A Tribute to Gwynfor Evans 

1 April 2005 tbs.pm/2068

Gwynfor Evans, a great Welshman, 1912-2005

Gwynfor Evans, 1912-2005

Russ J Graham remembers the will behind S4C

The majority of our readers here at Transdiffusion are English. We have readers throughout the world, and some of our most active editors and contributors are from the Celtic fringes of the UK (Wales and the ‘English’ south-west spring to mind), myself among them, but our readers are generally English people in their 40s/50s or teens/20s.

So the English majority reading this should forgive me the following deep appreciation of my fellow countryman Gwynfor Evans.

Evans believed in Wales. He thought the nation had potential – a future that was worth something. He believed this enough to fight from nothing to become the first Welsh nationalist MP, fighting for the rights of Wales and of the brand of Welsh Socialism that marks the country out from the rest of the UK.

He wasn’t a man who despised the English. He didn’t always like them (too imperialist, perhaps? Certainly too quick to consider the separate country of Wales to be merely an appendage of England), but he didn’t hate them. He spoke both English and Welsh, and was comfortable in both languages. He had no problem with English-speaking Welsh people – we are what history has made us.

19800917 - Guardian - Whitelaw to give Welsh TVBut he did believe in Welsh television: television from, and for, Wales. The BBC had always done best in this; HTV had done a good job in a tough commercial world trying to do this; TWW had done its best in a different climate; WWN had been killed by London (English) civil servants keen to prove a point.

And television from and for Wales meant television in Welsh. If you were going to go beyond being a ‘region’ of a London broadcaster, or a contractor of a London regulator, then you needed a channel that was mainly in Welsh.

The number of speakers of Welsh in Wales was unimportant: provide the programming – quality, richly written, well-produced programming – and the viewers would follow. People keen to learn the language, in turn, would follow them. Eventually, English-only speakers in Wales would learn, or start using subtitles, to enjoy the top programming that a lavishly funded Welsh channel would provide.

Labour in 1979 had promised this – sort of – to keep Plaid, and Evans, voting them a majority in the Commons. When Thatcher, a natural enemy of non-English nationalism and of minorities in general, came to power, she considered backing off from the Welsh Fourth Channel idea.

After all, that channel would require millions – millions – of pounds of subsidy. And she planned to put a stop to all of that, along with everything else everyone in the UK cared about or loved. Her Home Secretary, Willie Whitelaw, was determined that the unused fourth channel could be diverted into the kind of market that he liked – regulated, nurtured, for the greater good of the country he loved in all its facets. Thatcher wanted it thrown to the wolves to tear apart and make a penny or two from. She claimed to love Britain, then sold it to anyone with enough money. Tough love.

Whitelaw and Thatcher disagreed on the new Channel 4 in the rest of the UK, but Whitelaw won by telling her it was for black people and would keep them quiet (I paraphrase, but that’s the gist of it).

Neither of them really wanted a 100% Welsh channel with all that would mean for Welsh politics, at a time when the Tories were a force in the principality. So they backed off, seeking a channel in Wales that would have ITV’s Welsh output plus the rest of Channel 4 UK. But the BBC would remain in Welsh in Wales – no cross-subsidies, no awkward questions should the BBC have to stop existing for commercial reasons in a few years.

For Evans, this wouldn’t do. The Welsh 4 being offered was an English 4 with Welsh programmes – in other words, HTV again, only without the money.

Whitelaw, having won one battle, drew the line at the second. There would be no S4C.

So Evans did the logical thing. He went to Downing Street. He stopped ministers outside their houses. He stopped eating. He gave interviews and placidly announced his intention to die for Welsh television.

Thatcher was deeply unpopular within six months of being elected. She was hated by the people who voted for her. She had campaigned on unemployment and had tripled it. She had doubled VAT – the tax that the poor pay most of. Unless war broke out, she was going to be replaced in a hurry at the next election.

