioned to make a similar gesture. It is also made clear that none of the writers, actors or directors of The Real Valleys will be paid for their efforts; all of Dirty Protest’s profits are ploughed back into producing more live theatre.

But however well meaning the campaign to get MTV to put something back into the communities their show has misrepresented may be, there is something ironic about the fact that both the setting for the show and the staging of ‘The Real Valleys’ happen in Cardiff. There is, therefore, perhaps some truth in the MTV show’s premise that to ‘make it’ one has to leave the valleys and travel at least as far as the capital, whether ‘making it’ for you means as a glamour model (like some of young women in the show) or (for the Dirty Protest collective) as a playwright.

In Carmen Medway-Stephens’ ‘Tyn Ton Farm’, which uses the metaphor of an upper middle-class English couple attempting to purchase a remote valleys’ farmhouse to demonstrate the exploitation at work, ‘The Real Valleys’ leans too heavily on the area’s familiar narratives. There is no doubting that the MTV show is deeply emotionally manipulative, but in reaching for the word ‘exploitation’ critics of the show are tapping into a language which has long, mostly rightfully, held resonance in south Wales. Stephens’ script is finely-crafted comedy and she is right to draw attention to the patronising attitudes that doubtlessly still exist in relation to the Valleys, not just in England but also in other areas of Wales, not least in Cardiff. ‘These Valleys need us,’ says Michelle Mcternan’s character Annabel, ‘Cameron says. We can save it!’ But there is a cheap populism at work here too. It is easy to elicit a cheer for a valleys estate agent who refuses to give in to the demands of such pantomime villains.

In her portrayal of a pair of out-of-touch toffs, the type who imagine ‘tusks above the woodburner in the snug,’ Stephens has simply inverted the stereotyping at work in The Valleys. The audience are encouraged to laugh at Annabel and her ‘Chelsea tractor’ and the double-standards at work in her attitude to meat-eating (‘I’m not a murderer, Monty,’ she whinnies to her husband, ‘it’s not what I’m about’). ‘We don’t talk about the killing,’ Monty pompously informs the estate agent (Berwyn Pearce). It is as easy to laugh at these grotesques, with their plummy voices and Cameroon attitudes, as it is to be horrified by the antics of the MTV ‘stars’ peeing in the shower and ‘romping’ on the beach. But this response is simply class warfare, and unfortunately for the valleys, history teaches us who always wins at that.

As soon as the situation is compared to the plight of ‘the bloody miners’ there is a danger of undermining the whole argument about MTV through resort to cliché. Of course there is an exploitative element to the music channel’s promise to, rather laughably, ‘pluck [young people] from the tranquility of valley life [and give them] the opportunity to leave their hamlet towns and change their lives in the city of Cardiff.’  But it is not on the same scale as the capitalist system that managed to organise the extraction of the region’s mineral wealth at the expense of the social wellbeing of the people.

We can contest what might be an appropriate response to The Valleys, but the fact that there has been such an outcry – not only from Dirty Protest, but also the high profile petitioning of MTV and widespread condemnation the show has received, from David Miliband to Charlotte Church – is interesting in itself. The energy behind the many forms of resistance to the MTV representation of the south Wales valleys is born out of a desire to see at least some good come out of what is largely perceived to be a wholly negative portrayal of the area. Tim Price’s objection to the show is phrased as ‘yet another example of big business exploiting the people of this region. Market forces have robbed the valleys of all its resources and the only thing we have left is our pride. And MTV is trying to take that.’

Rachel Trezise, winner of the inaugural Dylan Thomas Prize for her short story collection Fresh Apples, set in the Rhondda valley, wrote an essay for the campaign website, in which she called MTV ‘utterly inept’. Trezise was outraged not only by the unrealistic portrayal of the place where she comes from but the glaring factual inaccuracies peddled by the show in advance of its broadcast. She called her essay ‘How Green is MTV?’ – a question perhaps about the station’s wilful naivety, but also one that recalls the title of Richard Llewelyn’s 1939 novel which inspired the famous John Ford film two years later, both of which have come under similar scrutiny for romanticising Valleys life.

