This 30 year-old programme will change the way you see Wales

Gwyn Alf Williams in The Dragon Has Two Tongues

Nick Stradling

The biggest problem we have in Wales is that our children grow into adults without any perception of the events that shaped their surroundings.

I was one of those children. Growing up as a monolingual southerner, my only outlet for Welshness was sport.

This was despite my own father being a historian, who wrote and presented a BBC Wales documentary about Welsh volunteers in the Spanish Civil war.

But a little over a decade ago he did something that would transform my own understanding of Wales, which was to obtain for me an old VHS copy of the 13-part documentary series ‘The Dragon Has Two Tongues’.

“What is history? Divine gossip about the past, among gentlemen. Have another glass of port.”

-Wynford Vaughan Thomas

“History in more than a page in a book! History is the buckle that bites your back. History is the sweat you can’t keep out your eyes. History is the fear crawling in your belly!”

– Gwyn Alf Williams

From this opening gambit, The Dragon Has Two Tongues demanded my undivided attention.

It transformed me from a 26-year-old with little understanding of nor love for Wales, into the 38-year-old member of the Welsh independence movement I am today.


Power

For those unaware of The Dragon Has Two Tongues, it presents the history of Wales from two entire different political standpoints.

Wynford Vaughn-Thomas gives us the conservative, establishment, unionist point of view, while Gwyn Alf Williams speaks as a fire-breathing Marxist and separatist.

What is so powerful about this series is that it is, by its very nature and in its title premise, entirely counterpoint and bi-partisan. It could never be accused by objective viewer or critic of polemicism or partisanship.

Herein lies its great power and this is the most important point I want to make: The Dragon Has Two Tongues is not Unionist or Nationalist. Not Marxist or Capitalist.

It just wants you to care about Wales. And that in itself makes it a revolutionary programme.

Just by seeing that Wales actually has history, it achieves more than any of the arguments put forth by its two presenters.

Hywel Dda, Llewellyn the Last, Cilmeri, the Acts of Union, Prince Madoc, Iolo Morganwg, and Tryweryn – I hadn’t heard about any of them before I watched this series.

A new audience

Wales is the only country I know of that is accused of insularity for taking an interest in its own history. The motive behind this, of course, is to discourage us from doing so, in case we come to conclusions the British establishment would not like.

Our history is not better. Or a sign of prophecy or greatness. It’s just Welsh, and we need to know it to understand where we now find ourselves culturally, politically and psychologically.

The Dragon Has Two Tongues, although groundbreaking, was never repeated on television and is not commercially available to purchase through any UK or Welsh retailer.

I am not suggesting a conspiracy here, but pointing to clear patterns of behaviour and culture in our media, schooling systems and lifelong learning. The lesson is that Wales doesn’t matter.

My passion for Wales on film inspired me to start a twitter page @MoviesWales and the YouTube channel Wales in the Movies.

It is through these channels that, until February, I shall be uploading one episode of The Dragon Has Two Tongues every week on Thursday nights. And I want as many people to watch the show as possible.

I hope that we can start a debate and by doing so, show a new audience that Wales, and our history, are worth understanding.

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30 Comments

  1. This thought-provoking series is available (most of it, anyway) on YouTube.
    It’s pre-devolution – if that makes any difference – but as an exercise in presenting two conflicting interpretations of Welsh history it’s well worth a watch. Gwyn Alf is the ultimate firebrand ‘voice of the valleys’, Wynford the epitome of self-satisfied but gentlemanly unionist Welshness.
    It isn’t a history lesson in the normal sense, though. I actually got more from the BBC’s ‘Story of Wales’, which ironically, had a stronger message of Wales as a distinct nation even when we were more overtly under the cosh.

  2. An excellent article which should surely encourage everyone who reads it to watch the series. I watched it the first time around but will definitely make time to rewatch this brilliant piece of TV.

