"Llanberis, Wales, England"
Exterior. An inconspicious side-street in Penarth, Wales. Night.
Pulling in from the main road, a 2014 Ford Fiesta parks next to a tennis club. The club's flood-lights are on and surprisingly there are several people playing tennis.
Out of the car climbs a slightly ageing wannabe Hipster. His name is Dylan ab Alan and he is a bit of an amateur blogger, with a specific interest in representing a positive view of Wales, both to the people of Wales and to the wider international community. Grabbing his 'man-bag' from the boot, Dylan crosses the road to meet our protagonist, Nick Stradling (Stradling-Kanu since Wales' recent adventures in Europe).
After some initial greetings Nick leads Dylan down the side of his house to the back garden. When Nick opens the shed by its double doors, and turns the light on, he reveals to Dylan two stools, a camera and walls covered in DVD sleeves.
After some more pleasantries, and the obligatory cuppa, the two men settle down on the stools and start talking. As the credits role over this scene, the title is revealed: "We Are Wales: or How We Learn to Stop Worrying and Love Our Country".
Where are we Nick?
We're in where I call the I-Shed mate. It was bought for me by my ex-missus to come and watch movies in and get some space from all the family madness. But that's not relevant anymore, so I turned it into a studio to do vlogging about 'Wales in the Movies' as you can see.
So what is 'Wales in the Movies'?
It kind of changed from how it originally started out. Like I wanted to continue the work of a man named David Berry, which you may not have heard of, and most people haven't. He's a person who I would like Wales to know more about. His book is right behind me by there. It's called 'Wales and Cinema: the First Hundred Years'*, and it's kind of a passionate chronicle of every single movie with a relation to Wales, whether it be setting or just location in terms of filming. Also, it's a review of every single movie ever set in Wales up until the mid-90's when it was written. It's prose but it's also kind of an A-Z almanac of movies.
I started off wanting to continue his work really, but then as I became more politically aware it changed a little bit. I'm still doing reviews of every Welsh film, but given what I'd seen on YouTube, I'd decided that the written reviews weren't really going to shift people, that the subject just isn't emotive enough. Movies? Yeah! But millions of people are doing that. Wales? Yeah! But it's about movies. I've tried to turn it into a portal really. So Twitter I'll put clips on, YouTube hopefully I'll be loading up more independent documentaries and vlogs, and Tumbler is where I do the written reviews. The idea is hopefully in the next few years to have every single movie that's ever been set in Wales, fully reviewed in essay and entertainment format on YouTube so that, so long as the internet exists, there'll be an interactive and dynamic record of Wales. The idea is, people across the world, if they want to know about Wales, they could hopefully go to 'Wales in the Movies' and just get some instant access and clips of culture and a visually tangible idea of what Wales is through the pictures.
What sort of understanding do you think the world has of Wales from movies at the moment then?
I could say so much. You know I went on lads holidays to Spain as a teenager. I always remember it was mainly Germans you'd be speaking to in those places and you'd mention footballers about Wales, and it was Ryan Giggs in those days. If not then it would be Tom Jones and somebody would go: "oh yeah yeah yeah Wales". But I never really got into many conversations about it then and didn't care.
But then I went to Australia when I was 21, and got there with like $150 dollars in my pocket, and did some travelling around the outback to pick fruit or whatever. It was in Sydney the first time that it really hit home to me what was going on. Like I'd had some conversations about Wales, but never really had anything upsetting or disappointing you know. But then one time I got booked in to a hostel. It had this old kind of Amstradish system on their computer before anyone had Windows and this Australian guy said to me, right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Pitt Street, Sydney, he said, from my accent: "so are you from England, Ireland or Scotland?". Now I was never the most nationalistic person. You can see I was brought up in this big house here in Penarth, middle class, Brit-nat (if you'll pardon the expression), Lib-Dem and Tory voting parents. I was never particularly that Welsh, but it was so jarring to hear that, and I was like: "well, where's Wales"? And he was like "No! England, Ireland or Scotland". And of course there's so many contradictions in having those three as a criteria. So I was like: "What the fuck does that mean?" I think it was stuff I already knew was going on, but it was so jarring to me, and he said: "well England, Ireland and Scotland are countries. That's why they're on there as choices". And by this time I was getting fucked off so: "what's the deal with Scotland then?", and he was like: "Well you've seen Braveheart haven't you?". So that sentence is probably why we're having this conversation now. It just stuck in me that that guy just dismissed Wales basically, and within a minute he was referring to Braveheart in terms of why that's so. I suppose because Scotland and England are in it, even the Irish are in it, you know. In fact Wales are in it for a second and a half. Sneeze and you miss it but we are in there.
