Welsh actors for Welsh roles is a red herring
Nick Stradling, Wales in the Movies
‘Welsh Actors for Welsh Roles’ is a mantra that we need to be suspicious of.
In response to Stephen Price’s thoughtful opinion piece in these pages last week, as someone who has watched every single film set in Wales, and written a dissertation on Welsh Cinema and storytelling, I’d like to offer a few reasons as to why I believe this whole argument to be a bit of a red herring.
The Stories we choose to tell
The fear of “nationalism” which pervades our agencies perhaps creates an inhibited culture where our distinctiveness cannot be established dramatically or sold to international audiences.
While Ffilm Cymru Wales have succeeded in producing a steady stream of Welsh films that was unimaginable in the 20th century – and I’m sure provided income streams and career exposure for the artistic classes – these films are not designed to hit the box office, travel the world or draw attention to Wales.
The film GWEN, as cited by Stephen in his article, is a case in point. Attending the premiere and Ffilm Cymru Q&A in Bangor in 2019, it was clear that the filmmakers had no interest in representing Wales, or Welshness.
Ffilm Cymru was solely a vehicle for the director and producer to further their portfolios. These projects are content; made to tick the agency’s remit boxes and possibly sold to a streaming platform.
GWEN is a beautiful looking film, with a story, genre and tone that is unappealing to mainstream audiences.
While the attempts at Swansea accents by English actors in 19th century Gwynedd are typical, they are way down the list of problems with films such as these.
Two of our brightest stars, Matthew Rhys and Michael Sheen have spoken publicly about the lack of audience-friendly Welsh films, the former openly discussing his struggles to produce the type of Welsh material which is a mainstay of the genre is novel form.
The bigger question is not why Welsh actors don’t get Welsh roles, but why there is no Welsh equivalent to Braveheart, Angela’s Ashes, Arthur Pendragon, The Banshees of Inisherin or countless other examples in the huge canon of visual media.
Perhaps when our distinctiveness has been established, more respectful representations will become the norm?
Exclusivity will salt this ground infertile. Prioritizing native casting or authentic accents builds a big wall saying “Come here if you want to be judged”
In 2020 Robert Downey Jnr. did something wonderful. He took an English literary character and, by his own design, made him Welsh in a major Hollywood feature film. A complete inversion of the usual trope of cultural appropriation.
The response from most of Wales? Derision. Why? His accent wasn’t perfect (but nowhere near as bad as reported). High on a sense of exclusivity, Welsh audiences were turned off the film.
This attitude will see us remain obscure, unrepresented and undistinguished.
Stephen Price makes valid points in his article; little-known Rachel Griffiths and Tara Fitzgerald were unfathomable choices to play Welsh characters. But Keira Knightley was not. Bill Nighy was not. Robert Downey Jnr was not.
“Welsh Actors for Welsh Roles” is dangerously insular ground. It needs to be communicated with the utmost care and respect otherwise we risk demotivating the creatives who can help us achieve our end goal of cultural distinctiveness.
Bums on Seats
“A stab at a generic one-for-all accent is never going to cut the mustard for a native audience”. How can this be done?
Stephen Price refers to classic Welsh ‘films’ Hedd Wyn and Un Nos Ola Lleuad. While these are both superb, worthy pieces of television, who outside Wales has any interest in watching them? And if so, how could these works be obtained for viewing?
Hedd Wyn exists in an old DVD print somewhere (without English subtitles) while Un Nos Ola Lleuad is not available in any format. It’s not alone.
Have you seen Rebecca’s Daughters? It’s on Ebay, second-hand on German VHS.
This is not just an old phenomena. How about Kevin Allen’s Y Syrcas? Lee Haven Jones’ Y Swn? A lot of recent Welsh films don’t even end up on DVD, never mind BluRay.
Probably Wales’ best film Twin Town has recently had its first BluRay transfer, twenty years into the existence of the format.
It’s a question of ambition. In Hollywood, it’s common knowledge that to succeed in the modern market, a film’s production costs must be matched by marketing and advertising.
Such outlay is beyond the reach of Ffilm Cymru Wales obviously, but we must realise that catering to “native audiences” only is a loser’s game.
Dream Horse, starring bona-fide movie stars Toni Colette and Damien Lewis, with solid supporting roles for Sian Phillips, Steffan Rhodri, Darren Lewis, Di Botcher, Owen Teale and more, has already passed into obscurity, despite international distribution from Warner Bros. Who knew?
In order to get bums on seats and draw attention to our unrepresented, much sought-after distinctiveness, risks have to be taken and compromises may have to be made. The purity of the accents and nationality of actors should be high on that list of compromises.
Israeli Gal Gadot as Gwenllian, backed by a huge expert marketing campaign, the best dialogue coaches and a Welsh supporting cast? Yes please. I’ll accept an imperfect accent to see that film (or series) travel the world.
Irish Michael Fassbender as Dic Penderyn directed by English Steve McQueen? Take my money. A critical mass of stories that people want to watch, that mates want to discuss in the pub, that marketing companies know how to sell – needs to be created before we can even begin to demand ‘Welsh Actors for Welsh Roles’.
Audiences weren’t attracted to Braveheart because they wanted to see a worthy depiction of Scotland. They were lured by star power and good marketing.
They didn’t love it, talk about it, buy the BluRay, because they were Scottish cultural nationalists. They connected with the human story. Rob Roy, released in the same year, failed for the same reason.
We need to rethink our whole reason for telling our stories in order to get to the promised land.
Currently most Welsh films are made for small cliques of cultural nationalists and arthouse patrons – complete with back-slapping Q&As and a few re-posts.
The nation, not the individual, must be intrinsic in our motivations. We must aim to get the worldwide gwerin bobl on the edges of their seats, bringing them into the world of Wales in emotional, visceral experiences they identify with.
Once that has been done, we can explore the luxury of ‘Welsh Actors for Welsh Roles”.
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