There is a moment in the final series of Keeping Faith when Eve Myles becomes Celia Imrie. The transformation is extraordinary. There is no CGI or special effects; rather, just Eve Myles doing what Eve Myles does best. It’s why we’ll miss her as Faith, the gutsy, emotional, steely and vulnerable lawyer who has been through the ringer, so to speak, over three series of the hit Welsh drama. Throughout that time, Myles has more than embodied the character. She has become her. And in this, her final swansong, Imrie has matched her star quality as Faith’s cold, manipulative and deliciously deceitful mother, Rose. Together, the two of them have simply sparkled onscreen. Their sparring matches have been so emotionally explosive that they have enthralled and exhilarated in equal measure. The introduction of Faith’s backstory has been a stroke of genius by the show’s creator, Matthew Hall, and these two acting heavyweights have helped to make it so. However, they are by no means the sole contributors to its success.
What made the first series of Keeping Faith so hugely popular was not just the superb acting talent of Eve Myles but the strong cast of characters that surrounded her. Keeping Faith has always been, at its heart, a drama about family. It is to Hall’s credit that he has managed to retain this as the central focus, the effect being, in this final series, a real depth to those supporting characters, whose arcs are as important to and invested in by the audience as Faith’s. Catherine Ayers deserves special mention for her heartrending portrayal of Lisa’s alcoholism, the scene at her first AA meeting being one of many powerful moments in this final series. The quiet resolve grown in Tom by Aneirin Hughes is another that has been beautiful to watch, with the presence of strong women, such as Suzanne Packer’s Delyth, being key to this change. I have loved watching Demi Letherby and Lacey Jones grow in their roles as Alice and Megan respectively, each bringing a different temperament that perfectly matches the stubbornness and fragility of Faith herself. Then there is the warm and gentle manner of Steve, who is played to perfection by Mark Lewis Jones, opposite the increasingly jealous and controlling Evan, played by Bradley Freegard. These two men have been magnificent, circling around the magnetic Myles with performances that have helped steer the romantic element away from soppy sentimentality, and ensured that the depiction of a relationship breakdown has been studiously honest and suitably dramatic. Such significant attention to detail has been the difference in ensuring that Keeping Faith has not just been engaging drama but has won the devotion of many fans too.
This devotion has also been generated, in no small part, by its memorable soundtrack. Amy Wadge was rightfully recognised for her musical contribution to the original series, with ‘Faith’s Song’ proving incredibly popular even outside of the series’ run. It returns in this final instalment with a greater appreciation than its more intrusive presence in series two. There is a mixture of recognisable favourites and brand-new compositions, all of which complement the action onscreen. It is in the final scenes though that the emotional weight of the title track in particular is laid heavily on the shoulders of the audience. The complete absence of music in the last episode before this point contributes to the tear-jerking moments that follow. The appearance of Osian (Keogh Kiernan) – having survived the operation that Faith fights so hard for in this series – Alice’s poignant speech, and the intimacy of Faith and Lisa as they walk across the beach to the sea, is enough to get the lip quivering. But it’s the presence of that iconic yellow coat, now firmly worn by Faith, and accompanied by her song, that really starts the waterworks off. It ensures a truly satisfying end to a show that has changed the face of Welsh drama, and been taken to the hearts of so many in Wales and beyond.
From its humble beginnings as Un Bore Mercher on S4C to its primetime slot on Saturday night BBC1, Keeping Faith has been a juggernaut of a drama. It is rare that I get on my hobby horse but I think it’s important, given the constant criticism levelled at its news output, that the future of the BBC and its licence fee is not debated on such a narrow-minded understanding of the corporation to the detriment of gems such as this. Keeping Faith demonstrates the BBC’s commitment and ability to produce quality Welsh drama that is made in Wales, for the people of Wales, but with the potential to reach beyond Wales too. It may not always get it right (see Pitching In) but without it, there is little evidence to suggest that the commercial channels will step up to the mark. The Pembrokeshire Murders(ITV) may represent a rare foray into Welsh representation. However, its risk-taking (a true story crime drama) leaves a lot to be desired. Keeping Faith is unlikely to have been made without the backing of the BBC & S4C. Could its success herald the possibility of a sea-change? I doubt it. But whatever happens, we will always be grateful for Faith Howells. So thank you, Matthew Hall. Thank you, Eve Myles.
Hannah Daniel gives an impressive performance in S4C’s latest drama series, Bregus. She is almost unrecognisable from her best known role to date, playing straight-faced, sharp-tongued lawyer Cerys in Keeping Faith. Instead, she takes on the character of high-flying surgeon Ellie, whose vulnerability and fragile mental state begin to unravel following the sudden death of her sister, Luce (played by Sara Gregory). Daniel manages to create a richly compelling personality, surrounding her with an air of mystery that is greatly enhanced by the use of camera, music and cinematography. In doing so, she makes the transition from supporting actor to leading lady with aplomb. No doubt awards will follow.
The series begins almost as a mirror image of Keeping Faith, with Daniel adopting the organised chaos of the married middle-class professional with kids first thing on a weekday morning. The initial picture that is painted is one in which everything appears perfect. Life is good. But then an unexpected twist turns everything upside down. Where Bregus then veers from Keeping Faith becomes more apparent, not least in the actions of Ellie, whose accompanying blank expressions could not be more different from the swirling emotion conveyed by Eve Myles as Faith. This is where Daniel excels in producing a sense of detachment both within the drama itself and from us, the audience. She becomes something of an enigma. The lingering close-ups, jarring soundtrack and surrealist techniques all contribute to this unknown element. But it is what surrounds the dialogue between Ellie and husband Mart that really unlocks the general feeling of unease that accompanies the strangeness of this drama.
It is not about what is said so much as what is not said that makes Bregus so intriguing. The surface dialogue contains such rich subtext that it is hard not to be gripped by the exchanges of Hannah Daniel and Rhodri Meilir in particular. Meilir is perfectly cast as the quietly controlling Mart. His ability to play a character with such threatening calmness is ideally suited here. There is always a sense of an ulterior motive behind his composed exterior which, like in his previous role as Bill in 35 Diwrnod, is never quite confirmed until the final episode. In the meantime, it is the suspicion that surrounds him that helps build tension here, with the revelation of his character’s true nature being even more powerful when it finally comes. It is in the final scenes that everything that has been bubbling underneath the surface is suddenly unleashed in explosive fashion. The dialogue then becomes explicit, so carefully crafted as to cut like a knife, and revealing Bregus as a beautifully feminist piece that is incredibly moving to say the least.
Bregus is this wonderful mix of mystery drama, psychological thriller and family psychodrama. At its heart is a wonderfully complex female character whose actions are often far removed from the stereotype. Hannah Daniel portrays Ellie exceedingly well as a mother, wife, friend and surgeon who is not immune to the challenges and external pressures that come with these roles. Her responses are often unexpected and at times surprising, which is partly what makes this drama so absorbing. Its sense of intrigue is elevated by music that is so resonant at times that it overwhelms; close-up shots that are so immersive that they enthral; and the use of surrealism such that one is never quite sure whether what Ellie is experiencing is real or not. It is in the subtlety of expression alongside the dialogue though that should be particularly commended. Daniel and Rhodri Meilir excel at this, though the rest of the cast have their moments too. It is in the mystery at the heart of these relationship dynamics that makes Bregus such a fascinating watch. And it is the vehicle through which Hannah Daniel finally announces herself as a solid and very capable lead.
With less to do during lock-down, Simon Kensdale has been resorting to the BBC i Player. He has noticed how many broadcast crime series consisting of murder enquiries. Some are truly horrific, like The Serpent, in the sense of being both true and frightening. It has made him wonder if there is a danger of TV audiences gradually becoming desensitised to violence. Simon explores these areas in the article below.
There is a secondary story in The Serpent about Herman Knippenberg. He’s a Dutch diplomat obsessed with tracking the killer – Sobhraj – down and his meticulous record-keeping finally results in success. His obsession costs him his marriage and threatens his career prospects. He’s odd, too, keeping boxes of paperwork with him wherever he goes, rather than throwing anything away. But at least Knippenberg’s activities are normal – ish. In following the series, through him we see a bit more of humanity than that of a unique, psychopathic killer who gets off on drugging and murdering young travellers in the Far East.
