Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Hands off Wales - Wyn Thomas, a quick review

I spotted this hefty tome at the Hay Festival, a couple of years after I had a brief flurry of interest in the militant Welsh nationalist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Like a lot of purchases from festivals and readings I never got round to reading it. I was however inspired to do so by a recent binge of Welsh language TV series and films.

Though my Dad is Welsh born, and he spoke Welsh as a child, before moving to Lancashire, I'm not as in touch with that side of my heritage. As anyone who has ever visited this blog before will note, I'm a very proud Professional Northerner. But in so being I do recognise the cultural and economic injustices that have blighted Wales and what it has as a special nation.

I dropped the author a note of appreciation this week and rather than compose a long blog review, I just thought I'd share some of the same observations here.

So Hands off Wales, an ambitious and impressive work by Dr Wyn Thomas takes a wise and particular view on a time and place, and pauses to consider how history views political movements over time.

It is a far richer and more thorough analysis than that of two earlier books I stumbled upon, Ray Clews To Dream of Freedom and John Humphries' Freedom Fighters. I developed some real anger and frustration about the militant movements for Wales from reading those. As I said at the time: “But it also served to deepen my anger at John Jenkins from MAC and his high minded lack of accountability for the bombs that maimed an RAF officer - he claims it wasn't "our boys". Neither was the one left in a locker at Cardiff station. But that's the problem with autonomous cells and leaderless resistance, people do their own thing. Nutters who don't and can't make moral judgements.”

I also said on the Free Wales Army: “It also really annoyed me that the FWA were cited as "anti-communist" and "nationalist" but were probably to all intents and purposes neo-fascists. The uniforms, the oaths, the rhetoric. Clews makes no comment about them receiving correspondence from the National Front leader John Tyndall, or their links to the IRA.”

Thomas's conclusions are better nuanced and more considered, as I’d expect, but the showboating and virtue signalling of politics today and the ability to create pop-up movements does lead me to think the last chapter on Welsh nationalism and political identity is far from written.

Indeed, Thomas has also written a biography of John Jenkins, the leader of one of the terror cells, and who now lives in the same village my Dad grew up in. His next work is a real analysis of the scandal of Liverpool Corporation's flooding of Tryweryn. On this evidence, they should be very worthwhile texts to study. But there is more to come, I feel.

I enjoyed the detail and the interplay of personalities in Hands Off Wales. I found myself wondering whether the injustice of Tryweryn and the hollowing out of communities are two sides of the same bad penny Wales has inherited, but also left wondering what political history will make of Welsh attitudes today, the support for Brexit and the uptick in support for Plaid. I guess we’re in unchartered territory now, we all have fears of what kind of dystopian world could emerge, but we’re still holding on to hopes that something better should.

Finally, it's also been inspiring as a piece of historical scholarship. As I plough on with my own magnum opus on a subject particular to my own sphere of interest, this proves that good clear and lively writing is essential to bring a subject and personalities to life.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The Passing - more Welsh noir, if you know your history

Severn Screen's The Passing

I tend to go down these cultural rabbit holes. After watching Severn Screen's second season of the excellent Hidden (Craith, in Welsh), I was drawn to this feature length 'horror' written a few years earlier by Ed Talfan, producer of Hinterland and Hidden, and a particularly gruesome historical horror film The Apostle from 2018.

The trailer suggested it was going to be a horror film, I think. The premise being that it starts with a lonely man tending to a run down farm, building a well. He's played by Mark Lewis Jones, a Welsh actor of some stature, who brought real presence recently to both his part as Steve Baldini in Keeping Faith and as Prince Charles' Welsh language tutor, Edward Millward in The Crown. There is a sense of foreboding and a tragic, hidden menace, but as the story goes on you're sure the gentle giant Lewis Jones' Stanley is just that, but that the young man and the woman he's pulled from a crashed car have something they're running from.

