The power of Superted

February 27, 1998

John Osmond interviews Elan Closs Stephens, the drama lecturer who has assumed a key role in the future of S4C, the Welsh-language television channel.

In the 1980s, the very survival of the Welsh nation seemed in question. Many of the attributes that had defined Welsh identity were under threat. In 1979 the nation voted four-to-one against a Welsh Assembly that would have given the nation more political independence from Westminster. The chapels and the Welsh language were in apparent terminal decline. Coal mining was all but finished. The workforce making steel diminished catastrophically.

Yet, also in the 1980s, the foundation was laid for a renaissance that is now plainly underway in Welsh life. Economically, new manufacturing is replacing the jobs lost in coal and steel. The albeit narrow Yes vote in last September's referendum and the imminent creation of a new Welsh Assembly are symbolising a new confidence.

How has the transformation occurred? If there was one event that signalled the change it was the founding of S4C - Sianel Pedwar Cymru, the Welsh-language TV channel - in 1982 after 20 years' campaigning. S4C has now become an established, if controversial, part of Welsh life. It has had an incalculable influence in taking the heat out of the language debate in Wales. More than that it has brought the Welsh language - spoken by a fifth of the population, some 600,000 people - into the 20th century and will ensure that Welsh has a future in the next.

The cost of S4C has been considerable, currently Pounds 70 million a year.But there are not many who, in public at any rate, quarrel with it. Paradoxically, that might change with the advent of the new Welsh Assembly.Already there have been mutterings that the assembly should take over responsibility for S4C from the House of Commons Department of Culture, Media and Sport. If that were to happen, what price Pounds 70 million for a television service when set against other priorities for economic development, health and education in the principality?

The imminent debate is placing Elan Closs Stephens, the new chairwoman of the authority that runs S4C, very much in the hot seat. On taking up her appointment last week it was one of the first questions she had to confront. "It is quite clear that the assembly will want to debate this, and the whole question of how S4C relates to the four out of five Welsh people who do not speak the language," she said. Ron Davies, Labour's secretary of state for Wales, has already said there will be a concordat between the assembly and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to allow such a debate to take place. "But the debate has to take place in the context of Britain as a whole and the other channels as well. To what extent will a more autonomous broadcasting system emerge in Scotland, for instance? To what extent are BBC Wales and HTV Wales providing an adequate service for English speakers in Wales? If they are not, what do we do about it? S4C wants to be part of this wider debate."

The statement is refreshing, an indication of the new openness in Welsh political life that Stephens's appointment signifies. She was the first person to get a top quango job in Wales by replying to an advertisement. That said, she was already very much part of the circuit. Formerly a member of the S4C Authority, she has also been a member of the BBC Wales governing body, the Broadcasting Council for Wales, and she is currently vice-chair of the Welsh Language Board.

But it is her academic role as a senior lecturer in the drama department at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, that has provided her with a unique insight into Welsh broadcasting. Stephens has been involved over the past 20 years in training people who are now key figures in S4C: Huw Eirug, director of production, and Meirion Davies, head of youth and children's programmes. Many actors regularly on screen have passed through her hands, as have directors and producers such as Clare Winyard and Sioned William.

Even more instrumentally, she recently won a Pounds 128,000, three-year contract for her department to monitor S4C's output to ensure it meets the Department of Culture's compliance guidelines on such matters as children's viewing and political impartiality. This entails six postgraduate students constantly viewing the entire S4C output. "I suppose you might say I'm a leading expert on compliance regulation," she said. "That's one area I won't have to brief myself on."

There are plenty of problem areas she will be dealing with, however. The first will hit before the end of the year when S4C expands its daily output of Welsh-language programmes from three-and-a-half hours a day to 18 hours. At present Welsh-language programmes are transmitted at peak hours only. The rest of the time Channel 4 English programmes are rescheduled to fill the space around them. By the end of the year, however,Channel 4 will be broadcasting throughout Wales and S4C will have to take up the slack with a comprehensive Welsh-language service - on the same budget it has now.

The next, and perhaps major challenge will be the onset of digital television. S4C has ownership of what is known as Multiplex A, which in future will transmit S4C, Gaelic Television and Channel 5 along with as many as six other channels. Some of these it will operate on a commercial basis, broadcasting (or perhaps, more accurately, "narrowcasting") specialist channels throughout the UK.

Stephens succeeded Prys Edwards, who created a stir when he was reported as saying that S4C has secured the future of the Welsh language. "What I think Prys meant was that the existence of S4C has taken a lot of the pressure away," said Elan Closs Stephens. "But it's one thing to provide the service. The big challenge is to make it good enough to persuade our 16-year-olds leaving Welsh-medium schools to want to continue watching it. That's a battle that has to be fought every day. But it's a real triumph for our democratic system that a small group of people in a corner of Britain who speak Welsh should be allowed by the majority to have their own television channel. That is an amazing British phenomenon."

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