Knippenberg’s behaviour makes him similar to the average TV detective. We can almost predict – as yet another crime series kicks off with yet another discovery of the body of a dead woman – that there will be someone on the case who can’t let go and who also cannot maintain a private life. The detective will be divorced or uncommitted to a relationship. Recently several detectives have been shown on TV as also having problematic relationships with their daughters. Ironically, in The Investigation – the true story of a particularly bizarre Danish murder, committed on a privately-owned submarine – it turned out that the Head of Homicide really had been alienated from his adult daughter.
What seems to happen in all these series is that the main thrust of the narrative – the need to apprehend a killer – is cross-cut with ‘everyday’ human drama. The lives of the detectives and the supporting cast of police officers are presented as if they are representative of the wider community. I rather doubt that the professional upholders of law and order are as interesting as the TV companies make them appear to be, or even as interesting as Knippenberg, but I admit that this could be a personal bias. In any case, their personal dramas are never meant to be as important as the main story line. It’s as if no-one believes there’s any serious drama going on in human situations anywhere that does not involve a killing – or three, or nine. Everything that is not murder is soap.
But murder is rare in European societies. It is a comparatively easy crime to solve, as there is usually a connection between the murderer and his victim. Of course, recently the police clear-up capability has been speeded up by the information processing of computers and by the scientific advances which make DNA recordable, storable and traceable. The police can also monitor mobile phone usage and draw on the massive amounts of film footage accumulated by security cameras. But where there is no connection between victim and killer – as in the case of Sobhraj – or where there has been a professional ‘hit’ – the police are still ineffectual. They often have to wait for the killer to make a mistake – as in they did in the case of the Yorkshire Ripper – before they can solve the case.
The fact that you and I know about these new developments is an indication of how many crime series we have swallowed down whole. We could almost all now write one ourselves. You open with a shocking and mysterious death, preferably in an unusual setting; you introduce in a handful of ‘interesting’ characters and some back story. When you feel the tension level flagging, you throw in some more bodies, as if adding fuel to the fire. (You needn’t concern yourself with the fact that with murders more is actually less, since the audience can’t keep on meting out its sympathy and will get emotionally confused as the body count increases, forgetting who got killed first.) You can enrich your material with a red herring or an unexpected clue and you must include a chase, on foot or using cars. You might even put in some comic relief before you wrap it everything up with a dangerous, ‘dramatic’ confrontation with the murderer. The over familiar narrative process is meant to reassure everyone that, however bad things appear to be, truth will out and justice will be delivered.
More than exciting an interest in the nastier side of life and the worst forms of human behaviour, I think there is a problem with this narrative form. Seeking to reassure a mass audience with a basic fantasy is a form of brainwashing. We are seduced into abandoning our rational awareness that murder enquiries are nothing like as tense and interesting as the way they are presented (The Investigation is an exception to this rule) because of the real time they take and because of the dull routine of the work involved.
More importantly, few of us live the experience of confronting a problem which gets solved, allowing us to we live happily ever after. Instead of having one large and horrific issue to grapple with we have innumerable minor difficulties that most of the time add up to make our life either frustrating or frightening. We know this situation is never going to change, that nothing we can do will make any difference and that nobody is coming to help. If we are not actually the victim in an unsensational case, we will be like the junior police officer expected to solve a crime with access to limited information and having no authority, struggling with a mountain of bureaucracy, against a background of incompetent management and competitive colleagues. Our family life may not be any more straightforward than our work life. It will be banal but it will consist of more than a communication difficulty with a daughter.
Given this reality, in my opinion what we need from the purveyors of fiction, is a constructive reflection on our circumstance – an experience exploring the outlines of the predicament we find ourselves in. This should be done in a way that is not escapism disguised as realism. The proliferation of crime dramas based on murder stories suggests that TV as a medium, despite the talent and intelligence of the people working within it and despite the quite astonishing technical facilities available to them nowadays, is not able to offer this kind of creative reflection. Maybe I am expecting too much from what can only ever be light entertainment. If I want the kind of imaginative experience I am defining, perhaps I have to read novels or go to the theatre.
I did appreciate the ingenuity of The Serpent, in particular the way the timing of the action moved backwards and forwards. I was suitably appalled by what Sobhraj did, although he was presented as being so perpetually cool and self-controlled that he seemed quite dull. Little space was given to exploring his capacity to be so charming and desirable that his partner and indeed his ex-wife both found him irresistible, despite their knowledge of what he was capable of. For me, the really interesting questions surrounding Sobhraj remains not what he did or how he got away with it, so much as why he did it and why others helped him.
Otherwise I thought the acting in the series was of a good standard – although Tim McInnerny hammed it up as a Belgian. The dialogue was credible and moved the plot on even if it didn’t say much about Sobhraj’s motivation. Since the series draws on a true story for its outline it only required the details to be coloured in carefully. The impressive settings for the action in Thailand, India, Nepal and Paris were like pages from a holiday brochure.
Would a closer focus on Sobhraj have demanded too much of us? It would have required us to sit and pay attention and respond to words and phrases in conversations and note small gestures and aspects of behaviour in the way we do in front of a live performance. We would not have been able to just get up and go and make a sandwich or look at our texts or carry on with the ironing. We might, though, have been truly moved by what we were watching. We wouldn’t have wanted to either pause an episode or wait until next week for the sequel. The story would have possessed us.
Numerous people have said they ‘loved’ The Serpent. Personally, whilst I might admit to loving plays by Shakespeare and Moliere, or novels by Dickens and Tolstoy, I can only say the series temporarily distracted me whilst my options of doing anything else other than watching TV were limited by lockdown. Despite its expensive ingenuity it did not tell me anything new about the human condition and it did not give me that sensation of excitement that engagement with a work of art provides.
Get the Chance supports volunteer critics like Simon to access a world of cultural provision. We receive no ongoing, external funding. If you can support our work please donate here thanks.
The recent S4C series Fflam was a slow-burner. I came to it with much intrigue and anticipation given the concept and acting talent. The idea of a woman, Noni, seeing her dead husband, Tim, again, after years believing he had died in a fire, sounded like the perfect spark from which to ignite a gripping narrative. The fact that Gwyneth Keyworth (Bang, Craith/Hidden) and Richard Harrington (Hinterland, Poldark) played the lead roles only served to excite and offer high expectations. So it was with sadness and disappointment that I found myself ultimately underwhelmed by its delivery. It did manage to strike a few matches throughout its six, half-hour episodes. However, these failed to set alight a series that was full of promise but low on satisfaction.
The performance of Keyworth was central to giving the drama a certain kudos that it may otherwise have lacked. Her ability to convey Noni’s internal emotions onscreen was akin to that of Eve Myles in Keeping Faith. The difference here though was the oft understated way that Keyworth did this. She demonstrated the conflict between grief and passion going on inside through very subtle expression which, nevertheless, with help from the camera and editing suite, was full of depth. Her appearances alongside Richard Harrington, particularly those in a restaurant over dinner, provided some of the most enjoyable scenes of the series. The gentle charisma that Harrington brought to his mysterious character, opposite the romantic infatuation that Keyworth successfully tempered as Noni, helped create a sense of ease. It led to a free-flowing script that meant their conversations appeared natural onscreen. These moments became absorbing as a result, giving some required fizz to a drama that, outside of them, felt a bit flat and unengaging.
I wonder whether the drama would have benefitted from having a more compressed narrative in which its central premise was played with a lot sooner and the final twist in the series was incorporated a lot earlier. This would have contributed to the retention of dramatic tension that, instead, bubbles up and then peters out at several points throughout the series. It is not helped by the fact that the characters of Deniz (Memet Ali Alabora), Ekin (Pinar Ögün), and Malan (Mali Ann Rees) were underserved by a subplot that lacked the same level of emotional investment as the main thread. And even in respect of the lead characters’ encounters, the pull-and-push of their developing relationship, though understandable in capturing Noni’s reticence, became increasingly frustrating. It simply took too long to progress, with the undesired effect being that, at points, the series felt like it was playing for time. By the time the revelations started to come out in episode five, they did not elicit the same degree of interest as they might otherwise have done had the narrative been pacier. As such, Fflam would have benefitted from an adaptation that condensed its source material into much more flavoursome half-hour chunks than we get here.
