Invitation to Blog about TV for Small Nations by Steve Blandford

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‘….national identities are neither biologically nor territorially given: rather they are creatively produced or stage.’ (Jen Harvie: Staging the UK, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2007)

From a strictly limited perspective the last month has been, generally, a good time for Wales in terms of the extent of its coverage in the UK national and international media. This is because of the Rugby World Cup which Wales is both helping to host and, until last Saturday, playing an active part in while the Welsh football team has qualified for the final stages of the June 2016 European football championships in France

This sports media coverage has been dominated by a number of narrative tropes only too familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in the construction of Welsh national identity. Dominant among these have been numerous variations on the theme of the underdog, in particular after the defeat of the England rugby team by Wales, leading to the former’s untimely exit from the tournament. In the case of the soccer team there has been a similar outpouring of joy and satire in equal measure as the FIFA world rankings show Wales above England and at their highest point for decades.

Again, from a strictly limited perspective, for a small nation like Wales to receive the kinds of levels of ‘positive’ media coverage seen over the last month can only be good news surely? Well of course the answer is complex and highly relevant to one of the principal aims of this network which is to investigate the idea of a sustainable model of television production for small nations. Such an investigation is vital if small nations and their diverse populations are to see themselves represented in ways that go beyond the enjoyable, but somewhat limiting narratives provided by the coverage of international sport.

In the mid-2000s when I was fortunate enough to be involved in the setting up of National Theatre Wales (http://www.nationaltheatrewales.org/) one of the principal reasons why public money was ring-fenced for the project was what many termed the contribution that the new theatre would make to the so-called ‘national conversation’. As a relatively new (and stateless) nation Wales’s need for institutions that allowed the nation’s identity to be debated and re-defined was of vital importance. A low-cost, flexible national theatre without a monolithic building and with a brief to operate in a variety of contexts across the whole nation was an important development.

In terms of television too there have been significant changes and developments, though as this project will no doubt investigate, not all of them have been to the advantage of a young nation seeking ways in which its population can understand itself in as open and democratic a manner as possible.

In September 2015 The Guardian published an account of television drama production in Wales (http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/sep/14/welsh-tv-industry-captures-bastard-executioner-show-of-strength) that was a story of huge growth and critical success ever since the BBC decided to locate the production of a re-launched Doctor Who in South Wales in 2005. Since that time Cardiff has become a major centre of BBC drama production with the building of the Roath Lock Studios (http://www.bbc.co.uk/corporate2/cymruwales/contactus/roathlock) . There is no denying the importance of such developments for the economics of the creative industries in Wales and there is even a case for saying that they have representational value through the way that they create the idea of Wales as place where high-end international television gets made.

On the other hand, as many regular commentators on the media in Wales point out, such developments have come at a price. What has been in severe decline is the availability of narratives and images that are directly concerned with Wales and the Welsh people themselves.

There are of course important exceptions to such a trend and the use of the S4C originated Y Gwyll/Hinterland (https://www.s4c.co.uk/ygwyll/e_index.shtml) as a case study in this project testify to the potential of drama producers in small nations to use the unique qualities of their cultures and landscapes to reach audiences both domestically and in international markets. The extraordinary success of Danish television drama productions over the last decade are the most obvious of all models something which the Danish tourist industry has made much of. (http://www.visitdenmark.com/denmark/culture/more-dark-danish-dramas)

Sadly though, the excellent Y Gwyll/Hinterland has received so much attention partly because of its exceptional nature and the case for television drama production, in both the English and Welsh languages, that is prepared to deal in stories rooted in Wales, but capable of capturing international audiences has to be continually made.

If this was a plea for programming that recycled and reinforced reductive and essentialist myths of Welshness (and indeed all small nations) then it would hardly be worth a moment’s attention. If however the argument is for a televisual space that has the capacity to reflect and portray a changing, pluralistic and genuinely diverse Wales then it is essential to give it all the attention that can be spared.

It must be hoped then that this network, that attempts to bring together scholars and television creatives from a range of European small nations, to examine problems and solutions similar to those facing Wales, can contribute to a question that is of vital importance to the idea of a television future that is genuinely diverse and pluralistic in its ambitions.

 Steve Blandford is Emeritus Professor of Theatre, Film and Television at the University of South Wales.

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