The Story of Wales

The Story of Wales BBC Wales review
The Story of Wales
BBC Wales
Dir: John Geraint
Presented by Huw Edwards

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’ – into the slot between Panorama and the news? The shorthand version of history is through the use of icons and it seems we are particularly susceptible to icons in Wales; in the wake of this series – and as part of the British 2012 celebrations – there is a vote to decide on a twelfth ‘icon’ to join the eleven statues in Cardiff’s City Hall. The existing ‘first eleven’ unsurprisingly form much of the backbone of the series, in a disappointing failure to dispel the type of history that sees a national story as a roll call of Great Men.

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-budget major-league feel – necessarily a brief history is its intended audience.

Even the A-list of figures above are little known to the majority of the Welsh public, certainly in any depth; when one compares them to their counterparts in British (i.e. English) history, there is no comparison. Judged on the criterion of the BBC’s educative imperative alone, the series is certainly a winner with the Welsh public. Every episode had surprises and delights, even if set against a superimposed, over-simplistic narrative. Complete geographical coverage was also always going to be an impossibility, but personally I was thrilled by the treatment given to a complete CGI reconstruction of the Iron Age crannog on Llyn Safaddan at Llangorse; to see my own filltir sgwar built up in cinematic technicolour and pronounced as a royal court with possible trade and political connections as far afield as Ireland filled me with an acute sense of local pride. My experience will have been repeated in ever far-flung corner of Wales to which The Story’s cameras travelled.

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-looking, tolerant and enlightened episodes in the past are held up as shining examples of our national character while darker chapters – for example, Swansea’s links with the slave trade – are mentioned in passing but not dwelled upon.

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-hour canvas, The Story of Wales paints a big, bold picture. There is little time for shading.

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-generated Roman Caerleon based on new archaeological finds that suggest Isca was a port on the Usk long before the industrial revolution put the ‘new’ into Newport.

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-ing thing after another.’

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 – we are big on symbols in Wales – from the red dragon to the roof of the Senedd. But the story of Wales is not a novel; there is no finely honed narrative thread. Of course, it is easy to pick holes. Given the programme’s remit, there are bound to have been important areas neglected; certain groups are sure to feel left out. History itself is contentious, important too; this stuff matters. Was there enough on the role of Welsh women? Too much emphasis on industrial Wales at the expense of rural areas? Was the series weighted inexorably toward the modern, rushing as it did from the Red Lady of Paviland to the construction of Offa’s Dyke in the first instalment? Was there too much or too little emphasis on The Language?

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-established Frozen Planet (‘Beaten by a polar bear,’ joked Betsan Powys). Huw Edwards’ often hyperbolic voiceover could be dismissed as bluster from the sidelines – despite that he was perhaps the only candidate with the necessary gravitas to present this series. But there is no arguing with the appetite shown by the people of Wales for their own history. And in this, the show’s audience may just have upheld the programme makers’ theory: this is indeed a unique moment in the story of the nation; it is perhaps true that we have never held our own destiny in our hands with quite such surety as we do today.

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.