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The Full Ponty: How Satellite City Nailed The Spirit Of The Welsh Valleys
Emma Garland , June 16th, 2022 13:37

Boyd Clack’s late 90s BBC Wales sitcom might be confined to the grey zone of YouTube fan uploads, but it remains a vital document of the dark humour and grim reality of Valleys life, writes Emma Garland in this month's Low Culture subscriber essay

The duality of the South Wales Valleys is particularly hard to define. On the one hand, the area has been gutted by a ruthless motorcade of Thatcherism, neoliberalism and austerity, leaving a gulf of opportunity filled mostly by military propaganda and alcoholism. Besides the benefits of a much greener landscape as nature reclaims the sites of former collieries, not much has changed since the 80s. People’s sense of possibility is shot, child poverty is through the roof and local infrastructure is so bad you still can’t get from Merthyr Tydfil to Cardiff (two major commercial hubs) without answering Transport for Wales’ riddles three. On the other hand, it’s probably the funniest place on earth. There is a warmth and surrealism to daily life that doesn’t square with the Ken Loach-ification of working-class narratives. When my late grandpa – Elvis rest his soul – got so drunk that the landlady confiscated his car keys and, rather than sleeping it off, he simply stole a horse from a nearby field, rode it home and tied it up in the garden for my nan to deal with in the morning, it was not considered "sad". Annoying, yes, but never sad. Placed in an eternal quandary of "if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry", the Valleys has consistently opted to laugh. To this day, nothing has captured that spirit quite like Satellite City

Satellite City was a sitcom that ran on BBC Wales between 1995 and 1999. Set in an imaginary town in the Rhondda, the plot follows the Price family – Gwynn (played by Boyd Clack, who co-wrote the series), his wife Moira (Ri Richards) and father Idris (Islwyn Morris) – whose lives take a new turn after their lodger, "English Stan", dies, and is replaced by an American called Randy who has travelled to the area as part of his PhD in Celtic Mysticism and Welsh Culture. Gwynn is a manic depressive and Moira is addicted to "tablets" (unspecified). Meanwhile, Idris and Randy enter an anti-odd couple dynamic as two childlike optimists who put the world to rights during  late night conversations, even though one is a bit dim (or, as Moira puts it, "insane, mun") and the other is an intellectual. I should also clarify that they platonically share the same bed. The Price’s don’t take in a lodger because they need the money, Idris just enjoys the company.

Though the town is fictional, the name 'Satellite City' is explained in the first episode: the district was used for the initial testing of satellite dishes, but when the time came to either start paying for them or give them back, nobody did either. You couldn’t get a more apt framework for a show that is, primarily, a character study of the Valleys. Within the first 10 minutes, the protagonists sit around the kitchen table hashing out cultural attitudes ("This is Wales, butt. We’re a desolate and suspicious community. We don’t say, ‘Have a nice day,’ we say, ‘Who are you looking at?’") and national pastimes ("We don’t go to art galleries and that, we drink and laugh and fight!"). From there they head to English Stan’s wake, where we’re introduced to the rest of the characters: Dai, a feverishly divorced pub landlord, and two young women called Mandy and Bridget, who dress like 80s backing dancers and have a dynamic akin to those girls that punched each other on X-Factor">. Everyone gets into a brawl with a local nutter called Richard Stutley over a long-standing beef regarding a spilled pint, which acts as an initiation ceremony of sorts for Randy. "Welcome to Satellite City," Gwynn tells him. "May God preserve your sanity."

The first episode tees up themes that continue to unfold over the next three series’: drinking, fighting, emotional and sexual dysfunction. While none of those things are romanticised, they aren’t framed as miserable either. Swerving anything resembling a trauma narrative, it presents an exaggerated (I say "exaggerated"…) version of things as they are – acknowledging how history may have battered certain conditions and attitudes into shape, while allowing its characters complete autonomy. They could go to art galleries, obviously. But they don’t. When Randy attempts to communicate with the family in Welsh, he’s shocked to learn that they can’t speak the language. No one in the area can. After Moira explains the Welsh Not – a piece of wood hung around a child’s neck from the mid-1800s to discourage them from speaking Welsh at school – Randy is appalled. "That’s barbaric, the forced suspension of a culture like that!" he proclaims. "Aye," Gwynn replies. "But at least it means we don’t have to speak bloody Welsh now."

This outsider / insider perspective comes directly from Boyd Clack’s own life. He was born in Vancouver and lived there briefly before emigrating with his parents abck to Tonyrefail – a village in the Rhondda where his family were originally from, and where he then grew up. Dropping an American into the Valleys is an unlikely but clever angle for the show; a way of introducing a particular culture through the removed gaze of foreign eyes. Things are presented exactly as they feel to those living there, but also how they appear from the outside. Everything is simultaneously embraced and called into question, saying ‘this is how it is’ while also suggesting whether it should be. The clash between the rough and readiness of the Valleys and a peace-loving vegetarian intellectual is funny, but it was also a conscious decision for the character of Randy to be so accepting. Whatever crazed logic is thrown at him, he either pauses for a second before saying "okay", or is oddly enamoured by it. That’s an attitude that’s hard to find not just within the UK, but within Wales itself, where the prospect of "the Valleys lot" "descending" on Cardiff on a match day is still met with a certain disdain (see also the 2010s reality TV show The Valleys, which shipped a bunch of rowdy, hopeful models and club promoters 20 miles down the A470 to see how they fared in the bright lights of Cardiff). 

