Review: Byw Celwydd/Living A Lie 1×1 (UK: S4C)

The problems of doing ambitious drama in Wales

In the UK: Sundays, 9pm, S4C. Available on iPlayer

The last time S4C decided to do a glamorous, exciting drama set in Cardiff Bay, it gave us the much-missed Caerdydd, a shiny, exciting, mind-blowingly Welsh soap full of hip young Welsh-speaking media types, entrepreneurs and politicians staying at the St David’s Hotel & Spa, going to all the best pubs and generally enjoying everything cool and hip Mermaid Quay has to offer, apart from the Harry Ramsden’s.

It launched the career of many a Welsh-speaking actor, but it’s gone now. Sigh. We’ve still got the last series on the Sky box and we live for the day that S4C might eventually get round to putting it out on DVD. It was top. RIP Caerdydd.

Of course, almost no one outside of Wales had ever heard of Caerdydd until it started filming sex scenes in the Senedd, so it seems appropriate that following the success of Y Gwyll/Hinterland in the rest of the world, S4C’s latest attempt to create a world-class drama follows largely in the footsteps of Caerdydd by being set in the Welsh Assembly and featuring bright young things having sex, albeit everywhere except the Senedd toilets.

The eight-episode series, which starts on Sunday, 3 January 2016 at 9.00 on S4C, portrays the conflict between fictional journalists, advisors and politicians who are all members of fictional parties in Cardiff Bay. Following elections, a coalition is in power, between three parties, The New Conservatives, Nationalists and The Democrats with the Socialists in opposition.

The series deals with current and timely stories, including problems within the health boards, education, local government, women’s rights and foreign affairs, to name just a few.

Is it any good?
It’s ambitious and objectively there’s a lot to enjoy about the writing, at least, but it highlights the significant problems involved in creating not just a Welsh-speaking drama, but an ambitious one filmed in a major public building by a network that’s currently undergoing significant budget cuts.

The story revolves around two camps: the politicians from the various ‘entirely fictitious, honest’ parties in the Welsh Assembly and the journalists of a news programme covering the Welsh Assembly. I say journalists, but said programme appears only to have an editor (Cath Ayers) and a presenter (Sion Ifan), both of whom have to do all the reporting, too, and that’s about it. Similarly, each political party seems to have about two AMs. 

On top of that, everyone’s in a relationship with one another: Ayers is married to the son of the First Minister who also went to school with a new special advisor for the ‘Nationalists’ (Matthew Gravelle from Broadchurch) who’s just returned from America and who is an ex-boyfriend (probably) of Ayers. Meanwhile, the leader of the ‘Democrats’ (Mark Lewis Jones) is challenged for his job by his own wife (Eiry Thomas), who in turn employs a special adviser who is married to Ifan, who’s probably gay and shagging another special advisor.

Cardiff may be smaller than London but this is getting silly. Can’t S4C afford more than a few actors or is it simply too hard to find enough Welsh-speakers to provide a decent cast? The extraordinarily unsubtle acting by the ‘New Conservative’ First Minister and the fact that as with Dim Ond y Gwir, the supposedly hot men verge between ‘grim’ to ‘homeless looking’, suggests to me the latter.

Despite having trumped Spectre by being granted Senedd filming permission, Byw Celwydd doesn’t really get to enjoy its benefits, never venturing into the debating chamber, but spending all its time in stairwells, offices, the underground car park or enjoying a bracing wind on the seats outside. The car park, in fact, gets a lot of screen time, not for Deep Throat-style government-overthrowing activity, but so that various people can stalk one another, ex-lovers meet, etc, like they haven’t got any proper jobs to do or they’re half-mole and can’t stand sunlight.

However, let’s face it – that’s not much different from The Thick Of It. In fact, it’s a bit better. So close your eyes. Open them again every time the subtitles come up, so you can understand what’s going on. Then close them again. That way you can ignore the poor production values and the enforced small cast size. 

Okay, maybe you can’t ignore the melodramatic music. But try.

If you manage and you consider just the script by playwright Meic Povey and writer Sian Naomi, you’ll be able to see there’s something semi-decent in there. It’s soapy as hell, possessed of a parochial belief that the location of a new hospital is the top political intrigue with which one should open a flagship, globally attractive new drama, and occasionally quite, quite silly. But it’s not half bad and probably politically pretty realistic – let’s face it, being a politician probably isn’t as glamorous as the movies suggest, and I even imagine packed lunches on park benches may be de rigeur, particularly for Senedd members.

Yes, there are a lot of trite clichés. There are clichés inherited from the show’s title – yes, the closeted gay man is living a lie; yes, Ayers probably does want to be off with Gravelle more than with her knob-end, Welsh-Spanish translator, Verve-a-like husband; and so on. There are also regular dramatic clichés, such as hubby getting annoyed by Ayers coming home late and missing parties rather than looking after the kids, and Ayers not knowing that her phone has a ‘do not disturb’ function. 

But it’s quite fun watching all the political wheeler-dealing. There are also some funny lines (“People in Wales don’t care who runs the country. They only care that they have enough pints and fags.”). It’s a shame it’s all about fictitious parties, but it’s so blatantly transparent which party is which real-life party, that it doesn’t take a genius to work out what the writers are getting at, after which it’s even more fun.

Despite going through some very similar motions at times, it’s not the new Caerdydd and I’m not going to recommend it, merely suggest you take a look at it. But if Leanne Wood’s interested enough to Tweet Nicola Sturgeon about it, maybe we all should be, too.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

    View all posts