Gwynfor Evans has died. 

21 April 2005

BBC Wales tributes

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 seperate country of Wales to be merely an appendage of Wngland – 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.

But 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) civial 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. They would be followed by people keen to learn the language. 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 have 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 and 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 6 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 die.

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 put out to the country.

Gwynfor Evans achieved a lot in his long lifetime. He got Wales from being a few counties tacked on to England into being a nation with an Assembly and a new sense of purpose. He got Welsh television from being something that broadcasters did because they had to into being 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 Cym correctly placed with other Welsh dramas.

Sleep well, Gwynfor.

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