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Opinion

Welsh actors for Welsh roles is a red herring

07 Jan 2024 6 minute read
Picture by Ffilm Cymru

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.

Many of these ideas are explored further on the YouTube channel WALES in the MOVIES.

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?

Snobbery

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.

Ambition

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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Blodyn
Blodyn
1 month ago

I totally agree that the actors don’t need to be Welsh – they just need to learn the appropriate accent. After all, with things as they are, it would be difficult for Welsh actors to find work if they could only play Welsh people.

I don’t really agree about DVDs. Who even has a DVD player nowadays? Modern computers don’t come with disc drives either so let’s have the films available to stream.

I think Hedd Wyn is available on YouTube. I have showed it to foreign friends, who have enjoyed it.

Carol Loughlin
Carol Loughlin
1 month ago
Reply to  Blodyn

I disagree with your comment regarding DVDs. We have a DVD player at home and also in our campervan. We mainly use DVDs when abroad as streaming would be far too expensive and would probably exceed the “fair usage” for data roaming, assuming that there is even sufficient coverage in rural mountainous areas. I know plenty of other people with DVD players as well. If we’re talking about exclusivity in the Welsh film industry please don’t exclude those of relying on DVDs.

Notttabottt
Notttabottt
1 month ago
Reply to  Blodyn

I think they should try their best to fill it with someone Welsh, we are a minority nationality and same as any catagory representation matters and should be authentic. BUT, I get the logistics of filling roles having worked in film and also if a big name comes forward for a role it can be massive for a project. Like when Tom Hardy played a Welshman, wasnt the best accent, but its Tom F-ing Hardy….

I think it annoys me more when they dont even try like Merlin, no accent, no language, anglicised to the hilt

lufcwls
lufcwls
1 month ago
Reply to  Notttabottt

Robert Downey Jr’s Welsh accent was much better than Tom Hardy’s but I agree completely. Also, as you say, It’s Tom F-ing Hardy <3

Chris Hale
Chris Hale
1 month ago

I would love to see the work of some of our great writers, such as Rachel Trezise, on the big (or small) screen. Her “Easy Meat” for example captures the language and feelings of a community and would be a fantastic vehicle for any actor, Welsh or not.

Carol Loughlin
Carol Loughlin
1 month ago

The Mabinogion is crying out for a large screen franchise and could rival the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. We’re not short of stories, but the vision and finance seems to be lacking.

Annibendod
Annibendod
1 month ago

The article misses two points. 1. Welsh people get irritated by inauthentic portrayals not the purity of the accent. 2. Welsh people have developed a culture of waiting for things to happen for us. We’ve made an art out of complaining about what we havent got. We’re so much better when we go do it ourselves. A great example of this is the Welsh music scene. That’s the kind of energy we need to bring to Welsh film.

Colin
Colin
1 month ago

Can’t have looked very hard for Hedd Wyn. The whole film is up on YouTube, has been for years. No official streaming release though, granted. Other than that, agree with every word. I’ve lived in the USA for 13 years, and 2 episodes of The Crown did more to raise the profile of Wales here than any home-grown product. Hinterland/Y Gwyll caused a few ripples, but that was always destined to be niche viewing, tucked away late on Saturday night on regional on PBS channels. Other than that, I can’t think of any Welsh production that’s had any impact here… Read more »

Colin
Colin
1 month ago
Reply to  Colin

Forgot to mention Welcome to Wrexham, which has been a hit here, though I think its popularity has been a bit overstated by the headline writers in Wales. While it has drawn some Hollywood stars to the Racecourse Ground, I don’t personally know anyone who’s watched it (apart from me).

CapM
CapM
1 month ago
Reply to  Colin

Erm!

FIVE Golden Globe awards

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
1 month ago
Reply to  Colin

Totally agree with you about Mel Gibson in the role of Glyndŵr, just no! Not sure if it’s available internationally, (but there’s always a VPN) but BFI Player does have Hedd Wyn in probably the best quality available to stream, and for free too – all those on YouTube appear to be rather poor standard definition copies of the film. Someone in this thread mentioned Trainspotting, and how it was an exclusively Scottish film. Certainly it’s rather interesting that it gained a cult following all around the world, but that in part is down to the writing talent of Irvine… Read more »

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago
Reply to  Padi Phillips

Have you seen ‘Happy Now’ (2001) Padi

So much history from Tacitus onwards to mine, a seam so rich they call it Hanes Cymru…

CapM
CapM
1 month ago

“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.” Home produced star power in quantity isn’t really something Cymru can realistically expect to materialise and funding a hugely expensive epic will need international star power. A more apt comparison to our film industry would perhaps have been with “Trainspotting” in which no star power was really evident and the cast were overwhelmingly Scottish. It was however authentically of Scotland and yet was still very successful at the box office. Perhaps one of the things that people liked was… Read more »

Matt
Matt
1 month ago

I don’t disagree that star power is a massive thing for modern audiences, but so many Cymry actors have to play down their ‘Welshness’ to get work. Larger roles won’t even consider a Cymry accent as acceptable.

Never mind some of the more prevalent Cymru films include How Green Is My Valley and Human Traffick.

Siacta
Siacta
1 month ago

‘Welsh actors for Welsh roles’ is an attractive idea on the surface (and accents do matter) but the obvious problem is of course that everyone could do it. If they did, Welsh actors wouldn’t work outside Wales. We’ve seen other similar calls about the sexuality of actors needing to match their roles for ‘authenticity’. It’s almost as if some people want to end the craft of acting altogether.

Elizabeth Bowen
Elizabeth Bowen
1 month ago

Of course the accents matters!!!!!!!!!

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
1 month ago

Surely it depends on the role. I did feel the ‘Mr Jones’ film should have had a Welsh lead actor because it was based on a true story whereas other roles may not require it.

John Williams
John Williams
1 month ago
Reply to  Linda Jones

Re the film ‘Mr Jones’, does anyone know if Gareth Jones did in fact speak with a Welsh accent? He was certainly Welsh, but having studied and taught at Cambridge after Aberystwyth and moving in English establishment circles he might well have aquired so-called ‘received pronunciation’ in the process, especially at a time when the abilities and contributions of those with differing accents were often not taken sufficiently seriously

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
1 month ago
Reply to  John Williams

As much as I am an admirer of James Norton his portrayal of Mr Jones lacked ‘Welshness’ in my opinion. Regardless of accent (which I believe to be important) his portrayal lacked the emotional, passionate vibrance of ‘Welshness’. It lacked authenticity

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