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TV ‘struggling to show contemporary Welsh life on screen’ summit told

BBC Wales drama Keeping Faith

TV is still struggling to show contemporary Welsh life on screen, despite the country being one of the biggest production hubs in the UK and local-language content being popular abroad, according to speakers at the Wales Screen Summit.

Speaking at the event, which took place in Cardiff earlier this week, director Mark Evans, who has directed series such as Hinterland, pointed out that Wales is third in line behind South East and North West England in terms of British creative communities – but asked: “Why aren’t we seen as much on screen?”

Severn Screen chief executive Ed Talfan said the commission of Welsh-language drama Hinterland a decade ago depended on delivering an English-language version for international roll-out. However, the industry has since changed and now recognises audience demand for local-language programming.

S4C drama commissioner Gwenllian Gravelle pointed out that recent S4C drama The Museum was sold in the Welsh language to Britbox and to Japan’s Mystery Channel.

She said Welsh-language drama can stand out as “local exotic” in a saturated market: drama that is “very rooted in Wales, with Welsh voices, the diversity of modern Wales but feels a bit exotic to the rest of the world.”

Ben Irving, the BBC’s acting head of drama, said there is a “stark gap” between high-end, made-in-Wales productions like Doctor Who and His Dark Materials and “incredible Welsh pieces made on low budgets that go on to do well on iPlayer and get great acclaim.”

He is looking to close that gap with pieces such as The Pact, Wolf and Lost Boys & the Fairies, the first bilingual English/Welsh-language drama for primetime BBC1, which the BBC announced this week.

“It feels like a real shift into filling that space,” he said. “Daf James [the writer of Lost Boys & the Fairies] was part of the BBC Writers room Welsh Voices development group, which singled out writers with real potential who hadn’t necessarily written on screen. He was then part of the Writers room TV Drama Writers’ Programme, where he was partnered with [Leeds production company] Duck Soup and the script was ultimately greenlit. That created the first network BBC1-blended English/Welsh-language drama.”

Channel 4 drama commissioning editor Gwawr Lloyd stressed the importance of telling regional stories and making them universal.

“I’m frustrated that we’re not working enough with writers from Wales, but that is going to change because there are a lot of great projects on the slate,” she said.

Lloyd added that the move away from linear commissioning and audiences’ increasing acceptance of subtitles are encouraging signs for the future.

Lloyd highlighted the success of BBC Wales drama Keeping Faith. “It wasn’t commissioned for BBC Network, but it became an iPlayer sensation,” she said. “The people had spoken: they wanted to see this really authentic story set in Wales.”

As the BBC continues to move towards making iPlayer the primary destination for viewers, Irving said it will “democratise the content in the way the linear schedule cannot always do.”

On a separate panel, BBC daytime and early peak commissioning editor Julie Shaw was surprised to learn that Creative Wales-funded Netflix show Sex Education was filmed in Newport as it consciously strives to make its setting neutral.

“The precious thing we can do as content-makers in the UK, by tapping into the nations, is to give [dramas] a sense of place – not make them Nowheresville.”

Some unscripted shows continue to be filmed “back-to-back” in the English and Welsh language to produce two separate versions commissioned by different broadcasting co-producers.

Channel 4/S4C coproduction The Great House Giveaway is one such show. C4 daytime and features commissioning editor Kate Thomas said she had 14 commissions coming out of Wales.

“I’m actively looking for other projects I can commission back-to-back with S4C at the moment,” she said. She urged producers: “Come to us with a really bold idea – don’t just think about Wales-based ideas. Think about formats, think about relatable, scalable series. Everything’s in place for us to keep growing on that.”

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