Overall then, Fflam has plenty of plus points to prevent it from being a damp squib even as it fails to set fire to the landscape of Welsh television drama. It is refreshing to see an image of Wales that is multicultural and inclusive played out onscreen, even if the presence of diverse characters only serve to circulate around a central narrative in which they play a limited part. Gwyneth Keyworth cements her status as one of Wales’ most exciting and talented screen actresses, with Richard Harrington and Mali Ann Rees again proving solid and reliable actors in their own right. If a second series is forthcoming, as expected, then Fflam has plenty of room for improvement. But it also still retains enough unrealised potential to warrant another chance.
This year has been the year of the audio. Scratchworks Theatre Company have brought their original stage play, written by Jack Dean to an audio tale with accompanied Science experiments for children.
Combined in a couple of audio sections, Faina and The Snow Beast features the tale of an Orphan, Faina, who dreams of becoming a scientists. Raised by the owl who found her abandoned, Maud, who believes in the magical and extraordinary, the two, with the help of Faina’s mother’s journal, undertake the most exciting adventure full of trials and tribulations to find The Snow Beast.
The story is very easy to get into. Able to download, you can dip and dive into the story whenever you want to. With the talented voices of Scratchworks, a range of different character’s are animated within our consciousness with the use of accents and skillful voice acting, evoking images and fueling our imaginations of the character’s and their adventure.
Known for their brilliant voices and musical styling, Scratchworks bring in magical yet homely and folk like music to accompany the story, making the atmosphere and the story feel sensational, with a Disney-like quality to the story in drumming up visions of the adventure.
Punctuated with their science pack, children are able to listen to the story and are encouraged and inspired to follow Scratchworks and make their own scientific experiments. The story highlights that science and the extraordinary are not necessarily different to one another. Maud states something along the lines of why should you only have the choice of belief in science or of the magical and unusual. By bringing the two together in a theatrical story telling and with science to attempt, children and adults alike can enjoy the magic of science and stories.
Faina and The Snow Beast aims itself at children, but adults are also fully taken away to far away lands, flying in hot air balloons and feeling the blizzardy atmosphere The Snow Beast creates. A joyous and sensational story.
Get The Chance critic, Beth Armstrong, chats to Tamara Harvey, Artistic Director of North Wales theatre, Theatr Clwyd. Tamara is the director of new online play, The Picture of Dorian Gray, featuring cross-county creatives and a star-studded cast. This adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s famous novel is a collaboration between the Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre, New Wolsey Theatre and Oxford Playhouse with partner venues including Aberystwyth Arts Centre and Torch Theatre.
Tamara,congratulations on being named The Stage, Regional Theatre Of The Year. Can you tell me what that meant to you and the whole team at Theatr Clwyd?
It was just an amazing start to the year because everyone in the team has worked so hard whether they’ve been working on serving our community or creating online content or whether they’ve been on furlough and have had to navigate the emotional difficulties of that – home-schooling, friends and family being ill – so to have a moment where the industry and The Stage said ‘you’re doing alright’, you know, ‘keep going’ – it was a really good way to start 2021.
Well it’s a brilliant achievement. So your new production, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is an online play. Now online plays are becoming more commonplace amid the pandemic but each theatre has their own definition. Could you give us more details on what this play might look like or are you keeping it under wraps?
Yeah I’m very happy to. Essentially it’s born of the question of: ‘What can we do?’ So we can’t tell stories on our stages right now. What can we do? It’s a combination of audio recordings, found footage, filmed extracts – some filming taking place in person, socially distanced, obviously, and some in people’s own homes, so it’s come from adversity but hopefully it means that we’re just creating a slightly new way of experiencing the story.
It sounds really innovative. And there have been a lot of brilliant pieces of theatre, TV and film made during lockdown. Does your adaptation make any coronavirus parallels or does it provide a brief respite from it all?
I think it certainly provides respite, I would say, in that it’s full of brilliant actors and it’s a fascinating story. It is set now so there are moments that allude to the world we’re living in now but it isn’t a story about a pandemic. It’s a story about people living their lives in a particular moment in time.
So as you said it takes place now. The play modernises Oscar Wilde’s story and transforms Dorian Gray into a social media influencer. Recently many influencers have been criticised for travelling despite restrictions. Do you think audiences will have less sympathy towards the character in light of this? Will their opinions of him change in any way?
Ah, interesting…I think we each when we watch a story, when we experience of piece of theatre or digital storytelling, we bring our own experiences and our own opinions to it so I think everyone is likely to react to Dorian in a slightly different way, depending on whether they have experience of that online world or they don’t, whether it’s something that they’re completely familiar with or something that they find totally alien. I think, and I hope actually – it’s one of the stories with making a piece of theatre, whether it’s on screen or on stage – I hope that people will have different reactions depending on their own experiences.
Social media and the idea of keeping up appearances seem to be a key theme. Do you think the pandemic has increased our anxiety of showing off our best selves online or instead alleviated some of the pressure, as teachers and colleagues are now allowed a little window into our lives everyday – messy kitchens and all?
It’s certainly increased my anxiety! *laughs* There’s nothing like having to be on a TV screen every day, you know. The great joy of discovering you can turn off your self-view on Zoom is amazing. Look, I think it’s done both, hasn’t it? We’re having to spend more time – even if only at the moment when we sign onto a facetime or a Zoom or whatever – we’re spending more time seeing our own image and for some of us that’s, you know, not a pleasant experience, for others I’m sure it’s delightful. We’re also able to have pyjama bottoms on as long as only our top half is seen so it’s a really curious mix. I put on heels for the first time yesterday and it felt totally bizarre because I haven’t done that in months and so yeah, perhaps with all of these things, each of us is having such a different experience. You know it’s that thing – people have said we’re all in the same storm but in different boats. I’m having to spend almost all day everyday on Zoom and there are other people who don’t go near it. So I think it’s impossible to generalise really.
Rehearsing online and with social distancing measures must have presented a lot of challenges but are there any positive aspects or creative innovation to have come out of these restrictions?
Well the whole piece is a creative endeavour that wouldn’t have happened under any other set of circumstances. So the fact that it exists is in itself a positive coming out of this moment. Online rehearsals are…difficult. Partly because of the time lag, partly because there is a focusing thing that happens when you walk into a rehearsal room – you’re leaving your life behind, plugging into a different space and that focuses your mind, whereas if you’re in your own home, you’ve got the door going or you’ve got the dog barking, you know, or your kids running round, whatever it is. But there are advantages; I still get to have tea with my kids every day and people don’t have to leave their loved ones behind to travel. Given the choice, I will still want to be in a room with people but it is possible to find positives even online.
Yeah I think that’s true. So starring as the title character Dorian is actor, Fionn Whitehead, who audiences will no doubt recognise as the breakthrough star of Dunkirk. What do you think Fionn brings to the role?
Fionn is just extraordinary. On screen he is completely mesmerising and I think that’s to do with the rare combination of vulnerability and strength. And wit. And innocence. He’s a kind of fascinating mix and the other thing that’s such a joy about him is he’s just an incredible person to have on set because he’s utterly delightful every second of the day. That means that you can be playful and collaborative and try things and as a director, feel able to make mistakes or try something unexpected because he’s so open and engaged. He’s extraordinary.
The show is currently in pre-production but are there any aspects or ideas you’re particularly excited to share with the cast and other creatives?
Well we’ve kind of got everything, as it were, in the can. We’ve now done all of the filming. The bit that’s happening now, which is quite new for me and therefore really exciting, is the editing. And I’m in this lovely position where I’m spending most of everyday on Zoom with our amazing director of photography and editor, Ben Collins, from the Barn Theatre with both of us watching the dailies and working out the edit so there’s something really heart-warming in this moment about knowing that I’m up in North Wales in my regional theatre and he’s down in Cirencester in his but there’s this invisible string reaching between us as we both create a thing. And the whole time we’re watching onscreen all these other people who’ve come together, whether physically or remotely, to make a story in order to support regional theatre and that feels pretty special.
I love that sense of connection that you have. So would you like to add anything else?
I suppose the only thing is that it’s worth saying that it does have what Henry Filloux-Bennett, who is the adapter, has done so beautifully – he’s managed to hold on to the spirit of the original which of course has all the wit of Oscar Wilde so as well as talking about social media and being about the downfall of this young man it’s also funny and fun and irreverent and all of those things.
Thank you so much. I think that just leaves me to say best of luck and I can’t wait to see it.
Get the Chance supports volunteer critics like Beth to access a world of cultural provision. We receive no ongoing, external funding. If you can support our work please donate here, thanks.
