They also were thespians…

Nine years have slipped by since I wrote about Wales and film, so I reckon it’s time to supplement that blog’s coverage of the most famous Welsh actors with this catalogue, in alphabetical order, of some less well known film actors of the past:

STANLEY BAKER (1928-1976)
Stanley Baker from Ferndale, Rhondda Fach, appropriately heads this list since he was undoubtedly one of Wales’ supreme film actors. He oozed effortless, authentic masculinity in film after film through the 1950s and 1960s, a beacon of tough, working-class aggression and vigour when compared to the effete, posh Englishmen who otherwise dominated British cinema. The 59 films he appeared in make a fantastic filmography; here I will just mention a handful: The Cruel Sea (1953), the performance that signalled his breakthrough to stardom in an adaptation of Nicholas Monsarrat’s (1910-1979) remorseless Battle of the Atlantic novel; Helen of Troy (1955), playing Achilles in his first Hollywood movie, directed by Robert Wise (1914-2005); Violent Playground (1958), a hard as nails drama about juvenile delinquency directed by Basil Dearden (1911-1971); his three collaborations with US director Joseph Losey (1909-1984), Blind Date (1959), The Criminal (1960) and Eva (1962); and, of course, Zulu (1964), a huge hit made by Baker’s own production company. Increasingly Baker got more involved in the film business itself, and this would eventually backfire badly when the British film industry went into serious decline and, overstretched and overambitious, he suffered big financial losses. This virtually meant he had to start from scratch again during the 1970s, taking any part offered just to earn some money and relying on mediocre TV work to pay the bills. His sad last act followed a diagnosis of lung cancer for the long-time chain smoker. There was no remission; it had spread to his bones. He died in Spain aged only 48.

HYWEL BENNETT (1944-2017)
Early in his career Hywel Bennett from Garnant in Carmarthenshire was the personification of the ‘swinging sixties’, in tune with the zeitgeist playing characters of louche promiscuity, scruffy charm and troubled angst in films like The Family Way, The Virgin Soldiers, Loot and Percy. As he got older the film roles faded away and he concentrated on TV, sometimes with great effect when the scripts were good enough.

E E CLIVE (1879-1940)
A prolific workaholic from Blaenafon in Gwent who abandoned a medical career in 1901 to become an actor. He honed his vocal skills mastering every conceivable accent and dialect before relocating to the US in 1912. By the time he shifted allegiance to movies in 1933 he had appeared in an astounding 1,159 plays. Then, in seven years as a supporting character actor specialising in comical stereotypes, humourless jobsworths, sardonic butlers and pompous toffs, he added no less than 95 films to his back-catalogue at the rate of nearly 14 a year – no wonder he dropped dead of a sudden heart attack at age 60!

Pacifist, Plaid Cymru activist and an all-round good guy from Rhosllannerchrugog in Denbighshire, Meredith Edwards was a talented character actor in 42 films (plus over 70 TV programmes) across four decades. He delivered many stand-out performances as an unalloyed Welshman in quality films such as Ealing comedy A Run for your Money (1949), soccer saga The Great Game (1953), Cardiff love-letter Tiger Bay (1959) and the Peter Sellers (1925-1980) vehicle Only Two Can Play (1962). He always resisted Hollywood overtures rather than leave his beloved Wales.

SARAH EDWARDS (1881-1965)
Born in Glynceiriog in Denbighshire, Sarah Edwards started acting in local village halls, graduated to London’s West End and then took the big leap into the unknown by emigrating to the USA in 1915. After over a decade playing unsatisfying parts in throwaway Broadway comedies, she switched to film, went west to Hollywood and at last found her niche. Between 1929 and 1952 she appeared in 189 films (an average of over eight a year), invariably in insubstantial supporting roles with few lines. She ran the gamut of all the sexist tropes of the era: frumpy dowager, devoted wife, sharp-tongued spinster, bossy governess, kindly granny and so on, but always managed to produce a diverting vignette no matter how paltry the material. The highlights of her career were undoubtedly her small but telling contributions to three classics of American cinema: The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

CLIFFORD EVANS (1912-1985)
From Senghenydd, scene of Wales’ worst ever mining disaster the year after his birth, Clifford Evans is an unjustly overlooked actor. He was undoubtedly one of Wales’ finest film actors, as evidenced by his major roles in a sequence of truly great films: the seminal The Proud Valley (1940), the most socialist British film ever made starring magnificent Paul Robeson (1898-1976) and directed by Pen Tennyson (1912-1941) who tragically died in a plane crash the following year; Love on the Dole (1941), an equally radical film examining poverty in the Great Depression; The Foreman Went to France (1942), an evocative wartime propaganda piece written by JB Priestley (1894-1984); and Valley of Song (1953), an utterly delightful comedy about rival Welsh choirs. Evans did not live long enough to see his resolute campaigning for a Welsh National Theatre come to fruition – but eventually it happened with the foundation of Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru in 2003 and National Theatre Wales in 2009.

