While Wales remains invisible on the silver screen no one will know who we are
Nick Stradling, Wales in the Movies
Most of us have no doubt at some point been abroad and mentioned that we’re from Wales.
Usually, the person will either look rather bemused (very common) or tell you that they thought Wales was part of England.
For any Welshman or woman, this can be a painful experience. Oddly enough, if you mentioned Scotland or Ireland abroad they would cotton on immediately.
Wales has made headway recently thanks to our sporting exploits, from Geraint Thomas’ Tour de France win to Gareth Bale’s football heroics. I maintain that Euro 2016 was probably the biggest moment in Wales’ international history.
My theory for Wales’ invisibility compared to our Celtic neighbours was that we’re almost completely absent on the silver screen. Five years of research for Wales in the Movies has confirmed this.
There’s a maxim that good screenwriters use: Show, don’t tell. We can tell people that Wales is a country until we’re blue in the face, but unless it’s continually shown to an international audience then you’re on to a loser.
If you tell someone you’re from Scotland they will know about your country – after all, they’ve seen Braveheart.
Okay, so the Scots didn’t need Mel Gibson and Randall Wallace (screenwriter) to sell them to the world. Their name comes with a whole set of sensory or brand expectations; of images. Kilts, whiskey, haggis, bagpipes, woad, Highlands, Loch Ness etc. etc.
This visual shorthand is probably why, along with the Irish, you could not take 10 random Hollywood films off my DVD shelf without finding references to Scotland and Ireland in 4 or 5 of them.
We see Wales all the time on screen – or at least, we see films shot in Wales. But there’s never anything to identify that it’s Wales we’re seeing.
This is also why recently, the Mickey Rourke project The Welshman – the biopic of rugby player Gareth Thomas – was at one stage relocated to Ireland as “most Americans don’t really get Wales”.
I agreed then and I agree now: Michael Costigan the producer was doing his job, and doing it well.
Because he’s right, Americans don’t ‘get’ Wales. In any sense of the verb. Most importantly they don’t get Wales in the movies. We crop up occasionally. I won’t disappoint or bore you with the data, or the scattered examples. Let’s just say that, there has been nothing along the lines of Braveheart, Michael Collins, Rob Roy, or even TVs Outlander. Something that can put a nation’s historical conflict in sharp focus.
The closest was TV drama The Bastard Executioner which, unfortunately, was a total flop. It set its action in the “Welsh wars of independence”. It’s a start at least, and really should have been supported at home more than it was.
As Gareth Leaman wrote recently, Wales has no marketability abroad, no capital value. This can change, but it requires ambition. Foremost, it requires the problem to be recognised before it can be solved.
Ffilm Cymru Wales have done a fantastic job over the last 10 years or so, creating independent and genuinely Welsh films which has seen the graph of Welsh representations on screen become a right angle.
But these films do not have much of a shelf life outside of Wales. Even within the UK, very few filmgoers want to watch Yr Ymadawiad, y Llyfrgell or even American Interior.
We also need to make more of opportunities to market Wales’ identity, such as the Bastard Executioner, when they do arise. It was an American drama series by a world-renowned screenwriter with a committed fanbase.
We should have seen its posters up everywhere we went in 2015. The Welsh media should have promoted it heavily. But did you even hear about it?
The Welsh Government and its agencies seem to have a strangely ambivalent relationship with Welsh history and culture. It doesn’t quite seem to understand it.
It would rather portray Wales as an ‘empty’ country – a blank canvass onto which others can project their own identities. But that does very little for Wales’ profile abroad, where distinctiveness is key.
Former AM Carwyn Jones talked about “building on the success of Euro 2016” by ensuring Wales gained recognition worldwide.
Yet his government, in the self-proclaimed “2017 Year of Legends” were actual producers on Their Finest – a movie about British Wartime Propaganda with Welsh locations doubling for England, and publicity material emblazoned with the Union Flag.
Nobody watching that film would have ‘got’ Wales.
All this while yet more films are produced by the UK and USA which show the world that the UK is England, Scotland and occasionally Ireland. Just recently we’ve seen the release of Mary Queen of Scots, and the Outlaw King on Netflix.
If you don’t have the subtitles on you’d never actually know that the main villain in the latter is the English ‘Prince of Wales’. We don’t get a mention.
Last week I saw Stan & Ollie which has scenes and text legends on screen referring to England, Scotland and Ireland. Guess who misses out?
We’ve still never been identified in a James Bond or Harry Potter movie.
So what is there to be done? Well, somehow, by hook or by crook, we need to bypass the UK film industry and get Wales’ history and identity into a Hollywood film.
We have sympathetic individuals within the artistic and celeb communities. Michael Sheen and Matthew Rhys have both long talked about the desire to see films that are actually about Wales.
Welsh history has seen plenty of conflict. There’s an awful lot there for Hollywood to get its teeth into.
Wales certainly doesn’t need another tepid, independent rom-com set in a fictional village of hapless simpletons.
We need to see passion, anger, villainy, heroism, insurrection. We need images of conflict.
“You’re from Wales? Ah, yes – I saw Gwenllian the Brave. Great movie. Welcome to my country.”
Sounds good, doesn’t it?
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