This summer the 2013 National Eisteddfod – Wales’s annual celebration of art and culture – takes place in Denbigh and the JISC-funded project, Media and the Memory in Wales, celebrates its first birthday!
We wanted to take a further look at this project, which has been capturing and exploring the memories that people in Wales have of watching and engaging with key events in Welsh political and cultural history through television. The site shares these oral histories – recorded both in English and Welsh – across several themed collections including the Coronation of Elizabeth II, Devolution Referendums, The Golden Age of Welsh Rugby and the Aberfan Disaster.
At its launch, Media and the Memory in Wales project lead Professor Iwan Rhys Morus, from the Department of History and Welsh History at Aberystwyth University, said:
“The website will be a vital resource for academic researchers, professionals in the media and policy-makers. You could easily spend hours searching through the stories that are collected here.”
And we’ve been doing just that. We think that JISC MediaHub users will be particularly interested in the Media & Memory collection that addresses the launch of S4C, covering events from 1979 to 1982. S4C stands for Sianel Pedwar Cymru, which translates as “Channel 4 Wales”. The station, now branded as S4/C, turns 31 this November, having been launched in 1982 in parallel with, and as the Welsh alternative to, Channel 4. In this post we explore the Media and the Memory accounts and JISC MediaHub resources on the channel and its history.
You may be curious how these two related channels were launched. For instance, this News at Ten clip covering the launch of Channel 4 includes a rather bizarre trailer featuring Keith Allen and talking dogs!
Since new terrestrial TV channels were rare – both channels were established under the 1981 Broadcasting Act – there was a significant public interest in the appearance of a fourth channel. This report on the first live transmission of Channel 4 includes a more abstract promotional clip of what to expect on the new channel, which was launching with 60 hours a week of programming. The item also features the channel’s chief executive at the time, Jeremy Isaacs, who talks about the role Channel 4 would be playing in engaging with viewers who are not always well engaged with by other broadcasters, in particular young people. In fact, he goes out of his way to point out that,“we’re going to do some programmes that will drive mum and dad out the room!”
This news clip covers both the imminent Channel 4 launch (2 November 1982) and the launch of S4C. The main focus is on planned ITN news coverage – and Channel 4’s intention to offer a specialist focus on longer reports, especially in coverage of arts and science. But the news item also features a brief clip of SuperTed, whom it hails as the first star of the new S4C channel, which had already gone live by the time this item aired on 1 November 1982.
SuperTed may be familiar to English-speaking audiences (of a certain vintage) but premiered first on S4C, and only became a staple of early 1980s children’s television in the rest of the UK when it was dubbed into English two years later.
While the launch of a fourth channel was big news across the UK, S4C marked a particularly important turning point in Wales. The station promised a dedicated Welsh-language channel, rewarding a long-running political campaign throughout the 1970s.
This news clip covers a 1980 Plaid Cymru march demonstrating the demand and impassioned support for a Welsh-language television channel, and the threatened hunger strike by Plaid Cymru leader Gwynfor Evans.
Some activists were even jailed for their campaigning, as discussed in a Welsh-language Media and the Memory interview with Gwyneth Evens. Campaigners believed strongly that a Welsh language television channel would help to preserve and support not only the Welsh language but also Welsh culture. This is also reflected by interviewees, who talk about the role of S4C as an educator and of the cultural significance of being represented on screen.
Interviewee Valmai Jones said:
“It’s shown all sorts of aspects of Welsh life and the one thing that strikes me is the the coverage of the National Eisteddfod has been absolutely brilliant!
..and I thought now this should be on English television as well!”
The significance of covering these major, but previously ignored, events in Welsh life was not lost on S4C’s sister station. This clip includes rare – if slightly bemused – Channel 4 News coverage of the 1983 Welsh National Eisteddfod, noting the impact of the event for the Welsh-speaking community – and the significant Welsh media presence on the Eisteddfod site in Anglesey.
S4C’s programming has come to include soap operas, news, sports and coverage of music and culture, including the Eisteddfod, but what else? How about “Cowboys yn Cymraeg”? In his interview for the Media and the Memory in Wales project, one contributor is asked about S4C and celebrities. He talks (in Welsh) about the lack of films in the Welsh language, adding that the channel was showing old movies and English pop songs in the afternoon. But perhaps this was a good choice as he references the (apparently unintentionally hilarious) attempts that had been made to dub existing films into Welsh, in particular the 1953 western Shane.
However S4C has seen more successes than failures. The channel has commissioned original programmes that have won international awards and been widely exported. As a non-English language channel, it also imports international television to be broadcast with Welsh-language subtitles, such as the award-winning Irish drama Corp + Anam. The channel has also expanded into digital channels, as reported in this 1997 report of bids for digital TV licences (with S4C’s bid uncontested).
As the UK television market has moved from a small number of major broadcaster-producers to an independent production model selling across multiple channels, both Channel 4 and S4C have played a key role in commissioning and supporting new production companies. Indeed in 2010-11 the Welsh Affairs Select Committee received written evidence from PACT (the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television) supporting S4C. Voicing concerns about the channel’s future, PACT particularly noted the success of the channel to date, its role as the second largest investor in original UK production for children, and the importance of producing exportable programming to ensure the financial future of the channel.