In our latest Playwright interview Director of Get the Chance Guy O’Donnell chats to Wales based Playwright Neil Bebber. Neil discusses his career to date, his latest project “Short Stories for Stressed Grown-Ups”and his thoughts on opportunities for Playwrights in Wales.
Hi Neil great to meet you, can you give our readers some background information on yourself please?
Hello! I’m a playwright, screenwriter, copywriter and graphic designer. I enjoy cycling, sea swimming, hiking at night under star-stuffed skies, endlessly scrolling though Netflix trying to find something good to watch, cooking (though my recent attempts at culinary genius have fallen short) and playing online Scrabble with strangers. For the record, I haven’t lost a game. Yet.
So, what got you interested in the arts?
Pantomime. Probably. I remember the feeling I had watching a school panto when I was maybe ten years old. The Seven Dwarves had left for the day to hi-ho off to work and Snow White was left alone in the space. A sequence followed where she just made the most of having the space to herself and I was transfixed.
From an early age, I was curious about the world. Talking to people as soon as I could talk. Asking “why” even more than most other kids. That question can take a child either way. Science allows us to understand how something works. The arts allow us to explore how something makes us feel. I’m a combination of the two. But, having turned down a potentially lucrative career in banking, in favour of a poorly-paid graphic design “apprenticeship” (that’s a whole other story!) I’d chosen my path.
Can you tell us about your writing process? Where do your ideas come from?
I used to fool myself into believing the romantic notion that I could only write when I was wallowing in a pool of self-indulgent pity, but I now realise that’s not true. I don’t know who said it, but writers write. So, the most important part of the process is to start by writing something.
It’s a cliché, but it is a muscle. And the more you do it, the easier it gets. And the more addictive it is. On the many courses I’ve been on, the forensic detail of process has been useful, but I’ve always got more from the automatic writing exercises. It’s a great way to unlock the unconscious mind and discover those seeds lurking in there between the teeth of doubt.
And I make a lot of notes. The romance of a notepad and fountain pen has been superseded by the iphone, but I’m glad that, should I ever hit a pothole on my bike and find myself flattened by an oncoming bus, nobody will ever get to access my notes. There’s a lot of strange musings there. Today I wrote a paragraph about how a crow, battered by the wind, seemed to be perfectly content to walk across the road sideways. And how that might serve as a metaphor. But I don’t know what for yet.
GULL, the play recently read on Zoom by the brilliant The Far Away Plays came about like that. A note about watching gulls rip apart bin bags and hungrily tuck into a pile of used nappies. The revulsion fed the atmosphere of the play.
In terms of dialogue, I believe that writing good dialogue is more about listening than writing. Before our freedoms were curtailed by a microscopic enemy, I used to sit in a lot of coffee shops, just listening to exchanges and watching people’s body language. In recent years, I probably haven’t been the best company, socially, choosing to observe and makes notes, rather than get involved.
Can you describe your writing day? Do you have a process or a minimum word count?
Writing days vary depending on the project. I’m also lucky enough to be able to supplement an artist’s income with commercial copywriting. But, either way, I start early. Check emails, social media between 8 and 8.30 and then make a start on the writing. At the moment I’m in the process of editing an audio play for a competition, writing a new speculative TV drama and also writing, recording and editing my stories for my YouTube channel, “Short Stories for Stressed Grown-Ups”.
Producing my own work has also made me realise the amount of time that’s needed for its design and promotion. The “Short Stories…” project needed to have an eye-catching brand, as well as accompanying visuals for each story. And all of this needs to be shared with the online world. I hope I’m finding the balance between, “oh, that’s interesting, I’m so glad he let me know” and “for God’s sake, not another post about his bloody stories!” If there’s anyone brave enough out there, do let me know!
Why and where do you write?
I write because I have something to say. About something I‘ve seen or something I’ve heard. Or something I feel passionately about.
I write because it’s a compulsion. A bit of an addiction. Especially when I get to see how an audience responds to it, good or bad. Maybe that’s some deep-seated need for validation. But then maybe that’s why any artist creates anything.
I write because it helps me repair. Relax. Forget. Make sense of a world (or of people) I don’t always understand.
I write because it’s satisfying and often surprising to be taken on a journey by imaginary characters, into unfamiliar scenarios and behaviours.
In terms of where I write, I can write anywhere. As long as I have something to balance a laptop on and a reasonably comfortable chair to sit on, I can write. There’s no ritual, no lucky desk or chair of inspiration. So, the photo is of a number of places where I could easily write. And the list is always being added to…
You are a prolific writer working across multiple mediums and forms. How has the Covid-19 Pandemic affected you and your creative process?
It was clear from the beginning that the lockdown, and the continuing response to a global pandemic, was going to fundamentally change a world that relied on the physical gathering of human beings in close proximity, whether audience or performer.
But, pretty early on, I saw an opportunity to get work out to a wider audience. Admittedly, it’s not the same experience as sitting in a studio theatre, tightly-packed with an appreciative audience, breathing the same air and having a collective experience.
When Jordan Bernarde contacted me about re-staging BREATHE (to avoid him climbing the walls during the first lockdown), after a short and successful run at The Bread & Roses the year before, I jumped at the chance. And it’s success has shown that there’s an audience for online theatre.
Theatres talk a lot about diversifying their audience base and this provides the perfect opportunity to do just that. Anyone who might previously have been intimidated by physically visiting a venue, can now watch a performance online and maybe discover that it isn’t the inaccessible, exclusive experience they may have expected. And, from a writer’s perspective, there’s an entire planet’s worth of connected people looking for content. The challenge is standing out amongst the noise!
From my own point of view, there’s been a shift towards demand for more audio drama. I’ve been working on a new play for the Papatango prize, which this year will be awarded to three audio works. And I was commissioned at the end of last year to write a multiple choice audio drama, which would be navigated purely through using Alexa. Exciting stuff!
One of your latest initiatives is the new new YouTube-based spoken word project, ‘Short Stories for Stressed Grown-ups’
You’ve written a number of short stories, which you’ve also narrated yourself. This is how you’ve described the project:
“Remember when you were a kid? And how it felt to be all tucked up and have a story read to you? What a shame that, as adults, we don’t get to enjoy the sheer, indulgent escapism of those moments anymore. Well, now that’s changed. Short Stories for Stressed Grown-ups by Neil Neil is now live! So all you have do is find somewhere quiet, where you won’t be disturbed, and listen to an original short story that will transport you from the troubles of your day.
Whether you use it to help you get off to sleep, or to re-set in the middle of a busy day, every story is written just for you.”
What response have you had to this new area of writing and storytelling?
The short stories were a suggestion by a producer friend of mine, Simon Regan, who I’d worked with on an arts podcast, EVOLUTIONS, shortly before the pandemic kicked off
I was frustrated at the time it took to get work “out there” so he suggested I might do it myself.
I researched the short story market, as well as potential gaps in provision for audio content and I thought a combination of meditative and escapist character-based short stories, narrated in the style of a bedtime story, might work.
The response has been really encouraging. The audience has been very frank about what’s working and what isn’t, the real-time feedback giving me an opportunity to modify the style and content of each new story. I’m also keen to interact with the audience, using names for characters taken from contents pages and maybe asking for suggestions on story ideas and destinations.
It’s great to know, too, that these stories are temporarily distracting people from the stresses of their day and, in some cases, helping them sleep. I’m hoping my voice doesn’t have the same effect during face-to-face conversations, when we return to the “real” world!
In November your latest play GULL was read online by the team at The Far Away Plays. We think the Far Away Plays have been one of the highpoints of creative activity in Wales during the Pandemic. Have you had an opportunity to listen to any of the other Far Away Plays, play readings? And how was it to have your latest play produced on Zoom?
GULL was originally scheduled to be performed at WMC’s Ffwrnes Scratch night in March 2020, but then the world plunged into chaos. So I was thrilled when The Far Away Plays chose it for one of their online performances late last year. Their commitment to getting work out to online audiences, as well as dealing with all the logistical stages in between, has been immense.
I was also excited to be able to cast three incredible RWCMD alumni. Luke Nunn, Cecilia Appiah and Meredith Lewis were just some of the standout actors from 2020 and it was a real privilege to witness their brilliantly instinctive and nuanced performances, especially given the limited time they had to rehearse.
