TV | The Secret Life of Books: The Mabinogion

Gary Raymond reviews an episode of BBC Four‘s The Secret Life of Books, which focuses on The Mabinogion and questions its unusual choice of presenter.

The Mabinogion
Credit: BBC

Scotland voted No, it didn’t want out. Better together. Scotland was promised more respect in return for its loyalty, in the form of promises both abstract and concrete, but it all amounts to more respect from the lordly lords. In Wales we are told there is little appetite for independence, as if appetites about these things are not prescribed by, and then commented on, by the same people. So it is reasonable to deduce from our lack of appetite that we look out from our terraced houses and rolling hills and see in the institutions of the United Kingdom an adequate amount of respect being paid our nation by those same lordly lords. So let me ask this: When every other subject on BBC Four is presented by an expert in the given field, why is Wales’ immense literary heritage handed over to former popstar Cerys Matthews?

Okay, so perhaps it isn’t fair to compare the BBC’s attitude to Scotland to its attitude to Wales. We are very different nations, with different cultures, and, dare I say it, appetites. BBC Wales, for instance, although hardly heavyweight in this area, has produced arts programmes fronted by the like of Owen Sheers, and the programmes, although not quite of the calibre of Colin MacDougall’s series for BBC Scotland, have been fine programmes. So, why does BBC Four look over the marches and reach immediately for its Welsh rollerdeck, a contacts list that recently seems to only have one name in it, and see not a country populated with people eminently qualified to comment upon one of world culture’s most enchanting and enduring myth cycles, but a land that only has a former pop singer with a decent public profile? Would the BBC dare be so slapdash in looking at other literary heritages? Where is BBC Four’s half hour on Beowulf presented by Peter Hook? Or the works of Sir Walter Scott from the keyboard player of Belle and Sebastian? Fergal Sharkey on Ulysses, anyone?

In the context of the series as a whole, this is an almighty slight to the gravitas of the subject, which in turn belittles Wales’ literary heritage in its entirety. All the other programmes in the series are presented by figures whose credentials on the subject therein are starkly clear, even interesting and creative. Let me spell this out, just to avoid confusion:

The Secret Life of Books has been split into a series of episodes, each looking at a different title from an interesting perspective. Great Expectations, the product of the most popular writer of his era, was explored by veteran television writer Tony Jordan. Jordan knows a thing or two about keeping the public hooked en mass, as was Dickens, whose work, of course, was published in weekly instalments – just like Eastenders, for which Jordan has penned some of the most famous storylines. See what they did there? Interesting. Perhaps even worth a half hour of your time on a wet Tuesday night.

Likewise, the other instalments in the series are from equally interesting and authoritative viewpoints. Shakespeare’s First Folio was explored by arguably the finest Shakespearean actor of our age, Simon Russell-Beale. Mrs Dalloway was opened up to us by Doctor of English Literature and Virginia Woolf biographer, Alexandra Harris. Frankenstein, a book steeped in philosophical notions of humanity’s connection to scientific discovery and potential, is covered by anatomist and anthropologist Professor Alice Roberts. Jane Eyre is explored by award-winning human rights journalist, feminist writer and broadcaster, Bidisha. And the Mabinogion? Presented by the former lead singer of Catatonia and current radio DJ.

Do you see the sticking in the craw?

And yes, yes, yes – before it all kicks off; I do understand the connection, no matter how forced, between Matthews’ championing of traditional music of late (mostly American), and the folkist tradition in which people may lazily lump the tales of the Mabinogion. I understand it and I totally reject it. If you really want to make that crude and facile connection, give the programme to a folk expert like Rob Young, or a professor of folklore, or to an archivist.

It’s ALL really old stuff, isn’t it? Folk is folk. Old is old. Is this really how the conversation went in the early production meetings, when potential presenters were being discussed? Bad enough if it was. But was it rather: expert, expert, expert, expert, expert, recognisable Welsh person!?

Well, I’d never heard of Dr Alexander Harris before, and her half hour on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway was an excellent, sprinkled but affectionate insight into the work. Why could Wales’ great work not be treated with similar thoughtfulness and sensitivity at the planning stage?

Could an expert on the Mabinogion have not have been found in the halls of Wales’ esteemed centres of academic excellence? How about Professor Sioned Davies from Cardiff University, who translated the bloody thing into English? Senior Fellow of Welsh and Celtic Studies at Aberystwyth Dr Mary-Ann Constantine? (Both of whom actually appear in the programme in the only moments of real interest. Constantine in particular seems a glaring missed opportunity in this age of brilliant intellectual female television documentary presenters; when she appears, at 25-minutes in, all you can wonder at is what a marvellous and worthy programme this might have been had she been given the whole thirty to herself.) Perhaps one of Seren’s interpreters of the stories would have been an apposite choice, from their wonderful series of re-imagined tales. I would have thought Cynan Jones, perhaps Wales’ finest writer at the moment, would have done an excellent job. His contribution to the Seren series, Bird, Blood, Snow, certainly suggests he knows the source material, and has a vital interpretation of its roots and its relevance.

But, no. It seems the literature of England is to be given authoritative treatment; whereas the literature of Wales is to be given to some Welsh person we’ve seen off of the TV.

And even a casual reader may have noticed I have barely even touched on the programme itself yet.

Well, if this was an episode in a series where celebrities talked about their passion for books from their home locale – if a newsreader born and raised in Cornwall wanted to sing passionately of the wonders of Jamaica Inn, for instance; or if a soap actor from Dorchester had a life-long love for Far From the Madding Crowd, I would have given it a response based upon what that programme was set up to be. (And that series sounds like half-decent TV.) Likewise, if it had been a GCSE educational companion, which is mostly the level and look that it struck, I would have reviewed it in the context it was delivered. This is not about looking down upon things. It is about treating things on equal terms, giving the programmes and the programme makers the respect they deserve. But when the other five programmes in The Secret Life of Books have been allocated presenters of real weight, and with an angle to their subject that should prove genuinely original and interesting, frankly, I don’t care what Cerys Matthews has to say on the Mabinogion. I am only interested in what it says about the BBC’s lack of respect for Wales.