Wales has become a powerhouse of production, with Doctor Who, Merlin, Casualty and Being Human all moving to, or beginning production in, Wales in the last few years. Deborah Cooke, in her interview for Media and the Memory, talks about the importance of S4C and these English-language television programmes made in Wales for feeling represented and part of the world, she notes, “The thing about Welshness is you’re proud of it – well I am anyway – but you are still part of the world.”
Deborah also talks about the relationship between Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom. Deborah feels both British and Welsh, which perhaps reflects changing confidence in Wales over the last 30 years. In coverage of the General Election in Wales in 1987, the rise of S4C and the development of Cardiff Bay are discussed alongside division and tension over mine closures, farm struggles and unemployment at that time.
The move towards greater visibility for Welsh people and the Welsh language emerged in parallel to campaigns for Welsh Devolution. This 9 December 1976 news item covers political and public sentiment over possible devolution at the time. Some JISC MediaHub items include “Associated Media” and for this item we have the lunchtime (see item 9), early evening (see item 5) and late evening (item 5 again) script versions, with annotations, enabling you to see the evolution of the devolution coverage throughout the day.
A devolution referendum did take place in 1979 but received a “no” vote. A further referendum was proposed, and heavily criticised by the then Conservative Government, in 1994 and was later formally announced by the incoming Labour Government in 1997 with some controversy over the process and proposed powers. As the vote drew nearer many Welsh voters were left undecided, while others entered vigorous debate over the prospect of Welsh devolution during campaigning for the vote in September 1997.
Wales did vote for a devolved parliament this time. To further explore the complex issues and arguments around devolution – and what changed in Wales in the intervening years – the Media and the Memory in Wales has a dedicated collection of memories surrounding media coverage of both the 1979 and 1997 referenda in Wales.
The first Welsh Assembly for 600 years convened in Cardiff on 12 May 1999, recorded in this news item from the ITV Early Evening News. As Wales’s national broadcaster, S4C has taken a lead role in reporting on events in the Welsh Assembly, working with the BBC to provide both live coverage (running on S4/C Dua until 2010) and recorded sessions (still shown on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays when the Assembly is in session) from the Assembly.
Despite recent controversies over S4C’s future, the channel continues to have a real impact on the representation of Wales and the Welsh language. A report conducted for S4C in 2001, by the Welsh Economy Research Unit at Cardiff University and by University of Glamorgan, noted that the channel had broadcast 4,388 hours of Welsh language programming across its terrestrial and digital channels in 1999 – over 12 hours per day. More than half of those programmes had been commissioned by S4C from local producers, reflecting that the channel has had a real economic as well as a notable cultural impact on Wales.
For individuals sharing their memories of the channel, the role of S4C has often been much more personal. Deborah Cooke, talking about the importance of S4C and seeing programmes made in Wales says:
“It makes you feel that you are part of the modern world.”
Non-fluent welsh speaker Megan Davies shares her experience of the channel:
“When S4C was launched, well I think it was a great day for Wales. At least we had our own programme and we can view in our own language.”
Megan also shares why she sees the channel as so central to keeping the Welsh language alive for her, now that her fluent Welsh-speaking husband has passed away:
“I enjoy the Welsh programmes and it’s a way for me to keep the Welsh language alive in my head.”
There are many more personal memories of S4C and other landmark moments in Welsh life on the Media and the Memory in Wales site. Whether you speak English or Welsh, we recommend taking a look and making your own exploration of the associated footage and images within JISC MediaHub which provide extra context for this rich cultural resource.
- Media and the Memory in Wales – the full website, including the S4C Collection and the Devolution Collection.
- People’s Collection Wales – a crowd-sourcing site through which you can contribute your own memories of culture and media in Wales.
- History of S4C – Wales Online article on the history and funding of Channel 4.
- S4C: Written evidence submitted by PACT to the Welsh Affairs House of Commons Select Committee in the Session 2010-11 – discusses the current role, impact, and future funding of S4C.
- Organ Grinder + S4C – all Guardian Media Organ Grinder Blog coverage of S4C
- Cinema of Wales Wikipedia page – includes more on the attempt to dub films into English in the 1970s
- Channel 4’s Remit – Corporate Channel 4 website area detailing the legal remit under which the channel operates.
- Twenty Years of Channel 4 – BBC News article on the channel from April 2002, including a criticism from Sir Jeremy Isaacs attacking the channel for going after a young audience
- A Licence to be Different: The Story of Channel 4 by Maggie Brown – the BFI listing for this definitive account of the history of the channel.
- S4/C Tenders – S4/C shares tenders with independent production companies.
- Channel 4 Commissioning – Channel 4 eCommissioning system for independent production companies.
- Economy and Culture: S4C in Wales – Present and Potential Economic Impacts – report prepared for S4C by the Welsh Economy Research Unit, Cardiff University and University of Glamorgan in 2001.