The director James O’Donnell also deserves a special mention. Having put a callout on social media for a director at late notice, James answered the call. The way he was able to take a potentially static medium and turn it into such a dynamic performance was miraculous. I always get really nervous before any production of my work, but it was clear within minutes that GULL was in safe hands, so I was actually able to sit back and enjoy it!
I’m waiting to hear from FAP if there’s a recording I might be able to share with all of the Artistic Directors who weren’t able to make it, because, as good as it was to see the work performed online, this play would (and this team!) clearly work brilliantly on stage.
There are a range of organisations supporting Welsh and Wales-based writers, I wonder if you feel the current support network and career opportunities feel ‘healthy’ to you? Is it possible to sustain a career as a writer in Wales and if not what would help?
“Healthy” might be a misleading term. The opportunities are available, but I wonder how writers are made aware of them. For opportunities, my go-to is BBC Writer’s Room Opportunities page. Then I check London Playwrights, which is another brilliant resource. I’m not sure if there’s a central database for opportunities in Wales. If not, it would be great to have one, where all aspects of writing were covered, plays, films, TV, etc.
Also, there are a number of theatres offering writer’s courses and residences, but there are rarely the resources available to sustain the momentum, once they’ve happened. I’ve been on three writer’s courses and one residency and none of these led to a tangible, ongoing relationship with the respective theatres.
In terms of sustaining a writing career, I think it’s important to diversify. I’m lucky to also be a freelance copywriter and graphic designer, but, even if I was commissioned to write three plays a year, the income generated wouldn’t be enough to sustain a family, mortgage and other regular day-to-day commitments. From what I can gather, to make any sort of living, TV writing seems to the way forward. Ideally I’d like to be able to do a bit of everything, though, as I’ve been lucky enough to so far.
If you were able to fund an area of the arts in Wales what would this be and why?
I think a TV writing academy would be a valid investment now. As Wales becomes used increasingly as a destination for production, and companies like Bad Wolf continue to thrive, a joined up, sustained TV writing “lab” could help nurture home-grown talent and ensure Wales was increasingly self contained, moving forward. Especially given the increase in demand for content from online providers like Netflix and Prime.
What excites you about the arts in Wales?
Diversity. The sheer extent of opportunities to make and view art for a country with a reasonable small population. I’m hesitant to use the term, “punching above its weight”. Oh, too late. I have.
And then there’s always the occasional parallel universe curveball of one of Tactile Bosch’s performance art nights. That’s what first made me realise I was living in a capital city. Ah, I miss Kim Fielding. What a lovely man.
What was the last really great thing that you experienced that you would like to share with our readers?
There are so many things that have either left me speechless, laugh uncontrollably or made me cry, sometimes all at the same time.
I remember sitting down in my office (in the middle of the first lockdown), with headphones on, to watch Complicite’s “The Encounter”, and feeling within minutes as if I’d been transported to another world, by both the performance and its remarkable aural soundscape. Not sure if it’s still available to view online, but there’s more, here:
Charlie Kaufmann’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (on Netflix), whilst sometimes being incomprehensible, felt like a pure artist’s vision, unimpeded by the demands of people-pleasing. Maybe the best art is selfish. And this felt like that. But in the best possible way.
And no conversation (I say conversation, though this has all been a bit one way) with me goes without a music mention. The Dandy Warhols’ 13 Tales from Urban Bohemia has been my favourite album for years. And at the end of last year, they performed a live stream of it, in its entirety, for the first time. For that hour, I was there, front and centre, dancing like a kid in a sweet shop. The sweets being the songs. But not in jars. Obviously.
Anyway, that’s three. Because there’s never any shortage of great things to share.
Thanks for your time
And thank you for this brilliant opportunity to ramble.
In the article below members of the Get the Chance team share why the work of Get the Chance is important to them and their lives.
You can make a donation to support the work of Get the Chance here
Guy O’Donnell, Volunteer Director
Hi my name is Guy O’Donnell and I am the director of Get the Chance. In this short article our team share with you how vital Get the Chance is to them and their lives. If you can support our work, please donate at the link above.
Get the Chance is a social enterprise based in South Wales. We are Wales based with an international outlook. We work to create opportunities for a diverse range of people, to experience and respond to sport, art, culture and live events. We use our online magazine website as a platform to showcase our members activities. We provide a fantastic opportunity to develop cultural critical voices and ensure that people from certain groups of society, people that are often forgotten or unheard, are given a platform to share, review and discuss their lives and critique work in a public platform.
Not only have we supported conversations about the arts and culture in Wales, but we’ve also broken-down barriers and asked questions about who actually gets to critique art. It is this democratisation of criticism that is crucial to a healthy and thriving artistic community that listens to everyone. Thank you.
Gemma Treharne-Foose, Volunteer Director and Critic.
Hi, my name is Gemma Treharne-Foose. I’m a board member and volunteer with Get the Chance. We’re a community of volunteers, activists and enthusiasts dedicated to expanding the reach of arts, culture and sports in Wales. At Get the Chance, we exist to create a space and a platform for people to participate, engage in and respond to theatre, arts and culture. In particular, we help people who are perhaps traditionally hard to reach and support them to access and experience these spaces.
Part of the work we do with our community is to encourage and support them to build up their skills, responding to, vlogging about, and writing about their experiences accessing arts, theatre and culture, and also helping them access particular schemes and initiatives with partner organisations.
At the moment the arts and live event industries in Wales are hurting and they’re struggling right now as they try to access support and gain audiences in these uncertain times. I believe this is an arts emergency and I want part of my work with Get the Chance to support the industry to get back on its feet again and to get audiences enjoying live events and theatre again.
If you also want to support and highlight Welsh theatre, arts and culture then I’d encourage you to get involved. Let’s shine a light on the amazing work happening right now in Wales. The show must go on!
Barbara Michaels, Volunteer Critic.
As one of the most senior reviewers who has known Guy O’Donnell for many years, I can’t stress enough how important it is that Get the Chance continues to support the youngsters who want to become involved in the arts, many of them with the aim of a career in the media.
During the time over the years I’ve been reviewing, I’ve been really impressed by the young people who are coming up into the ranks, who have become very knowledgeable and very enthusiastic about their involvement with theatre. Unless we get some financial support, it’s going to be so difficult to continue with an organisation like Get the Chance which does so much good, giving opportunities to young people who wouldn’t have them.
With the cost of seeing the performances of opera and ballet and theatre rising, and inevitably it is going to rise more, it is absolutely vital that we have some support both financially and in all aspects of an organisation like Get the Chance. Thank you.
Kevin B Johnson, Volunteer Critic
Hi my name is Kevin, I work in an office, I like long walks on sunny beaches and I’m Sagittarius. Apart from that, I’m a member of Get the Chance because I like seeing new shows, new films and sharing them with other people, bringing my discoveries to others and getting a chance to view them. I like to highlight what I love about the shows that I’ve seen.
Becky Johnson, Volunteer Critic
Hi my name is Becky Johnson and I’m a member of Get the Chance. I’m actually a freelance dance artist based in Cardiff and I’m a member of Get the Chance alongside that. So with my practice I tend to create work, I tend to perform and I tend to teach, and a big part of me being an artist is making sure that I can see as much work as possible and then also understand the wider perspectives, on not only dance but also the arts in general and the things that are going on in our current climate and our local area.
So with having Get the Chance alongside of it, it allows me to access these different things and to get opportunities to see these, which I wouldn’t necessarily financially be able to do otherwise. Also, it allows me to have that time dedicated to just look at these things analytically and also just to really try and understand what is going on in what I’m watching and what I’m seeing, rather than just watching it and acknowledging what’s happening. Writing with Get the Chance gives me an opportunity to use my voice to promote the things that I really care about and things I’m passionate about, the things I think need to be highlighted, whether that’s something that’s problematic that I see in a show or something that I think’s wonderful that needs to be shown more of and we need to see more of.
Another opportunity that I’ve had recently which has been amazing is the opportunity to interview people that I’m very proud to have had the opportunity to speak to and to be able to give them a voice to speak about their platform and what they’re doing. This is really important to me as a lot of these issues are very important and very close to home and I think it’s something that without this platform I wouldn’t be able to do.
I’ve always loved writing, it’s something that I did always want to pursue but by being a member of Get the Chance I’ve been able to continue my writing in a way that’s still linked with my practice. It means that I can find the balance of both of these feeding each other. I’m really grateful for having this opportunity.
