Wales and film

After more than a century in the maternity ward, a tangible Welsh film industry is yet to be born. Plenty of individual Welsh people have been important in film history, and there have been isolated flurries of significant film-making, but without the apparatus and momentum of statehood an indigenous cinematic culture is very difficult to achieve. Hitherto, Wales has usually been no more than a very minor cog in ‘British’ cinema or just the photogenic backdrop to other peoples’ stories. What few identifiable Welsh cinematic themes that have formed can be tentatively characterised as concerned with outsider status, questions of identity and the overthrow of stereotypes – themes that will surely broaden when a Welsh filmic language finally emerges. To address this major deficiency in national life and encourage the development of Welsh film the Assembly government set up the Film Agency for Wales in 2006 (now called Ffilm Cymru Wales). Little of lasting merit has been produced yet, but it’s early days. The Welsh, like all peoples, need to see themselves and their lives reflected, refracted and writ large on screen, or else we will stay as misunderstood and unexamined as the Americans would be without The Wizard of Oz, the French without À Bout de Souffle, the Russians without Battleship Potemkin, or the English without, umm…let’s think…I know…If…. 

*****

What then have been Wales’ contributions so far to the development of film? The National Screen & Sound Archive of Wales, established by the Welsh government in 2001 and based at the National Library in Aberystwyth is an ever-growing collection of film, TV, video, radio and music recordings relating to Wales. In the archive can be found the milestones in the stop-start story of Welsh film:

Desperate Poaching Affray (1903)
Travelling showman William Haggar (1851-1925) from Essex moved to Wales with the coal boom in the 1880s. He criss-crossed the country with his horse-drawn mobile theatre and props, set up his own drama company using his many children as a ready-made cast, and by 1898 graduated into bioscope shows, often screening his own films. In so doing, he became an unwitting cinema pioneer, bringing his populist eye for working-class tastes, honed by years on raucous fairgrounds and muddy village greens, to the then rarefied and exclusive field of cinematography. From his Aberdâr base, Haggar roamed rural and coalfield Wales showing over 30 home-made films at his mobile cinema between 1901 and 1908, utilising not just Welsh locations but Welsh actors, myths, stories and characters too. A decade before the industrialisation of film production, Haggar more or less invented whole sub-genres: authority getting its comeuppance, underdog-as-hero, rough-house fisticuffs, irreverent slapstick and, in this influential, naturalistic three-minute delight shot one sunny afternoon in the Rhondda Fawr, the chase sequence. Desperate Poaching Affray sold 480 copies worldwide, making it the best-selling film ever up to that point in time, and today is recognised by US film historians for “setting the pattern for chase sequences in the movies.” Travelling cinemas were soon superseded by permanent buildings (Haggar himself opened the Kosy Cinema in Market Street, Aberdâr in 1915 – sold 1927, burnt down 1946). It is amazing to think that, at the very dawn of cinema, Wales was in the vanguard. What might have happened had Wales had national consciousness and infrastructure we will never know. The chance slipped away, Hollywood hegemony began, the chase was over.

The Proud Valley (1940)
It was left to outsiders to define Welshness on film and thus paint images of Wales that would prevail for decades: coal, choirs, stoic suffering. Three films in particular carved this mythic Wales deep into mass consciousness: MGM’s The Citadel (1938), Twentieth Century-Fox’s How Green Was My Valley (1941), and Ealing Studios’ The Proud Valley, the touchstone of the Welsh mining film. Directed by socialist old Etonian Pen Tennyson (1912-1941), it was essentially a vehicle for the booming bass-baritone of star Paul Robeson (1898-1976), playing an itinerant American collier integrating into a pit community. It was the first UK film to feature a black actor as lead, the first with believable working-class characters not caricatures and, even allowing for the toning down of the original script’s radicalism, the most overtly political film Ealing ever made. The screenplay was a series of compromises passing through many hands, including Merthyr novelist Jack Jones (1884-1970), resulting in a watered-down, anodyne sentimentality. Jones was an extra in the film which also saw the screen debut of Rachel Thomas (1905-1995), destined for a future as the archetypal mamgu. Despite the weaknesses, 70 years on The Proud Valley looks more and more like a pivotal groundbreaker. If we are to be defined by others, it could be a lot worse than being defined by Paul Robeson. Associated with Wales since singing in the valleys in the 1930s to raise money for the Spanish Civil War, Robeson welded the black struggle to the Welsh struggle after The Proud Valley and became a global Civil Rights symbol. It was he who let us know the angels were on our side.

David (1951)
At the time it was released as Wales’ contribution to the Festival of Britain in London, this 38 minute black & white exploration of the life of DR Griffiths (1882-1953), as told by Griffiths himself playing autobiographical cipher Dafydd, barely registered with critics or the public. Today it is acknowledged as the first home-made Welsh masterpiece, a serene, meditative exploration of the passing of time as well as a startlingly original leap forward for the drama-documentary half a century before ‘reality TV’ made the blending of fact and fiction routine (and tacky). Filmed around Griffiths’ home town Ammanford, it was directed by Cardiffian Paul Dickson (1920-2011) and was certainly the high-point of Dickson’s chequered career, an elegant, low-key elegy saturated with atmosphere and sense of place. Griffiths, ex-miner, poet (bardic name Amanwy) and brother of Jim Griffiths (1890-1975), first ever Secretary of State for Wales in 1964, is devastatingly good as unassuming Dafydd, the school caretaker facing bittersweet retirement and, ultimately, death. Dickson turned Welsh filmic tropes into hyper-real moments by delivering them straight – most notably in claustrophobic colliery scenes and in the film’s poignant denouement at the Aberafan Eisteddfod. Dafydd doesn’t win the poetry prize. He walks slowly away to the strains of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau. You know what? There’s a victory in defeat.

Hedd Wyn (1992)
The launch of S4C in 1982 was the shot in the arm Welsh cinema cried out for. The first, and to this day only, dedicated Welsh TV channel was set up on the commissioning model and this triggered Wales’ most fertile film period since Haggar as independent production companies with ideas and at last some budgets sprung up in Cardiff. It took a while for S4C to find its feet. Only one or two full-scale films suitable for cinema release can be afforded each year and early efforts were timid and conventional. Karl Francis from Bedwas, Wales’ most distinguished auteur and the only Welsh director yet to have assembled a substantial, sustained and coherent body of work since his first compelling film Above Us the Earth (1977), got the channel on track with Milwr Bychan (1986), along with Stephen Bayly’s excellent political comedy Coming Up Roses (1986) the first Welsh-made film released commercially in London’s West End. Endaf Emlyn from Pwllheli raised the bar with his outstanding interpretation of Caradog Prichard’s novel Un Nos Ola Leuad (1991), and then S4C struck gold with Hedd Wyn, the epic story of shepherd-poet Ellis Evans (1887-1917) who won the bardic chair at the 1917 National Eisteddfod posthumously after being killed months earlier in the Battle of Passchendaele. It was the first Welsh-made film to gain an Oscar nomination (Best Foreign Language Film, 1994). Directed with lush cinematic sensibility by Cornish-Welsh Paul Turner and scripted by poet Alan Lwyd, the film is powerful and poignant in its own right, but more importantly showed that Welsh issues and experiences can interest others, that Wales can make commercial movies on its own terms, and that rooting film in one’s homeland is not insular, it’s universal.

A Bit of Tom Jones? (2009)
In post-devolution Wales it has been one-step-forward, two-steps-back for Welsh film. S4C’s already meagre budget has been slashed by London, BBC Wales has sacrificed Welsh-specific programming on the altar of UK network ratings, ITV Wales has entirely abandoned its Welsh remit, the independent sector has had to retrench as Wales’ already inadequate block grant is cut to the bone and the state support that all national film industries require consequently shrivels, and every Welsh film must still surmount the perennial problem of finding an audience when distribution is out of Welsh hands. Film-makers have had to think outside the box on miniscule budgets, forcing them to put a premium on originality, and writer/director Peter Watkins-Hughes of Brynmawr did just that with this comedy shot in Tredegar, taking the smutty conventions of the genre to their logical conclusion by extending what is essentially a genitalia gag across 90 splendidly silly minutes. Initially ignored by the chains, it became a word-of-mouth and social media hit, won general release in south Wales multiplexes, and then scooped the 2010 ‘Best Film’ award at the Welsh BAFTAs (launched in 1992, the May ceremony at the WMC is Cardiff’s sozzled stab at red-carpet glamour). The lesson is clear: anything’s possible if you’ve got ideas.