Trezise’s work also features among the Dirty Protest shorts. Her first piece written specifically for theatre, ‘Boa Constrictor’, has all the hallmarks of Rachel’s fiction, an ear for how people really speak, neat turns of phrase and savagely dark humour. Featuring Michelle Mcternan as a small-time police informant called Mandy, it is based on stories overheard ‘up the club’; as Trezise turns these life-as-stranger-than-fiction tales into art, Mandy turns them into money.

Patrick Jones’ contribution, ‘The Big P’, is even more directly critical of the version of the valleys the MTV show chooses to represent. It rails against ‘plucked eyebrows, six-packs and fake tan’, but interestingly the pop culture references – to Simon Cowell and The Voice – and hyper-topical asides – ‘the VIP area of the BBC’ – fall a little flat among the Dirty Protest audience. Perhaps more than anything, this entire argument over the MTV show simply reveals a cultural gulf that is becoming impossible to bridge. Anecdotally, people will tell you that they know people who watch the show, or even know people who behave like the so-called ‘stars’, but for the most part those who have campaigned against The Valleys are not the show’s target audience. No wonder MTV seem unperturbed.

In the last piece of the Dirty Protest evening, ‘The Valleys Has Been’, Alan Saunders imagines a life for the ‘stars’ after the cameras have left. In a theatrical response that has been beautifully sequenced, the night’s final monologue is a heartfelt cry for the area. Learning that he has unwittingly impregnated his friend’s ex-girlfriend, with whom he was only having ‘a bit of fun, not that shit’, Dale – Berwyn Pearce’s character – is struck by the realisation that this kind of messy, unplanned life is what ‘happens every week in this town… and the next town, and the town after that’. He considers that he himself was probably conceived in similar circumstances, his parents ‘probably stood like this one night, outside Ton Pentre footy club’. Finally, he admits that ‘I looked a bit of a twat on TV’.

In a theatrical response that has been beautifully sequenced, the night’s final monologue is a heartfelt cry for the area.

‘You’re better than that,’ says his mate, in a rare show of male friendship that breaks through the ‘banter’ that would usually dominate such an exchange. And Dale reports that he cried, because that was the first time he’d been told. The phrase that is used is an echo of the hashtag used on Twitter to show solidarity with the anti-MTV campaign. It is not just Dale who is ‘better than that’ but has never been told; it is the whole of the valleys region, or, at least, the generation or two that have grown up since the collapse of heavy industries.

Protest is a part of the solution, but it is not the whole story. Dirty Protest have completed one part of a mission, celebrating real valleys talent, but now that there is some sense of galvanisation around a pan-Valleys identity, there must be real change. Kelsey Richards’ contribution to the evening, ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ is as much about this business of sticking together as anything else. Set in Afghanistan, two Welsh soldiers argue – ‘People like you give the Valleys a bad name’ – before discovering that there is something inherently important about having the same ‘birth town’.

No one seriously believes in the ‘reality’ of the MTV show and no one really doubts that The Valleys will just come and go. It is precisely the way the American music channel will move in, make a quick buck, and move out that gets ‘The Real Valleys’, in the words of the show ‘tampin’ fumin’ ragin’.’ It is what happens afterwards that should concern us, not necessarily to the cast of wannabes, but to the whole of the region. Of course we know the valleys are better than the sad ‘chaos’ shown on screen, but there are plenty of ‘valleys kids’ who do not expect much from their upbringing, who have a downer on themselves and their own hometowns, often for good reasons.