Leslie R Herman, Volunteer Critic
Get the Chance has been one of the ways I’ve been able to maintain a connection to the arts and culture in Wales. I’m writing this message from New York City. It is mid-August 2020. I’ve been unable to get back to Wales due to the Covid pandemic and the global lockdown. Not only am I really missing Wales, I’m missing connection, to people, to places and to the arts and culture that I’ve grown to love and live for – arts and culture that have helped me thrive throughout my life.
At the moment it really feels like we’re all of us spinning in our own orbits and cyberspace is our most vital tool but if that’s all we’ve got, I’m afraid it’s way too nebulous for me. I need to feel more grounded.
Get the Chance really has given me the opportunity to get grounded and to connect to people, to the arts, to culture. It’s given me the opportunity to mentor young people and it’s given me the opportunity to extend and rebuild my own career. What’s marvellous about get the chance is its open and flexible approach to giving people a chance to connect to culture. Why don’t you give Get the Chance a chance?
Beth Armstrong, Volunteer Critic
Hi! My name’s Beth. I’m 24, and I’m from Wrexham, North Wales, and I’m currently training to be a primary school teacher. I’m a member of Get the Chance because it allows me to watch a great range of theatre performances which I wouldn’t normally get to see due to financial reasons, and also allows me to see a really diverse range of different kinds of theatre which I think is great for expanding my knowledge and experience of theatre in general.
Having my work published online is a great opportunity for me because it allows me to have a wide audience for my writing, and it also allows me to engage with other reviewers and read their work as well, so it’s a really fantastic opportunity.
Samuel Longville, Volunteer Critic
When I left university, Get the Chance was a really amazing, creative outlet for me. I was able to see so much theatre for free which would have been really difficult at the time, having left university as a not very well-off student. I was working a quite tedious nine-to-five job at the time so Get the Chance really served as that kind of creative outlet for me, allowing me to see as much theatre as possible, and not only to see it but to think about it critically and write reviews about it. So it really let me utilise the things I’d learned on my drama course at university.
I’m soon to start an MA in Arts Management at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and I think, without Get the Chance, my enthusiasm possibly could have wavered over the past year, and I still may be stuck doing the same nine-to-five job that I was previously doing. So I really can’t thank Guy and Get the Chance enough for all the opportunities they gave me over the past year.
Helen Joy, Volunteer Critic
Hi! My name is Helen Joy, and I’m here to talk a little bit about my experiences with Guy O’Donnell and his extraordinary Get the Chance. I joined Get the Chance as a 3rd Act Critic when it started, which is a couple of years ago now, and I was a little less grey(!), and it has given me the most extraordinary opportunities that I would not have had the opportunity to take otherwise. For example, I was able to go to the Opera regularly, something I never thought I’d be able to do or that I would enjoy. I’ve been a keen follower of modern dance – ditto, never thought I’d do that – and it’s also given me the chance to really think about how I evaluate things.
So, for example, much more recently, I was given the chance to interview Marvin Thompson. I think this gave me one of the biggest challenges I’ve had for a long time. He, and the experience of planning and conducting an interview, and recording it visually and hourly on Zoom, made me really think about, not just how I wanted to react to him and to his work, but how I felt about it.
Often, I fall into a particular category: of the classic middle-aged, white, educated woman, where the opportunities are already ours, and we’re very lucky with that, but we’re also quite a silent group. People don’t really want to hear what we’ve got to say, which is why we tend to shout it from the rooftops I think; or why, equally, we disappear into the aisles of supermarket. This has given me and my colleagues tremendous opportunities to re-find our voices and to share them, to listen to what other generations have to say. It’s been a really important experience for me. Long may it continue. Thank you!
Barbara Hughes-Moore, Volunteer Critic.
My name is Barbara Hughes-Moore, and I recently completed my Doctorate in Law and Literature at Cardiff School of Law and Politics on Gothic Fiction and Criminal Law. So by day, I’m a scholar, a reviews editor, and a research assistant; and by night, I write longer retrospective pieces on film and television through a gothic and criminal lens on my personal blog.
I’m a member of Get the Chance because its mission is all about increasing the visibility of, and accessibility to, the arts for everyone. Since becoming a member, I have attended and reviewed numerous theatre productions at the Sherman Theatre, the New Theatre, and Chapter Arts Centre. I’ve been a featured speaker on the Sherman Theatre’s post-show panels. And, more recently, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing director Alison Hargreaves on her short film Camelot for the Uncertain Kingdom Anthology. Most importantly of all, Get the Chance has not only given me a voice – it has given me the space, the opportunity, and the confidence to use it.
Gareth Williams, Volunteer Critic
Hi! My name is Gareth. I am 29 years old and I live in North East Wales, and I’ve been asked to say why I’m a member of Get the Chance, and I want to answer by slightly rephrasing the question in order to say what Get the Chance means to me. And first of all, it means having the opportunity to respond to the arts in Wales; to contribute to the discussion around arts and culture in Wales; and to engage with various art forms.
To that end, it is an opportunity to support and promote artists and organisations, particularly those that I’m passionate about. So for me, that looks like theatre, particularly the work of Theatr Clwyd in Mold; music – I’m a fan of country music, and it’s great to be able to showcase Welsh country music talent on the Get the Chance website – and TV drama. Welsh TV drama is going through a bit of a golden age at the moment, and it’s great to be able to be a part of that as somebody who critically reviews these shows as a writer.
I’ve always been much better at writing than speaking. I’ve never been very good at expressing an opinion though because of low self-esteem and confidence. But being a member of Get the Chance has given me an opportunity to express an opinion. It’s increased my self-esteem and my confidence to speak about how I feel about the things that I see and watch and listen to and engage with. And I think, for me, that is the most important thing about being a member of Get the Chance: that opportunity to express an opinion which, a couple of years ago, I would not have had the confidence to do.
Sian Thomas, Volunteer Critic
Hi! My name is Sian. The main reason I joined Get the Chance is because I love reading and I’ve always loved reading, and I really like having a definitive place where I can put down my thoughts on any piece of media and see people respond in so many different ways, and even the authors of the books that I’ve reviewed responding in so many different ways as well. It’s really lovely to have that kind of freedom of expression and I really value being a member.
Amina Elmi, Volunteer Critic
I am a member of Get the Chance because it gives me a platform where I can speak my mind . It allows me to give my opinion and being able to do so enables me to explore the media, the news and whatever preferred genre or medium of entertainment I want.
When it was introduced to me I was into writing and that has helped shape what dreams and ideals I have while also keeping my writing skills at a solid, good level. I am fortunate to be a part of Get The Chance because it has given me opportunities that I would not have had otherwise.
Hannah Goslin, Volunteer Critic
I am a member of Get the Chance because theatre and the arts is what I eat, live and breath. To be able to connect with fellow performers, practitioners, critics and journalists is a wonderful chance to learn, be inspired and to network.
When a sitcom gets funnier as the series goes on, you know you’re onto a winner. So it is with Rybish, written by Barry ‘Archie’ Jones. Set in a recycling centre in North-West Wales, it avoids the rookie mistake of focusing primarily on the workplace situation. Instead, Jones develops a cast of well-rounded characters whose idiosyncratic personalities rub up against one another to form the basis of much of Rybish’s hilarity. There may be the odd joke at the setting’s expense, like standing on a ladder in the pouring rain, attempting to get a mobile signal. But Jones unearths most of the comedy gold from the interactions between his characters. It is the people that he has created that make Rybish such a success.
Sion Pritchard is simply brilliant as site manager Clive. He ramps up the sullenness of his character Mark in Tourist Trapto take Clive beyond expressions of mild annoyance whilst tempering his exasperation so that his comments remain witty and teasing rather than scathing and cut-throat. He resembles the best of banter, light-heartedly mocking his colleagues with nicknames and put-downs that lovingly encapsulate their personalities. There is no malice in the man, as some might conclude; rather, he represents the masculine type that struggles to show emotion and masks their insecurities with humour and a certain aloofness.
Meanwhile, Eurwyn (Dyfed Thomas) wears his heart on his sleeve. He is a gentle and kind soul whose sweet nature is in stark contrast to the moody Clive. Whilst the humour created by the latter is often through his witty comments, it is the innocence of Eurwyn that draws laughter from the audience. It is never intended to be cruel however, and Jones ensures that in his script. He presents Eurwyn as a man of great wisdom and knowledge, though the way Thomas emphasises his character’s naivety has the effect of downplaying this. The result is a deeply empathetic portrayal of an archetypal, rather than stereotypical, Welshman who is devoted to his nation’s culture.