*****

The Welsh capital is notably absent from all these key films, but Cardiff was being put on celluloid as early as June 1896, just six months after the Lumière brothers’ breakthrough ‘cinématographe’ projection in Paris. American Birt Acres (1854-1918) and Londoner Robert Paul (1869-1943), pioneers of photographic science, visited Cardiff for the ‘Fine Art, Industrial & Maritime Exhibition’ in Cathays Park and made short films of the Prince & Princess of Wales (the first ever moving images of British royals), a military display, and intriguing scenes of Queen Street viewed from the top of a tram. Despite this early head-start, and despite the abundant TV footage of Cardiff thanks to it being the broadcasting centre for Wales (and lately the prime location of Dr Who and its Torchwood spin-off, familiarising millions more with the city’s look), cinematic visions of Cardiff have been few and far between. But the Great Cardiff Movie surely cannot be long in coming as the green shoots of a putative Welsh film industry sprout. Cardiff, with its cluster of production companies pitched up close to government, the BBC, S4C, arts quangos and grant aid, has become Welsh film’s natural centre and, for the same reason that most Hollywood movies are filmed on LA back-lots, Cardiff is going to come more and more under the scrutiny of the lens.  Up to now the city has been shy to show its face to camera – but there are a few exceptions. Here, in alphabetical order, are five times when Cardiff was ‘ready for my close-up, Mr DeMille’…

Beautiful Mistake (2000)
The key musicians from the extraordinary end-of-millennium flowering of Welsh music (Manic Street Preachers, Super Furry Animals, Catatonia, Derrero, Tystion, Dafydd Iwan, Gorkys Zygotic Mynci, Fernhill etc) interact and perform John Cale songs, with the brilliant Garnant experimentalist himself on organ and piano, in the Coal Exchange and various other Cardiff locations. Directed with panache by Marc Evans, an important figure as the first signs of a long-awaited distinctive Welsh Cinema emerge, the film doesn’t look at Cardiff through the rose-tinted lens of Torchwood or a tourist brochure. The viewer is left wondering whether this ‘beautiful mistake’ might in fact be ugly – and deliberate.

Daddy’s Girl (2006)
First-time director Dave Evans shot much of this low-budget psychological horror in and around the disused Cardiff Royal Infirmary and nearby Howard Gardens, perfect places for the bleak and ominous atmosphere he evoked. The picture is entirely unscary and longeur-filled, but that’s not the point; Wales is as entitled to be mediocre as everywhere else is. Ffilm Cymru Wales supports more than 20 films in production or development at any one time – one day Wales’ Citizen Kane will emerge. Evans has since flourished in TV, directing S4C’s upmarket soap Caerdydd.

Dal: Yma/Nawr (2003)
Another Marc Evans film, an innovative drama-documentary celebrating the 2000 year-old Welsh poetic tradition. Made for S4C’s film division by production company Fiction Factory, based at Chapter, the film used locations across Wales as well as in the Canton cultural hothouse. Evans coaxed the cream of Welsh actors (Daniel Evans, Ioan Gruffydd, Richard Harrington, Rhys Ifans, Siân Phillips, Matthew Rhys, Nia Roberts) to exuberantly perform the poems and added contributions by contemporary poets and musicians to form a subtle, operatic delight, synthesising the hitherto quite separate genres of poetry and film so that they look like natural bedfellows. He has continued to make thoughtful Welsh films, most notably road movie Patagonia (2010)and coming-of-age musical Hunky Dory (2011).

