Today's proper Today's Joanna Page is Russell T Davies's Mine All Mine. Stick around Who-ers and Torchwood-ers, this might be about a girl but there's something in it for you as well.
Just kidding. I am awful, aren't I?
Now Russell T Davies has been mentioned rather a lot on this blog and it's not always been positive - which is a little unfair. So I thought I'd first take a moment to give some well deserved praise and thanks to the great RTD.
- Thank you RTD for enlivening children's TV in the 80s and early 90s with shows such as Dark Season and Century Falls.
- Thank you RTD for writing for Touching Evil. While I didn't like the UK version of the show much, the US version, which used your scripts, remains one of my favourite shows of all time.
- Thank you RTD for rescuing us from stultifying conformity by increasing the range and number of gay characters on television, whether in shows you contributed to such as The Grand, or shows you created such as Bob & Rose, Torchwood and, of course, Queer as Folk. The effect can be seen as far afield as Footballers' Wives and Caerdydd
- Thank you RTD for casting David Tennant
- Thank you RTD for bringing back Doctor Who and revolutionising Saturday night television
Most of all though, thank you RTD for your “stealth Welsh” initiative.
The Welsh on television pre-RTD
It's hard to remember what television was like before Russell T Davies. For years, Welsh actors and characters either didn't get a look in or were there for comedy value. Back in the 70s, it was Pobol Y Cwm on BBC1, just before kids television started and that was about it. No, Ivor the Engine doesn't count.
Come the 80s, S4C started up and took Pobol Y Cwm with it. That left mainstream TV with Ruth Madoc in Hi-De-Hi, and the hysterical John Sparkes as Siadwell in Naked Video and in Absolutely. Catherine Zeta Jones's turn in The Darling Buds of May before her move to Hollywood helped up the Welsh profile a bit, but she never played any roles with her own accent - something that's been true for the vast majority of Welsh actors and actresses since. As for shows set and filmed in Wales, they were pretty few and far between - can you think of any?
Then along came Russell T Davies (joined by Julie Gardner later on) with his “stealth Welsh” initiative - his plan to “normalise” the Welsh accent as a feature of British TV shows, get Welsh people represented on-screen and to create a viable TV industry in Wales.
And he's doing it, too. There's Torchwood and Doctor Who filmed in Wales, with Welsh actors and Welsh characters; Gavin & Stacey does likewise, coming in those programmes' “Cool Cymru” wake. They're all some of the most popular programmes on their respective networks (BBC2, BBC1, BBC3).
There's a long way to go still and the scaling back of DW and Torchwood from 13 episodes plus specials to four and five episodes next year respectively, coupled with the impending end of Gavin & Stacey altogether, suggest it could all fall apart again. A certain Joanna Page, for example, has even remarked that's she's been to auditions, asked to do the role in her own accent, and been told "It's fine for you to have any regional accent apart from Welsh". But look how much he's achieved.
No wonder Cardiff is thinking of erecting a statue of the man.
But the first real strike in his “stealth Welsh” plan wasn't with the BBC - it was for ITV. Set in his home town of Swansea, Mine All Mine was a comedy drama starring Griff Rhys Jones as Max Vivaldi, a man who claimed to own the whole city, and a mostly Welsh cast able to use their own accents for once.
Now I really wanted to like this. Just about every possible checkbox was ticked for my liking it: Russell T Davies - check; Swansea - check; Joanna Page - check; Siwan Morris from Caerdydd - check; Griff Rhys Jones - check; Ruth Madoc - check; lots of Welsh people - check; etc.
Yet, even though rewatching it I liked it more than when I watched it the first time, it still wasn't what you could describe as “great”, unfortunately.
Max Vivaldi has always believed that he owns the town of Swansea, thanks to an ancient ancestral document that hangs on his wall. But instead of commanding respect, it's made him a laughing stock. Max discovers he's been right all along
Was it any good?
Oh dear. Not really. And I so wanted to like it. To be fair, it does get a lot better as it goes along and Rusty starts slipping into old habits.
