Ask a viewer about Welsh programmes on BBC channels of late and chances are they will mention Doctor Who. And quite rightly so – it is only with Welsh intervention in the form of Swansea born showrunner Russell T Davies and a Cardiff-based crew that the “Who-niverse” was brought back to life.
Since 2005, and in light of Doctor Who’s success, more and more shows have been produced in Wales by the BBC. Long-running hospital drama Casualty is now filmed in Wales, and fantasy shows such as Torchwood, Merlin and Atlantis have all been made there too.
It must be said that audience pride in seeing recognisable Welsh locations – even when they’re not being portrayed as Wales – cannot be overlooked when thinking about the nation on screen. Doctor Who spin-off, Torchwood, was set in Cardiff – albeit an alternate sci-fi reality – and continues to cement its place in Cardiff Bay. Torchwood tower and Ianto’s shrine are still visited by fans, tourists and locals to this day.
But apart from the occasional Welsh accent in Casualty or mention of Wales in a small number of Doctor Who episodes, by and large, these dramas are set “elsewhere”. They do not directly represent a Welsh way of life. Even if Wales’s beauty is seen as an asset by BBC producers, Welsh issues have not been deemed worthy to commission shows for national audiences.
Just a backdrop
For a long time, representations of Wales and the Welsh people in national BBC television dramas have been few and far between. Welsh audiences have only had a handful of options insofar as seeing their nation represented on the small screen. That is even in light of the BBC’s “beyond the M25” initiative – their way of solidifying a more sustainable production base across the nation, which the corporation felt would “bring production closer to the audiences they serve”.
Though the country has its own channel – the Welsh-language S4C – as well as the regional BBC Wales, Wales has mostly been used as a stand-in for other places during production for the national network. A BBC drama that is specifically Welsh in its setting, dialogue, theme, or mode of address is yet to be green-lit. If we do happen to see drama that is set in Wales, it often has to prove its worth in regional scheduling first.
From the early 2000s, viewers of BBC Wales were able to tune into dramas such as Belonging and Baker Boys. But regionally broadcast shows such as these have been in decline in more recent years in favour of networked programming. This approach by the BBC has left its drama departments across the UK competing for main network slots. Less drama production equals less spend – an ever more pressing factor in light of the BBC’s frozen licence fee.
Belonging represented a small Welsh community and its everyday trials and tribulations. Issues of race and sexuality were tackled and formed the main plot-lines – but the drama was not directly about Wales. It did not offer a representation of the nation that was inward looking in a rose-tinted kind of way. Instead, it focused on contemporary issues tackled from a Welsh mode of address. Belonging, like Baker Boys, was specifically made with a Welsh audience in mind and both were lighthearted and humorous in tone. But despite their popularity both dramas were withdrawn without substitution.
Perhaps the most promising of the BBC’s (and S4C’s) commitment to Wales and Welsh drama in recent years has come from Hinterland/Y Gwyll (2013-) and Keeping Faith/Un Bore Mercher (2017-). Both dramas are set in contemporary Wales, have been produced independently in collaboration with the BBC/S4C, and were broadcast in both English and Welsh.
Dramas such as these may not be fervently waving the Welsh flag, but their tackling of universal themes such as love and betrayal from a Welsh lens or through a Welsh mode of address is incredibly important. Rather than relying on comic stereotypes or bit parts, these programmes represent a modern Wales.
However, it hasn’t been an easy path to get to his point. Hinterland/Y Gwyll came about as part of BBC Wales’ drive to show more of Wales and the Welsh language on the mainstream BBC channels. Yet, the fact that a Welsh language version aired on S4C first, followed by bilingual versions on BBC One and BBC Four the following year, demonstrates the BBC’s reluctance to represent the regions and communities to the rest of the UK – as set out by its very own public purpose remit.
As the debate over broadcasting devolution rages on, we can only help but wonder what the future might be for dramatic representations of Wales. Welsh culture secretary Lord Elis-Thomas has announced he will not pursue the devolution of broadcasting. Yet powers over culture are devolved, leading many to wonder whether this asymmetrical arrangement can ever work.
The BBC could certainly do more to devolve its own powers over drama. As it stands, the controller of drama in London, Piers Wenger, performs an important gatekeeping function. But if we want to see Wales and other parts of the UK get the representation it sorely needs, then really these gates need to be permanently opened.