Art imitates life and life imitates art. There is absolutely no doubt that TOWIE and the rest have at best a semi-detached relationship with reality; what is pernicious about these popular entertainments is the way they can, through the simple exploitation of the basest human instincts, have a subtle influence on the culture at large. It would be easy to dismiss The Valleys and the rest as a passing fad, but there is now going to be a significant slice of a generation of young people who, without positive intervention, are going to have heard of Chidgey and Natalee and Lateysha but never of Aneurin Bevan or Idris Davies or even Nicky Wire. It is easy to look at the programme and its possible negative influence through the eyes of an informed, educated person who does not watch reality television or even the popular talent shows; it is more difficult to see it through the eyes of one who has grown up immersed in such a substitute for culture.

there is now going to be a significant slice of a generation of young people who… are going to have heard of Chidgey and Natalee and Lateysha but never of Aneurin Bevan or Idris Davies or even Nicky Wire

What is perhaps a more interesting question for those of us interested not only in analysing culture but playing an active role in changing society is not that the valleys are being patronised and stereotyped. In that regard, it was ever thus. More concerning is the shift that has happened within those stereotypes. It is not as if Dirty Protest are campaigning for a wholly positive portrayal of a region that is home to some of the most severe social and economic deprivation in the United Kingdom. Patrick Jones’ play Everything Must Go and Rachel Trezise’s In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl are among the most bleak, devastating depictions of life in south Wales since devolution. It is not even the employment of stereotypes to which we should object. The male voice choirs Only Men Aloud! and Only Boys Aloud! perpetuate stereotypes of the valleys, but they do so through promoting positive experiences; it may not be your cup of tea, but it does make good TV, in all senses of the word. Stereotypes of the valleys in the early to mid twentieth century might have revolved around socialism and nonconformist Christianity. Whatever your political or religious beliefs, I am sure you will agree that the twin tenets by which most of south Wales governed its behaviour throughout much of the last century were more than preferable to the amoral anomie of The Valleys.

MTV’s grotesque caricaturing of the region is in stark contrast to the shorthand portrayals of the region that might have existed even as late as 1994 when workers’ solidarity saved Tower Colliery near Hirwaun. Such an act, along with the raising of a red flag to commemorate the Merthyr Rising of 1831, was a reminder of the region’s rich heritage in community togetherness and radical politics. The Valleys was where Keir Hardie won the first parliamentary seat for Labour and where Aneurin Bevan dreamed up the NHS. It is also where poor mineworkers paid into communal funds that allowed education through libraries and ‘stutes’.

MTV’s Valleys, on the other hand, is symptomatic of the hyper-individualistic culture that has arisen in the years since Thatcher defeated the miners. In the final episode, when ‘Chidgey’ sees his image plastered all over a designer clothing store, he is understandably moved; in his world, he has ‘made it’. Reporting back to his housemates, the only words he can use to explain the uplifting experience he has had are ‘me, like, me and then me, and then me again, like’.

MTV’s Valleys… symptomatic of the hyper-individualistic culture that has arisen in the years since Thatcher defeated the miners.

And the market forces, privatised services and neglect of communities devastated by the collapse of Britain’s manufacturing base that has made the country more self-obsessed are the same forces that have led to the cultural homogenisation that is also evident in such shows. That The Valleys is simply Geordie Shore with a different accent is unsurprising, such is the fashion for fake that has swept whole sections of British youth culture, first infecting young females (fake tan, fake eyelashes, fake nails, fake hair, fake boobs) and latterly young men as well (gym-addiction, steroid injections and ‘back, crack and sack’ body waxing).

Alan Saunders’ play ‘The Valleys Has Been’ and Rachel Trezise’s contribution are both concerned to some extent with this obsession with body image: ‘Been down the gym, bulking up… good for pulling, like,’ says a character in Saunders’ short. Trezise’s contribution revolves entirely around the idea of ‘cheap meat’ and the backstabbing and betrayals involved in procuring money ‘for my tit-job… it’s important.’

What is important is that the reflex reaction to MTV’s insulting programme does not stop at simply asking for a share of their profits to be donated to charity; any such gesture on the part of MTV would be completely hollow in any case. If the Valleys really are better – which they most emphatically are – they must go on not only to proclaim it but also to prove it. If there is one thing at which the region excels, historically it has been protest. One hopes this Dirty one is only a beginning.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis