Doc of the Bay

I Loves The ‘Diff talks to ITV Cymru Wales producer Carwyn Jones about his television programme Dock of the Bay

This is my favourite time of year, and we’ve been so lucky with the weather, haven’t we? It’s easy to ‘fall’ in love with autumn (sorry!) when the weather’s so good.

Sunday was yet another brilliant blue-skied day so we, along with thousands of like-minded Cardiffians, took a stroll along the Barrage to Mermaid Quay. How lucky we are to have Cardiff Bay.

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Blue cranes aside, if you don’t work in the docks or have a view of it from a high rise Bay apartment then it’s quite easy to forget that we still have a large, busy port.

Owned and operated by ABP (Associated British Ports), it actually covers 852 acres and handles around 1.7 million tonnes of cargo every year. It also has a number of beehives, tended to by port manager Callum Couper – bet you didn’t know that, did you? (ABP’s website for ABP is a font of information!)

“I’ve probably waited my whole life to make this series”

Anyway, on Sunday I was looking in that direction a little more than usual, since the modern port features large in Dock of the Bay, a four-part factual series on ITV Wales on consecutive Tuesdays at 7.30pm (16 October 2018 to 6th November 2018).

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Refreshingly, Dock of the Bay isn’t just about the past. It’s a brilliant overview of the rise, decline and rebirth of Cardiff’s docklands, and we hear from many a local or former resident whose words evoke a sense of place.

“There were people who came from all over the world, so we learned a lot about each other and it gave me an open outlook towards people,” says Tiger Bay’s Gaynor Legall in the first episode. “It conjures up [memories of] friends and friendship and safety, a sense of belonging and being safe.”

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200 years in 92 minutes

Dock of the Bay is filmed, directed and produced by Carwyn Jones. (No, not that Carwyn Jones.) Having randomly met Carwyn through a mutual friend, Mary, at the Grange pub quiz in the week the first episode aired, I was keen to ask him some (easier) questions about how he went about making the series and what inspired him to do so.

“I’d waited many years for someone make a television series that joined all the dots, that told the story of how Cardiff was, and still is, shaped by the docks. But no-one ever did,” says Carwyn.

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Carwyn and presenter Adeola Dewis filming over the long, hot summer of 2018

“There would be the odd programme that focused on one aspect of the past but would invariably side line all the other elements. Tiger Bay has, quite rightly, featured in a number of programmes over time, but those programmes rarely mentioned other dockland communities, like Newtown or Splott, that co-existed and flourished in 19th century Cardiff. Dock of the Bay was a chance to pull all those threads together and tell a more rounded history of this corner of the Welsh capital.”

Dock of the Bay pulls those threads together and finds those links very well, though needless to say, 92 minutes of telly isn’t going to cover every tiny aspect of the docks over the last 200 years.

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“For me, the biggest challenge was deciding what to include and what to leave out,” says Carwyn. “By focusing on the city’s docklands, past and present, I knew there were certain touchstones that were the key to telling the bigger picture: the Victorian boom of coal exports, the birth of unique communities like Tiger Bay, and that difficult transitional period in the 1960s and 70s when heavy industry was in decline and old dockland neighborhoods were being demolished right, left and centre.

“What we really wanted to achieve in the series is provide both context and continuation; revealing the capital’s past but also exploring the present day echoes and parallels in the new landscape of Cardiff Bay. So I must confess I spent many hours with my head in my hands trying to find ways to link, say, the Edwardian heyday of Cardiff’s coal trade with the shiny waterfront of Mermaid Quay.”

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The Peel Street Mosque – Wales’ first purpose-built mosque. Built in Tiger Bay in 1947 by the Yemeni community, demolished in 1997

Vanished heyday

Carwyn was actually born in Belfast and spent most of his childhood there before moving to Cardiff with his Welsh parents in the early 1990s.

“I have often wondered about how my childhood would have been had I lived here at the time. What would the docklands have looked like? Time and again, I would come across photographs of old Cardiff that showed streets, houses and buildings that were torn down while I was still a child. I’ve probably waited my whole life to make this series, just to learn more about what came before.”

The rapid rise and lengthy decline of industrial boom town Cardiff is well known, but the number of topics Dock of the Bay manages to deftly cover and then draw parallels with the present day is impressive.

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It also looks superb. The drone photography of Cardiff Bay is spectacular – “Most of the shoot coincided with a heat wave so the series is flooded with glorious sunshine” – while the old archive film footage is fascinating.

