The BBC’s Portrayal of Wales and the Welsh

                                                                 

                                                                       His State

Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed

And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:

This month the Director General of the BBC appeared before the Assembly’s Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee. The night before, the University of South Wales described his BBC role in terms so imperial that Milton’s deity came to mind. At this conferral of an honorary doctorate on Lord Tony Hall we were reminded of the Corporation’s magnitude and complexity. To be at its head must require an uncommon set of talents underpinned with relentless determination.

Was this, then, why, at the next day’s scrutiny session with the AMs, I had the impression of repeated collisions as the progress of the BBC ship was impeded by reefs of objections in Welsh waters? Lord Hall ‘gets’ Welsh concerns, he so frequently reassures us, that it may irritate him to find that dissatisfactions and concerns remain. Surely by now we should all have got happily on board?

No. The AMs are right to press him hard on the implications for Wales of the BBC’s decisions on funding, governance and portrayal. Precisely because the BBC enterprise is so complex Wales must help the DG see through its eyes. What can seem crystal clear from afar may look murky at home. Portrayal – how Wales and its people appear and are depicted in BBC media − is a case in point.

Lord Hall referred to quarterly meetings, begun a few months ago, between Charlotte Moore, Director of BBC Content, and the Directors of the Nations and Regions at which the BBC’s ‘portrayal objectives’ are analysed. He promised a report and data which would allow an examination of the justification for, and effectiveness of, one element or another. The portrayal objectives are not public knowledge. Their existence is a welcome sign of how far up the agenda portrayal has moved but why keep them away from scrutiny?

And how frank will the report be? Lord Hall appeared to give with one hand and take away with the other. Yes, there will be information but ‘we need to find it in a way that makes sense for us and sense for you too…’

Rhodri Talfan Davies, Director, BBC Cymru Wales added, ‘And just to be clear on that, in terms of our reporting, the key thing is to tell you about the programmes and the series that are being delivered. It’s not so much the data – the real test is what’s on screen. I think what we can do routinely is to actually publish what it is that is portraying Wales on screen – rather than the metrics on volumes and hours…’

‘We might…’ Bethan Jenkins responded drily, ‘be interested in both.’

Lee Waters immediately pushed further on criteria for portrayal and its relation to production by noting Lord Hall’s citation of the BBC One series Ordinary Lies as an example of portrayal of Wales. Claiming that the series ‘could be set anywhere’, Lee Waters asserted that Belfast-set, Belfast-made series, The Fall is ‘not about Northern Ireland. So how are we going to get that portrayal – rather than just the production, which is very welcome − how are we going to make sure that portrayal happens?’

Lord Hall agreed The Fall is not about Northern Ireland but ‘it goes down very well’ there. Hardly a sophisticated response.

Comparisons between Wales and Northern Ireland require some scrutiny because Northern Ireland has had a great deal of attention from tv drama focused on its political conflict, so material that stresses that it has problems common to the rest of the UK is not unwelcome. Wales is in a different position. It has seen so little drama originating from its own specific circumstances that it must be very cautious about scripts – and a drama slate taken as a whole − which portray it as just like anywhere else, and nothing more.

Although seeing Welsh characters portrayed, hearing Welsh voices and seeing Welsh locations are legitimate and welcome types of portrayal there should be, alongside these, an attempt to share the experiences and viewpoints of people in Wales, emerging from the country’s experience of itself. Lee Waters is right to be worried that the BBC may opt for material produced in and set in Wales but not about Wales in the deeper sense. That would be to treat the country as little more than a set or location-shooting opportunity with novelty value. We have yet to reach a stage at which seeing Wales portrayed, incidentally or directly, in drama and other genres is unremarkable.

Lord Hall did move on to offer a ‘serious answer’, asserting that the BBC has done so well for Wales on hours and money that ‘we’ve even overshot the target’. Not pausing to explain that, he endorsed Rhodri Talfan Davies’s look-at-the-screen approach and added, ‘then I suspect we’ll have disputes about – or proper arguments, rather, debates about – whether Ordinary Lies is really about Wales or is about anywhere else or whatever.’

This was not a helpful answer to Lee Waters’s reasonable point and seems to put cart before horse.

Lord Hall’s ‘whatever’ is revealing. Is it tiresome that Wales wants to be seen as being distinguishable from the rest of the UK? Many circumstances are indeed common to, and therefore filmable in, any British city, any village. It is easier to produce network drama that makes use of the commonalities among the nations and regions of the UK than to work from the local and specific outwards towards the universal. The easier path can mean a tokenistic inclusion of a few regional identifiers and the loss of a distinctive lens through which universal circumstances are seen. The plots work but the depth of focus is shallow. We’ve all encountered drama which has been bled of local complexity, leaving it eminently digestible but insipid and ersatz. Hovering around Lord Hall is the ghost of the infamous, perhaps apocryphal, London commissioner’s response − ascribed to Alan Yentob −  to a Nineties BBC Wales drama proposal, ‘It won’t be too Welsh, will it?’

The politicians must also be wary of any tendency to regard portrayal as something that applies only to drama. Portrayal happens across genres, as Lord Hall pointed out: ‘Every network genre now has a portrayal objective.’ That is certainly something to keep an eye on and – pace those metrics – to quantify too. The BBC knows the value of the measurable and we are all capable of dealing with assessments of both quantity and quality. We would like both.

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