The last major television history of Wales was The Dragon Has Two Tongues, co-presented by Wynford Vaughan Thomas and Gwyn Alf Williams, in 1985; Wales, and its story, has moved on since then. The latest retelling of Welsh history, presented with both personality and authority by Huw Edwards, was directed and produced by John Geraint for the BBC. The six-part series serves as a reminder that as well as the obvious adage about being written by winners, history is always skewed by its vantage point.
This is an ambitious project fuelled by the brio of devolution. Time and again we are told of how we now have ‘our own national institutions’ and the collective pronoun is often invoked in a manner reminiscent of the way Welsh history refers to last native prince himself. Llywelyn ein llyw olaf (our last leader), is the subject – as one might expect – of one of the series’ iconic moments, the sun setting as Edwards’ dulcet Carmarthenshire tones evoke his untimely demise at Cilmeri near Builth Wells in 1282. This is a story of Wales not the story of Wales, but the titular phrase is repeated so often in every episode that we begin to feel needled by the narrative thread.
The problem, of course, is compression. Just how do you squeeze millennia of complex history – ‘from the ice age to the information age’ –
And it is always men. Llywelyn the Last features alongside Dewi Sant, Hywel Dda, Owain Glyndwr and Henry VII, prompting the obvious criticism that the story of Wales’ women is pushed to the margins. To be fair, however, the stories of these iconic figures of Welsh history are balanced with healthy doses of social history and there is plenty in the voiceover narrative that lends credence to the view that this is ‘our story’ in which ‘each of us has a part’. The other mitigating factor, as well as the fact that six hours makes the series – despite its big-
Even the A-
This is Wales shown in its best light. Edwards enthuses throughout. There is an overriding desire to present Wales in the way we would like to see ourselves today: outward-
But the major feature of The Story of Wales – perhaps fittingly – is the landscape. On the debate show that followed the series Betsan Powys went as far as to call it ‘landscape porn’; certainly much of the programme makers’ lavish budget must have been blown on helicopter rides, another clear sign that this was a documentary for the twentyfirst century. Following in the slipstream of Coast et al, the aerial view is the contemporary television director’s trope of the moment, being as it is a shortcut to grandeur and the impression of a broad sweep.
And a broad sweep history this is, especially in some of the generalisations that are made. ‘Wales,’ we are told, ‘has always been home to people who take a chance at the cutting edge of change.’ With its six-
However, there is time for new evidence. This may be the glossiest treatment ever given to the subject of Welsh history, but despite the protestations of some eminent historians – Peter Stead was particularly critical at the panel debate, although John Geraint repeatedly accused him of being ‘mischievous’ – there was some academic rigour underpinning the narrative. The programmes were made in collaboration with the Open University and a total of thirty academics appear on screen. There are interesting digressions on the possible long distance maritime trade routes on the Atlantic seaboards of Western Europe and fantastic footage from a computer-
Even then there is the sense that the new finds are being twisted to better suit the narrative. Edwards often cannot wait to talk his interviewees into jumping from possibles to actuals, from theories to facts that support his thesis of a Welsh equivalent of Our Island Story. But the problem with history, of course, is precisely the fact that it isn’t a story; it’s a mess. Or as the character Rudge famously puts it in Alan Bennett’s brilliant play The History Boys, ‘it’s just one f-
Wales is no exception to this maxim. There are themes: the relatively large role of a relatively small country in the development of Christianity in these islands and a similarly disproportionate part played in driving the industrial revolution by virtue of our mineral wealth. There are motifs: trade and transport; people and protest; community and choral singing. And there are symbols –
Ultimately, the fact that these questions are being asked and the debate is being had is a measure of the show’s success, as is the remarkable set of statistics that prove the programme to have drawn an average audience in excess of 300,000 viewers, making it the country’s second most popular series of the year so far, after the well-
That alone is a reason why the series demands our attention and deserves to be debated in every home and classroom in the land. For despite its many shortcomings and the misnomer of its definite article, The Story of Wales succeeds in setting Wales in a context of its own. For proof, one need only consider the fact that while a tenth of our small nation was watching our number one newscaster delivering a long overdue treatment of a neglected history, often drowned out in our own schools by preoccupation with monarchical succession nextdoor, viewers in England were watching a man called Paxman on a programme called Empire.