Paul Turner (1945-2019)

Film director Paul Turner, who died in November, belonged to a small, select and precious sub-strand within Welsh society: the intelligent, civilised English incomer who evolves into a passionately pro-independence adopted Welshman with the perception to recognise what most Welsh people’s deeply colonised mindset has been trained to ignore. He stands in stark contrast to the usual dreadful standard of English immigrant inflicted on Wales: clueless, arrogant white-settlers, usually pensioners or holiday-home owners and invariably rightwing and reactionary and openly hostile to the existence of the Welsh language and indeed the very idea of Wales. These philistine imperialist brutes make up 25% of the population of Wales and add up to a hugely negative and malign influence in Wales – for instance, distorting the EU referendum result in favour of Brexit and enabling Tory gains in the recent General Election (although Wales remains an overwhelmingly anti-Tory country: 26 of the 40 Westminster seats are held by Labour or Plaid, even at this highwater mark for Toryism).

Paul Turner, born and raised in Cornwall, showed that it doesn’t have to be this way and that not all Englishmen are Cymruphobic bigots – and, by default, he also proved that the Welsh are not and never have been ‘anti English’, just anti those who want to wipe us from the face of the Earth. Turner respected, explored and celebrated Welsh identity, learned the Welsh language and developed a deep knowledge of Wales’ history and culture. Working as a BBC Wales technician in Llandaf in the 1970s he found his vocation as a filmmaker, honing his skills and building experience in the 1980s with creative and arresting low budget dramas for S4C such as Tra Bo Dwy and Becca. Then in 1992 he made history with Hedd Wyn, the first Welsh language film to be nominated for an Academy Award (Best Foreign Language Film category, 1994). The beautifully understated and lyrical anti-war biopic for S4C told the story of Trawsfynydd poet Hedd Wyn (1887-1917), born Ellis Evans, who was killed in the 3rd Battle of Ypres before being posthumously awarded the Bardic Crown and the Chair at the 1917 National Eisteddfod. With the clarity of the outsider’s eye Turner tackled head-on a topic that had never before, and has hardly ever since, been put on celluloid: the subjugation of Wales. At long last this enormous and vital issue was openly aired in the modern world, and imbued by Turner with the wrenching poignancy and righteous anger it deserves – emotions routine in the cinema of oppressed peoples around the world, but usually studiously avoided and silenced by the British cultural police who keep castrated Wales on a tight leash.

The film remains a milestone in Welsh cultural annals. To this day only two other films made in Wales, in either language, have ever received an Oscar nomination: Wales’ solitary winner Dylan Thomas, commissioned by ITV company TWW, directed by Jack Howells (1913-1990) and narrated by Richard Burton (1925-1984), which was awarded the Best Documentary Short statuette in 1963; and the Welsh language tear-jerker Solomon & Gaenor, directed by Paul Morrison, nominated as Best Foreign Language Film in 2000.*

Seriously talented and critically acclaimed, Turner seemed on the brink of a stellar career. But through the 1990s and into the 21st century he came up against an age-old problem for Welsh patriots: the systematic and comprehensive marginalisation, penalisation and censorship of independence advocates and critics of British rule. Trying to operate in a Welsh media controlled from London by the BBC via its Cardiff sub-branch BBC Wales, Turner was stymied, devalued and thwarted by the ‘impartial’ Corporation, with the result that he never received a penny of backing and barely worked again. Only later was it discovered that he was on a BBC blacklist, compiled with the help of MI5, because of his Welsh nationalism. This is that famous BBC ‘impartiality’ in practice. Nigel Farage, never elected as an MP, has been a panellist on Question Time 33 times; Donald Trump must not be called a racist even though he is; anti-fascists and fascists are treated as equivalent; indisputable climate science must be ‘balanced’ by oil-lobby deniers; Tory boot-boy demagoguery is glossed over while a mild expression of unease at the shocking wealth of the super-rich is met with outraged incomprehension…I am spoiled for examples. Yet a peaceful, progressive, just and harmless cause such as the struggle for a free Wales is treated like terrorist sedition – exactly the type of authoritarian rightwing thinking recently exhibited by the police putting the activists of Extinction Rebellion trying to save the planet in the same bracket as jihadist and neo-Nazi murderers. Like so many before him Paul Turner had to find out about the ruthless, rotten British State the hard way.

To keep making films he set up his own independent production company, settling for a peaceful life in Pontcanna carving out his own path with a few small-scale but interesting works that cry out for rediscovery. The British State and its agents in Wales punished and damaged Paul Turner for daring to stand up for Wales, but try as they might they never managed to destroy this beloved Welsh hero.

Wales’ poor record in Hollywood, the all-powerful core of cinema, is simply a reflection of the almost complete absence of an indigenous Welsh film industry. What might be achieved if Wales had the freedom, motivation, resources and creativity that only independent nationhood could bring is hinted at by the comparative success of individual Welsh people in the acting categories. Nominations are too numerous to list here, ranging from Richard Burton’s seven – the second most Oscar nominations without a win after the eight of Peter O’Toole (1932-2013), another alcoholic Celt – through to the latest Welsh nominee Jonathan Pryce. The five actual winners are:
1945 Best Actor, Ray Milland (1907-1986) in The Lost Weekend
1960 Best Supporting Actor, Hugh Griffith (1912-1980) in Ben-Hur
1991 Best Actor, Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs
2002 Best Supporting Actress, Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago
2010 Best Supporting Actor, Christian Bale (Pembrokeshire born, he has recently come out as Welsh), in The Fighter

Video: BFI