But yeah, so that was the biggest experience I had talking to other people. But the experience I got on mass I'd say the people I spoke to from outside of the British Isles, I'd say about 75% either haven't heard of Wales at all or have got a misrepresentational idea of what or where Wales is for example. It would be along the same status as Yorkshire, or East Anglia. Yeah, I'd say about 75% of people have got that view. Like I was engaged to a woman from Oregon who had a Welsh name, Megan, and had lived in London for 15 months when she was like 26, and had never heard of Wales when I met her in New Zealand. When you think about it it's understandable. There's a few things that you can point to, [like] misrepresentations in language for example. Like people calling the UK England and the confusion coming from that. 'The Oxford History of England', which was a text book in US schools, which is a history of the British Isles basically, and it's called 'The History of England'. There was that entry in the 'Encyclopedia of Britannica': "for Wales, see England". I was in New Zealand with that bird watching the 'Clash of the Titans' film, which is a remake of the old 60's classic, which was filmed in Dinorwic quarry by Llanberis, up in the north, and on the credits it read: "Llanberis, Wales, England". That's a Warner Brothers movie from 2010.
But the experiences of talking to most foreign people is that they just don't know anything. And if they do, they think they might know something and they laugh. Like a German guys says to me: "Ah yes, but I'm from Bavaria and we think we're Bavarian not German and it's just like this". No, it's not just like that mate. You get that sort of thing. There was a New Zealand woman, she introduced me as Nick from England, after I had told her I was from Wales. I had to correct her and her words were along the same: "Yeah my Father was from Yorkshire, you know, everyone can be from somewhere else, and he always said he was not English he was a Yorkshireman". She had a business, she had a top floor office in an Auckland flipping Skyscraper, if they have such a thing. These aren't uneducated troglodytes we're talking about.
Do you think that movies, and other forms of modern media, can contribute to a sense of Welsh identity, both in Wales and in the wider world then?
Oh massively! Absolutely massively. We're visual learners, as people, as humans. Part of the inflexibility of a lot of British structures is the education. I mean I can tell you, for example, that as somebody who studied history for 5 years GCSE level as a school-kid, with an Historian as a Father, who was a professor in Cardiff Uni, I had not one minute of Welsh history while I was growing up, not one minute in school. Our Religious Education teacher was a pupil at Aberfan and that's the only reason that we learnt about that. We did not one minute of Welsh history.
No I think as a people, especially as blokes, males are primarily visual learners. Most of us learn through that kind of cortex in the brain I think. And visual representation, whether it be accurate [or not], and it shouldn't be accurate to be fair... A very interesting book is called 'From Hollywood to Hollyrood'**. It writes about how 'Braveheart' awoke Scottish identity, in terms of pushing for the referendum and so-forth. It was written a few years before the referendum, in 2005 or something. But no I think 'Braveheart' is your classic go-to example. 'Braveheart' isn't an accurate movie by any means, but that also informs part of what was so fantastic about it. It opened up a public debate and it's impossible to create an accurate movie for events set in [the] 13th and 12th century.