Human Traffic (1999)
Trying to escape their humdrum lives, weekend ravers get drugged-up and go clubbing in Cardiff. Director Justin Kerrigan’s first film lacks plot, misses an opportunity by using a cast of non-Cardiffians (all giving poor performances), is burdened by tiresome quantities of film-school trickery, and comes to the lamest of conclusions: What Goes Up Must Come Down. However, as an accurate portrayal of the 1990s ecstasy generation it has no equal, there are some great scenes of laugh-out-loud hilarity, the night-time city centre gets rare cinematic treatment and there’s a sense of mission-accomplished appropriateness that such a mood-modifiers’ manifesto is set in Cardiff, a city where getting out of your skull is almost a civic duty. Kerrigan’s Bridgend-set follow-up, psychological thriller I Know You Know (2008), showed his singular filmic voice maturing and deepening.

Tiger Bay (1959)
Now recognised as a pinnacle of traditional black-and-white cinematography with every scene beautifully lit and composed by director Bristolian J Lee Thompson (1914-2002), this powerful drama was ahead of its time in its depiction of children and its tackling of issues like sexual equality. It had its World Premier at the Gaumont in Queen Street, featured Welsh actors Meredith Edwards (1917-1999), Kenneth Griffith (1921-2006) and Rachel Thomas in supporting roles and marked the screen debut of Hayley Mills, starring with her real-life father John Mills (1908-2005) and German heartthrob Horst Buchholz (1933-2003). On the strength of her scene-grabbing performance, Mills was snapped up by Disney and, to the detriment of her adult career, became one of the best-loved child stars of all. Her father, one of the grandees of English acting and already over 50 when the film was shot, kept working to the very end of his long life. For Buchholz, considered Germany’s James Dean at the time, this was his breakthrough in the US.  A year later he hit the big time playing the one nobody can remember in pub quizzes in The Magnificent Seven. But in many ways the real star is Tiger Bay itself. Even though some scenes were actually shot in Newport (the Transporter Bridge – Hayley Mills is a patron of the preservation society to this day) and Avonmouth (the docks), the deeply evocative streets really are those of late 1950s Tiger Bay. The luminous shades of grey and the big billowing skies full of Cardiff rain bathe those old byways in an aura of almost unbearable pathos – especially knowing what we know now: that the demolition of the entire Tiger Bay area from Patrick Street to North Church Street would commence just a year later. Look at Loudon Square as it was; compare and contrast to the Loudon Square of today. Nobody with eyes to see would prefer the latter to the former, even as a ‘slum’. The on-location shooting makes Tiger Bay a historical document in its own right, and a standing indictment of all the Cardiff politicians and planners who have put profit before people.

*****

Until Wales has autonomy, our contributions to global cinema can only be fleeting and peripheral. There are better opportunities to bring Wales to the screen for individual actors who are talented and driven enough. Per head of population, Wales produces more actors than anywhere else, maybe because of an innate sense of melodrama, or thanks to a performance-based culture nurtured in eisteddfodau, chapel and sports field, or perhaps due to an instinctive love of language born of the cross-fertilisation of two tongues. Whatever the reason, the Welsh took to getting up in front of a camera right from the earliest days of cinema. But Wales had no film industry, no overarching institutions and no self-confidence to enable this talent. It was the old, old story: if you wanted to succeed you left. However, unlike in other spheres of activity, this particular exit didn’t lead down the well-worn road to England. In movies the place to be wasn’t Shepperton Studios, it was Sunset Boulevard. Ever since the 1909 Cinematographic Act put an end to the popular travelling cinemas and led to a rash of permanent cinemas being established, killing off the embryonic Welsh film industry and opening the way for the absolute hegemony of the US, the Hollywood dream-factories have had a magnetic pull. Many went way out west; a few had success; and then there are the legends…

Richard Burton (1925-1984)
The 12th of 13 children from mining village Pontrhydyfen near Port Talbot was a box-office bonanza and the highest-paid actor in Hollywood in the 1960s. He and Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011), after meeting on the set of Cleopatra, married and divorced twice and virtually founded the cult of celebrity coupledom. Burton’s very public personality disintegrations make the routine self-excoriations of today’s stars look like publicity stunts, while his sonorous, lyrical voice permanently associated the Welsh accent with the essence of theatricality. His alcoholism and laziness meant he underachieved in film and never surpassed his supreme performance – as the narrator in the original 1954 radio production of Under Milk Wood.  There can be few voices in human history capable of endowing mere words with such spine-tingling power as Burton softly murmuring:  “To begin at the beginning: It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black…”