Alongside Clive and Eurwyn sits Nigel (Rhodri Trefor), a young lad who likes to think he’s more important than he actually is. He will often talk the talk but very rarely does he follow through with action. In fact, it is in the incongruity between what he says to camera and then does afterwards that is the source of much comedy. Jones does not simply pour scorn on Nigel however. Like the rest of his characters, he brings complexity through the subtle incision of moments that reflect genuine sentiment and vulnerability. Nigel’s reaction to new arrival Bobbi (Betsan Ceiriog) is one example, with his suspicion of her perhaps wrongly assumed by some to be veiled sexism. But when, in episode five, the ex-manager of the site wanders around making blatantly sexist remarks, Nigel stands with the rest of the crew in opposition. Such action reflects the strong camaraderie between them, of which Bobbi becomes a vital part.
Ceiriog, in her debut television role, is a steady and confident presence onscreen, affording Bobbi a self-assured and strong personality that means she becomes a vital part of the Cefn Cilgwyn family. She does so to the extent that, when it comes time for her to leave in the final episode, their sadness is akin to grief. It is felt so viscerally through the screen that I am already pining to re-join them for another series with the hope that Bobbi comes back. It would not be the same without her.
It is very rare that I have felt such strong affection for a group of sitcom characters. I can think of only This Country and Derry Girls as contemporary examples where a similar strength of feeling has existed. The difference is that the characters in Rybish resemble a reality that is within my grasp. Contained in their specifically Welsh foibles, alongside their universally-felt flaws, is a reflection of something (someone) in my real world.
I suspect that the factual aesthetic and naturalistic dialogue also contribute to this sense of familiarity, the effect of which leaves one reflecting on the importance of community. For the concept of community that has been created here is something to behold. Whether a result of the cast and crew’s experience of filming under lockdown restrictions (they were in a bubble together while filming some of the series) or not, the familial-like ties that bind the characters of Rybish together is something to take to heart.
Writer Barry ‘Archie’ Jones has created something in Rybish that is not just memorable but lovable too. The title may be ‘rubbish’ but this sitcom is anything but.
Helen Joy interviews Jodi Ann Nicholson and Connor Allen for Get the Chance, a voluntary organisation run by Guy O’Donnell and a very enthusiastic group of volunteers reviewing the Arts.
Hi Jodi and Connor great to meet you both.
Hi I am Jodi Ann Nicholson, the dancer on Plethu/Weave project together with Connor
Hi I am Connor, an artist, poet and speaker of the word of ‘Branches of Me’.
How did you start working on this project?
We were paired together through National Dance Company Wales and Literature Wales and we are both part of the Plethu/Weave project
We were paired and it skyrocketed from there.
Why do you say skyrocketed Connor?
I found that the conversations and the experiences we had just met and shot straight up. We carried on going and going until we hit the stars and once we were there in that beauty of space and we were able to create ‘the branches of me’. It was a nice exploration. I felt we truly met and it skyrocketed in the conversations we had, the warmth that we shared and the talent we brought to the table.
What was it about each of you that connected? Because quite often we are put together in projects and it doesn’t always necessarily work, you don’t find that mutual passion. What was it that you found in each other that enabled you to work together so well?
So both of our practices separately share similar interests when it comes to exploring identity and in particular mixed race identity. So when we came together, Connor was an easy person to talk to and easy to listen to so we just bounced off each other had a great open, honest space to communicate with each other and we shared a lot of interest in our work.
I think for me it was meeting someone who was open and gentle as Jodi. We were able to have those conversations where we could connect and just talk and talk for hours, understanding each other. On a base human level it’s beautiful and on these types of project it just helps.
What was the message you were trying to get across? What is the project about?
Personally it is about that exploration of a mixed race identity in a society that sees race as black and white. There is a unique point in a mixed race identity where you visualise a family tree and it has black branches and white branches. It is both of those cultures and ethnicities that make us what we are. Growing up, my exploration of identity was unique because I was too white for my black friends but too black for my white friends. So I was thinking, well where do I fit in? I don’t feel like I fit in either part of this thread. That is what is great about working on this project and chatting with Jodi. We can then bounce off each other and say that yeah, I felt that and I can relate to that. So that we then started to formulate an idea. It was not just me. Growing up I felt a lot of times that it was just me. Why am I feeling like this, when no one else is?
I would say a lot of the same as Connor has. Looking about what it is to be mixed race in a world where it is going to be white to be black and finding the balance and harmony and finding our voice within it. Because we are two people who have been looking at this separately for a while, to come together and realise that we do share a lot of these experiences. You start to realise that perhaps this isn’t just our individual dilemmas of identity. Maybe other people of mixed race and backgrounds share the same thing as well. I think it was important to get our voices out and work out what our voice is and hopefully share what other peoples voice is.
So then we can get universal. We have our individual experiences we bounce off and we can use that to get to the heart of why we feel like this. Once we get to the heart of the issue. I hate the word issue, it’s not an issue.
That’s why she is brilliant see! By having the universality of our experience and that of ethnicity others can relate to it.
This issue around visual identity and how we are seen and how we want to be seen is a massive one. It’s a human condition isn’t it? You are trying to find a way of illustrating and narrating how it feels to be in that grey area in between black and white and how that feels and how you share that and share it in a universal way. And you have done it playing to your individual strengths. So Jodi, you’re a dancer, Connor you are an actor, writer, poet. And you’ve pulled together those different ways of communication to produce a two minute track. How did it feel to make that film? Do you feel confident you have got those messages across? And what are those messages that you really want us to get?
I personally feel confident, not so much a message but that it has definitely opened up a conversation around these issues where people can relate to that or say ‘that line, that really stuck with me’. So a lot of films being created were about 90 seconds and we went back and forth so many times because we just couldn’t hit that limit. And actually we don’t want to sacrifice our art and our vision to try and move it down to there. We truly believe in the potential in this and to get the true message across it needs to be the length it needs to be and we got it to 2 minutes. We were not going to sacrifice any more. It was an important point for us to say that this is the story we want to tell.
I tell you what, I’ve grown to really like a lot of the modern poets in a way that I did not think I would.
I was working with a guy called William Dean Ford last week on a mental health project with some poetry and he quite often uses the Haiku format, but kind of repeatedly so it is a kind of Haiku in verses if that makes sense and I’ve been really struck at poetry as a means of getting through to people. I’ve been really struck by that recently and I think that because now we’re trained like Pavlov’s dogs into snippets of information, you know social media drives snippets of information all the time, everything is short and fast and I’ve been interested in watching the poets respond to that and being so careful and so sensitive about their use of words to make best use of that space. It’s been absolutely brilliant. Now I think they have a role that wasn’t there for a long time.
Yeah that means like there is power in words. Words carry so much power and weight that sometimes people forget that. In the same way that music can have a profound effect on you as you can relate to that and you hear those lyrics and they resonate with you in a way that other things don’t. Words are some of the most powerful tools we have
Yes they are and I’ve been fascinated in recent years with dance for exactly the same reason. Jodi you used that word ‘Economy’ and inspiring people to think about things in different ways and its part of what you are trying to do. Okay, if you can’t get it that way, try it this way it’s using all the things at our fingertips to say you need to think about this. You know you can’t ignore this, it’s really important
When it comes to dance you have to communicate. Half or a good measure of our communication comes from our bodies as well as language and words so I think dance works well as it communicates in a different way and level than language or words.
Tell us about this video, ‘Identity – Black Lives Matter’ and your role in communicating what it feels like to you as a mixed race individuals.
For me personally, I did an interesting thing. I just watched it, turned the audio off so just watched Jodi’s dance and it is a different experience. For me this is linked, we know why we made it and our exploration. But for me it’s about what it means for whoever needs it. Its subjective, some people are going to watch that and it will deeply resonate with them, at a level that other pieces might not and other people are going to be educated, and say, ‘wow, I’ve never even thought about that, it’s really interesting.’ And there might be people out there watching and thinking ‘that’s a load of crap.’ And just skip past it. And that’s fine. It’s what it is to them. We will always have our back and forth, our moment of exploring and what it means for us as two mixed race artists. We are quite open and honest about that. It is about that exploration of identity and what that means – Where do we fit it in to this movement of Black Lives Matter in this pivotal moment in society and in history. Right now we are in a unique tipping point that Black Lives Matter and black lives are being shone in a different light. People are hearing our stories and listening to our voices. On the one hand there are a lot of people who are scared by that but at the same time there are a lot of people embracing and supporting that. It’s a unique balance for me. What I would like is for people to watch the film and to spark up conversations about what an intertwined identity means on both levels.