So no I think with 'Wales in the Movies' what I've been trying to do is to meet as many people as possible, and eventually I'd like to push someone in power in Wales for the creation of a Welsh screenplay. A movie which will reconnect not just Welsh people but the diaspora, especially in the United States, to Wales. It would be easily done. I don't use the word lightly but there are literally 50 historical tales you could pluck out of Wales' history that would make fantastically riotous Hollywood movies. And you know you could make it accurate or half-accurate. Mel Gibson is fantastic at this. His movie, 'Apocalypto', which was all in the Mayan language, and again it's not accurate, but people are hearing the Mayan language and they're looking at some visual culture and watching a great riotous movie. And you have a conversation at the end of it. I would love to see any element of Welsh history in an entertaining movie. Which would be a huge thing in connecting loads of people, because it makes Wales credible in the eyes the World. It would have to be in a national context. The script of 'Braveheart' was written by an American actually, but he only wrote it after visiting a Scottish museum, seeing the statue of Wallace, asking a couple of questions. He wrote it because when he saw the statue and he started doing research he realised how little he could find out about William Wallace, because of how little resources he could find in Scottish schools. Well there are loads now.
So I would do a Wales trilogy. Llewellyn the Great, then do Llewellyn the Last and end it with Glyndwr. I would do a trilogy of films stretching across like 300 years. It's easily doable. You just have to hire the right people and be motivated to do it. And in going back to your question I think it would be absolutely massive if there existed, like accessible for the youngsters, in a modern context, like a Glyndwr movie or like a Celtic movie about the Bards. Something with a high production value, something that you can market.
I've studied this thing for years now, Wales in films, and when you watch the channel over the next couple of years you'll see plenty of documentaries about the patterns that I've come across in how Wales has been represented. Not just by ourselves, but others as well. But one of the frustrating things is that we don't do genre films in Wales. We tend to go for romantic comedy dramas and [a] weird mish-mash of cutsie quaint lets try to be little Celtic Walesie. And we don't really want to go for the blood and fucking thunder and guts, we don't really want to see the passion of Wales, we don't want to see people fighting for Wales in that context, because it would probably have to be against the English or the Normans or someone. But yeah no I think it would be absolutely massive for Welsh people to see that and then across the world. Football has taken a great burden off that this summer, but it needs to continue and we need to be visible.
A movie would be great. If anyone reads your interview and is hearing what I'm saying, I've studied this for years now and I think I have some good ideas about certainly what must be avoided in producing a movie about Wales. I'm not sure if you heard about what happened to the Gareth Thomas project? Well Mickey Rourke met 'Alfie' [Gareth Thomas] and he just loved the story of this gay guy coming out in such a manly sport, and it was going to be the Gareth Thomas story. But about 6 months after production begun he's not Welsh anymore, he's Irish. It's just not viable at the moment. If Hollywood made a 90 minute action film about Glyndwr, ok great. But this film, alright, is about rugby. So you've got to explain all that to the Americans. There's a third of your script gone, explaining rugby. You've got to explain Wales - 90% of Americans don't have a clue about Wales. So they're going to be like: "what the fuck is this"?" Gay! The United States, you know what I mean? It's too much, it's going to be a flop. It's gonna be a massive flop, so you've got to drop one of them. And what's gonna get dropped? It's a story about a gay man coming out, it's not a Welsh story. Because millions of people in the U.S.A. are going to watch that and they're not going to know what the fuck is going on.
So is it not going get made anymore?
It's gonna be made but it's called 'The Irishman', and it's about a Gay, Irish, American Footballer. So what has to be done, to avoid this happening, you need to make sure that from the beginning that the people producing it are motivated for that Welsh reason. Because then the Producers go: "no, this is a Welsh film, and the reason for this film is to exist to advertise Wales, so we're gonna tailor the script for that". Until then we're always going to be vulnerable to that change. Any change you can just say: "put it in Ireland". Everyone knows where Ireland is, it's not confusing. If you've got a film about King Arthur, you probably just put it in Celtic Britain don't you. There must be 30 movies about King Arthur, none of them are ever set in Wales, none of them feature Cymraeg. They're all set in Celtic Britain or England like. So there's just not any Welsh imagery for the masses to consume in international media, and that includes in the language, because when you say language that's imagery isn't it? So you can say Celtic in US film, you can say Scottish. You can even say Irish, but you can't say Welsh cos no one knows what you mean. It's so rare that even the word is mentioned.
