Wales’ portrayal as a wild, uncivilised, empty country needs an update
Ifan Morgan Jones
I’m a bit of a sucker for documentaries, especially those that involve a presenter trudging up a muddy hill in wellies and looking out to sea with a thoughtful look on his/her face.
You know the kind. He or she will usually be explaining how a piece of basalt rock used to be the plug of a supervolcano, or what a tiny piece of pottery tells us about the Roman diet 2,000 years ago.
Having watched numerous such documentaries about Wales, however, I’ve noticed something quite peculiar.
Wales always seems to be portrayed on British TV as a kind of beautiful blank canvass. A culture-less, almost civilisation-less place, where people can come to mess about with trains and boats.
The voices of Welsh people from the area are almost always silenced altogether.
Very often we hear from ‘an expert’, usually drafted in from Oxbridge so that their academic credentials are not in doubt.
Either that or someone from elsewhere, suffering from a mid-life crisis who has tired of city life and moved that part of Wales to work on ‘A Project’, which usually means messing about on a train or boat.
I’m not sure we can really blame the documentary makers for this portrayal, however, because this empty, culture-less blank canvass is largely how we choose to portray ourselves.
Have a look at this new advert by ‘Discover Ceredigion’:
— Discover Ceredigion (@visitceredigion) 10 October 2018
It’s a lovely advert. But it’s definitely another in the ‘Wales is a beautiful blank canvass where you can mess about on trains and boats’ genre.
Visit Wales’ high profile ‘Find Your Epic’ advertising campaign from 2016 was very similar.
The emphasis is on high-altitude drone shots that make Wales look like a desert devoid of life, apart from the intrepid tourist canoeing, riding horses and climbing mountains.
Very often, there don’t even seem to be any villages, towns and cities.
This is Wales as a Minecraft sandbox-mode world. A big, empty park. Come and play and explore! Discover something no-one else has ever seen, because no-one else, it seems, lives here.
It is in stark contrast to how other modern nations choose to advertise themselves. Can you imagine an advert for France that just showed the Alps, or an advert for Italy showing nothing but fields in Tuscany?
No! A quick peek at the promotional adverts for any other country shows how much of a difference there is.
Yes, there are helicopter shots. But there are also buildings, food, people.
Compare Wales’ output to this advert from Visit Scotland. It may not be to everyone’s taste but the message is clear: ‘Scotland is full of vibrant, diverse people and cultures.’
It is what is there rather than what isn’t there that is the appeal.
So, why is Wales’ culture mostly invisible in these adverts?
It is partly, I think, a hangover from history. The portrayal of a romantic ‘Wild Wales’, untouched by civilization, goes back to at least the 19th century.
Unconsciously or not, we are perhaps portraying Wales in a way we think tourists imagine us to be.
But I think there’s also an underlying cultural cringe – a feeling that our culture is substandard, and at best would just scare people off rather than attract them.
Wales’ most attractive spots for tourists are also some of those where the Welsh language is still a community language. And we wouldn’t want that to make people feel unwelcome!
But these adverts should have a role in changing perceptions, not just pandering to them.
I’ve spoken before of how Scotland can teach us a thing or two about selling our own culture and history. As a starting point, self-confidence is key.
But whatever the reasons, it not only gives visitors (and those looking to settle) a false impression but also seems to be a missed opportunity in terms of marketing Wales.
Yes, our country has very nice mountains and beaches.
But so do many holiday destinations. Even just within the UK, Scotland has bigger mountains and Cornwall has beaches that are just as nice, as well as a sunnier climate.
Without telling us what Ceredigion, or Wales as a whole, has to offer that is unique, the advert essentially amounts to ‘going outside is fun’.
Yes, it is, and we should do a lot more of it. But surely, if we forget to include the people, it only scratches the surface of everything Wales has to offer?