The really big problem with the show is that it's an ITV show. If the BBC had made it - better still, if BBC Wales had made it - it probably would have been a lot better. But with ITV pitching it at DEFs rather than than ABC1s, it feels from the outset like an insult to your intelligence.
Take the titles.
Don't they want make you to want rip your own eyes and ears off, stick them in a lead-lined box, and bury them under 200 metres of concrete rather than ever have to see or hear them again?
Have you worked out why yet?
Think about it.
I'll tell you why.
Murray Gold did the theme tune.
Yes, Murray Gold, current composer of the incidental music for Doctor Who. Doesn't it all become clear now?
Yesterday's Wales today
So after that desperately inauspicious beginning, we get into the show itself. It's basically a salute by Rusty to Ealing comedies: nine parts Passport to Pimlico to one part The Ladykillers, but all set in Swansea. Yet it's so faithful in its salute that even though it's set in modern day Swansea, it feels like the Swansea of the 1950s.
Despite the English auction-house guy, who comes to value Max's ancient will, being chided for wondering if the Vivaldis (or even Wales) might have such a thing as “a scanner”, Davies writes a Swansea that's pretty much full of country bumpkins. There's even a bloke who delivers the eggs. An egg man, FFS.
They have supermarkets in Swansea. There's a Sainsbury's, two Tescos (at least), a Morrisons, an Asda and more. You wouldn't know it from Mine All Mine.
Of course, being a Swansea man, he can get away with that and a whole lot more in the show, since it is also a love letter to the “ugly, lovely town” as well as a gentle rib-poking and a laugh at the English. But anyone else writing it would have been barred from entry into the country ever again.
The whole show embodies the kind of broad brush stereotypes that Rusty is now famous for. You can almost hear his thought processes in every line. “Ooh, Swansea - loud, Welsh. Italian connection, too - big families. Working class - frightens middle class English with loudness and working classness. Brothers and sisters fight all the time! Two daughters - blonde one a bit dumb and insensitive, dark-haired one thoughtful and sensitive. But oh so Welsh!” And so on.
You have to admire him though. It's not every writer who could take such a flimsy initial concept and spin six episodes (more on that later) out of it. Through sub-plots and sub-sub-plots, Davies takes the initial conceit - one man inherits Swansea - and not only manages to take that through various improbable turns including elections, a city TV channel with a Vivaldi version of Big Brother, and will-theft, he gives us an ongoing romantic storyline between the English guy and elder sister Maria (Morris) as well as attempts by younger sister Candy (Page) to become a pop star and the son Leo (Matthew Barry) to run a covert business and to come out of the closet – you knew there had to be at least one gay character, didn't you, since he can combine both “Stealth Welsh” and “Stealth gay” in the same show.
Around episode three, though. you see a few hints of desperation creep in, with Max's cheating wife Val (Rhian Morgan) suddenly finding her mum (Ruth Madoc) is part of a secret society of women, plotting behind the scenes. Poor old Rusty: deadlines and wanting to leg it to the Beeb as soon as possible can have the oddest effects.
All the same, he still manages to make it relatively amusing and entertaining, even if just about anything that moves is a stereotype. The characters do get fleshed out a bit and evolve from their initial two-dimensions (with a couple of exceptions). There's his usual trademark clever dialogue, the rug gets pulled out from us a number of times, there are some deliciously dark moments and there's a semi-cliffhanger ending that doesn't return everything to the status quo as you might expect.
While the first episode is pretty rubbish and was enough to put both of us off, Mine All Mine does get better by that third episode and is quite enjoyable by the end. It's still not brilliant, but it doesn't leave you feeling as though you've just been mugged of six hours of your time by an ITV commissioner somewhere.
But by the final episode, of course, it was too late.
As we discovered with Making Waves, ITV circa 2003-4 was pretty rubbish at promoting and scheduling its programmes. And once something died in the ratings, ITV could be pretty ruthless, too. In the case of Mine All Mine, rather than rip the entire show from the schedules, they got Rusty and co to combine the two final episodes into a single one-and-a-half-hour episode, dropping half an hour of content - you can get the original six episodes, with commentaries by Rusty and co, on DVD though.
