Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Torontonian Television Legacy in Wales

UK TOUR DAY SEVEN (CARDIFF): The second stop on The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour was the Welsh capital of Cardiff. And while I was there, I went by the old Coal Exchange. It's a magnificent Victorian building right in the middle of the city, not far from Cardiff Bay. Once upon a time, this building was the beating heart of the world's coal trade. Some of the richest veins of coal on the planet were found in the valleys north of the city; Cardiff — which started the 1800s as a sleepy market town of about 6,000 people — became a booming metropolis of more than 200,000 by the end of the century. (So, about as big as Toronto was back then — in fact, both cities had just about the same population boom over that span.) At the height of the Industrial Revolution, Cardiff was the biggest coal port in the world. And the Coal Exchange is where all the big deals went down. Thousands of people flowed through the building every day. The trading floor was packed with hundreds of businessmen. It was here that history's very first million-pound cheque was signed.

But today, the building is derelict. Over the course of the 1900s, the Welsh coal mining industry collapsed completely. Now, there's not a single deep coal mine left anywhere in the South Wales Valleys. By the end of the 1950s, the Coal Exchange had closed. For a while, the building was used for other purposes — most recently as a concert venue for shows by bands like Super Furry Animals, Arctic Monkeys and Patti Smith. But it was falling apart. And last year, it was shut down completely. You're not even allowed to go inside anymore. It's too dangerous.

There were times went it must have seemed like all of Wales was going to share the fate of that building. As the coal mining industry collapsed, unemployment rose. Cardiff was hit hard — especially the area down by the docks, near the Coal Exchange. It was dangerous to set foot anywhere near the bay. "You just didn't go there," one resident remembers.

But in the 1980s, Cardiff launched an ambitious revitalization of their waterfront. Back then, Cardiff Bay spent the vast majority of every day as a vast expanse of unattractive mud flats, only filling with water during the brief hours when the tide was at its height. So the government built a "barrage" across the opening of the bay and let it fill with fresh water from nearby rivers. Now, Cardiff Bay is always full. And it's beautiful.

They followed that up with a whole series of new developments. Most importantly, the shore of the bay is now home to the Welsh parliament building — the Senedd — built after Wales voted in favour of devolution. Next door, they turned the old Victorian dock offices at the Pierhead Building into a museum and an extension of the parliament. Next to that is Roald Dahl Plass: a new square named after the famous Welsh children's author who was christened in a nearby church. Then, there's the Wales Millennium Centre, which rises powerfully over the square with a striking facade of Welsh and English text. It's home to the national orchestra, the national opera, the national theatre company, the national dance company, the national literary company... plus resautraunts and bars and shops. There are plentyof those overlooking the Bay today. And they provide free Wifi to visitors thanks to the City — as do the pedestrian-only promenades of the City Centre.

Cardiff Bay
In 2014, Cardiff certainly still has many problems: the monumental developments don't seem to have done much for the residents between the Bay and the City Centre: that area is still rundown and uninviting, divided by the grand, new, featureless and deserted Lloyd George Avenue. But the Bay itself seems to be thriving. It's "a waterfront reborn" as our own Globe and Mail puts it

Of course, if you watch much television, there's a good chance that you've already seen those new Welsh icons. Because Cardiff Bay has become home to one of the most popular shows in the entire history of television. A show originally created by a Torontonian.

It was Sydney Newman who created Doctor Who. I've already written a full post telling the story of how he grew up in Toronto and worked at the NFB and the CBC before spending a few years as the Head of Drama at the BBC. While he was there, he came up with the idea for the science fiction series — and put together a groundbreaking team to produce it. His Canadian ideas have played an important role in the television show the London Times once described as "quintessential to being British." And now, 50 years later, that legacy is still being felt in Wales.

The BBC studios where the show is currently filmed are right here on Cardiff Bay, just around the corner from the Senedd and Roald Dahl Plass. Other locations around the city are frequently used for shooting the series — even the bits that are supposed to be happening in London. (A city pretending to be another city on film? Something Torontonians are familiar with.)

The most notable of these locations is Roald Dahl Plass. The square has played a big role on the reboot of the show: as a frequent landing place for the TARDIS and as the central location for the spin-off series, Torchwood. But it's hardly alone. The entire bay is a familiar sight to Doctor Who viewers. The lobby of the Millennium Centre has been used as the lobby of the futuristic New Earth hospital and as the reception for an alien health centre on a quarantined planet. Just around the bay, there's the restaurant where the Doctor faced off against an alien disguised as the Mayor of Cardiff. A little further along is the retro diner he visited on a trip to the 1960s United States. Just beyond that, the home of two of his most recent companions: Amy and Rory. Rose didn't live very far away, either. Or Donna. Or Clara. Or Craig and his baby, Stormageddon.

Even the Coal Exchange has become part of the recent history of Doctor Who: the building's parking garage was used as a location for one of the show's most celebrated episodes ever ("Blink") and the lavish interior played host to an alien fight club on an episode of Torchwood.

As a result, the show has helped to give Cardiff a new kind of international profile — a way to showcase the revitalized bay to millions of people around the world and to tell a new story about Wales that has nothing to do with coal mining. And that, in turn, has helped to grow the economy in other areas. Tourism is now bringing billions of dollars to the Welsh economy every year. And it's still growing. In part, that's thanks to the country's stunning natural beauty — even the valleys of the coal field are turning back into lush, green Edens after more than a century as a Mordor of black smoke and slag heaps. But it's actually Cardiff that's leading the way.

The latest big tourist attraction is another new addition to the bay: The Doctor Who Experience. A sleek warehouse on the waterfront gives fans a chance to see artifacts from the show, including old costumes, villains and props. Its nerd heaven. In its very first year, the Doctor Who Experience had already earned a nomination for a National Tourism Award. And they figure it'll attract a quarter of a million visitors every year. Yet another way to bring tourism dollars to Wales.

In fact, the Doctor Who connection is the reason I first decided to come here myself: to leave copies of a dream for Sydney Newman in some of the places around Cardiff that his television show has helped to make famous — including the house of the Doctor's current companion, a shrine to the spin-off series Torchwood, and on the set of the time-travelling TARDIS at the Doctor Who Experience itself.


Doctor Who Experience Cyberman
The 1980s TARDIS, Doctor Who Experience
A dream for Sydney Newman on the TARDIS
The shrine to Torchwood
Shrine to Torchwood, detail
A dream for Syndey Newman at the shrine
Clara's house
Clara leans out that same side window
A dream for Sydney Newman at Clara's house
The cathedral green from Matt Smith's first episode
Llandaff Cathedral, also from the Van Gogh episode
A dream for Sydney Newman where Matt Smith debuted
The Coal Exchange
The Pierhead Building
The Millennium Centre
Ellipses for 3 Docks on the Bay
The church were Roald Dahl got christened
Lloyd George Avenue
Cardiff also has way too many seagulls

 Read more posts about The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour and the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom here. I'll be posting lots more during the trip! And you can follow me on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook too.

Even the students doing this school project have noticed some of the failures of the revitalization. Definitely worth a watch.

It was actually while watch an episode of Torchwood that they tipped me off to the other Toronto history connection in Cardiff that I've written about this week: when they visited the sculpture in memory of the Scott Expedition on the bay. You can read my post about that here.

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