She couldn’t lose the Welsh Tory seats: if nothing else, a national and nationalist party like the Tories, holding almost no seats in Wales or Scotland, would be a parody of a political party and would soon pass away.

Evans dying meant that the Tories in Wales would die. If the Tories in Wales died, the Tories died. And Thatcherism, still being incubated, would never be born.

So Whitelaw gave in. Evans won. S4C was born and became the best terrestrial channel in the UK, sweeping aside ITV with its production values and commitment to Welsh talent, and giving the BBC a run for its money. S4C created a hothouse of Welsh production that fed back into England: high quality programming in English – like the new Doctor Who – is now produced by staff who cut their teeth making high quality programming for the BBC in Welsh for S4C to broadcast to the country.

Gwynfor Evans achieved a lot in his long lifetime. He took Wales from being a few counties tacked on to England to being a nation with an Assembly and a new sense of purpose. He took Welsh television from being something that broadcasters did because they had to, to something that people with talent did because they wanted to. He created an environment where Welsh television would be the envy of Europe, and the English would be queuing to borrow Welsh talent.

And all of that from going on hunger strike because he wanted Pobol Y Cwm correctly placed alongside other Welsh dramas.

Sleep well, Gwynfor.

This article originally appeared in Transdiffusion’s MediaBlog

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3 responses to this article

Joanne Gray 11 October 2015 at 5:24 pm

For a few months sometime in the 1990s, I remember BBC2 started showing Pobol Y Cwm and this English girl who doesn’t’ speak a word of Welsh thoroughly enjoyed it. I was rather disappointed when BBC2 stopped showing it because this was pre-digital times and Welsh TV signals never reached the North East English coast except during exceptional atmospheric phenomena during a very hot summer or a thunderstorm.

Maybe Gwynfor Evans would have been amused at Welsh drama being enjoyed by such an unusual demographic as myself?

Des Elmes 23 March 2016 at 8:07 pm

It was 1994 when Pobol y Cwm was briefly shown on weekday afternoons on BBC2, alongside the likes of Catchword and Today’s the Day.

AFAIK, this wasn’t the first attempt to show it nationwide – but it was certainly the most notable. It confused the six-year-old me, though – the title sequence said “Pobol y Cwm”, yet it was being billed and advertised as “People of the Valley”.

Of course, I was too young to understand why it was being billed and advertised under its English name. It’s quite likely that Gwynfor Evans understood perfectly, however – potential non-Welsh viewers might have been less inclined to watch if it had been billed and advertised as Pobol y Cwm.

And for some existing non-Welsh viewers, watching a soap where only one character spoke English (brash pub landlord Ron Unsworth, played by Bernard Latham), followed by a game show in which the contestants often gave answers such as “floccinaucinihilipilification” and “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis”, must have been some experience.

Shame it only lasted a few months – but at least there is a greater awareness of PyC outside Wales these days, to the extent that it’s winning the occasional national award and turning up as an answer on Pointless. If Mr Evans is looking down on this, I’d say he’d be pretty happy.

Arthur Vasey 12 July 2016 at 1:05 pm

For several decades – at least throughout the 60s and 70s, BBC 1 put out a lot of Welsh language programmes – oddly enough, with no subtitles in either Welsh or English – Pobol Y Cwm was one of them, along with a programme of Welsh hymn singing, Dechrau Canu, Dechrau Canmol (English translation: Start Singing, Start Praising) – the hymns had on-screen subtitles – in Welsh – this was for Welsh people living in England – they sometimes had one in the mornings and they often appeared just before the afternoon transmission of Play School – the day S4C was launched, all Welsh language programmes disappeared from HTV Wales and BBC Wales and moved lock, stock and barrel to S4C – and were never seen again outside of Wales – apart from a brief run of Pobol Y Cwm on BBC 2!

The announcement would say: “The next programme, on certain transmitters only, is in Welsh …” – they originally took a pre-recorded feed from BBC Wales, but later, they just had the national globe and the announcer then had to say “And now on BBC1 …” then try to speak Welsh.

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