The Dragon has two tongues rises again…

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Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and Gwyn Alf Williams, presenters of The Dragon Has Two Tongues

After more than 35 years in obscurity the hugely influential TV series The Dragon Has Two Tongues, a history of Wales, has risen again. This week the Welsh Underground Network made the following statement:

Subject of copyright strikes, legal threats, and much discussion, we are extremely proud to host every episode of ‘The Dragon has Two Tongues’, the classic series featuring Gwyn Alf Williams and Wynford Vaughan-Thomas debating Welsh history. First broadcast over forty years ago, each attempt at posting has been met by threats from ITV. We believe that Gwyn Alf – a lifelong Marxist, would approve of us sharing his work with the Welsh public.

We are proud to host each episode here.

The series was ground-breaking because it presented two opposing views of Welsh history, in situ, through the often heated debate between historians Gwyn Alf Williams and Wynford Vaughan-Thomas. In so doing it exposed not only Marxian approaches to history to the general public (through Williams) but also the ideological basis of establishment histories (through Vaughan-Thomas) which typically claim objective neutrality by default.

The Dragon got me into history at a young age, something I had little interest in before that. Key scenes remain locked in my head ’til this day, which I have recounted over the years in the pub as if a long lost dream. The lack of exposure of the series after 1985 meant that it became a ghost from the future rather than the past, a potentiality haunting many of the pontificating, middle-class historian talking head TV programmes that followed on the BBC and remain the standard today. It also made me a fan of Gwyn Williams, a great historian and brilliant presenter. As one BRHG member said of the Dragon this week “Saw this when it was first broadcast. A must watch. Alf smashes it.”

One question that always intrigued me was whether the radical format and content of the programme was planned in advance or was it developed in some other way? Colin Thomas, the producer of the Dragon, and a long-time member of BRHG recounts the making of the series:

“Would you be interested in directing a series for Channel 4 on the history of Wales?” Would I be interested! After resigning from the BBC over censorship of programmes I had directed in Northern Ireland, freelance work had been thin and I was delighted at the prospect of what looked like three years’ work, both producing and directing the series that HTV had been commissioned to make for Channel 4.

But there was a problem. The presenter of the series was to be Wynford Vaughan Thomas, HTV’s Head of Programmes and the man the BBC called in for royal weddings and funerals. It soon became clear that his view of Welsh history was very different from my own and, while I was working out a plan of campaign, I read a booklet produced by the British Film Institute called “Television and History”. It was written in the rather ponderous prose style favoured by the BFI at the time but it was making an important point.

“…the dominant practices of history-writing and television production (both individually and in mutually reinforcing ways) allow free passage to philosophical categories and aesthetic structures congenial to the maintenance of the system of social relations of advanced capitalism” wrote Colin MacArthur. “In so doing, these dominant practices suppress, push to the margins, allow only limited currency to, alternative philosophical categories and aesthetic structures which are uncongenial to that system.”

Wasn’t that just what I was about to do? I decided to propose to Wynford that the series had two presenters, coming at Welsh history from different perspectives, and suggested that the other presenter should be the feminist historian Angela John. Although he agreed to meet her, he was so hostile in their first conversation, that she decided to pull out. When I then proposed Professor Gwyn Alf Williams, Wynford was still reluctant to go along with the two-presenter approach but, after he and Gwyn had had a congenial first meeting, agreed to go along with it.

I then drafted a proposal about how Welsh history would be divided into 13 chronological episodes and, together with excellent researcher Medwen Roberts, we had a series of tape-recorded meetings on what should be in each of those episodes. I then turned those conversations – mostly amicable – into scripts. The BFI booklet had mentioned a television producer who admitted that, because he couldn’t find film that illustrated a certain point (the Protestant church’s complicity in Nazi Germany), he left it out. I was determined not to do that. If it was important, we would have to find a way of illustrating it and, through animation, helicopter filming, contemporary parallels, make it visually interesting. Television demands pictures.

With the help of HTV’s conscientious education officer Bethan Eames and the Gwynedd Archive, we also began preparing four document packs. The idea was that there would be viewing groups throughout the UK to discuss the programmes and they would have access to primary sources through the packs so that they could decide for themselves which presenter was closest to historical accuracy. It was becoming clear that the series was raising issues about historiography and we decided that the first programme would deal with it head on. But we didn’t want to put viewers off by beginning with a theoretical discussion and that problematical programme one was the last to be shot and edited; the two presenters fundamentally disagreed about the best starting point – Wynford the remote past, Gwyn the present – so we called the programme “Where to begin?”

Gwyn had given me a copy of E.H. Carr’s “What is History?” while we were working on the series and I was influenced by that book in shaping programme 1. “The historian who is most conscious of his own situation is also more capable of transcending it…Before you study the history study the historian.”

Only after each of the 13 programmes had been shot and edited did we film the face-to-face confrontations between the presenters. Usually they would be shown the twenty minutes or so of the edit and then they would go straight into their discussion at a relevant location, to be edited on the end later. But on one occasion we had to have an early start so they saw the programme – number 10 I think – the night before. Both had had a few drinks and Wynford started muttering “Oh no, not more of this Marxist clap-trap!” Suddenly Gwyn exploded “I have to put up with your reactionary rubbish so shut up and listen!”. He stormed out of the hotel and I had a sleepless night convinced that the whole concept was falling apart.

But the next morning as Wynford was tucking into his bacon and eggs, Gwyn walked in, knelt at Wynford’s table and apologised. The dragon had two tongues again!

Colin Thomas (September 2021)

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