  3. Nicholas Stradling

    There’s very little of it currently on YouTube Eps 1+2 only), hence my plan to upload it weekly.

    I agree, you may get a better factual history Education from the more recent BBC series. But as the screenwriting guru Robert Mckee wrote:

    “What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we think about what happens”

    Nothing beats the bo partisan format and energy of The Dragon Has Two Tongues. The BBC series, as welcome, entertaining and hi-production as it was, is ponderous by comparison.

  4. Kevin Davies

    I think the programme was a HTV production… which could cause you problems if you try to upload it without the ITV archive’s permission… they are quite zealous. However, I’m sure if you contact them at the National Library, I’m sure they’d be open to giving it a wider platform?

  5. Graham John Hathaway

    The story of fluttering snowflakes of history which when lands for most quickly evaporates as neve was, but for others, it drifts and multiplies over time. The snow flake is pure and under the microscope holds a mystery and beauty like nothing else.
    The question is why does it affect some and not others. Even to a point of intense dislike or intense like.
    I see a shop window of opportunity to reach out and move the shadows of noise and mischief that eliminates
    our history from discovery or at least demeans its importance. There are significant beneficiaries in remaining in the Union. Others are led to believe they are but do not see or understand the wisdom of their beliefs.
    To have wisdom, you need education and an open mind. Sadly I see far too often, prejudice and closed minds. The product of a superficial view of the potential of Wales.

    For Wales to prosper, must shake the chains that shackle and bind us to self serving Union that dominates every agenda of life, in favour of the greater part.

    It is about history, and where you fit in the cultural heritage that surrounds us in our daily lives.
    But to own it, that is something different.

  6. Welsh Anerican living in Mexico. Hope I can get it

  7. Don’t forget the women of Wales also have a history, often excluded. Go to the Wales Women’s Archive to discover more.

  8. Geraint Talfan Davies

    A delight to read Nick Stradling’s praise for The Dragon has Two Tongues. I had the real privilege to be the Executive Producer of the series, though all the praise for its format and quality must go to Producer Colin Thomas and, of course to the two presenters, Wynford and Gwyn. In case there is any confusion, the series was made by HTV Wales for Channel 4, and was one of the first things to be commissioned from Wales by Channel 4’s first Chief Executive Jeremy Isaacs. Gwyn Alf was, indeed, an inspiration but I would not be as ready as some to dismiss Wynford Vaughan Thomas’ gifts as an historian. In the early days of the making of the series, Gwyn himself suddenly realised that he had underestimated Wynford’s depth of reading and understanding. This led Gwyn to sharpen his own sword to an even finer edge. The pairing was the making of the series.

  9. Can I, an American Jones with no paper trail to Cymru, see this in the USA? Will it be available at least for a while to be seen at other times? Diolch! James William Soares Jones

  10. Eos Pengwern

    A brilliant series which did much to fire up my nationalist sympathies as a young teenager. Gwyn Alf Williams also wrote a book, “When Was Wales?”, based roughly on his input to the series, which I still have on my shelf having devoured it as soon as it was published.

    Nationalism aside, I think I disagree with Gwyn Alf Williams’s politics in every possible way; but we’d be a better nation if we had even a handful of people today with the fire in the belly that he had.

  11. I look forward to seeing it again. I met Gwyn Alf when I was in the Welsh CP – though he was not.

  12. I would just like to mention the welsh author Terry Breverton,the welsh writer of twenty books of welsh interest.His book,The Welsh The Biography, rekindled my interest in our history and his breadth, generosity and sheer enthusiasm about Wales is compelling and a must for anyone with a drop of Welsh blood in them.
    Has anybody else read this or any of his excellent books.I highly recomend them because he examines the history that has been air airbrushed from view and it is unashamedly pro Welsh.

