St. David's Day Special: The Proud Valleys
Two years ago, I remember walking through Cardiff and scrolling through Facebook on my phone. I saw that a friend posted photos of a Doctor Who scene being shot in a café, and of course, I had to run and check it out. It was raining that day, and several people were directing traffic not to get the cars into the shot. I remember eagerly taking my phone out and taking several photos of the Judoons threatening one of the workers in the cafe, as well as nearly being caught for filming it on my iPhone.
I always miss events like this, a moment like this was special to me. It is hard to believe, but sometimes I forget that Wales is a popular location for films to be shot.
We all know Doctor Who, Torchwood, Da Vinci’s Demons, Stella, and Gavin and Stacy but there are some films you might not know were shot in Wales. For example, remember the Batcave from The Dark Knight Rises? That was shot in the Brecon Beacons. Several notable films that were shot in Wales were The Proud Valley, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 and 2. Recently, a SkyOne series A Discovery of Witches was shot on location in Wales. Another film that was shot in Wales was Mortal Kombat Annihilation……but that is another topic for another day.
When talking about Wales in the cinema, you can not forget about How Green Was My Valley. Yes, I know this film was shot in America, but at the time, it was the biggest representation of Wales on the big screen. Unfortunately, this film kind of gets a bad rep nowadays, as it is the film that infamously beat Citizen Kane for the Best Picture and Best Director Oscar at the Academy Awards that year.
The list is endless, so without further ado, to celebrate St. David’s Day, it is time to recommend three great Welsh films.
Let us kicks things off with Kevin Allen’s absolutely bonkers crime-comedy film Twin Town. Set in Swansea and Port Talbot, Twin Town follows the twins Jeremy Lewis (Rhys Ifans) and Julian Lewis (Llyr Ifans) who love spending their time stealing cars and doing drugs.
Their father Fatty Lewis (Huw Ceredig) works on a rugby club but falls off a ladder, breaking his leg. The owner of the club, Bryn Cartwright (William Thomas) refuses to pay compensation, which leads to a cycle of consequences as the twins attempt to get revenge on Bryn.
Twin Town is usually described as being inspired by Trainspotting but that is an unfair comparison because Twin Town has its own identity. A lot of British films focus too much on trying to be stylish (looking at you Guy Ritchie), but with bent cops, and hotdogs laced with magic mushrooms, Allen has his own vision, as he perfectly captures the welsh banter that also deconstructs the somewhat stereotypical nature of Welsh people (especially when you see two nice elderly women asking the twins for weed).
When watching this film again recently, I noticed that Fatty Lewis mentions the slow disappearance of welsh choirs and the arrival of karaoke being accepted as a new alternative way of singing. Surprisingly this issue is brought up in another film I will mention in a bit. Karaoke is shown to be a big part of the film with that aspect being shot in Swansea.
In the scene where the Twins steal a hot dog van, (and feed their special mushroom hotdog to an unsuspecting stranger) you might recognise the factories in the background, as this specific scene was shot on Baglan mountain in Port Talbot.
The director Kevin Allen retired to become a pig farmer but is reportedly working on a sequel set around the Llanelli area. If you are not sold yet, welsh poet Dylan Thomas once said that Swansea was "An ugly, lovely town." Two of the characters in this film have a hilarious take on it:
“I’d call it a pretty sh***y city.”
“Dylan Thomas didn’t do as much f***ing cocaine as you did he?”
This is the first film listed here where a majority of the actors speak the Welsh language. It was also the first Welsh film to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film but ultimately lost to Belle Epoque. Hedd Wynn is one of two Welsh films to be nominated along with Solomon & Gaenor, which also lost.
Paul Turner’s war biopic tells the tragic real-life story of the Welsh poet Ellis Humphrey Evans (Huw Garmon) who used the bardic name Hedd Wyn (which translates to Blessed Peace). Hedd Wyn was a young promising poet who composed poetry for his local Eisteddfod. He would eventually be enlisted into World War One and lose his life in the Battle of Passchendaele. Wyn would be posthumously awarded the National Eisteddfod chair.
A huge difference is shown between the Welsh and English as the English are seen to be brutish and the Welsh are seen to be soft and sensitive people. The dilemma of Welsh men being dragged into fighting for the British/English cause is shown when the British Army unexpectedly arrives at Gwynedd and installs an artillery range on a local hillside. Wyn refuses at first to partake in the war but is shamed by nearly everyone around him.
Hedd Wyn emphasises the difference between being Welsh and “British.” The Welsh language becomes a defence mechanism against the English. There is a notable scene where Wyn joins the Army and he comes across a mocking English drill sergeant. As he yells at him in English, Wynn responds by saying "Shut your gob!" in Welsh and the drill sergeant is none the wiser.
When Hedd Wyn was nominated for Best Foreign Film, the academy decided that Hedd Wyn represented the United Kingdom rather than Wales. This caused some controversy over the “identity” of the film, and in ways proved the point of the film.
Shot in Hedd Wyn’s birth home Gwynedd, the juxtaposition between the peaceful and quiet Welsh countryside, and the loud bloody battlefield is shown.
“The old harps that were played before are suspended on the branches of yonder willows, and the scream of the boys filling the wind, and their blood mixed with the rain” - Hedd Wyn (1887-1917).
The last film here is a slow and relaxing documentary on the changing landscape of Wales. Directed by Gideon Koppel, Sleep Furiously is based on the quote by Noam Chomsky, “colourless green ideas sleep furiously” and is set in the Welsh community Trefeurig.
There is not exactly a plot, but the film shows the everyday lives of a community that is fighting to prevent a school from being shut down. The film also follows a library van and the director's grandmother. The man who runs the van drives around the village to converse with the locals and to give out books. The owner of the library van says at one point: “It is important to keep the old farm traditions going. Who knows what will be left of them.”
With a hypnotic and relaxing soundtrack by Aphex Twin, Giddeon’s film captures the simple beauty of rural welsh villages, with shots of farms, dog shows, calves being born, and people praying in the chapel.
A welsh choir is shown to be singing, juxtaposed with the vast landscape of the valleys. This made me think about Fatty Lewis’ speech in Twin Town about the idea of a traditional choir disappearing, as it is seen as niche and specific to Welsh culture.
I have never once stepped foot in Trefeurig, but whenever I watch Sleep Furiously, it feels deeply nostalgic, welcoming, and familiar. Sleep Furiously is not the only Welsh film to be shot in Trefeurig as it would later be visited in the Welsh noir television series Hinterland.
This film hit home for me, as it is made clear that the village is changing every day and it may be impossible to stop it. Even something as simple as a pole which was turned into a signpost shows how much the village has changed.
This message is enforced when the film cuts to black and then cuts to an auction where farming equipment is being sold, and an empty cottage that has been abandoned. The screen goes to black and the following text appears:
“It is only when I sense the end of things that I find the courage to speak. The courage but no words.”
These films fit into different genres, yet they feel connected not just by the beauty of the valleys, but by the poetry that is recited. Whether it be poetry across a bloody battlefield, vulgar Dylan Thomas inspired poetry, or poetry across a changing landscape. It is always fun to recognise locations in films, but there is something special about filming in obscure villages, and the simplicity of it makes it more beautiful, perhaps even more so than cities.
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