Stand up comedy and the sober and sombre image of Welsh nonconformism may seem worlds apart, but Kiri Pritchard-McLean can see a direct link. 

The comedian recently recorded her new four-part radio sitcom, The Learners, at Llandudno’s Tabernacle arts venue, breathing new life and use into a building that was central to society for so many in the town, as hundreds of other chapels were to communities across Wales. 

Tudur Owen plays Jonesy in the series, who has the unenviable task of teaching Welsh to a group of adult learners.   

It was while recording at the Llandudno venue that Kiri and Tudur, who performs stand up in both Welsh and English, were struck by the similarities between how they’ve taken their word to public and the chapel preachers that once held audiences across Wales in the palms of their hands. 

“We were in the Tabernacle, stood on the stage, and Tudur said ‘If I was born a few generations earlier this would have been me’.

"My Taid was a lay preacher actually,” says Kiri of her grandfather in whose footsteps she feels she has followed. 

“We were talking about how that was sort of a circuit for lots of people who were good at performing, they would go and be lay preachers and make a bit of money, it was basically like the comedy circuit is, so I do think there is a link between the two.” 

The comedy circuit has given Kiri a surprising number of opportunities to take to the pulpit, or at least stages in buildings built for collective worship.

In a few weeks she is due to perform again at the Union Chapel in London which has a dual use as a 900 capacity live performance venue and a church. 

“Tabernacles are so perfectly built for orators and speakers,” Kiri sontinued.

“As a stand up venue they are just wild, and I think really bring out the best in your performance because you’ve got to kind of open it up, literally, to the heavens. 

“Those venues are built to be performed in and especially by one person because that is what would have happened years ago.” 

For Kiri however the connections between stand up and the sort of stand on your feet delivery her Taid devoted himself to run deeper. 

“Performatively what you can do with comedy is talk about morality and important subjects and it’s a way of holding people. 

"A lot of modern stand up is really asking big questions about ourselves and who we are in the world and what our place is which is what, I guess, the best religion does as well.” 

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The place of the chapel in Welsh culture is important to Kiri even though the numbers worshipping in them on a Sunday are a tiny fraction of what they once were.

“Chapels are everywhere and they are such an important part of, certainly, the Welsh side of my family’s culture. 

“It’s where they learnt to sing and perform and care about the community and I think those tenants haven’t disappeared from our culture as Welsh people they’ve maybe just moved? Maybe it’s a case of modernising but that feels like a question for the church, rather than for me.” 

Learners follows a group who are "absolutely terrible at learning Welsh" but Kiri, who has written the sitcom based on her own experiences of Welsh language classes, has no concerns it may be playing for laughs at the expense of those struggling with the language. 

“I’m a Welsh learner so it was coming from a place of love and respect for anyone who endeavors to learn the language,” says the comic raised in an English-speaking household, with a Welsh first language father, on Ynys Môn. 

“They are characters in a sitcom and they are based on the people I’ve met on Welsh courses.

"There’s always an elderly couple, who’ve moved from Manchester or Liverpool, who are throwing themselves into it, and they’re always odd and larger than life. 

“Comedy, when I write that kind of stuff, it comes from a very warm place anyway. It would never be punching down.

"The fact of the matter is they are a group of Welsh learners who are absolutely terrible at Welsh but that doesn’t mean they don’t love the language and are not trying very hard every lesson and their tutor doesn’t think we can’t get these people over the line.” 

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“I think because so many of us have a negative experience of learning Welsh in school, and feeling quite, ostracized from it, like it’s not our language, I think showing that it can be a fun thing to learn and that it can be a social thing and getting it wrong is actually part of learning. I think that’s an important side to show as well.” 

Kiri says she struggled for 30 years to learn Welsh, and though she doesn’t describe herself as fluent, she says she now has more ‘hyder’ - the Welsh for confidence and one of many Welsh words she switches between during the conversation. 

She is also determined to eventually perform stand up in Welsh: “It feels like the scariest thing as it’s taking the thing I feel least secure and in control of, my relationship with Welsh, and the thing I feel most secure and most in control of, which is stand up comedy. 

"I worry that if I do it in Welsh I’ll get so scared it will taint the experience for me.  

“But I’m definitely going to get round to doing a gig at some point. My brain moves very quickly in English and it moves very slowly in Welsh so I just feel less in control.

"If someone heckled in Welsh it would take me about half an hour to mentally translate what they were saying.” 

Recording Learners in the north was important for Kiri as she has great pride in the area but thinks it is overlooked, even within Wales, with its distinct culture and rural poverty ignored. 

“We are more than our countryside it’s also full of incredibly dynamic, talented people with a really strong culture that’s not defined in the same ways that Cardiff would self-define itself and Merthyr and the Valleys would define itself so hopefully that identity starts to come to the fore soon.” 

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Kiri and her partner based themselves in the north at the beginning of last year’s lockdown that she "arrogantly thought would be a fortnight” and she says she would like it to be possible for people living on Ynys Môn, or Gwynedd, to have the opportunity to build successful careers in the areas where they’ve grown up. 

“There’s quite a lot of my friends who have been really successful in different fields and have moved back. 

"I think we’re all fighting and endeavoring to make sure that if you’re a young person, in particular living in rural Wales, that you don’t have to move away. There should be training, and opportunities and a network within Wales that you can be a part of.  

“You can move away if you want to, of course, but it shouldn’t be you have to because family circumstances, or often financial circumstances, mean people have to move back and therefore they feel like, rightly or wrongly, that ends their career. We can do better for our young people than that.” 

Just as the best preachers must offer hope, among their words of wisdom, Kiri is keen to offer more than just laughs. 

The Learners starts on BBC Radio Wales at 6.30pm on Monday, August 2 and is also available via BBC Sounds. 

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