Wales: S4C channel is 25 years old

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Sun Oct 28 15:04:43 UTC 2007


28 October 2007: 2:59pm |

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 Home <>News<>
Features <>  Happy 25th
birthday S4C

Oct 27 2007 <>Sally
Williams, Western Mail

*It was only ever set up as a three-year experiment, but S4C this week
reaches its 25th anniversary. Sally Williams explores the background of
Wales' groundbreaking television channel*

ANYONE looking at today's TV schedules in Wales could be forgiven for taking
S4C for granted. After all, we live in a time when the Welsh language has
been officially embraced to a degree unimaginable a generation ago.

The language is compulsory in our schools. It is a prominent feature of our
National Assembly's workings. And it possesses a certain vibrancy, with the
likes of Ioan Gruffudd, Rhys Ifans and Matthew Rhys all conspicuously proud
of their Welsh-speaking upbringings.

Against this backdrop, it seems only natural that we have a channel
dedicated to programmes boasting titles such as Nôl â Ni and Rownd a Rownd
pitted against the latest populist reality shows or lavish costume dramas.

Love it or hate it – and it stirs such passions in equal measure – S4C seems
set to stay as it serenely enters its quarter century on Thursday.

But for an institution that has become part of Welsh life, it suffered more
than its fair share of birthing pangs.

In fact, as Elin Haf Gruffydd Jones – a lecturer in Television Studies at
Aberystwyth University – recalls, the whole channel could have been
consigned to history in 1985.

"Not many people realise that S4C was initially set up as a three-year
experiment," she said.

"The fact that the channel has lasted 25 years is quite an achievement in
broadcasting in any minority language," she added. "In fact, it could be
argued that S4C, which was launched on November 1, 1982, was the first
proper minority-language channel."

But from such small beginnings, it has created repercussions throughout the
world. After its launch a Basque-language channel followed in Spain at the
end of December that same year. And later on, a Catalan-language channel was
established there too.

Others have followed. There is now an Irish channel and the next one coming
is a Scottish Gaelic channel.

Dr Jones added, "In the beginning, campaigners who wanted a dedicated Welsh
channel did not necessarily want to watch television, but they did want to
see the Welsh language become more of a part of a modern life.

"When you compare S4C with programming across Europe, it launched a
television industry in Wales and a production base after it expanded out of
HTV and the BBC.

"It has created an important economic centre in Wales and obviously has
helped the Welsh language to integrate within a modern and contemporary

"In that context, S4C has been very successful.

"But whether or not it has reached all parts of Wales at all times of the
day is a matter of opinion."

The most popular regular programmes now attract about 100,000 viewers,
rising to about 200,000 for major rugby matches – small in a UK context,
perhaps. Yet astonishing when you think of a potential Welsh-speaking
audience still measured in only the hundreds of thousands.

Even more sobering is a quick stroll down memory lane, to a time before S4C
when Welsh-language programming was relegated to a smattering of offerings
scattered at odd times throughout the mainstream schedules. It was a
situation that angered a vocal section of the nation's Welsh-speakers who
said it gave proof, if it were needed, of Welsh's "second-class" status.

As a result, the fight for a mould-breaking channel began in earnest in the
early 1970s when the Government announced that the wavelength for a new TV
"fourth channel" would be available by the early 1980s.

A public debate ensued and Welsh Language Society Cymdeithas yr Iaith
Gymraeg instigated a campaign for the new channel to be dedicated to the
Welsh language within our borders.

>>From 1971 to 1977, scores of people in Wales were fined for refusing to
renew their TV licences, while others were imprisoned for sit-ins at TV
masts and transmitters and for causing criminal damage to the offices and
equipment of broadcasting authorities.

Tellingly, at the 1979 general election, the manifestos of the Labour Party,
Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats all listed the establishment of a
Welsh language TV channel as one of their policies.

Yet after Mrs Thatcher's Conservatives won the election, the new government
announced it had changed its mind on its commitment to a Welsh channel. It
led to one of the pivotal moments in recent Welsh history as Welsh language
lobbyist and Plaid Cymru's first MP Gwynfor Evans threatened to fast to
death unless the Government reversed its new policy.

Tensions grew. Lord Cledwyn, Right Reverend G O Williams (Archbishop of
Wales) and Lord Gwilym Prys Davies led a high-level deputation to meet
Willie Whitelaw, the Home Secretary. And then came the unthinkable –
Thatcher, who in a different context later would famously quip that "the
lady is not for turning", performed a policy U-turn, restoring the
Government's commitment.

The White Paper on Broadcasting followed and in 1980 the Broadcasting Act
established S4C and Channel 4.

But not all Welsh-language supporters wanted a separate channel.

Some wanted to maintain the status quo, with Welsh programmes to be
distributed throughout the schedules of the mainstream channels.

Conversely, a number of non-Welsh speaking viewers broadly welcomed the
principle of a designated channel for Welsh language TV, as it would "free"
the popular channels of output they did not understand.

Euryn Ogwen Williams, who was director of programmes for S4C for its first
10 years of broadcasting, explained, "Both of these divided factors were
important and, because the decision lay in the hands of politicians, their
mailbags were full of letters from both sides.

"There was a lot of pressure from the Welsh-language enthusiast lobby that
said there would be a great deal of social unrest.

"And that was highlighted by Gwynfor Evans' threat to fast to death for
Welsh language television."

But eventually, S4C was "born" with a welcome to the channel, followed by
news at 7pm, a music programme at 7.30pm and drama from 8pm.

In the intervening 25 years, the channel has become synonymous with
successes such as Pobol y Cwm, which actually started on the BBC – who still
produce it for S4C – before the creation of the new channel. Initially a
drama series of 12 episodes a year (and, coincidentally, the BBC's
longest-running soap) S4C's arrival gave it a more regular platform and in
the process helped provide the launch pad for the career of future Hollywood
star Ioan Gruffudd.

Other success stories have included SuperTed – originally a Welsh-language
cartoon – and Oscar-nominated film Hedd Wyn.

Birthdays are traditionally a time for reflection; it is heartening to know
that as S4C blows out its 25 candles this week there is plenty in its
history it can be proud of.

** On Thursday, S4C is marking its 25th anniversary with a raft of special
programmes including a two-part history of Welsh-language broadcasting. The
anniversary also sees a revamped children's presentation service and
new-look weather bulletins

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