  13. If you think Cymru has it bad as a colony, just remember the Cornish are even more forgotten

  14. I’m hoping ITV can see sense. Thousands of people want to see this. It’s being uploaded on the Fair Use policy for educational, critical and most importantly non-profit purposes on a non-monetised channel, with the blessing of the producer and director – internationally-renowned Colin Thomas. It’s not commercially available anywhere nor repeated on TV. I plead with everyone to support me to help me keep it on YouTube for our kids to grow up with. This is a series that the people of Wales need to see.

  15. CLARE HUDSON

    Great to read Nick’s passionate tribute to “Dragon has 2 Tongues” – I remember when it was first broadcast and what a stir it caused. Good to know that when it comes to Gwyn and Wynford- age (or time at least) has not withered them. And praise is due too to Colin Thomas for his brilliant direction. There was one error in Nick’s piece: the programme was made by HTV, not the BBC. Those were the days!

    The only thing which rankled at the time- and still does – is that it was two males’ view of Wales, and Welsh women’s story was not a great deal in evidence.

  16. sue jones davies

    Fascinating. I remember hearing about it at the time but have never seen it before. It’s great. Should be required watching in every Welsh school

  17. Benjiman L. Angwin

    Those two opinions are both extremist to me. Where’s the Liberal voice for an independent Wales im all this?

    I say no thanks to building a right wing nationalist party. Plaid Cymru is the best we’ve got. Just… where is the Liberal voice?

    • Red Dragon Jim

      It’s not really about that. It’s an old historical series covering the valleys/industrial type approach, versus the establishment and conservative (but not the Welsh nationalist establishment as there wasn’t one) approach.

    • Gwilym ab Ioan

      What ‘right wing’ nationalist party are you referring to Benjiman?

      You will be aware that a new party is being created. However. it has been made ABUNDANTLY clear that this new party is a syncretic party that does not label itself with tags that belong in the French Revolution. We do not subscribe to the ridiculous, old fashioned and now defunct, single axis paradigm of ‘right, ‘centre’ or ‘left’.

      Our policies will be formed to suit what is best for Cymru. Our focus will be purely on Cymru and it’s citizens, and no other. Whether those policies will be deemed to be ‘right’ or ‘left’ or even ‘centre’ is of absolutely no interest to us. What we want is what is needed by our country – to get it out of the hole that has been dug for it for the past 100 years. A hundred years of both Labour, Liberal and Plaid (Labour’s little helper) representation. I say that as an ex Plaid vice president and a distant relative of David Lloyd George! My grandmother was a ‘George’ from the same clan as my great uncle David.

  18. Don’t forget Dai Smith’s excellent ‘Wales! Wales?’ (BBC Wales) giving a perspective from the English speaking south Wales valleys. In my opinion another important contribution in the raising of national consciousness in that long march from March 1979 to September 1997.

    • Yes, Dai Smith’s ‘Wales! Wales?’ has more or less been forgotten about, but really needs to be considered. Pretty much contemporary to

      • (Continued from previous comment – where is the edit button?) ‘The Dragon has Two Tongues’ it presents a different perspective. I know it’s been dismissed as a Labour Party view on Welsh history, but none the less it’s still an interpretation that needs to be considered, even if it’s then completely rejected.

  19. ejcorbett2013

    I’ll be watching in Australia. I have learned my Welsh history as an Aussie adult language learner and I’d have to say there is a very high consciousness of those things among Welsh speakers. 😊

    • I’d have to agree with you there – English language broadcasting in Wales is way behind Welsh language broadcasting in terms of teaching us about these important events in our history. Nationalism is much stronger in Welsh speaking areas, and I think that has as much to do with the teaching of history as it does with support for the language

  20. Great to hear about the upload. I still have all but one of the episodes on VHS, and keep meaning to transfer them onto disc, while I still have the technology. However, I’ve had similar problems to others in uploading ‘out of print’ recordings from the eighties and nineties onto youtube. There should be some kind of thirty year rule. Gwyn was my Prof in Cardiff before he made the series, and it was a privilege to know him and have his input to the research stages of my PhD. I left Wales shortly before the programme was released. I wouldn’t have described him as a ‘separatist’ at that time, since he used to say that independent Welsh socialism could not succeed without ‘a fistful of red power in London’, but he was certainly a Marxist in the Gramsci/ Rosa Luxembourg tradition.
    The programme was groundbreaking TV, the first (and still one of the few) series to present history as a discourse with the past, with alternative narratives. It has continued to influence my approach to writing and teaching over the past 35 years.

