News coverage of Wales in the 1980s often pictured dogged defenders of the Welsh language carrying placards demanding the television channel they had once been promised. Some of these protesters tore down English road signs, a few even planted firebombs; several went to prison.
This spring, as the legacy of that campaign for greater representation on television passes some significant milestones, these angry slogans read like relics of a half-forgotten war.
Now, not only is Netflix about to screen its first drama made in the Welsh language, but the tempestuous story behind the birth of S4C (Sianel Pedwar Cymru), the dedicated Welsh-speaking channel, is being marked, 40 years on, in a provocative new film.
“There is a real moment now for Welsh-language storytelling,” said Llinos Griffin-Williams, S4C’s chief content officer. “I don’t think we have been loud enough about it until now. We have so much happening.”
The recent public thirst for screen drama made in Welsh has a lot to do with the trail blazed by Nordic and Korean foreign-language shows on Netflix and BBC Four, Griffin-Williams admits, but she argues it also stems from a growing Welsh confidence in its own talent pool.
The crime caper series Dal y Mellt, which will have the title Rough Cut when it runs on Netflix from next Monday, is the international streamer’s first drama told in Welsh, or Cymraeg, and it follows a gang of misfits as they plan a diamond heist on a ferry. Set partly on the backstreets of Cardiff and partly on a lonely farm near Porthmadog, it is a show that revels in the scale and variety of the Welsh landscape, as much as it has fun with an amusing script. Adapted for the screen by Iwan “Iwcs” Roberts from his own novel, the Vox Pictures production has already enjoyed critical success on S4C’s on-demand service Clic, and on BBC iPlayer.
“It paints a real picture of Wales for viewers and we’re pleased that, although there is tension, there’s no drugs, no sex and not much violence,” said Llŷr Morus, who co-produced Rough Cut.
Morus is also proud of the range of quality actors now working in Welsh, quite aside from the recent group of Welsh stars to make it in Hollywood, such as Taron Egerton and Matthew Rhys. “Many of the faces in our series are well known inside Wales from Welsh-language shows. People like Siw Hughes, who is in the long-running BBC soap Pobol y Cwm, and it is great they will have a wider audience now.” In Rough Cut, Hughes plays the accomplished con artist and wannabe gang member Meri-Jên, to great comic effect.
One actor in the cast already familiar to audiences of English-speaking drama is Mark Lewis Jones, who appeared in The Crown as Edward Millward, the man who taught Charles, then Prince of Wales, the language. His scenes in that popular show, he said, did a lot to raise awareness of Welsh as a living tongue: “It did an enormous amount of good. And now it’s great that Dal y Mellt, which is so brilliant, will also be seen around the world,” he said.
In the series Lewis Jones is cast as a gangland figure, emotionally troubled by his military past, but he stars in a very different role in the one-off film that was commissioned to mark the 40th anniversary of S4C. Called Y Sŵn, it follows the political side of the campaign for the new TV channel and Lewis Jones plays Willie Whitelaw, Margaret Thatcher’s trusted home secretary, appearing complete with the politician’s trademark bushy eyebrows.
“What I love about these two shows, the series and the film, Y Sŵn, is that they sit comfortably in the Welsh language and there isn’t an English-only version,” said Lewis Jones, referring to the recent practice of filming first in one language and then the other, a process used for other popular Welsh shows, such as Keeping Faith.
“I don’t treat the Welsh language work as some sort of passion project, they are as important to me as the English shows,” he added.
Written by Roger Williams, Y Sŵn, which means “the noise”, goes out on S4C on 9 April after its cinema release and it will also be available on iPlayer and Clic. Williams hopes it will stir up, if not some noise, then certainly a spirited conversation.
At the centre of his screenplay for what his S4C boss, Gwenllian Gravelle, calls “a punk drama”, is the extraordinary sacrifice that the campaign’s leading figure, Gwynfor Evans, was prepared to make. The former Plaid Cymru MP announced he would go on a hunger strike until Thatcher’s Conservative government made good its promise to set up a Welsh television channel.
The desire for a dedicated language service, delivering news and documentaries, as well as drama, was common among nationalists, but it was shared by those enthusiastic Welsh speakers who had no such clear separatist aims. It offered validation for a whole cultural outlook.
“I was eight years old when all this happened, growing up in a Welsh-speaking family,” said Williams. “Like most Welsh people I retained some awareness of the history because of the decision that Evans took to fast. He was such an important nationalist figure and admired by so many.
“Today there is a debate about just how much the new channel was down to Evans, and how much it owes to the protesters, but talking to the Evans family it is clear he would have gone through with it and that the British government probably realised that.”
The film plays with colour and with archive news footage to tell the story of the radicalisation of a young Welsh civil servant, played by Lily Beau Conway. Drawn over to the Welsh nationalist cause, she eventually refuses to help the visiting British PM out of an embarrassing predicament in one memorable, rebellious scene, set inside a public lavatory.
Williams knows his film is propaganda. His director, Lee Haven Jones, describes it, he said, as a historical drama “made from the perspective of a man who believes in Welsh independence”, rather than a balanced assessment of rival viewpoints.
Gravelle said S4C did not want the kind of safe anniversary drama people might be expecting. Instead, she wanted some attitude – and a chance to show young Welsh-speaking audiences how far they have come.
Where once Welsh parents often encouraged their children to speak in English, now there is a fresh cachet to learning Welsh. That was due, she argued, to the presence of the language in Wales’s schools.
So when Joanna Scanlan returned to her native Wales to make the hit drama Y Golau (The Light in the Hall) she resolved to come back to learn the language. Other popular recent shows, such as the crime dramas Y Gwyll (Hinterland), andCraith (Hidden), have fed a fresh appetite for drama set in Wales, while the barriers once posed by subtitling have also largely fallen away.
“As an industry we are becoming more aware,” said Lewis Jones. “We aren’t there yet, though. People are still surprised I act in dramas in Welsh and English, but a lot of actors now come to Cardiff to work. So much is shot here. It’s a great thing.”
The hope now for writers working in Welsh like him, added Williams, is that “it will soon become quite standard for Welsh language drama to be shown on bigger platforms”.
In the end Gwynfor Evans did not have to start his fast. Four decades ago the Conservative government made some key concessions, just in time, and S4C began by broadcasting 22 hours of Welsh language programmes each week. Now it is a wholly Welsh channel, with much content supplied by BBC Wales, Channel 4 and ITV Wales. But the brave stand that Evans took still makes a key point for Welsh speakers.
Lewis Jones hopes Y Sŵn will remind English audiences of the strength of feeling on the issue, and persuade younger Welsh viewers not to take S4C for granted. “It is a reminder how difficult that battle was and how the government of the time reneged on their manifesto promise,” he said. “It proved you can change people’s mind, they will U-turn if they are pushed. And thank goodness for it, as S4C has been a massive part of my career!”
Could Evans ever have imagined that the language he loved so much would one day be heard by television audiences around the world?
Forty years on, where once Welsh speakers demanded respect for their own language as a human right, now that language has taken its place in the wider entertainment firmament, driven instead by the demand of viewers for a raft of involving new dramas.