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Culture

Wales never plays itself

22 Jan 2024 6 minute read
Merthyr Mawr was the backdrop for Lawrence of Arabia

Nick Stradling, Wales in the Movies

Wales or Cymru? I was at first sceptical, but I’m coming around to it. Here’s why.

I’ve recently been editing a video essay called ‘Wales Never Plays Itself’ and it’s got me thinking about what kind of gesture would be necessary to break Wales’ cycle of invisibility across the world.

Due to a popular but clumsily-worded petition and an excellent piece in these pages by Stephen Price,  what we call ourselves and how we are represented is a topical talking point in these two, too-insular peninsulas. It’s also time we have a look at how Wales has represented itself in film and TV down the years. 

And when I say Wales, or Cymru, I’m being literal. The land, the sea. The place itself. How has Cymru been shown off in the world’s most popular entertainment forms?

I was once asked by an Australian police officer (who looked inside my passport) If I was English, Scottish or Irish. When questioned why he included Ireland but not Wales, his response was to inform me that, like Scotland, both of those two were countries. He then asked me – as if to clinch his point – if I’d seen Braveheart. I was too young and angry to consider pointing out the name of the Australian state paying his wages was New South Wales.

The thing is, if this copper was a movie fan (a fair guess going by the reference) then he would have seen our country on screen at some point. The problem was that Wales had always been disguised as somewhere else.

From Russia With Love

He would have seen Merthyr Mawr playing the Arabian Peninsula in Lawrence of Arabia, Eryri as Yugoslavia in From Russia With Love or Port Talbot Steelworks as Pennsylvania in A Kiss Before Dying. Maybe he’d just watched Angelina Jolie riding a motorcycle over the Great Wall of China (Pen Y Pass) or Pierce Brosnan flying a Helicopter over the Cym Dyli pipeline, masquerading as Azerbaijan?

Did this man like the Arthurian myth and watch Richard Gere and Sean Connery battling it out in First Knight? That was Trawsfynydd. Maybe he was more of a TV man and caught Sam Neil explaining the Dinas Emrys dragon legend to Rutger Hauer in the mini series Merlin? Wales was doubling as England in that series.

The only chance he would have had to see Wales playing itself came in 1995. But when we briefly had our hands on the purse strings of Hollywood, we went and called the film The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain! This was the first major studio film set in Wales in 50 years. I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that maybe, it would have been a healthier decision to put Wales in the film’s title. 

The idea of “abolishing” the word Wales has problems. Particularly post-woke (Gammon Wales, Snowflake Cymru – choose!) where we all seem desperate to reduce one’s identity down to singular opinions. But what a strange and eerily symbolic habit we have on screen? I always thought that language pedantry was not a way to break this cycle but, as Bannau Brecheiniog’s huge win in The New York Times shows, maybe I was wrong.

In the classic Doctor Who adventure The Five Doctors back in the 80s, the quarries and hills of Gwynedd doubled as ‘The Death Zone’. Ha! Considering this cycle of representational death we seem trapped in, I can maybe get behind an idea to give up the name Wales, and substitute Cymru. Maybe we should be ready to upset a few people.

Confused

If the world is still confused about whether Wales is a principality, country, colony or county, maybe we should force the world to ask the question; What is Cymru

Because it seems that Wales is never playing itself but always pretending to be somewhere else. Even if that somewhere, is nowhere. Did you spot Llanberis as nowhere in Willow? Trefil as nowhere in The HitchHikers’ Guide To The Galaxy? Bannau Brecheiniog as Jurassic Park?

Maybe our friend the Aussie policeman is still watching Wales, as nowhere, in Sex Education? With all roadsigns and accents hidden. Or maybe he’s seen us since as exotic Earth places like Switzerland (Captain America), Korea (Die Another Day), Congo? (Tarzan) If not, we’re good at playing our closest neighbours too. Wales was Scotland in Highlander and Half Light. England in Made in Dagenham, Their Finest, Harry Potter and countless others. 

Tom Cruise, selecting Dougarry Scott for a role in Mission Impossible 2 in the late 90s, praised his work on “the Scottish film Twin Town”. Like our friend the policeman, he’s unable to identify Wales as a national entity. And, can we REALLY blame them?

In the film Mortal Kombat, Parys Mountain is credited as “Wales, England” – on the end titles. The same happened for Clash of the Titans a few years later. When Scottish mountains, characters or credits are on screen it’s unambiguous; this is Scotland and they’re Scottish. 