Satellite City is a love letter to the Valleys. As much as it succeeds objectively, nailing the character of the area as well as Rockwell nails Americana, most of its humour lies in the cosy glow of the familiar. There are very few scenes in British television where a character can turn to a bartender, pint in hand, and state "I’m considering taking my own life" to a burst of canned laughter before even adding the punchline. "Randy wants us to have a new bed." 

Like many great working-class comedies, Satellite City started as a radio play before being adapted into a TV series. This partly explains its Shakespearean energy. Every episode teeters between comedy and tragedy like a drunk man trying to walk in a straight line for a police officer. The performances push already intense feelings like jealousy, inadequacy and lust to a point of – sometimes literal – hysteria. Things are described, unpacked and theorised through wide-eyed monologues and conversations that escalate within seconds, as if every sentence is lighter fluid being dashed into an open fire. Even simple things like ferret training and rugby ("the primordial struggle between good and evil") hit a prism of psychology, politics and spirituality, elevating mundanity into a theatre of the absurd. Even now, over two decades later, it’s one of the very few British comedies to address mental illness from a working class perspective. While shows like Pure and Fleabag are rightly celebrated for their nuanced portrayals of personality disorders and OCD, there is very little at all written about those whose terrors do not unfold at glamorous rooftop parties and wellness retreats. Faced with the same psychological struggles, the people of Satellite City are left with no choice but to go to the pub about it. That said, they do pursue other solutions thanks to Randy. In season two, there’s an  entire episode dedicated to the collapse of Gwynne’s mental state as he struggles to cope with his 40th birthday, culminating in the family attempting to get to the root of his trauma by hypnotising him with a statue of Neil Kinnock.

As a result, Satellite City is a cult classic – one of those shows that its fans think "everyone should see". Sadly you won’t find it on any streaming services, but someone has uploaded most of the episodes to YouTube, where the comment section  is full of people gushing about it as the "best Welsh comedy ever" that "pisses all over Gavin and Stacey". They’re not wrong. As far as Welsh programming goes, it’s even more unsung than Rob Brydon’s one man tour de force Marion and Geoff, in which he plays an gullible taxi driver going through a messy divorce from his wife, who has quite clearly (though he fails to realise it) been cheating on him with someone from work. It’s a heartbreaking portrait of loneliness – the presence of humour only making the sadness at the heart of things feel more acute. Carried by a full cast of individuals with their own "messy divorce", Satellite City does the same.

That said, it did get some flowers at the time. Satellite City made such an impression that viewers of the first showing have since passed it on to their children, which is how I discovered it given I was five when it first aired. It also won a BAFTA Cymru Award for Best Light Entertainment at the end of its run in 1999, while Clack went on to write the much less dark and therefore much more acclaimed High Hopes, which was broadcast on BBC across the UK. It’s Satellite City, though – depressed, paranoid and operatic – that captures the spirit of the Valleys most clearly. 

Though the entire show is about a series of dysfunctional relationships it is, above all else, a story of love and acceptance. Dai is heartbroken over his ex-wife running off with someone else decades ago, Mandy struggles to know how to connect to Randy in ways that don’t involve sex, and it is Idris’ need for companionship that brings Randy into their lives in the first place. Then there’s Gwynn and Moira, the nihilist and the banshee. Gwynn is constantly having a breakdown over his manhood or perceived lack thereof, while Moira believes she’s "not normal" enough to have a baby. This dynamic, which often goes unspoken throughout much of the show, finally erupts into a tense and emotional finalé that centres on the question of whether they want to have children. When they finally decide to bite the bullet, Moira realises she can’t conceive. Gwynn snaps and heads for Southerndown – a beach along the Glamorgan Heritage Coast that’s referenced throughout the show as a dogging site, and is known in real life as a suicide hotspot – with the intention of drowning himself in the sea. In a brief but genuinely harrowing scene, Moira, Idris and Randy are pictured clutching Gwynn’s clothes on the shoreline, and the bottom completely drops out of a show that has until now always kept real, terrible darkness just out of frame. The camera pans up towards the sky as if the credits are about to roll, and at the last second Gwynn pops out of the bushes asking for someone to chuck him his trousers. Moira screams at him – "You stupid bugger!" – marking the end of the show.

It takes a very special writer and cast to make suicide funny, but Satellite City does it. What’s more, you can imagine them getting the string of buses all the way back home, bickering about what men are like and what women are like and complaining about the "bastard seats" as a way of saying "it’s alright". I’m not sure what a real life outsider to the Valleys would make of the show now, but for me it’s comforting. If you grew up on a terraced street like theirs watching matriarchs in baggy leggings and gold jewellery hoover the living room like God trying to erase a mistake; if you’ve ever wandered lonely along the cliffs of Southerndown, copped a £1 scarf from Ponty market or looked dumbfounded across the kitchen table as a member of your family explains why they’ve bought several barrels of illegally syphoned gasoline off someone down the pub, it feels like home – sadness and all.