I understand that you have gone into your own film-making recently with your film debut, 'Y Wal Goch'. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Yeah! Yeah! I've got a documentary degree from the University of South Wales and I did try and get a couple of my old colleagues on the course to come with me [to Euro 2016]. I had just bought a very cheap camcorder to start vlogging with and I just thought lets get out there for the first game. Because I've had these theories for years, and I am confident that the first game on that representational stage for 58 years, that is the biggest moment of Welsh history. Regardless of anything else there's never been a time in the modern world, with the internet and everything else, where Wales, as Wales, has been exposed to the World like that. Tell me a time, I promise you there hasn't been one. If there has been one it has been in a British context as Britain or the UK. There's nothing like that for Wales ever. As much as I love the rugby vibe and everything, we could win the Rugby World Cup ten times in a row and it would never reach as many people as that. And by the semi-final you're talking that multiplied by five or six, or seven or eight.
So I just wanted to get out there. I knew that I'm quite good with people, especially when I'm motivated like, I'm quite good at eliciting responses from people, if they've got something they care about, I can do that quite well I think. So that's definitely my skill as a Documentarian or Film-maker. Like technically I'm not so good. Like I'm really clumsy and whatever and don't remember technical info. So I just thought lets just get out there, make yourself visible. One of the beauties of making documentaries is you haven't got to worry about your image quality. If you're making a rough documentary you're making a rough documentary. I didn't even take a microphone with me, like just the on board microphone, so it's [a] tinny sound. High-Definition but not the best imagery in the world. I just wanted to get a talking heads 30 minute film of just the emotions and reactions of being there. And also motivated to have that as a record. As long as the internet exists and as long as digital files exist then there'll be a record. It might be the only time in another 50 years. Hopefully not!
But I was very motivated to make a record of the Wales fans. Because a lot of them have been going for years to dilapidated, depressing, cold, and wet stadiums in far-flung parts of Europe and the World, watching us get battered and humiliated with no thanks in the media or no-one ever appreciating it. Like when for example when S4C have a show on and it doesn't get one viewer, the UK media are like: "Hahahahahaha. What's the point in S4C? Nobody's watching. Wales! Hahahahahaha". So you can imagine if there were no people in those stadiums down the years. One of the guys on the film he mentions a place, I don't even know where it is, and he said that there were 52 fans in the stadium. He said there's 25,000 here today and he's happy for every one. Imagine there was no fans in the stadium for all those matches. We might not have a team left because the depression of the national media taking the piss out of it. So the fans for me are kind of heroes. Those fans have maybe saved the Welsh football team I think. So I wanted to make a film for them really and just about them. So you can hear my voice in the background a couple of times when the context is needed a little bit. It's bilingual, it's in Welsh and English, and I don't provide subtitles because I do believe the context makes the Welsh content clear. And also I believe that if you watch it as a English monoglot or a Welsh learner you can learn a lot more by not having subtitles because you're not distracted to read the English. you simply hear the language in the context of lots of other people answering similar questions. So it's much easier to get a handle on the Welsh I find. So there's probably about 150 people answering questions in it, and probably about 15-20 of them are Welsh [speakers]. Bryn Law is interviewed in it, the Sky Sports reporter, Rhun ap Iorwerth, the Plaid Cymru AM, he's in it too. Andy Legg, used to play for Swansea City and Cardiff City, he's in it for a bit. The responses that I'm getting is that it's a very emotional piece of work, and people are crying in it, and people are clearly expelling a lot of negative stuff, and the pure joy of being there of course.
I hope they all enjoy it really and I hope that they all get to see it. Just recently after showing it in Chapter^ on Saturday, we put the event on with YesCymru^^, and we've had plenty of requests to take it up [to] Wrexham and also over in Swansea. So hopefully we're going to make it a bit of a roadshow because we don't want it to be a South Wales thing. We'd like to reach up to the north, and mid Wales and anyone else who wants to get involved and make it inclusive like that. Everyone seems to enjoy it, it's 32 minutes, it's got a lot of energy in it, like a lot of pride and stuff like that. So it might be a way of meeting people and getting to do some more stuff.
