Welsh film history: 1980-89

Photograph from Karl Francis' Giro City (1982). Image courtesy Karl Francis.

Last updated: 05 March 2010

The 1980s, in retrospect, seem to have been a time of huge optimism for film in Wales, with S4C's efforts to encourage Welsh filmmaking in mid-decade paying striking dividends.

Who could possibly have foreseen that, by 1986, two Welsh language films with English subtitles would be playing in London West End cinemas and that Philip French, in the Observer, would be asking a year or two later (with only the suggestion of irony) "Whatever happened to the Welsh film renaissance"?

Coming Up Roses (Rhosyn a Rhith), an engagingly modest but likeable Ealing-style comedy, still managed to make trenchant observations about the destruction of the pits and communities in Wales and the impact of Thatcherism on the south Wales valleys. It confirmed the promise of a trio regularly collaborating in the 80s - director Stephen Bayly, producer Linda James (the pair were soon to form London-based Red Rooster) and writer Ruth Carter.

The film centred on the battle of a projectionist (Dafydd Hywel) and usherette and cashier (Iola Gregory) to save a south Wales cinema from closure at the hands of developers. The film was witty and resourceful, even if the pair's scheme to earn money from growing mushrooms in the cinema was risibly fanciful, and at its best the film's central performances evoked fond memories of a film with a similar plotline - Basil Dearden's The Smallest Show on Earth (1957) with Peter Sellers and Margaret Rutherford in glorious, chaotic tandem.

The other film to gain West End screening and release was Karl Francis' Boy Soldier (Milwr Bychan) with Richard Lynch as a Welsh valleys boy in the British army who comes to realise, in painful extremis, that he has more affinity with the Irish than to his English military superiors. Lynch as a naïve young soldier, plunging into a love affair with a local, is moving, especially in later scenes as he's made a scapegoat for a killing.

The Welsh language is used cleverly to emphasise Lynch's growing alienation and scenes of brutality by the jailers have a ferocity which led to some accusations against the film's director of falsehoods and bias.

Francis flourished in the 1980s, proving a resourceful talent who despite lacking a commercial success could usually attract funding while other, less tenacious, filmmakers foundered. His Giro City (1982) castigating corruption within television and a local council was a highly accomplished film. It boasted fine central performances from Jon Finch (a few years after he'd been hailed as a singularly promising talent for his performance in Polanski's Macbeth) Glenda Jackson, twice an Oscar winner, and Kenneth Colley.

On the Black Hill, made for the British Film Institute with Channel Four backing, was an outstanding film directed by Cardiff's Andrew Grieve from Bruce Chatwin's novel exploring the almost symbiotic relationship over eight decades of two bachelor brothers on the Welsh Borders. The lead performances, by actual brothers Mike and Robert Gwilym, were extraordinary as was the photography and the film's almost tactile feeling for the landscape.

The film, using the development of technology and particularly images of flight as a leitmotif, covered the period before the first World War, and the years of combat when the brothers were separated for the first and only time (a heartbreaking wrench) and ended in the 1970s. It cleverly conveyed the siblings' mutual dependence.

Gemma Jones was deeply moving as the boy's mother, from aristocratic roots, locked in an incompatible, violent marriage to a deeply bitterly class-conscious farmer. The film retained admirable fidelity to Chatwin's poetic prose, showing just the right amount of restraint to ensure that the more dramatic interludes carried a seductive emotional charge.

Cardiff's Chapter Arts Centre became a creative hub of filmmaking in the '80s, with Channel Four providing generous support for the centre's video workshop, charged with making community films. The video workshop produced a shoal of fascinating films recording the feelings, passions and turmoil in the south Wales valleys in particular, during the build up to the Miners Strike of 1984-85 with the ever-present threat of pits shutdowns.

Two Rumours at the Miners Fortnight vox pop shorts were produced (1981 and 1984) - conveying the anxieties and often earthily expressed feelings of miners and their families before the strike and after, and other work of merit included the workshop's The Case for Coal (1984) and its contributions to the national Miners' Tapes (1984).

The Chapter Film Workshop became a training ground for embryonic talents. Chris Monger (later to make Hollywood features) impressed with two peppercorn-budget features - Repeater (1980), influenced by the French New Wave, and the more assured and riveting Voice Over (1981) with Ian McNeice unforgettable as a sexually repressed radio personality given to read Jane Austen-style narratives but unable to cope with the intrusion of women who can't conform to his ideals.

The film was fiercely defended, and praised, by the British Board's film censor James Ferman when jeered at the London Film Festival by COW films (British distributors Cinema of Women) for its alleged misogyny.

Other impressive work in the Chapter Film Workshop came from Frances Bowyer (Here Comes the Bride) and Mike Stubbs (Contortions), while outside the workshop ambit, Cardiff's Claire Pollak and Kim Longinotto made Cross and Passion (1981) a Mannheim Festival prizewinner, presenting the subjugation and repression of women with Catholic upbringings, and living on the troubled Turf Lodge estate, Belfast.

Chapter Arts Centre also made a vital contribution to animation with its courses attended by international filmmakers such as Robert Breer. Joanna Quinn, inspirer of so much Welsh animation talent later, won three prizes at the world's most valued animation festival at Annecy with Girls' Night Out (1987), the first significant animation film to provide an authentic south Wales valleys voice.

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