Five decades since Wales got its voice

Fo a Fe Fo a Fe lined up beside the likes of Doctor Who and Pobol y Cwm in the recent BBC Wales staff poll of favourite BBC Wales programmes

The BBC enjoys an anniversary. And when you've been around for the best part of a century, they come thick and fast. Last year it was Doctor Who's 50th and on Sunday, BBC Cymru Wales reaches its own half-century.

It was on February 9 1964 that a small team of engineers gathered below the new Wenvoe transmitter just outside Cardiff and switched on Wales' first national TV channel. It was arguably the most important milestone in Welsh broadcasting since the very first radio broadcasts back in the 1920s.

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The launch of BBC Wales at last gave a nation the ability to see itself and to speak to itself on its own terms, about its own affairs and to do so in both languages”

End Quote Rhodri Talfan Davies Director, BBC Wales

At one level, the creation of BBC Wales simply answered a technical problem. Until that point, broadcasts on what we now know as BBC One Wales were shared between Wales and the west of England.

It meant viewers in Carmarthenshire were regularly treated to the latest local news from Shepton Mallet. Understandably, this rather peculiar dispensation frustrated just about everybody. And so, with a flick of a switch, a knotty problem was solved (although it would take a while longer before coverage of BBC Wales reached all transmitters across Wales).

But the cultural significance of that moment was profound. The launch of BBC Wales at last gave a nation the ability to see itself and to speak to itself on its own terms, about its own affairs and to do so in both its languages.

Aberystwyth protests

The creative impact was significant. In English, for example, there was the promise of the weekly Capital Show before a live audience at the RAF Station in St Athan with artists such as Stan Stennett and Ivor Emmanuel. Top Welsh writers also signed up to the project - Gwyn Thomas, Islwyn Ffowc Elis and Emyr Humphreys to name a few.

It has to be said that the new service wasn't instantly welcomed by everybody. There was a visceral reaction in Aberystwyth to the displacement of UK programmes with homegrown fare - and the town produced no fewer than three petitions against this imposition.

The caustic audience response to the scheduling of the Welsh language children's show, Ar Lin Mam - instead of Andy Pandy - also gave an early taste of the linguistic challenges that lay ahead (challenges that would be resolved only with the launch of S4C almost 20 years later).

But the point was that Wales - for the first time - had its own embryonic public space, its own national stage on the most powerful medium of them all. A place where a nation each and every day could find its voice - and explore its identity, its geography, its people, and its culture. In a very real sense, BBC Wales would help bring Wales together in a way that no amount of road improvement on the A470 could ever achieve.

Coal House at War Recent BBC Wales favourite, Coal House at War, transported three families back in time to coal mining community in World War Two

A few weeks ago, we asked colleagues to choose their favourite BBC Wales programmes from the last five decades. Rather wonderfully, there was little consensus: nominations ranged from Fo a Fe and Pobol y Cwm to Coal House and Grand Slam, from Doctor Who and Tribe to High Hopes and Hinterland.

Don't write off telly

It was a reminder that Wales is - and always has been - home to remarkable creative talents. And it has been one of the real joys of recent years to see that talent making an impact not just here in Wales but globally too.

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BBC Wales would help bring Wales together in a way that no amount of road improvement on the A470 could ever achieve”

End Quote Rhodri Talfan Davies Director, BBC Wales

Fifty years on and it might be tempting to imagine that everything has changed since those pioneering days of the 1960s. Yes, there is far more choice out there and the growth of interactive and mobile media is presenting extraordinary opportunities to connect Wales in ways that the early pioneers of BBC Wales could not have even imagined.

But we shouldn't rush to write off the 'old media'. BBC Wales' television services have proved to be remarkably resilient. Each and every week a million people across Wales watch the Welsh programming on BBC One Wales - the highest levels in more than a decade. It is a remarkable creative feat at a time when the financial challenges are the toughest in a generation.

Looking ahead, BBC Wales' fiftieth year promises a real kaleidoscope of sport, culture, drama, commemoration and political history-making. Just take your pick from a list comprising the Commonwealth Games, the World War One and Dylan Thomas centenaries, the arrival of a new Doctor and, last but by no means least, the future of the UK being decided in a Scottish referendum.

No rose-tinted glasses

Each, of course, will test our programme-makers in different ways. But my hunch is that the biggest challenge of all facing BBC Wales in the months and years ahead is to keep pace with a Wales that is changing perceptibly all around us.

Socially, politically, culturally, and, of course, digitally, Wales has never been such a diverse place. So our job must be to reflect and explore contemporary Wales as it really is today - not how it might once have been, or how others might want it to be. That, of course, requires bags of imagination, relentless curiosity, bravery and a preparedness to discard any rose-tinted spectacles.

In our fiftieth year, we will of course take a moment to celebrate past success. And it is that success that gives us such confidence for the future.

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