HELEN GRIFFIN (1958-2018)
Coming comparatively late to acting after working as a psychiatric nurse, Swansea’s Helen Griffin appeared in a number of key films such as Twin Town, Solomon a Gaenor and Human Traffic in the sudden flowering of Welsh cinema at the turn of the century. Subsequently she developed as a playwright and screenwriter and starred in her own daring comedy Little White Lies (2006) about routine racism in a working-class family. An ardent feminist, anti-racist and anti-war political activist, she had so much more to contribute as an actor, a writer and a campaigner when she died of cancer aged 59.

HUGH GRIFFITH (1912-1980)
Five Welsh actors have won Oscars: Ray Milland – The Lost Weekend (1945); Anthony Hopkins – Silence of the Lambs (1991) and The Father (2020); Catherine Zeta Jones – Chicago (2002); Christian Bale – The Fighter (2010); and the least renowned these days, Hugh Griffith of Marian-glas, Ynys Môn, for his performance as the Arab Sheik in Ben-Hur (1959). Griffith had been a lauded Shakespearean actor before he moved into film and established himself as a character actor without equal, always stealing the limelight with his larger-than-life flamboyance and his booming voice. Of many career highlights, mention must be made of his Oscar-nominated performance as the lecherous Squire in Tom Jones (1963), his fruity magistrate in the musical Oliver! (1968), and his hilarious turn in Start the Revolution Without Me (1970). A lifelong friend of the ultimate heavy drinker Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), he was unwell for a number of years until dying at age 67.

Not just an actor who could do anything from side-splitting comedy to scary malevolence, Tenby-born Griffith was also a unique film-maker of brilliant, passionate drama-documentaries unlike anything before or since. His committed anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist stance meant he inevitably clashed with the British State. For instance, Hang Up Your Brightest Colours, his sympathetic 1973 study of Irish revolutionary Michael Collins (1890-1922), was banned for over 20 years and is still almost impossible to find today. He appeared in more than 80 films from 1940 right through to his final bow in Sarah Sugarman’s Welsh musical comedy Very Annie Mary in 2001. He never surrendered.

LYN HARDING (1867-1952)
Born David Llewellyn Harding to a Welsh-speaking family in Llansanffraid Gwynllŵg (St Brides Wentloog) on the Gwent levels between Newport and Cardiff, Harding had a distinguished stage career before entering films in 1920. Living in London where all the film studios were located, he changed his name from Llewellyn to Lyn to make it more acceptable in England where knee-jerk aversion to any manifestation of Cymraeg was (and remains) widespread. With his theatrical background and clear Welsh diction, he easily made the transition from silent film to talkies and built a solid career specialising in playing notorious villains, such as Moriarty, Svengali and Bill Sikes.

DONALD HOUSTON (1923-1991)
The elder of the two Houston brothers from Clydach Vale near Tonypandy worked in the local colliery before embarking on an acting career that was immediately successful as he displayed his range and skill in 1949 in a lush romance, The Blue Lagoon, and then a hit Ealing comedy, A Run For Your Money. He further impressed in kitchen-sink dramas Dance Hall and Room At The Top in the 1950s before becoming somewhat typecast as a macho hero in military adventures such as The Longest Day (1962), Where Eagles Dare (1968) and The Sea Wolves (1981). Like most actors he didn’t turn down work, so there was much dross on his CV, but his sure comedic touch remained apparent even playing thankless parts in the lame Doctor and Carry On series.

GLYN HOUSTON (1925-2019)
Glyn Houston was more familiar on TV than in cinema from the late 1950s onwards, a jobbing actor never out of work rather than the matinee idol his brother was at his peak. Yet in many ways Glyn’s longevity, adaptability and wide spectrum of hard-bitten cameo roles in films such as The Cruel Sea, Turn the Key Softly, Payroll and Emergency carry more resonance in retrospect.