Peg Entwistle (1908-1932)

Peg
Tragic Peg from Port Talbot has gone into movie folklore as ‘The Hollywood Sign Girl’. Her mother died when she was a child in London and in 1922 she and her father emigrated to New York. He soon died in a road accident and she battled through years of grief and destitution to somehow clamber onto the bottom rung of a stage career. After a sequence of bit-parts in Broadway flops, Peg headed for LA, staying with her Uncle Harold in the shadow of the famous ‘Hollywoodland’ sign (the last four letters were removed in 1949). She got a part in the RKO film Thirteen Women, but most of it ended up on the cutting-room floor and Peg wasn’t even invited to the premiere.  There were numerous auditions, but the calls never came. One night in September 1932 she told her uncle she was popping out to the drugstore.  She climbed the rough dirt tracks up to the sign, scaled the 50ft maintenance ladder behind the letter ‘H’, and jumped. The woebegone suicide note (“I am afraid I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago it would have saved a lot of pain. PE”) and that iconic leap have over the years transmuted into legend, and now poor Peg Entwistle has come to represent all the broken dreams of Tinseltown.

Anthony Hopkins (1937-)
What is it about Port Talbot? Hopkins is another native of the polluted steel town to make the long journey from West Glamorgan to Southern California. The 1991 Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence Of The Lambs clinched his elevation into the ranks of Hollywood royalty. Hopkins’ delivery of “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti” is up there with Cagney’s “On top of the world Ma!”, Bogart’s “Here’s looking at you kid”, De Niro’s “You talking to me?”, Brando’s “I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse” and Garland’s “There’s no place like home” as an all-time great cinema one-liner. No other Best Actor winner has occupied the screen for less time; in the two hour movie Hopkins appears for less than 17 minutes – but such is his ineffable restrained power his presence is overwhelming. He became an American citizen in 2000, but the distant call of hiraeth can reach even Santa Monica by the Pacific Ocean – he is President of the Snowdonia Appeal dedicated to conserving the National Park.

Ray Milland (1905-1986)

ray
Reg Jones from Neath remade himself as the personification of suave cool in over 120 films across more than five decades. Generations of men unconsciously modelled themselves on his smooth, self-assured image; the way he held a cigarette, that urbane, debonair manner with women, the mellow, honeyed timbre of his voice. In 1945 he was the first Welsh actor to win an Oscar, for his portrayal of an alcoholic in the Billy Wilder (1906-2002) film The Lost Weekend.  His acceptance speech at the 18th Academy Awards remains the shortest to this day: he said nothing, bowed, and left the stage!   Thus the knee-jerk Welsh tendency to self-deprecate went global as an envied quality: understatement. Milland made it an art form, whether in screwball comedies, boys-own adventures or film noir. He was never better than in Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Dial M For Murder; somehow icily co-opting us into his fiendish scheme to murder wife Grace Kelly (1929-1982).

Catherine Zeta-Jones (1969-)
It’s a sign of the changing times that Swansea girl Zeta-Jones wouldn’t be without her home in Wales. Wales has now got validity in its own right, as somewhere palpably unique that it would be crazy to leave. Zeta-Jones takes it as read that glamour, sophistication and excitement are as possible in Mumbles as in Malibu. And there are other reasons why she is on this list: the £100,000 win on the Bingo in the 1980s which allowed her parents to join the middle-classes and send their gorgeous girl to theatre school, clinching the age-old actors’ false modesty that luck not talent is the deciding factor; her Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2002 for her scenery-chewing part in Chicago; and her breezy feminist updating of the conventions of the Showbiz Marriage so that hubbie Michael, already Hollywood aristocracy by dint of being son of cleft-chinned nonagenarian legend Kirk Douglas, is re-cast as Mr Zeta-Jones, grateful supplier of Grade A thespian sperm, before the de-rigueur breakup in 2013.

Pictures: Beguiling Hollywood; Millandia