Bethan Harries asks why the BBC chose to show The Story of Wales with Huw Edwards now; and shouldn’t it be consigned to the history bin of male-centric, exclusionist, whitewashing documentaries?
There was never going to be a good moment for the BBC to show a rerun of the series A Story of Wales, but in a period of growing volatility and visceral racism this overly narrow, a revisionist take of history appears more grotesquely out of place than ever.
The series, which is dubbed as the BBC’s take on Wales’ history and fits with the network’s almost compulsive fascination with identity and patrimony, adds to the growing catalogue of mainstream cultural outputs from across the UK that glorify a sense of purity, heritage and wholesomeness which implicitly, and at times explicitly, attempt to signify who belongs and who does not (jus soli!). In this particular series we are subjected to a series of images of white men conquering lands and then singing, working, going to church and playing sport. Anyone who watches an episode will be able to count the number of women on one finger and there is no mention of Black Wales at all. An entire history denied. This is not a documentary but a series of PR clips.
In the latest episode (4 December, BBC Four), Huw Edwards presents the story of coal and slate from the middle of the 19thCentury, a period, he tells us, when a sense of Welshness becomes more clearly defined. The problems come at the outset and do not stop as Edwards talks us through the birth of the coal and slate industries, keenly expressed as evidence of Wales’ entrepreneurial majesty. A trip to Bethesda and the Penrhyn slate quarry at the beginning of the episode is, for example, given by way of introduction to the wealthy elites who ‘built Wales’. Here we might expect a critical reflection of what that means for the average person, and yet male workers are presented as gleefully taking up this hard labour under poor working conditions and low wages. It is not until much later in the episode that these issues are considered and only then through the lens of the labour movements that formed in south Wales. The Pennant family who own the quarry are ultimately portrayed as benevolent local heroes. And here is one of the most troubling aspects of the programme. Edwards’ visit to Penrhyn castle, the Pennant family home, sees him glorifying its gaudy opulence. The fact that the fortune came not solely from slate but from the slave plantations in Jamaica owned by the Pennant family is silenced. Also notably absent from the narrative is the fact that the 1stBaron Penrhyn, Richard Pennant MP, was an avid anti-abolitionist and a member of pro-slavery networks. Yet incredibly, amid this silence, Edwards asks us to instead “be fair” to Baron Penrhyn because his wealth changes the landscape of north Wales and gives local Victorian seaside resort towns a ‘makeover’.
Edwards then travels back down to Cardiff to the docks where coal from the south Wales valleys was being shipped out across the world. This booming industry resulted in substantial increases in migration to Wales, yet the programme cannot bring itself to discuss this in any meaningful way. We are told that the majority of migrants to Wales came from England, yet the docks and related industries were sites of immigration from all over the world. In the period under discussion Cardiff became home to many seamen from Yemen, Somalia, the Caribbean and elsewhere, many of whom were joining families that had already long been settled in Wales. By failing to acknowledge the presence of Black Welsh people the programme denies their very being and proffers an exclusively white Welsh identity. This is amplified later when Edwards bizarrely tells us we ‘mustn’t be blinded by nostalgia’ which ironically only draws attention to the programme’s blindness to its own production of nostalgia through a whitewashed romanticised depiction of Wales.
The series also suffers from the same issue that many contemporary documentaries on Wales does in that it adopts an approach that seems desperate to cover the scale of Wales rather than go into depth on any one thing. Consequently, Huw Edwards jumps around from Cardiff, Llandinam, the Rhondda, Bethesda, Bangor, Llandudno and Aberystwyth all in a matter of minutes. The tendency to cover ‘all’ of Wales is redolent of a wider problem. Post-devolution the notion of inclusion has been misinterpreted by many to mean that we need to have pan-Wales strategies and pan-Wales thinking. Whilst this is perhaps often meant with good intention, this means that public institutions (including the BBC) try hard to be seen to be speaking to and for everyone, but only when ‘everyone’ is narrowly translated as people from different parts of Wales. This approach thus risks missing the point that a complex web of inequalities impact upon north, south, mid and west Wales differently and affects certain parts of the population more acutely than others. These are far more important modes of exclusion than imagined regional boundaries that warrant our attention. This is relevant here because unfortunately a related consequence of this unifying project has been the turn away from a critical gaze of what is happening in, sometimes framed as to, Wales towards a romantic now inward facing project.
The role of mainstream media can be criticised for losing the critical edge documentaries and analysis of old. The earlier focus on injustice and inequality has been replaced by celebratory shows of ‘Welsh’ heritage: rural wales, coasts of Wales, castles of Wales and, of course, sport. In Wales (as elsewhere) we need to examine who is included in the narration of nation and who can make claims to be Welsh that are recognised in a meaningful way. There are plenty of artists, activists and academics who are attempting to do just that. However, we are long overdue a good quality reflection on Welsh history within the mainstream.
Dr Bethan Harries is a Sociologist at the University of Manchester. She is the author of the book, ‘Talking race in young adulthood’ (Routledge, 2017). Her current research examines the relationship between race and nation in Wales and Scotland.