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Contemporary Wales
Contemporary Wales

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9.2.2 Dr Who and Torchwood– BBC Cymru Wales and network success

In 2004, one of BBC’s flagship programmes, Dr Who, was revived. More significantly for our purposes, it was decided that responsibility for producing the series would be given to BBC Cymru Wales in Cardiff. This was part of the BBC’s overall decision to spend more of its commissioning budget in the UK ‘nations and regions’. In this section we consider the significance for the representation of Wales of two related science-fiction series, Dr Who and Torchwood, which mainly use Welsh locations.

The following quotation from the BBC director general, Mark Thompson in an interview in the Western Mail provides a useful starting point: ‘We wondered whether Wales could be portrayed as modern and forward looking and Torchwood is the answer. It’s obviously Welsh and it’s sexy, modern and fantastic’ (Price, 2007).

Figure 22 Star of Torchwood John Barrowman outside the Torchwood hub in Cardiff Bay

Though Thompson is talking about just one programme, his remarks have a clear significance for the whole question of the representation of Wales, particularly in the global sense. Thompson appears to start from the position that Wales is not a place that is easily associated with modernity, particularly of the kind that sells ‘sexy’ television programmes. For him at least, the delivery of very high-profile success through Dr Who and Torchwood in particular has changed that.

In case such casual remarks are dismissed as flimsy evidence, it is worth stating here that, at the time of writing, Cardiff is the proposed site of a BBC ‘drama village’ as a base for a significant amount of the BBC’s network drama production. The BBC has already moved one more of its flagship series, the long-running medical drama Casualty, to Cardiff as well as commissioning more Dr Who, Torchwood and a number of new drama projects that are in development.

Not everybody in Wales of course is convinced. High profile though Dr Who and Torchwood undoubtedly are, inevitably they only represent certain dimensions of Welsh life which means that others are excluded. It could also be argued that although the programmes are made in Wales they do not represent Welsh life or disseminate any sense of Welsh identity to a wider audience.

On the other hand, as a recent study (Mills, 2008) set out to investigate, there are other ways in which the making of a high-profile programme in a particular location can contribute to an evolving sense of identity. The pleasures we experience when we see the place in which we live shown on television are explored in Brett Mills’s article ‘My house was on Torchwood: media, place and identity’. There is a sense, however small, that life where you live has been given significance and value in a world dominated by mediated images. With one or two reservations, then, we can see that recent high-profile success in television drama has increased the profile of Wales, particularly the city of Cardiff. In so doing, it has altered the range of ways in which Wales can be seen from both inside and outside the country.