“I’m proud to say that ITV Wales has put its money where its mouth is and has gone the extra mile to include some rarely seen colour footage of Tiger Bay from the 1950s and early ‘60s,” says Carwyn. “All too often we see the streets and people of Tiger Bay in drab, grainy, black and white archive. It’s only when you get a glimpse of the area in dynamic colour that you fully appreciate how vibrant it must have been in its heyday.”

In episode two, old and new is compared and contrasted cleverly as American photographer John Briggs returns to modern Cardiff Bay to take photos in the places that in the 1970s he spent time documenting forlorn industrial decay.

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Amazing scenes of the post-industrial ghost town that is now Cardiff Bay, as photographed by John Briggs who features in episode two

For whom the Pierhead building bell tolls

Regardless of how much you know about the docklands and Tiger bay, I bet there are things you’ll learn from Dock of the Bay. For example, in the first episode, which you can still watch at itv.com, likeable presenter Adeola Dewis, who herself is a local resident for the last 15 years, visits the magnificent Pierhead building.

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Led by tour manager Richard Gwyn Jones, Adeola climbs up the rather ‘pre-refurb’ interior of its clock tower to see, not just the inside of the clock’s huge faces, but higher up, the old, dusty bell. Did you know it had a bell? I don’t think I’d ever thought about it.

Sadly, the bell’s mechanism no longer works. Wouldn’t it be brilliant for it to chime again one day?

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Credit: Dock of the Bay (ITV Cymru Wales)

Goodbye to Newtown

Episode three features the building of the Barrage, the wartime sacrifices of local people, modern tugboat pilots, and the sad story of the vanished community of Newtown.

Neither remembered nor replaced, Little Ireland, as Newtown was known, comprised six terraced streets between Tyndall Street and the train tracks. It was built by Bute to house a small army of Irish workers he imported to build and then work on the docks. It was razed in the 1960s with its residents dispersed across Cardiff.

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Credit: Newtown Association

“Even the former Newtown residents I spoke to agreed that something had to be done to tackle the rundown housing,” says Carwyn. “But of all the options that could have been taken, the Council ultimately took the decision to demolish the entire area. Almost overnight it became a wasteland.

The houses were certainly primitive and had seen better days. One former resident, John Burns, jokes that the bathroom “wasn’t en-suite, it was on the wall” – quite literally a tin tub hanging on a nail.

“Eventually a trading estate was built where the terraced streets of Newtown once stood. It was no longer a place where people lived and played, worshipped at church or drank in their local pub. This was a close-knit community that had thrived for 120 years. You can certainly understand the sadness of people who have such fond memories of living in Little Ireland before the demolition.”

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Credit: Newtown Association

However, I wonder whether the Council would choose to do this today, and if it did, would it succeed in an age where it’s much easier to raise awareness of issues and garner support for campaigns?

“Even the former Newtown residents I spoke to agreed that something had to be done to tackle the rundown housing,” says Carwyn. “But of all the options that could have been taken, the Council ultimately took the decision to demolish the entire area.”

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Credit: Newtown Association

Still waters run deep

Cardiff sometimes feels like a city in a rush to forget its past. “If there was more evidence of our maritime past still visible today, a series like Dock of the Bay might not need to have been made at all,” says Carwyn.

“My daughter recently went to the Bay on a school trip and couldn’t believe that Cardiff docks were once so renowned,” he says. “But because there’s so little of the past that’s been preserved, and the docklands have been so comprehensively reconstructed, it’s no wonder that younger Cardiffians aren’t always aware of the city’s industrial history and its old communities.”

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Mary Sullivan, chair and co-founder of the Newtown Association at a stone wall, all that remains of an entire neighbourhood. The Association is on Facebook, here.

The Minnesotan photographer John Briggs, mentioned above, told the BBC in 2002: “What’s happened within the development is that it has succeeded in depriving Cardiff to a certain extent of its identity.”

I reckon that they should show this series in Cardiff schools. In the meantime, anyone can watch the remaining episodes of Dock of the Bay on 30 October and 6 November and online at itv.com.

It was brilliant to speak to Carwyn about this great little series and I’m grateful for his time and insights.

“I hope it serves as a reminder of Cardiff’s rich history,” he says. “In this corner of the capital, still waters really do run deep.”


A (markedly different) version of the article first appeared in the South Wales Echo on Wednesday 24 October 2018. Please visit our store at ilovesthediff.com to see original ways to celebrate Cardiff

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