The Movie Waffler New Release Review - Y SWN | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - Y SWN

Y Sŵn review
In 1979 the UK government's refusal to establish a Welsh language TV channel leads to a campaign of civil disobedience.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Lee Haven Jones

Starring: Rhodri Evan, Mark Lewis Jones, Lily Beau, Eiry Thomas, Sian Reese-Williams, Mensah Bediako, Lisa Jen Brown

Y Sŵn poster

It's easy to forget, but until relatively recently there were only three television channels available in Britain. A fourth, S4C or Channel Four (depending on region) began broadcasting just 40 years ago, a full half a century after the first BBC transmission. Beating its counterpart by one day (S4C came into being on the 1st November 1982, Channel 4 the 2nd), Wales's S4C was a channel dedicated to the Welsh-speaking audience. At this time, around 25% of Wales were Welsh speaking, and paid full TV licence fees for a service which provided piecemeal value. Only during off-peak times was Welsh content occasionally narrowcast via BBC Cymru and the ITV franchise in Wales. Welsh speakers found this inconvenient, and non-Welsh speakers were nonplussed at interruption to their service. Thousands of members of Plaid Cymru (Welsh centre left political party) refused to pay their TV licence, Thatcher's government U-turned on a previous pledge to instate a Welsh television channel, and Plaid Cymru leader Gwynfor Evans threatened to go on hunger strike to death unless S4C came into being. Enter Y Sŵn.

Y Sŵn review

Translated as "The Noise," Y Sŵn (directed by Lee Haven Jones, with Roger Williams writing and producing - the same team behind my fave Gwledd) makes good on its title with a lively opening house party; the camera weaves in and around Eighties yoof, as a colour palette pops and neon title cards locate time and place. For a narrative predicated upon board room debate and the quiet protests of its protagonist, at times Y Sŵn really gives it some welly. Adding to the sense of vitality, the storyline is split across three threads comprising of a new generation represented by a young woman (Ceri - Lily Beau Conway) who works in Welsh government and has conflicted feelings about the channel, the oppositional Tories up in Westminster, and dear old Gwynfor Evans who sees the potential channel as a key battle in the "fight for the soul of the nation."

To express the distinct chapters of its plot, Y Sŵn affects different styles and aspect ratios. The stuffed shirt Conservatives are shot in distant monochrome (Sian Reese-Williams' Thatcher supports a pet theory that cinematic portrayals of past heads of state can only ever be communicated as absurd parody), while Ceri's story is often filmed in urgent close-up and medium angles. Y Sŵn's most graceful representation is saved for Gwynfor, however, whom the film presents in warm tones and within rustic milieus (there is a festive sequence which soothed my heart with its inherent cosiness - could Haven Jones and Williams be persuaded to produce their version of A Child's Christmas in Wales?).

Y Sŵn review

Played with care by Rhodri Evan, Gwynfor Evans is the heart of Y Sŵn. Beaten down before he even begins, Gwynfor has lost his parliamentary seat in a humiliating defeat and duly fixates on the new channel. Does the film suggest that Gwynfor's dedication to S4C is a manifestation of his need to make purpose of his life and career? The visual set associates Gwynfor with earth and nature, from the spuds he peels at the sink, the windswept hills he walks upon, to the deep lake which he fantasises drowning himself in.

It is the fatalistic edge of Gwynfor which gives Y Sŵn its insistence, imbuing the establishment of the channel with life or death relevance. In one of its characteristic flights of fancy, Y Sŵn features Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi as Gwynfor's self-fulfilling projections (they appear in the same way Elvis does for Clarence in True Romance). This at-times whimsical nature of Y Sŵn is suitably countered by the film's pointed use of archive footage, which underlines the severity of what was at stake: burnt cottages, riots at the Eisteddfod, nationalist vandalism.

Y Sŵn review

Perhaps we've forgotten as a country how valid the need for this channel was, not only as a medium to share Welsh culture, but as a platform of representation. Y Sŵn, with its fun storytelling and deep heart, is a timely reminder of what S4C meant and continues to mean to the nation (since we're both here, I cannot recommend Shakespeare: The Animated Tales, which the channel produced with the Russian Soyuzmultfilm studio, enough: strange and vibrant and a thrilling example of S4C's idiosyncratic output). In the film's denouements, we see people across Wales watch the first broadcast of the channel, a beautiful moment of shared national experience. One final note: S4C's viewing report for the 20/21 period showed a viewer increase of 27% from 2019.

Y Sŵn is in UK cinemas from March 10th.

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