And just to be really irksome, although quite a bit of the show was filmed in Swansea (look, here's Mumbles pier on Swansea Bay - you can just about make out the restaurant that sells Joe's ice cream)
big chunks were filmed in Bolton/Manchester (which is even more annoying if you're a certain actress trying to get married in Swansea during filming and want to spend some time with your new husband).
As an indication of the show's popularity, even in the city in which it was set, let me relate to you my recent findings from a trip to Border's in Fforestfach, Swansea. Now, you can't move for Gavin & Stacey DVDs. They're in the DVD section. They're on the DVD section. They're by the entrance. They're by the tills. They're even in the CD section. And Gavin & Stacey's set in Barry (albeit mostly with actors from Swansea with matching accents), which is an hour away just outside Cardiff.
Now admittedly, it's a few years old now, but there wasn't a single copy of Mine All Mine in the DVD section of Border's. I did find it eventually though: it was in the “massive discounts” section, going for £1.99, with a label on it saying “Disk two broken - jams”. That's not popular.
I'm not sure Rusty has entirely disowned the show, but he's admitted it's not as good as he wanted it to be. To his credit, he didn't abandon “Stealth Welsh”, he picked himself up and carried on afresh. Thank you RTD.
Doctor Who and Torchwood fans: it's your moment
As you might expect from Rusty, there are numerous Doctor Who as well as Buffy references in Mine All Mine. There's even one character called Zoe: “I was named after one of Doctor Who's assistants”.
John Scott Martin, who spent most of his acting life inside a Dalek, makes an appearance as Max's dad.
But in retrospect, the biggest reference was a Torchwood reference. How odd.
As you may know, Gareth David-Lloyd plays bisexual man-bait Ianto Jones in Torchwood. But in Mine All Mine, by contrast, Gareth David-Lloyd played bisexual boy-bait Yanto Jones. Look, here he is.
JP plays Candy Vivaldi, younger daughter of Max and Val. Candy's not the brightest. (Let me apologise in advance for Griff Rhys Jones' somewhat mobile attempt at a Swansea accent, which suffers a bit when placed next to the real thing.)
She is also one of the least RTD-esque characters ever written, if you believe he has a Torchwood philosophy of sexuality.
Candy wants to be a pop star: she even changes her name to Candy Zeta to improve her chances. Unfortunately, there's a bit of a talent issue. So she has to turn to other jobs. What do you expect if you call your daughter Candy though?
She's also possibly one of the happiest people alive. She's happy on the beach.
At a funeral
She's even happy when she's being homophobic, which is pretty much all the time.
In fact, she's only sad when her singing proves powerful enough to kill a man.
Fortunately, she does get her chance at stardom.
She even gets a line-dancing, disabled lesbian manager.
And a gig or two.
It's not the most taxing of roles for JP, given that she all she's really called on to do is alternate between having to be extremely daft but good-hearted and calling Leo “a gaylord” (you don't get a lot of gaylord these days, do you?). But it was still a memorable role if you saw the show and a good opportunity for JP to show off her comedic acting skills, dance, sing – and help normalise the Welsh accent.
Next time: Fetch the Pro-Plus. Get out the Red Bull. It's time for Stephen Poliakoff's Gideon's Daughter.
- June 16, 2008: Review: Doctor Who 4x10 - Midnight
A review of the Doctor Who episode Midnight
- July 2, 2008: The Welsh in old kids' shows
The Welsh didn't come out of kids' TV at all well in the 70s and 80s. Here are episodes of Willo the Wisp, Ivor the Engine and Chorlton and the Wheelies to prove it
- July 3, 2008: Bye Bye Harry!
A look at Bye Bye Harry aka Liebling, wir graben Harry aus
- November 24, 2008: Today's Joanna Page: Cinderella (again)
Today's Joanna Page is from Cinderella
- February 27, 2009: Inside the St David's Hotel
Inside the St David's Hotel and Spa, courtesy of S4C's Caerdydd