The Welsh Valley That Won the Lottery review – a bittersweet good news tale that’s not like the others

‘It’s good news! You don’t hear much good news, do you?” At the library in Rhymney, Caerphilly, one morning in May 2022, there’s only one topic of conversation at the “talking cafe”, a weekly event set up to combat loneliness in the small former mining town. Sat in a circle, sipping tea and crunching biscuits, everyone is on about Rhymney residents winning the lottery: more than 400 of them have just shared £3.7m. A documentary crew have got wind of the windfall and are here to shoot The Welsh Valley That Won the Lottery (Channel 4).

The winners were playing the People’s Postcode Lottery, a clever variation on a normal Lotto that randomly selects a postcode instead of numbers then assigns a large prize to every ticket-holder on one lucky street, with smaller ones going to players close by who have only matched the first half of their postcode. Effectively it sets up a syndicate for your neighbourhood, and in Rhymney where the game is evidently popular it feels like half the town has won.

Ever since coalminer’s daughter Viv Nicholson won the pools in 1961, brashly promised to “spend, spend, spend” and then fell victim to alcoholism, bankruptcy and years of tabloid sneering, Britain has been ready to enjoy tales of it turning out badly when ordinary folk scoop jackpots. There’s none of that here: the winners are seen buying something they’ve always wanted and are happy about it. It is good news.

The bittersweetness in Sarah Howitt’s unpretentious film comes from looking at where the money has landed, and what was there before. Because the £3.7m has almost been won by Rhymney itself, we are given a condensed history of a place that used to have a high street lined with independent shops, serving locals who earned their living in the ironworks, the brewery or the several coalmines that were all nearby. A widower called Ted takes us on a drive, past the social clubs that once were jumping every night and on to the hydraulic excavator factory where he and 1,500 others used to work. Ted remembers the monthly dance in the canteen: “They used to have a big band, it was absolutely brilliant.” The building is now derelict, and Rhymney seems to survive on determination, memories and neighbourliness – or at least it did, before the golden cheques descended.

Ted lives on the street where participating residents won the top prize of £185,000 each, and in fact he played two tickets so he’s got £370,000. There’s no melancholy as we watch him out on the road again, this time in a brand new Jaguar, or when we see his neighbour Lionhead, a retired DJ nicknamed for what used to be an astonishing curly mane and moustache combo, get his hands on the quad bike he has always coveted and go tearing incongruously around the estate. Mary, who has recently been laid off and is audibly struggling with lungs damaged by Covid, has won £8,000 and is exhilarated to spend some of it on a caravan, since that means her family will be able to go on their first holiday for 14 years. Stroke survivor Ray buys an electric wheelchair that will help him reconnect with friends.

Nobody punctures the celebrations by saying that their recent good fortune is much too little, decades too late, but when Ray’s steely wife Janet recalls how they’ve “scrimped and scraped for every penny” all their lives, how pushing Ray’s existing wheelchair has become too difficult for her, and how they “won’t be going mad” with their £185,000, we get a sense of an ageing population at the end of hard lives. The toiling and saving used to be rewarded with a decent wage and vibrant local culture, but in recent years even that’s dried up as a result of deliberate decisions, made far away, about who gets richer and who gets poorer. Mary, who ought to have been able to afford her week at the seaside without having to buy a lottery ticket, speaks of the “cost of living crisis” having added to her stresses; down the road, 90-year-old Betty is pleased to have won £4,000, “especially with all this heating going up now and everything”. A quick Google tells you that Caerphilly County Borough Council has, in the weeks before the broadcast of this programme, announced a new round of cuts to public services totalling £12.4m.

Occasionally The Welsh Valley That Won the Lottery cuts to a wide shot of beautiful hills. On the other side of them are towns with a different postcode where – as the film deftly reminds us, even as it shares Rhymney’s joy – people are still waiting for their luck to change.