Steffan Alun writes on the subject of Torchwood and Cardiff…
It’s October 22nd, 2006. I’ve been back in university for a few weeks, and I’ve just come back from a choir trip. Some music is in the charts, but I don’t have to listen to it, because I’ve finally acquired a DAB radio, allowing me to listen to Radio 4 despite Aberystwyth’s unacceptable inability to find it on FM.
On television, meanwhile, Torchwood debuts, and I am extremely interested in the portrayal of Cardiff in this show. Most of my old school friends went to Cardiff for uni, but the city is still reasonably unfamiliar to me. I spend most of my visits in their rented accommodation, talking about Doctor Who.
Fast-foward to the present day, and I now spend most of my time on public transport thinking about comedy. I am a standup comedian, a job which takes me all over the UK. I’ve performed hundreds of gigs, but nearly a quarter of them have been in Cardiff. It is, by now, a city I know incredibly well. Thanks to the particular eccentricities of standup comedy, I can even tell you how high the ceilings are in over thirty venues.
Let’s quickly cover the history of Cardiff and Doctor Who so far. Russell T Davies (like me, he’s from Swansea – in fact, we grew up on the same street, decades apart) has revived the show and made it a BBC superbrand. That’s their word, not mine, but I quite like it. Superbrand. It’s fun to say. The show is filmed in Cardiff, as part of the offer made to get Julie Gardner on board. Julie Gardner is also from a part of Wales. My parents never thought to tell me where she grew up, so let’s Occam’s Razor the question of where she’s from and assume that she, like Russell T Davies and Steffan H Alun, grew up on Lôn Cae Banc. Anyway, the first new series of Doctor Who features two episodes set in Cardiff, one of which was filmed in Swansea. Following so far? Good.
What we have in Everything Changes, the first episode of Torchwood, is something that starts off looking like tedious Joseph Campbell nonsense, but ends up as a wonderful subversion. A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder … until the reality of the supernatural turns out to be so horrific that a woman whose job it is to research the supernatural takes her own life. “The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man?” No, the hero joins a team who research alien powers without the slightest intention to share these powers with anyone else.
I’m telling you this for two reasons. You only need to know one of those reasons – specifically, that while Gwen slowly learns about Torchwood, the audience is slowly learning about Cardiff. Most of the audience is familiar with the idea for Torchwood – I’d be amazed if many of the 2.8m viewers hadn’t seen any of the first two series of Doctor Who, and even more so if “secret organisation fighting aliens” was new to them. No – what matters here is that, while Gwen’s going through very familiar territory for television, she’s doing it in locations that were, at the time, brand new for most of the audience.
We start with a shot of Cardiff Bay, then aerial shots of the city centre. These two areas of Cardiff are very distinct, but for the time being, the show’s not interested in that difference. At the start, we’re seeing Cardiff as a slick, modern city that looks very very lovely and glamorous from the right angles. Watch what happens when Gwen turns up on the murder scene – we’re still in slick-and-modern territory. It’s not until she takes the car park stairwell that we’re allowed to see any grottiness.
This is not a show that wants Cardiff to be a grotty backdrop. Jack’s speech about “contraceptives in the rain” turns something quite horrible into a magical sci-fi concept. Murkiness here is something romantic.
After Gwen’s first encounter with Torchwood, we get more aerial shots – this time in night and day.
Something that’s worth noting is that Torchwood’s representation of non-white characters, both in the main cast and supporting artists, is actually higher than Cardiff’s non-white population. Cardiff is 91.6% white. That’s the figure on Wikipedia, but don’t worry, I have researched it properly. I have read five different reports from Cardiff council or BME charities. I was disappointed that the figure matched Wikipedia’s, because I derive my sense of self-worth from researching things and knowing better than those who don’t bother.
Point is, this show looks more multi-cultural than the city in which it’s based. This is a show that’s very concerned with looking modern.
But then things change, as Andy and Gwen investigate a pub brawl. We’ve had the glamour – now we’re seeing the realy city centre. “CSI Cardiff – they’ll be measuring the velocity of a kebab”. The pub they enter is so rough that the director has to show the fight exclusively in close-ups to hide the fact that the pub they’re filming in is actually quite nice.
Our exploration of Cardiff continues as Gwen chases the SUV from the hospital. This is the point where the show becomes interested in the geography of Cardiff, driving from the city centre to the Bay. We’re given more aerial shots so we can understand where we’re going.
The work’s been done. We now know that there’s a divide in this show. Grotty vs glamorous, city centre vs the Bay, the police vs Torchwood. The distance is reinforced by PC Andy (“I have walked. I have bloody walked.”) We get another aerial shot of Cardiff once Gwen’s failed to find Torchwood.
And, typical of a Russell T Davies story, now that the locations have been established, the focus stays on the characters for the rest of the episode. We won’t get another aerial shot of Cardiff until the very end, when we zoom out of the final rooftop conversation between Jack and Gwen.
So, what is the overriding character of Cardiff? What does Gwen – what do the people of Cardiff – really represent? The answer is scepticism. Doctor Who is a show about optimism. Torchwood, on the other hand? “That is so Welsh. I show you something fantastic, you find fault.” The only use of the word “Welsh” in the entire episode.
We won’t see much that capitalises on this, though. The first series of Torchwood is an incredibly strained production. The second lacks Russell T Davies’s voice (as well as writing the first episode, Davies extensively rewrote They Keep Killing Suzie – the only Davies scripting in Torchwood 2008 is the opening five minutes of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang).
It’s October 22nd, 2006. As the second episode in Torchwood’s opening double-bill begins, I’m fifty minutes away from realising this show’s interest the geography and personality of Cardiff won’t extend to Day One. We’ll need to wait three years for this interest to return – in the second episode of Torchwood named Day One.