Television from Small Nations Network – Reflections on final project, by Steve Blandford

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During this project’s excellent and productive final workshop in the fascinating Danish city of Aarhus, I was contacted by a journalist asking for comments on the possibility of Cardiff bidding to be the European Capital of Culture in 2023.

My enthusiastic response, which was printed in the Western Mail (a key Welsh newspaper) was, of course, cast into ironic light three weeks later by the shock result of the UK’s referendum on membership of the EU.

I start with this because the so-called ‘Brexit’ vote has confirmed for me, more than ever, the vital importance of the kind of international project that we have been engaged in here. Whilst the Brexit vote has unleashed, at the very least, a great deal of fear, uncertainty and anxiety this research project sought to share ideas, to learn across borders and to contribute to building a supportive community of small nations.

It also crossed other kinds of borders in its determination to create real exchange between academic and industry partners in all the participating nations. To reach out to industry, or the ‘wider world’ is one of those desirables that virtually every University subscribes to. The reality is often very different, but on this project the willingness to share different kinds of knowledge and experience was palpable.

So what kind of things did we begin the process of understanding? (I say begin because there is a strong consensus amongst participants that the project needs to be continued). Whilst I will make no pretence of being comprehensive in this short piece I will attempt to speculate on one or two of the interesting things that could be taken forward.

Firstly, it was fascinating to hear speakers from Denmark, a country that has enjoyed such success in television drama production, talk about their fervent desire not to keep repeating themselves. Instead, at the height of their success, they were already engaged in innovative ways of looking at what might be the next thing that they could excel at. The question of what might be the ‘new Nordic noir’ was not posed in pursuit of yet more excellent crime drama, but rather what might replace the very idea of Nordic noir before it became stale.

Connected to the above was the fascinating question of how small nations produce and retain talent. Even in small nations the tendency for talent to be recruited from too narrow a range of the population had to be continually scrutinised and guarded against. Key to this, of course, is funding and speakers bravely tried to guide us through the labyrinthine possibilities of apprenticeship schemes, mentoring, higher education courses and so on. Perhaps most urgent was the question of whose responsibility it was to identify, retain and genuinely nurture a diverse talent pool in small nations. The responsibilities of both public sector broadcasters and independent production companies were teased out and discussed imaginatively.

Perhaps one of the most heartening things about this project, particularly for someone who has worked in this research area for some time, was the continuous emphasis on the advantages of small nations rather than the reverse. There was very little bemoaning of the fate of small countries in the shadow of a powerful neighbour, rather a great deal of thought as to how to draw strength from the power of small nations to be flexible, agile and in touch with the lived realities of their populations. Contributors talked of proper dialogue between policy makers, producers and academics, even if the outcomes are not always as productive as they would wish. There was also refreshing talk of small nations being prepared to think beyond conventional ideas of what produces a vibrant national culture. The building-less national theatres of Scotland and Wales were discussed as examples of a counter trend against the idea that a culture must always create large monolithic structures, physical and otherwise, in order to achieve international recognition.

Finally, it is worth commenting on the way that workshops were able to hold and create dialogue between what are so often competing imperatives: international sales vs representation and visibility, progressive nation branding vs marketing and tourism and so on. This network, through the range of its contacts that were variously present in Wales or Denmark, treated all such perspectives with respect and therefore managed to produce constructive dialogue. Now…back with a heavy heart to Brexit…

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

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