All of the spoken dialogue is in Welsh, but it's also sparse and packed full of non-verbal tension, with just the three actors, the couple played by Annes Elwy from Hidden, and Dyfan Swyfor who stars in S4C's Bang, which is now on my list. Yet for all of the uncertain undercurrents of tragedy and loss, The Passing is a remarkably tender and reflective story. There are a couple of dark twists that I can't even begin to hint at, but by the end of it (and I'd worked it out), you realise it's a work of quiet allegorical genius. Like many of the other projects that Talfan and his cohort are creating, it's a body of work that not only tells the stories of the people of Wales, that lets the landscape play an important central part, but does so in knowing and critical solidarity. It's far more ambitious in that regard than just Scandi Noir, Welsh style, unless of course I'm missing something cultural there too.

Should I pay any attention to reviews on IMDb? I was surprised it wasn't higher rated, but those who just didn't get it seemed to really hate it. Yes, there are things that happen that are improbable, impossible, inexplicable. That's the point. All I'll say is this: Cofiwch Drywern.  So if you know what that means, fine, if you don't, that's not fine and you probably ought to read more. Coming up next, a review of this important book I've gone back to and finished by this guy. Isolation rabbit holes, eh?

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Podcast with Influential Communications - managing news in the digital age

The advance of digital into all aspects of our lives has increased the rate news can spread exponentially. We are working in a 24-hour news cycle, with stories constantly breaking and updating. This has put great pressure on print media; a situation only accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis.

I took part in this podcast at the invitation of Chris Hulme, a director of Influential, and it was largely looking around the changing face of news in the built environment, but was also pretty relevant to news more generally, especially since the lockdown. I was billed as one of three "vastly experienced communicators" which was nice, but daunting. The others were Paul Unger, publisher of Place North West and Place Tech and Zak Garner-Purkis, head of content at Construction News.

One of the topics we touched on was the spreading of misinformation. In these strange times of social isolation, we seem even more desperate for the inside track. I'm sure we've all had messages claiming knowledge about the next phase of the crisis or medical insights. Some we can dismiss as outright disinformation designed to upset and degrade our resilience. Rightly, the tech companies are being asked to do something about this and clamp down on harmful spread of false information. We also all want to be the person who points out that the WhatsApp shared is a fake, because we're connected to Marianna Sprigg at the BBC who does an amazing job of researching and debunking such rubbish. Some nonsense on Facebook is easily reported and dissed in the comment section. But the forward button on WhatsApp is the biggest single cause of spreading conspiracies and wrong information. Often this is done by family members who can't spot fakes, and because of its source is more likely to be believed.

All this rather reinforces the trusted brand status of the BBC and the trusted local media. I'm a staunch defender of the BBC and their public service ethos. They tread that line between being a public body and being state controlled and do it very well. In some countries the equivalent is a tool of propaganda, and in the US this is faced with a battle by stealth from a President actively peddling outright lies and accusing any media who don't go along with him of being 'lamestream', 'fake news' or being a 'con'. Luckily we're nowhere near that.

The other vital and vulnerable source is the local media. Just when we need our community more than ever, our local outlets are in need of state support. This could be for advertising, or some kind of partnership. I'm in support of the News Media campaign and in particular the local version of it nearby, where my good friend Chris Bird is working wonders with Quest Media in Tameside.

I think we need journalism and informed scrutiny more than ever. These troubled times remind us of it on a daily basis.

Monday, April 06, 2020

Hidden: Series 2 - Relentlessly bleak, but remarkably good

We reflect in these troubled times about all the things we have to look forward to, all the times we can spend with people we're missing, places we can go, new joys we can experience. I'll be honest, a trip to north west Wales may well figure in those thoughts. The scenery, the cute railways, the open spaces. But this is not the Wales of Hidden, its dark noirish second season managing to be even more relentlessly bleak and hopeless than the first, which takes some doing given it pivoted around a lonely man who abducts, rapes and imprisons girls on his farm, with the encouragement of his mother.

And yet, it was a hugely compelling second run out. Without giving away the plot, or how it gets resolved, it doesn't have a happy ending. It simply can't - there are lives torn asunder, as you'd expect with an opening that lays it out from the start - retired teacher killed at home and nihilistic teenagers up to their necks in it. But it's never a 'whodunnit?' but a why dunnit?

Part of the mystery is in the lives of people who are abandoned and neglected. In different ways each character yearns to belong to something, or someone, while lamenting a dark sense of loss.