You mentioned YesCymru a little earlier and I know that they sponsored the screening at Chapter. How did that connection come about?
Well I started looking at them as an organisation about two years ago when I saw they'd held a rally outside the Senedd. I thought well this must be new and it's quite impressive to hold a rally at short notice. So I got in touch with the Chair, a guy called Iestyn, and we met and connected quite well and both agreed about lots of things about what Wales needed to do in order to safeguard itself. I had a University course to graduate from at the time and I was very busy so we met a couple of times and I was hopefully going to make a little promo for YesCymru. But then YesCymruCaerdydd kind of started off round about the Brexit time, and I read Sandy Clubb's blog+ and I thought: "Wow! She's an English lady and she's writing passionately about things that need to be done in Wales that we all know is true". And I saw that she lived in Penarth and I thought fantastic, because I'm at a time of my life where I want to meet more people now, and I want to meet people who have similar desires for Wales as me, which is to see it becoming more self-respecting, a place that has more compassion for itself and looks after itself more. And she said that: "I want to start campaigning for an independent Wales and I'm going to be starting YesCymruCaerdydd". So I thought great, good for you, and I'll go to the first meeting. By this time I had already made the movie and I put a YesCymru banner at the start of it because I had a feeling that it might be useful for commenting on that sort of thing. So yeah it came about through that really.
So the #WeAreWales campaign, it talks about the representation of Wales as being far more diverse than the traditional parochial farm-dwelling representation might have us believe. Could you tell us a little about what you know about your own ancestry and your thoughts on the #WeAreWales campaign?
Well I know quite a bit. Like I think I share a great-great-great-great Granddad with Sylvester Stallone apparently. That's a true story. He was called Johan Peter Emilius Hartmann, a Danish Composer, who wrote the first National Anthem of Denmark. So I've definitely got some ancestry from Denmark called the Hartmans. So Sly if you're reading, then come say hello bro. But my biggest influence from outside the British Isles is Greece. So my Grandfather was from what was then Constantinople. He came to the UK as a very young child and he was called Alexandredes. Back in those days he was a loan-shark, or as I heard when I was growing up: "he worked for a bank". He was actually a loan-shark and he had to change his name to Alexander because back in those days you wouldn't go and borrow money off of a filthy foreigner. So he came here and he very much fancied my Grandmother, who was a Callaghan - or Callagan as you'd say in Liverpool. She was a Callaghan from an Irish family who lived in Cardiff. Very very poor family but my very very rich Greek Granddad came here [and] married my Grandma who was an Irish descended Cardiff person. My Dad's side of the family are all Irish and Welsh.
My surname is Stradling, which is quite an aristocratic South Wales name. I believe it's Breton originally, but it comes from St Donat's Castle. [It] has an interesting kind of link to the movies because it was once owned by William Randolph Hearst, who was an American media mogul, kind of the original Rupert Murdoch. But he was the inspiration for Citizen Kane. So the idea is that Stradling [was] kind of an illegitimate descendant from that aristocratic family. Hearst bought it off the Stradlings. So my influences come from, Greece, Ireland and Scotland with plenty of Wales in there too.
My Auntie married an Iranian. So since I was growing up I've known an Iranian family, we've always had Iranian visitors, and [was] always very connected to the Muslim culture of Cardiff, particularly Grangetown. Like a lot of my cousin's friends and uncle's friends, Iranian friends were all immigrants who lived in Grangetown. My Granddad, who was the rich guy, he had property in Grangetown that he rented out, so I have always known foreign people to be around. That was kind of like my reality. My Uncle's parent's were from Tehran, one of whom was a political prisoner under Khomeini in the '70's when the revolution happened. His parent's were Farzi speaking only elderly people [and] they used to come here and visit. So I have always known Wales to be a multicultural place.