I read a really interesting quote by Donald Glover and Michaela Corel in GQ magazine. Donald talks there of how a lot of white people are scared to have those conversations as they might see themselves reflected back on themselves and that is a scary thing, to know that you might have said the wrong thing to someone or that you might carry those prejudices and you might not like them. I think because we live in a society of counter culture and outrage, people are quick to say ‘No you’re wrong and I’m right’. It is just about opening up that conversation because I truly believe that if you walk in the shoes of another person you have a greater capacity for empathy and that all it is about. Knowing that we have our experiences but there are going to be other experiences. As I was saying to Jodi, I can never relate to what it means to be a woman because I am not a women. I don’t have menstrual cycles I don’t carry children, and there are all these other things I can’t relate to I can’t resonate but what I can do because I’ve been raised by a Queen is knowing in some way what it means to go through those issues, those adversities is be an ally and support women and females. That is all we are asking. Even if you don’t fully agree with us, even if it doesn’t resonate, you can still be an ally, you can still listen and have that greater capacity for empathy. A lot of people nowadays say they don’t see colour, but you have to see colour to see our experience and then empathise with what we are going through. You might not be able to relate to but you can empathise what we are going through. Long story short, I just want the film to open up the door to empathy for other mixed race or black people who are feeling the way we are feeling.
I was just going to say to Jodi that you are communicating in a very different way from Connor, who is using the spoken word to get his narrative across and he is doing it in a very universal, embracing way. You are using the medium of dance and film. How do you feel when you put your work out there and people can interpret it in all sorts of different ways and not just the way you necessarily want.
I am completely fine with that ultimately. I know that there is a space for interpretation when you put anything out there no matter what form it takes whether it’s through poetry, right through art or whether it’s through dance. When I put work out there, there has been a long process before it that I have worked out whether it’s by myself or with somebody I have been collaborating with, working out what it is I want to say, what it is I think and how I think it is best to communicate and to show this through my body, through film, through whatever medium I’m using. I am very open and I put it out there for there to be conversation about how people experience what I am talking about or what I am trying to get across. Sometimes its picked up and people think that is exactly how I feel, It’s exactly what I think and this is my experience and it’s a completely shared thing. Other people go ‘Oh, I don’t quite understand what you are talking about or what you are trying to show.’ And I go ‘well okay, why? Or what is it that you did get?’ And I think that is just as interesting and just as important to me as an artist. Because either something new will come out of it that I will then learn from or I’ll go, ‘Okay, I need to work on that as an artist.’ Depending on how important it is to me that a particular message is got across. I put work out there for the conversation about in this case, Identity. And how we experience each other and have space to have openness to experiencing other people and their lives.
Going off the back of that, I learned recently, a year back, there was this Russian practitioner called Kushelov and he came up with this thing called ‘The Kushelov Effect.’ He made three short films, and he got a Russian actress and he wanted to try and grab the visuals of what it meant and show what hunger, grief and laughter felt like. He wanted to film the three emotions in their entirety. He filmed this actress looking into an empty bowl, a coffin and something else and filmed the shot. He released this film of these three stages band it just went crazy, and people went ‘OMG, the actress has really got the true meaning of grief in her eyes and the innocence in her laughter, you can just tell it’
It came out years later that he used the exact same shot on all three films. So what that meant was, its just audience subjectivity. It is subjective to the audience. They put the take on that. Going off what you said then it is quite similar. We know why we made this, and why we make our work but as soon as it goes out there, it is up to the audiences’ perceptions to be ‘Ah, you meant that, didn’t you.’ Or, ‘I didn’t quite get that,’ it’s not really resonated. It’s just subjectivity, and what it means to the audience.
And I think there is something there about taking the fear out of the conversations. We are all struggling with using the right words, the right time, the right people and the right place. It takes away the honesty and the openness sometimes. So it is really important to have those conversations. That’s how people change, how they are educated. In my view it needs to be done in the most non-confrontational way as possible so that you are embracing all those different views.
You need those. You need different views but you need also that openness to say ‘okay cool so that what you have just said is not how we’re perceived but I can educate you on the right terminology or the right way to think about it.‘ So education for me is key. I could be screaming down a void, the black hole that is Twitter and saying ‘this is how I should be feeling now’ And that’s fine. J Cole is a rapper, he released a song recently where he spoke quite openly about that won’t culture and how he is not that. I think everyone has their ways of trying to tackle musicians who deal with that. Some people are very vocal and will do all their research and they will go out there and ban drugs. Other people like me, I’m very reserved and I would rather speak to individuals and plant these little seeds and hopefully then they will grow into fruition years later. I work in these communities in that way.
For me personally it is about education and we just need to be more open and willing to be like ‘You can’t say that because that offends me, or I don’t like that’. For example using the N word. Some members of the community will use the N word other people won’t.
Kendrick Lamarr had an issue where he was in Australia on a world tour and he brought a white female fan up on stage and she started rapping along to one of his songs and then obviously the N word was in the song and so she said the N word and he stopped the show. And he said ‘whoa, no, you don’t get to say that.’ But in that instance for example, it’s in your music and she was a fan and she’s just singing along. So instead of automatically saying ‘You don’t get to say that cos you are white.’ Let’s have this conversation. Why can’t she say that because she is rapping along to a song and she is a fan? They are awkward conversations and you are trying to justify as to why a section of society gets to say well ‘you get to say that, why can’t I say that word?‘ Firstly there are two iterations of that word, one with an ‘a’ and one with an ‘er’ so it depends on what connotation you are using. By having more openness, gentleness and willingness to engage in conversation. It doesn’t have to be confrontational. You can have a nice debate and you are not always going to see eye to eye and that’s fine. You don’t have to agree with everything we are saying if you can say that you can see where you are coming from, I just don’t agree. That’s also fine, it’s the small victories.
I’m with Connor, I think education is massive, important. There just needs to be space for people to speak their mind and learn from each other. I know from myself in general in life I can be really scared about talking sometimes because I am trying to make sure that once the words have left my mouth I am not going to regret it or change my mind afterwards. I think that if you don’t understand something or you don’t know then people need to give you the space to ask. Maybe you are going to get it wrong or you may offend somebody or you are not going to offend anyone, but there be space for it to be said because once we start talking about it we can start understanding it and each other and where we are coming from. We shouldn’t be scared about getting it wrong. You can get it wrong once, maybe not twice or three times. Which is why I think my work and this piece is about wanting to open up the conversation, this is what we have been talking about for the last month and what we have been thinking about ourselves for years. This is our point of showing you guys, now what do you think. Let’s have space to do that. Because when it comes to race it is important to have the conversations and feel confident to do so.
And it is up to all of us to create the environment to have that conversation. To make that safe space so that however those conversations are being had in whatever medium they are embraced and valued. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed listening to you. You are the most remarkable people and I don’t doubt you are going to have remarkable futures. I would recommend to anybody that they follow Jodi and Connor and in particular pick up on this latest video piece because it is absolutely beautiful. Can you tell us where we can find that video what it is called and how we could contact you if we wanted to have that conversation?
The pieces are called ‘The Branches of Me.’ It can be found on Literature Wales and National Dance Company Wales Twitter. It’s also NDCWales website and on You Tube.
It’s on Instagram. All social media platforms used by literature Wales and National Dance Company Wales.
If you want to contact me, I am on Twitter, @connor_allen92 or my website, connorallen.co.uk there is a contact form on there.
Thank you so much both of you, this is so important. Anybody who is feeling that they are not part of something…. It’s dreadful really. We all need to feel part of something. We are herd animals and to feel excluded from a conversation in any sense is not a nice feeling, thanks for your time.
Interview transcribed by Richard Evans, Get the Chance.
Creating opportunities for a diverse range of people to experience and respond to sport, arts, culture and live events. / Lleisiau amrywiol o Gymru yn ymateb i'r celfyddydau a digwyddiadau byw