Stuck in front of the screen: The good and the bad on Welsh TV in 2020
Dylan Wyn Williams
What a year. Unprecedented, to use the overbaked word loved by newsreaders and badly translated as the sigh-inducing “digynsail” by BBC Cymru journos. And quite unique in terms of telly viewing, as we actually followed the government’s advice first time round and stayed home, glued to our screens, as the world shut down.
Elin Fflur had special permission to bend the ‘stay local’ rule in order to present an open-air chat show, Sgwrs dan y Lloer (Tinopolis). Armed with a folding chair, a warm carthen and a cold chardonnay at various guests’ gardens, the chanteuse from Ynys Môn was the big communal cwtsh we all needed that strange spring.
With live sport fixtures forced off the schedule (a blessing for Pivac critics) a plethora of last-minute commissions appeared on our screens as part of S4Cs £2.8m support package for the independent production sector.
We had parents-to-be using their iphones to film their hopes and fears in Babis Covid, Babis Gobaith, and Galar yn y Cwm about a three-generation firm of funeral directors supporting the Swansea Valley through Covid grief.
The latter was too much for me. Instead, I opted for the exuberant Ken Hughes yn cadw ni fynd (Darlun) as the retired headteacher from Eifionydd zoomed through life in isolation with baking lessons, online quizzes, and fitness routines in his sculptured garden. This fly on the wall was a delight, accentuated by the humorous walkie talkie chats with producer Ellis who lived and worked from a makeshift studio in Ken’s garage.
Similar feelgood vibes were supplied by the virtual Urdd Eisteddfod T plus the award winning Pum Mil franchise, with Emma Walford and Trystan Ellis-Morris helping community projects from a distance.
S4C also gave us the UK’s first Covid-themed drama, Cyswllt (mewn Covid) (Vox Pictures) self-shot by its actors playing exhausted nurses, mam-gu and granddaughter posting touching gifts to one another, an errant father trying to make up for lost times, and a cancer patient shielding from her partner.
With live news in high demand, the BBC in Wales swapped its Llandaf HQ for a £120m glass box above Greggs at Central Square Cardiff. S4C’s lilac hued Newyddion relaunched with a new theme tune and sweeping logo for a refreshing Cymraeg viewpoint from Wrecsam to Washington DC.
Despite a cinematic weather screen for Behnaz and Derek, Wales Today still retained its air of regionalism with the corporate red used from Newsline in Belfast to Look East in Norwich, an obsession with all things monarch and military, and some reporters from the Jamie Owen School of Mispronunciation.
#BLM protests dominated the summer headlines, and a behind the scenes look at prominent National Trust mansions in Trysorau Cymru: Tir, Tai a Chyfrinachau (Orchard) revealed some shameful Welsh connections with the transatlantic slave trade.
Autumn colours came with old favourites, all within a lawful 2 metres of each other – from Gower chef Hywel Griffiths cooking for celebs in Y Sioe Fwyd and Nia Parry nosing around their homes in Adre (both Boom Cymru). Anglesey’s stunning Garreglwyd estate was the star of Natur a Ni (Rondo) as Morgan Jones and guests mirrored our newfound appreciation of local wildlife while Eryri and the sea was littered with staycationers and trespassing English MPs.
Our two soap operas made a comeback with redrafted scripts, wild hair, banned extras and no make-up artists. Pobol y Cwm (BBC) gave us a lockdown wedding, masked characters, a woodland murder, way too much emphasis on the Parri family, and the ubiquitous ‘Daw eto haul ar fryn’ rainbow painted on set.
Rownd a Rownd (Rondo), on the other hand, decided to ban all C19 references and portray the ‘old normal’ on the banks of the Menai albeit with strictly distanced friends and lovers.
The Talacharn-set gangsters and lawyers’ drama Un Bore Mercher also resumed filming in high summer. After a thrilling first series surrounding the mysterious disappearance of Faith Howells’ husband (real life couple Eve Myles and Bradley Freeguard), my interest and patience waned as more and more Saesneg and a maudlin of google-translated songs appeared on the S4C version.
The casting of Celia Imrie in the third series was the final nail in the coffin for me and reaffirmed the suspicion that BBC Wales’ Keeping Faith was first and foremost on the production company’s minds.
In the meantime, the brilliant comedyrama Merched Parchus (Cynyrchiadau ie ie) about a newly single thirtysomething who retreats into a world of true crime podcasts and dark fantasy amongst media cliques, fickle friendships and a smothering mam, was axed despite S4C bragging about selling the Welsh-language series to Austria, Switzerland and Germany. Any original drama that promotes our lesser-known language to the EU and beyond is paramount, as little Britain turns insular.
But with no opportunity to actually travel anywhere it was the TV that provided the greatest escape beyond these shores. My viewing highlights those balmy Sunday evenings in April was Race across the World on BBC Two as my own adventures were confined to hunting for tinned tomatoes at Llanrwst Co-op. For weeks on end, I followed ten backpackers on a marathon 24,000km competition from Mexico City to Ushuaiai Argentina, where dozing cheek by jowl on twelve-hour coach trips was the norm.
Of all the overseas dramas this year, Canada’s Cardinal (CTV) lingers long in the mind. The final series on BBC Four saw the return of sad puppy faced Detective John Cardinal (Billy Campbell) and his Québécoise sidekick Lise Delorme (Karine Vanasse) battling against the bloody elements and a possible romance in snowscaped northern Ontario. Constantly well-acted and directed, the haunting theme song by Denmark’s Agnes Obel ensured its special ‘Noir’ status for ever.
And onwards to this long winter. With coronavirus cases alarmingly high and the BBC inflicting more Mrs Brown’s Boys on us, S4C is following a more traditional sing-song route. Even cynically old me was moved by the mesmerizing ‘Carol Nadolig Hedd Wyn’ sung by the folk quartet ‘Pedair’ on Dechrau Canu Dechrau Canmol and still available on Clic.
Other highlights include Sol (Paper Owl Films) an animated co-production between three Celtic broadcasters, an extra sprinkling of Ken Hughes optimism, and a reunion of famous faces still learning Welsh (or not) in Iaith ar Daith ’Dolig.
Have a safe, peaceful, square-eyed one this year. Nadolig Llawen.