GARETH HUGHES (1894-1965)
Gifted, sensitive Hughes from Dafen, near Llanelli, was enthralled by the theatre and in 1911 left Wales for London to seek his fortune on the stage. He got involved with various touring companies before becoming a member of a group of Welsh actors called The Welsh Players. They sailed for America in 1914 and after their run in a New York theatre ended they all sailed home – except for Gareth. Diminutive and cute, he built a career on his own. Within a year he was topping the bill on Broadway and by 1918 he had gone west to Hollywood and silent films. He featured in 45 movies between 1918 and 1931 and, amazingly, having been the first Welsh star on Broadway he now became the first Welsh star in Hollywood. He signed up with all the big studios and co-starred, usually as an innocent, boyish hero, with many of the big names of silent film such as Clara Kimball Young (1890-1960), Marguerite Clark (1883-1940), Viola Dana (1897-1987), May McAvoy (1899-1984), Bessie Love (1898-1986), Lionel Barrymore (1878-1954), Pola Negri (1897-1987), Wallace Beery (1885-1949), Adolphe Menjou (1890-1963), William Desmond (1878-1949) and Lila Lee (1905-1973), to name-check just a few. Hughes did not adapt to talkies and, badly hit by the Wall Street Crash of 1929, returned to the theatre. As the performance instinct finally faded with the ageing process, he had a religious conversion in the 1940s and became a Christian missionary with the Paiute Native Americans on their reservation in Nevada, living with them for 14 years. A last trip to Wales in 1958 only made him pine for the sunshine of the western States and he returned to California to die in the Motion Picture Country Home in the Santa Monica hills.

RODDY HUGHES (1891-1970)
Porthmadog-born Rhodri Hughes was typical of the Victorian generation that felt they had to Anglicise to ‘get on’: he altered his name, he modulated his accent, and he entered the English establishment via Oxford University and a teaching job at the fee-paying Marlborough House School. But his love of theatre and his fine singing voice rescued him from that dismal fate as he changed direction as a performer in musical comedies in London’s West End in the 1920s and then began taking small film roles in the 1930s. He appeared in 94 films before retiring in 1961. His podgy, ruddy-faced jollity made him particularly suited to Dickens’ adaptations such as The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1947) and Scrooge (1951), and he was frequently required to re-embrace his Welshness, most notably as Caradoc the pub landlord in The Last Days of Dolwyn (1949) – the pertinent story of a Welsh village under threat of being drowned for a reservoir, directed by Emlyn Williams (see below) and featuring the film debut of Richard Burton (1925-1984).

EMRYS JAMES (1930-1989)
Primarily a stage actor, Machynlleth-born James was a Royal Shakespeare Company stalwart who played virtually all the Bard’s minor characters with daring unorthodoxy and intelligence. He also featured in hosts of TV dramas but for some reason never really made the leap to cinema. The few films he appeared in are therefore quite special for their rarity: sword’n’sorcery epic Dragonslayer (1981); Giro City (1982), a powerful examination of political corruption by Wales’ primary auteur Karl Francis; and Eureka (1983), a neglected big-budget thriller directed by Nicolas Roeg (1928-2018).

MERVYN JOHNS (1899-1992)
Born in Pembroke, Johns arrived at film via the well-trodden route of RADA and repertory theatre, and really established himself as an acclaimed character actor during WW2 with parts like a ruthless Nazi spy in Next of Kin (1942), directed by Thorold Dickinson (1903-1984) and the philosophical church warder in Went the Day Well? (1942), directed by Alberto Cavalcanti (1897-1982). He garnered further praise for his lead role in the atmospheric Halfway House (1944), his prophetic visitor in the anthology horror Dead of Night (1945) and his definitive Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol (1951) as he became a mainstay of Ealing Studios’ high quality output. Altogether he appeared in 77 films, never delivering a poor performance. His daughter Glynis Johns, born in South Africa and raised in England, inherited her father’s longevity as well as his acting ability: she will be 100 years old this October.

RONALD LEWIS (1928-1982)
After paying his dues in repertory theatre, Port Talbot-born Lewis began to pick up small film parts and came to wider attention in 1956 with his performances in the comedy Sailor Beware and the war movie A Hill in Korea. Signed to the Rank Organisation, handsome Lewis was given leading-man roles in an assortment of so-so films but soon slid down the pecking order and was reduced to costume drama, unsuitable comedy and generic Hammer horror. Decline set in, his fondness for alcohol grew more and more problematic, he was arrested for drink driving and assault, two marriages failed, film work dried up, he suffered a heart attack and then was declared bankrupt in 1981. It was the last straw; he ended his life by taking a barbiturate overdose in a grubby London rooming-house.