Wales has been blessed in so many different ways and these are exploited fully in the rich atmosphere that swirls all around each scene in Hidden, sometimes overdoing the long shots of the characters staring into the distance. The slate quarries, the forests and lakes, and the views of the Menai Straits over to Angelsey hang over the individual human tales of loss and sadness as a reminder that people can be capable of such collective mistakes and mishaps. Every single character seems to carry a heavy burden of grief, or are the victims of appalling circumstance - even the offers of something better get snuffed out - be it the stress of raising a newborn child when you have no time, a fishing trip, or that you don't get to go out for a drink with the person who you click with.

There is police procedure, but it doesn't get in the way. Neither do the police seem particularly under resourced to deal with a murder investigation in the way you depressingly see in some urban crime dramas. Though you wouldn't want to rely on the services of a duty solicitor in a Welsh police station if these lot are anything to go by.

The central character DCI Cadi John (played with an understated melancholy by the excellent Sian Reece-Williams) is not only by some distance the most competent police officer Wales has ever seen (see Hinterland and Keeping Faith and you'll see what I mean), but also hugely empathetic, caring and yet pulled in all directions.  And in a refreshing break with TV norms her personal story never overplays its hand, or exacerbates professional tensions with fellow officers who all seem to work for one another.

The whole cast of Hidden pull it off with real style and raw emotion. But it is the young actors in particular who are exceptionally strong, especially in the final two episodes where they are called upon to let out their respective despair, cunning and anger (left to right). Remember these names: Steffan Cenydd, Annes Elwy and Sion Eifion, as Conor, Mia and Lee.

As I wrote in appreciation of Welsh noir after the second excellent series of Hinterland, Welsh TV has a great head start on the rest of the UK with a tradition of drama going back to the very beginnings of its own fourth channel S4C. With Hinterland, Keeping Faith, Bang and Requiem, there clearly are a pool of actors, daring script writers and a landscape, literally, to die for.

Friday, April 03, 2020

Ozark season 3 - wow

The initial hot take on the Netflix series Ozark was that it was Breaking Bad lite. Respectable family gets in over its head with the Mexican drug cartels, with murderous consequences. But somehow from the start you felt that much as he was a nice guy out of his depth, Marty Byrde's character development through the first two seasons simply lacked the complex brilliance of the transformation of Walter White into Heisenberg.

Well, I'm not minded to compare the two on any kind of balanced score card, but Season Three raised the game and took Ozark in a direction all of its own. We know by now what Mexican drug cartels are capable of. But the question you ask yourself all the way through, is how far will any of these characters go? Or as cartel kingpin Omar Navarro puts it, "what do you want, Marty?"

The acting, the writing, the tension, all ratchet up throughout. All of it makes for a totally bingeworthy series with twists and turns, accelerated by the regular introduction of new characters that take the plot to new places and force the characters into darker moral choices. Foremost amongst them all is Ben, Wendy's brother, with a terrifying performance by Tom Pelphrey as worthy of an Emmy as Julia Garner was (and is, again) for her next level delivery of Ruth Langmore.

The women of the Ozarks, Darlene, Wendy, Ruth and Helen. Bad assess, all of them
And it has to be said, at the centre, slap bang at the the molten core of this whole crazy show are the women. All of them. Darlene, Helen, Wendy, and especially Ruth. These are complex, vibrant, surprising, repulsive and mesmerising, all at once. But also Charlotte, Marty and Wendy's daughter, their therapist Sue, and Maya, the six months pregnant FBI agent. Wow. Never once did you stop for breath and think, no, leave it out, that's exploitative or implausible. Well, as wild and unexpected as you can get with a family like the Byrde's and set ups like their labyrinth money laundering empire.

And then as it all draws to a shocking conclusion, it's the raw, abused and rough arsed hill billies that display empathy and love and are prepared to draw a line that defines their version of decent, and beyond which they simply will not cross (apart from seeding a new poppy field to pump smack into Season 4, but what's a bit of drug distribution amongst old friends?). No, that's the shocking trajectory that this series has taken you on. It's the not the educated, urban, ambitious politicos and lawyers, you feel for, the people a bit like us, but the women of the Ozarks.

Wow. What an ending. We've all got a bit more time on our hands and time at home, but trust me, this is great.