I loved that #WeAreWales campaign. I even did a little video for it and tweeted it. I didn't see it, because I would rather cheesegrate my own genitals, but I did hear that there was a particularly unpleasant Question Time the night before. I got loads of abuse for it online but you know we can't just be quiet, we can't just let this slide anymore. This stuff we're hearing now! I've never been the biggest pro-immigration person to be honest, I've never been particularly keen to bang that drum, but the rhetoric that immigration is in any way kind of bad for the culture of the country is just disgraceful, and it's so unpleasant. What immigrants can offer us is huge and what we're hearing in the media now is really scary. For somebody who has kids I'm starting to feel really guilty for bringing them onto the planet.
What do you think we can do in Wales to counteract those perceptions and representations?
I think we've got to just make media because that's where the hearts and minds will be won. And we need international credibility, which is a huge thing. How people outside see us we may think that it's not that important in changing Wales. I believe it is really important because people outside Wales can also represent us. And how you're represented is very important, and it'll shape how you see yourself eventually. If for example, the United States, had big opinions about Wales, and it was a hot topic in America, and they made a movie about us every five years, showing Wales in a positive light, [then] we'd think differently about ourselves. We'd have a different image of ourselves.
Some people get annoyed with American's. I see this on Twitter a lot: "bloody Americans are so ignorant. Don't know about Wales. They cancelled the Gareth Thomas film. Tom Cruise called Twin Town a Scottish film, blah blah blah. Bloody Americans". No! We haven't told them about us. What have you done to tell them about Wales? What have you produced? You can't blame the Americans for not knowing about us. We haven't told them anything.
I was very lucky to get a VHS copy of 'The Dragon has Two Tongues' once. It was one of the first ever things on Channel 4 or S4C. It was a thirteen part 30 minute history-documentary about Wales. History of Wales going back to pre-Celtic mythology up until the 1979 referendum basically. The Director is on Twitter actually, his name is Colin Thomas. It's got two presenters, one of whom is a very pro-Britain establishment media guy called Wynford Vaughan Thomas and the other guy is called Gwyn "Alf" Williams, a kind of fire breathing Welsh Marxist Historian. Six and a half hours in thirteen parts of these guys hammering away at each other on these Welsh issues, Welsh history. It's absolutely brilliant, energetic counterpoint, it's just fantastic. Of course it's not commercially available anywhere in Wales to see. Nor is it in any of our schools. I was lucky enough to get a copy of this series and I looked at Wales in a context that I had never looked at it before~. I learned about Patagonia, I learned about the Blue Books, I learned about the Birmingham water company, Just learned about Llewellyn the Last. I never knew these people existed, never knew about the laws of Hywel Dda. None of these nationally contextualised things did I ever know. It was just a mind blowing thing to watch at the age of 27. So if that series could be available, even the series itself is an historical event. You could do two years of Welsh history in schools just on that series and having discussions on the debates on it. It's brilliant, proper counterpoint passionate debates you know. One of them is a Marxist and one of them is clearly not. That was probably one of the biggest shifts for me, when I learned these things and realised: "fuck, Wales is a country like, and of course it is because I've been following the rugby team and football team all my life". But that actually means more than we realise that it does. And of course you start questioning then, why did no-one realise what Wales was when I went abroad? So there's no history, no-one knows these things, there's no movies, and these pictures started forming in my head about why Wales is invisible. So that's how it all started for me really.
* 'Wales and Cinema: The First 100 Years' ,by Dave Berry, is published by the University of Wales Press.
** 'Braveheart: From Hollywood to Hollyrood', by Lin Anderson, is published by Luath Press Limited
^ 'Chapter' is a multi-artform cultural space based in Cardiff, Wales that presents and produces international art, performance and film alongside a dynamic social space.
^^ 'YesCymru' is a campaigning "group who promote independence for Wales through a range of activities, including educational ones, to make the case that Wales, like so many other nations throughout the world, would be better running its own affairs, as part of a wider European and international family. [Their] organisation is open to all who believe in independence for Wales."
+ You can read Sandy Clubb's blog, 'Indymam', here: https://indymam.wordpress.com/
~Nick has since mis-placed his copy 'The Dragon has Two Tongues'. If you have a copy that you are willing to make available to him please contact him o his YouTube Channel or Twitter feed.