Some say this is not important. So, let’s imagine for a moment, that Wales was a person. What’s the end result of their obfuscation and silence? They wouldn’t get far in life, would they? They’d be riddled with fear, hesitancy and doubt. A stooped posture and no eye contact. They wouldn’t get opportunities. They’d be exploited and cast aside, giving their pocket money and homework to the bullies. All the while concealing a black belt and a fortune under their coat. 

Local economies

It’s important to say that Welsh locations being used to portray other places is not such a bad thing. I’m sure it’s good for local economies and the portfolios of executives at Wales Screen – an agency whose specific role is to suggest Welsh locations to double as other places.

But it’s time this existed together with national agencies whose drive and ambition is to see Cymru as setting for stories the world will see. Look at the profile and reach of the franchises mentioned above, now imagine 15% of these projects put their money and creativity – just for once – into Welsh stories. If Avengers Infinity War can have scenes in Scotland, why not Wales? Why can’t the next ‘Hogwarts’ be here? The next ‘Highlander’?

This idea, with more detailed examples, explored on WALES in the MOVIES here – where our goal is to help bring about an environment where we can rid ourselves of this cycle once and for all. If you’re feeling the message, consider sharing the video or subscribing. If you feel you want to help, please say shwmae on Patreon.

Whether you call it Wales or Cymru, it’s time to make the most out of our resources and potential. It’s time to ruffle a few feathers and upset a few people. It’s time for the place to finally be itself. 


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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago

Morfa Bychan under Polanski became somewhere in Scotland. The Englishman saw North East Wales stand in for South East Wales. In Happy Now Meirionnydd was the location for the South East again. As long as we are the location of choice for film makers that is fine. We have our own industry, with so many stories of our own fantastic history to tell why are they not making the most of it ?

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

How about the work of Ioan Gruffudd? I think there is a touch of ‘Partial Recall’ here…

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

One scene unique to Happy Now (2001) is the sun rising in the west…

Rhian Davies
Rhian Davies
1 month ago

Hi, well the impression I get since moving back to my native Cymru in 2005, is that so many of the Cymry (Welsh people) don’t know that Wales and Welsh are actually insulting labels given to us by the English. If it was actually explained on both 6 o clock news channels that the Welsh are humiliating themselves by using these insulting labels, then they might want to adopt Cymru instead of Wales and Cymry instead of the Welsh, and they might stop taking part in their own annihilation – via the sly South and North Wales corridors and folk… Read more »

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago
Reply to  Rhian Davies

Have you met Riki ?

Rhian Hewitt-Davies
Rhian Hewitt-Davies
1 month ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

who’s Riki?

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago

Is this wipe-out of our culture written in the stars by any chance ?

mat
mat
1 month ago
Reply to  Rhian Davies

Rhian…so agree with your sentiment!! There has been a huge influx of english/race for space…cheaper houses which have pushed local people out of well established communities…and is literally undoing the socail fabric.Local people can no longer compete with house prices…london-bristol emptying and outpricing locals…they bring little to the communities…its is colonisation by stealth! Chepstow,Monmouth,Newport Brecon & Penarth…are english enclaves…void of any Welsh characer.In Flintshire there was mumours that the growing english population were promoting cessation from Wales to join the North west!!! This was over there annoyance with the Senedd!!! My point is that…this growing english population is not open… Read more »

Maglocunos
Maglocunos
1 month ago

Erthygl wych, Nic, diolch! Cyfarchion o Fangor.

Thanks Nic, a great article! Greetings from Bangor.

Steve George
Steve George
1 month ago

Not sure I agree with the premise of the article. What about Probables v Possibles? (I’ll get my coat!)

Riki
Riki
1 month ago

It’s invisible because it’s a part of bigger whole, a bigger whole that England has dominated for centuries, the only way we become “Visible” is by gaining our independence. This invisibility is what has played into helping the English claim our Britishness from us. We have contributed massive amounts to the world but it’s always passed as Anglo due to Wales being written out of pretty much everything. All of British wars are called Anglo for example, even though the Welsh (Britons) to part in them too. This extends to almost everything making it seem that Britain = England in… Read more »

Stub Mandrel
Stub Mandrel
1 month ago

That’s a disturbing read.

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