Gary Raymond reviews a heartwarming documentary about two men struggling to keep the local Abertillery newspaper alive in The Dynamic Duo.
A common saying at The Washington Post, from long before it toppled Richard Milhous Nixon, was that news was the first rough draft of history. It’s a modest nod to the ephemeral nature of news, every item delivered, as it is, in the knowledge, it will soon be overrun by more news, and that at best it will be largely ignored by historians as the “official account” is made concrete down the line. But it is also an immodest claim that the first report will dominate everything that comes after it, will shape the narrative, cast the heroes and villains of the piece. What the news reporters say will be inescapable as the truth. The maxim speaks of journalism’s claims to gravitas as those who work in the Fourth Estate simultaneously throw up their hands and plead innocence when things go wrong. The Dynamic Duo, in microcosm, is a film about both the importance and the irrelevance of news, all wrapped up in a charming tragi-comic Beckettian hour. Tony Flatman and Julian Meek are our Vladimir and Estragon, waiting for something. But nobody knows quite what.
Tony and Julian resurrected the local free newspaper of Abertillery, The Dynamic, earlier this year, after running it for several years until it “folded” in 2017. Sebastian Bruno and David Barnes’s warm, often joyous, film follows them as they fight and write and drink and laugh their way to the first new edition, bringing in to their orbit along the way a delightful array of curious characters. The Dynamic Duo is part Last of the Summer Wine, part Drop the Dead Donkey, and part Anvil! The Story of Anvil, but is never less than a heartfelt championing of two passionate men who love their town and deeply believe in the importance of community.
The argument is (and who’s to say it’s incorrect) that community can be united through a real newspaper, and although Tony and Julian pitch their creation as somewhere between The Guardian and Private Eye it does have much of the charm and eccentricity common for a century or two in the world of local presses until the internet came and stomped all over economic viability. They seek to deliver real news reporting, written with a certain old fashioned Fleet Street joie de vivre, alongside reader favourites such as the Pub Review and Sheep of the Week. There are many laugh-out-loud moments and some downright weird ones, but never do Bruno and Barnes allow us to think we are laughing at Tony and Julian. We are one hundred per cent on their side.
There are moments that feel slightly contrived, perhaps even staged, such as the visit to the office of Bryn who engages in a Brexit debate with Julie, the young journalist who inveigles her way into the office for a bit of work experience (as far as I can tell). There is also a deus ex machina in the form of a local farmer’s chequebook in the final quarter that seems a bit too good to be true. But any contrivance does nothing to undermine the texture of The Dynamic Duo. It has a light touch (although sometimes in very poorly lit scenes), but is also somehow jam-packed with delightful moments of humour, of truth, and of poignancy.
On one level, The Dynamic Duo is a brief character study of two friends continuing their lives as best they can in Abertillery, a town on its knees. They have genuine affection for one another and talk elegantly about each other’s strengths, weaknesses and struggles. But on another level, this is a film about a town in the south Wales valleys truly, utterly left behind. It’s getting by; its inhabitants find a way until they don’t. One of the many memorable sequences has the boys cover a spate of suicides by young men in the area. Mental health, the homophobia of the church, Brexit – just a few of the issues touched upon with real sensitivity.
Abertillery is shown as a place very far removed from the tired opposing vox pops of mainstream news and is a million miles from the sort of place into which the London press would airlift a reporter to ask some lunchtime drinkers about their views on immigrants. A Dominic Cummings focus group would shrivel up its own arse. And yet this is exactly the sort of town urbanite liberals are led to believe has only two dimensions. Bruno and Barnes cleverly drop the distant ghostly voices of Westminster politicians at intervals over the action, and rarely have such people sounded so out of touch, so self-serving, so absurd. If the future of communities like that in the Blaenau Valley is to mean anything in the next few decades, it will be because of the quiet determination, idiosyncrasies and foibles of people like Tony Flatman and Julian Meek. Politicians, such as AM Alun Davies, who appears in The Dynamic Duo tightly armed with a dizzying arsenal of platitudes and clichés about Brexit, are proving they have less and less to offer.
As for BBC Wales, they have stumbled upon a great story here, and one ripe for expanding. Many bit-players suggest tantalising stories off-screen, and so much more could have been made out of, for instance, Julian’s priesthood (that’s right, he’s an ordained priest who gives communion in his front room to LGBTQ people isolated by bigotry from their local churches); or young Julie’s background; or Tony’s story that took him from Cornwall to the Valleys; or the reason why photographer Roy is so bloody highly strung. BBC Wales has a responsibility to commission programmes that tell the story of Wales. Nothing they have commissioned in recent years comes as close to doing this as The Dynamic Duo, a warm, respectful, funny, poignant, and sensitive portrait of two men who love their town.
The Dynamic Duo, a drama that depicts the struggle of the Abertillery Dynamic Newspaper is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer.
Gary Raymond is an editor and regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.