  21. Gwilym ab Ioan

    “Where it ain’t you can’t put it” is a Cockney saying, and a very good one at that.

    The thing that ‘AIN’T’ in Cymru is a comprehensive knowledge of our unique history, heroes, culture, literature and of course language etc. That’s because it’s been systematically airbrushed out of our collective memory and knowledge since the English Education Act of 1870 came into force. It is arguably the single most devastating and damaging thing that has ever happened to our nation. Ask any child in Cymru today who Alfred the Great or Henry VIII was and the chances are they will have at least heard of them. Now ask the same child if they know who Llywelyn Ein Llyw Olaf was, or even Owain Glyndŵr, and you get a blank stare.

    Now because of ‘where it ain’t” you ‘CAN’T PUT IT’. You can’t plant trees on rocks – they don’t grow. It is that rocky environment that hinders a huge swathe of our population from understanding what Welsh identity iand love of your nation is – there’s nothing there (except in flashes on rugby international days, and then it’s based on something totally different). I stress it’s NOT the people’s fault they have fallen foul of this trap. Now try and explain to them why Cymru needs independence – you’ll either get the same blank stare as you got from the child, when you asked him who Llywelyn was. Or you get indifference, and amongst the few a hot confrontational response, based on ignorance which is not of their own doing.

    I don’t profess to be an essayist of any great calibre, however in 2002 I was stung into writing an essay entitled “The Education System in Wales – The Nation’s Blessing or Curse?”. Some will recall that 2002 was the time of a spike in the awareness amongst some of the Cymry that something was desperately needed to stem the rot that was sweeping our country (remember Cymuned? And the hoo ha within the ranks of Plaid because someone within it’s ranks of vice presidents had had the temerity to drawn attention to the fact that Cymru was becoming the dumping ground for oddballs, social misfits and society drop-outs from England).

    Your welcome to read that essay by going to: http://sccambria.com/essays/erth-add_saesneg.htm

    If you feel a little ‘stirred’ then why not follow through with a visit to: http://sccambria.com/NewParty/RegisterInterest/

  22. Graham John Hathaway

    There is a resounding echo throughout Wales that the cause of independence has changed little over many decades or even longer. It’s stirring in Cardiff. The implausible has happened. The view of greater diversity throughout Wales is progressive. It’s impossible to circumvent anyway, but the reality is that old allegiances, that come with cross border transfers of home, remain stubbornly fixed. Certainly in voting terms.
    The reasons are hanging from every tree. Unless we pick up the pace of identity transfer, to recognise what being Welsh means in historical and cultural terms, then the tide will not turn. Whatever new Party is created.

    This is a generational transfer and will be a lifetime in its development. But reluctantly agree, that there will be a market for greater variety of voters to join, not hitherto disposed to join Plaid, but might vote for a more pluralistic system of voting in favour of the same end.

    I will remain a Plaid Cymru member and look and hope that this initiative of a fresh impetus will shift this intransigence of a mind set currently in favour Westminster rule over what is best for Wales. Time is of the essence. But the deep concern is the split in Welsh mind set about who to favour as the better, and whether there is space enough for the two to prosper. This is sqweeky tummy time.

  23. Any chance of putting the series on a compact video disg? I’m technologically beyond the pale: can’t do it, can’t afford it, so i cannot see your offering. A disg could be stuck into my old offline computer and i’d have a chance of seeing the series.

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