Wales at the Somme: Gareth Thomas and the Battle at Mametz Wood

TV | Gareth Thomas at Mametz Wood

Gary Raymond looks at BBC Wales’ Wales at the Somme: Gareth Thomas and the Battle at Mametz Wood, and questions the show’s disconcerting clash between subject and tone. 

BBC One Wales & iPlayer

Nobody is in any doubt Gareth Thomas is a good guy. His achievements in rugby are important, and not as important as his activism since being the first topflight sportsman in the world to come out as gay. He is a Welsh icon. A man who has endured and triumphed, and for that he has the respect and admiration of people way beyond just his home nation.

And having any kind of face-recognition also is nowadays enough to be given a BBC Wales documentary to front, complete with lazy emotive soundtrack that lies somewhere between a cheap-shoes Philip Glass and ‘Great British Bake Off’. There has been no definitive television documentary made of the Battle of Mametz Wood, one of the most ferocious encounters of the Somme, and it looks as though if we hope to see one any time soon we will have to put our faith away from the commissioning department at BBC Wales. This, a kind of Welsh ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ meets Alan Partridge doing ‘Time Team’, is a beige mishmash of tones, styles and ambitions. What exactly was it trying to do? What exactly did it hope to achieve? It told a little of the history, a little of the archaeology, a little of Gareth Thomas’ emotional attention span, and a whole lot about how BBC Wales regards the responsibility it has to the people of Wales.

If there is a moment in Welsh history that deserves the respect of a sombre, elemental narrative, it is the happenings of those five days in Mametz Wood. For all of the shortcomings of National Theatre Wales’ Mametz a couple of years ago, it was certainly a production mounted by people who understood the gravitas of the occasion they were evoking. Sadly it was apparent long before Thomas made a megaphone with his hands and called out to the ghost of Field Marshall Haig ‘COME AND HAVE A GO IF YOU THINK YOU’RE HARD ENOUGH’ that ‘Wales at the Somme: Gareth Thomas and the Battle of Mametz Wood’ would not be such a thing. The two historians standing with Thomas as he does this are not quite sure where to look. Thomas is angry at the news that Haig’s reaction to the slow progress of the 38th Welsh Division during the battle was to say that there was a ‘lack of determination’ in the ranks. So Thomas, then, is us; the ignorant television audience of Wales, shocked to discover the attitudes of the officer class of the time, and he is reacting just as we must. Otherwise why include such compellingly awful footage? Thomas will display how we should feel. Team Wales, after all, is its celebrities.

Later Thomas is given a trowel, and he uncovers an artefact belonging to a German uniform, and he cheers, grinning, his fists pumping the air at his find, seemingly forgetting just the day before how moved and humbled he had been at holding part of a boot, a boot that ‘brought home’ the ‘humanity of it’. This is not to criticise Thomas, but, by god, why not just film a school trip to the Mametz memorial and put that on TV?

One suspects BBC Wales would not allow such bizarrely disrespectful behaviour to be shown in a documentary about the 1953 defeat of the All Blacks.

The sad thing is that in this documentary was probably three very watchable programmes. Gareth Thomas tracking the journeys of his two great uncles who fought in Mametz Wood; the archaeological dig that unearths the German trenches; and the story of the battle, as narrated here with incongruous dignity by Richard Harrington. But as usual BBC Wales delivers a mess, a mess that it largely knows is a mess, but which it thinks can be covered over with emotive music and climaxing with Thomas being awarded a trinket that makes him cry. Gareth Thomas is a national icon, and he does not deserve to be taken advantage of by such low-grade laziness and executive box-ticking.

Since the EU Referendum, there have been articles published left, right and centre, from here to the New York Times, each searching for some answers as to why Wales voted so resoundingly and bafflingly against its own interests. There has been a conspicuous lack of attention paid to the long-term role of our national media in this race to the bottom. Between the Welsh counterparts of the BBC and ITV on the same evening there were three documentary programmes focusing on the Battle for Mametz Wood broadcast within a two hour period; one presented by a former rugby star, one by a rugby pundit and commentator, and one by a weatherman. Maybe – just maybe – if the Welsh media had a little more respect for their Welsh audiences, and perhaps over the years created documentaries that didn’t treat them like idiots, it may have made a small difference to the way some people in Wales understand their relationship to the wider world.