The problem with television documentaries these days is that they are so good. Often afforded budgets more associated with lavish costume dramas or glossy multi-angle sports coverage, non-fiction television has experienced something of an upsurge in recent years with series like Planet Earth drawing deservedly huge viewing figures. Often these series are characterised by the big-name, big-character personalities who front them; witness Andrew Marr’s History of the World, Francesco’s Venice and Andrew Graham–Dixon’s The Art of Spain, which wasn’t actually as personally titular as the others, but might as well have been.
In Wales in recent times, we were treated to the visual feast that was The Story of Wales, which might easily have been called Huw Edwards’ Story of Wales. In comparison, BBC Wales’ Welsh Towns series is as humbly, and somewhat comfortingly, low key as its title suggests. Having covered many of Wales’ sizeable settlements that aren’t Swansea or Cardiff – Wrexham, Merthyr Tydfil and Barry have all had Eddie Butler giving a synopsised guided tour – the programme dispensed with the rule inherent in its title by making room for Wales’ third largest settlement, a city since 2002. ‘Besides,’ as Butler says in briefly explaining the choice, ‘I was born here.’
Butler is a solid host. He lacks the exaggerated enthusiasm so often the hallmark of this type of presenting but perhaps this is something the subject calls for. Newport lacks the braggadocio of its near-neighbour, the city that not so long ago used to regularly proclaim itself Europe’s Youngest Capital, instead settling for a quiet knowledge of its own history and character. Caught between town and city status and, often, between Wales and England, Newport has nevertheless managed to cultivate a character all of its own. Even this cursory survey of icons is demonstrative of the fact it deserves to be thought of as more than a town: the docks and transporter bridge, the Chartist Uprising, immigration from Ireland (19th century) and the Caribbean (20th century), the importance of first coal and then steel, and Newport RFC beating the All Blacks all get the Butler once-over.
What is encouraging about the item on Chartism is the fact that the losers ended up winning. The town’s mayor, Thomas Phillips, who was at the time knighted and feted by the establishment is now a largely forgotten figure; his nemesis, John Frost, despite his initial death sentence and subsequent transportation to Australia, now has a square named in his honour and is celebrated as a great pioneer of British democracy. Returning to Newport after an unconditional pardon, he was given a hero’s welcome. When we are shown, later, then Prime Minister John Major and a very youthful William Hague announcing the opening of the doomed LG factory that was supposed to alleviate the joblessness caused by the decline of the steel industry in the town, we are left to wonder if Thatcherism’s obvious legacy in Newport will be long lasting, or whether once again perhaps its people can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Not that the programme pauses for such musings. This is history with a light touch, an introductory guide, and it is all the better for it. There is no overbearing personality, no desire to shape a particular narrative. It is intended as a potted history and it does what it says on the tin. Even to viewers familiar with the basics, there are some interesting revelations. When Butler stood outside the present bus station to recount the particularly violent and seedy history of the slum that once stood at that side of the river, I was surprised to learn that this had once been a thriving community, if a little less shocked – as a former regular user of the Newport Bus Service – to discover that the unsavoury reputation extended further back in time than I had imagined.
What came through loudest and clearest in Butler’s documentary, though not in an in-your-face way, was Newport’s consistent tradition of radicalism, from before John Frost to after Joe Strummer. What Newport people have always been good at – often after being hit with blow after economic blow – is change. ‘It’s easy to concentrate on the negatives,’ concluded Butler – in an aside that for this type of light documentary was a significant concession to the city’s current, somewhat depressing reality – ‘but if there’s something that Newport’s history shows, the capacity to change is it.’
Illustration by Dean Lewis