ROGER LIVESEY (1906-1976)
A member of the extremely complicated Livesey dynasty, which included a number of actors, Roger Livesey was born in Barry and started as a child actor in silent films. He is best known for his starring role in three brilliant and profound films by the Michael Powell (1905-1990) and Emeric Pressburger (1902-1988) film-making partnership: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), I Know Where I’m Going (1945) and A Matter of Life and Death (1948). Watching these works of art today is clinching proof that ‘they don’t make them like that anymore’ is not a nostalgic old idiom, it’s a fact. Livesey couldn’t match these achievements later in his career, but kept working in theatre and small film roles as his health declined, until he died of cancer aged 69.

Chiefly known for his lengthy stint as tetchy, brusque MI6 quartermaster ‘Q’ in the James Bond films, Llewelyn appeared in more of them than any other actor: 17 in total, from the never-ending franchise’s second (and arguably best) outing From Russia with Love in 1963 to the 19th effort The World is not Enough in 1999. His aristocratic voice was a product of his upper-crust upbringing in Blaen-y-Pant Crescent, Newport, where his father was a wealthy mining engineer, and a privileged private education at Radley School in Oxfordshire. A charming character who cheekily sported the Newport RFC tie in some of the Bond films, he had a life containing far more drama than any silly Bond hokum: while with the Royal Welch Fusiliers in WW2 he was captured and held a prisoner of war for five years in the notorious Colditz Castle; and he died from massive internal injuries after being involved in a horrific head-on car crash. Q would have told him in no uncertain terms to “pay attention!”

DAVID LYN (1927-2012)
Born David Jenkins in Porth, Rhondda, and raised in poverty in Cynwyl Elfed, Carmarthenshire, Lyn was a passionate Welshman who taught himself the language so well that he was able to write, direct and act in Welsh language plays. He had many run-ins with the pussy-footing conservatives of the Welsh Arts Council, as ever reluctant to challenge English hegemony and control and commit to the idea of a specifically Welsh theatre. With the coming of S4C he began to appear in TV dramas and this extended to the occasional film with parts in Yr Alcoholig Llon (1984) and Bloody New Year (1987). The energy he put into theatre politics definitely handicapped his acting career, but brave David Lyn’s radical fight for Welsh culture and national institutions should be remembered as more than a footnote.

IVOR NOVELLO (1893-1951)
Having established his fame early as a songwriter and composer, Novello’s stunning good looks then came to the fore from 1920 onwards as a silent screen star. Legions of female fans swooned at his soulful eyes and pouting self-regard through the roaring twenties in box-office smashes The Rat, The Lodger, Downhill, The Vortex and The Constant Nymph. His performances, once written off as camp, sub-Valentino scenery-chewing, are today being reassessed as powerful, evocative and challenging redefinitions of masculinity decades ahead of their time.

TUDOR OWEN (1898-1979)
In a long Hollywood career of over 50 films, the lived-in features of Penarth’s beetle-browed Tudor Owen meant many small roles in period pieces as a gruff, blokeish salt-of-the-earth type, whether as a rustic, a sea captain a sheriff or a cop. He was bigger in radio during the 1940s and 1950s, lending his expressive Welsh tones to countless crime dramas and mysteries. As the film work declined he was increasingly in demand on TV westerns and police procedurals until his retirement in 1965. Today he is best known for being the voice of Towser, the bloodhound in the timeless 1961 Disney cartoon One Hundred and One Dalmations.

PAULINE PETERS (1895-1976)
By 1915 Hollywood had become the centre of the American film industry and hopeful dreamers from around the world were making their way to California. Among them was Cardiffian Pauline Peters who sailed to the USA in 1913 when only 18 and soon managed to pick up bit-parts in the silent movies that were being churned out by cinema’s pioneers. Her pretty looks and gamine manner saw her get fairly regular work and she appeared in 32 films, mostly undistinguished and many now lost, before the coming of sound. Her best part was as Susan Henchard in 1921’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, an adaptation of the 1886 Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) novel directed by Londoner Sidney Morgan (1874-1946). One wonders if the great Hardy, still alive at the time, ever saw this first ever adaptation of his grim masterpiece. Peters had a small role in one talkie in 1931 before retiring. In 1949 she emigrated to South Africa with her husband, fellow actor A George Smith (1875-1957), and there she lived out the rest of her life, never returning to Wales.

ROGER REES (1944-2015)
Primarily a man of the theatre, Aberystwyth-born, London-raised Rees increasingly took TV work as he got older and, from time to time, appeared on the big screen – most notably in The Prestige (2006), an Oscar-nominated blockbuster directed by Christopher Nolan. His rich, sonorous voice with stage-school enunciation coloured with Ceredigion inflections went down well in the US, where he lived from 1989.

REX RICHARDS (1934-1989)
Newport-born Richards played rugby as a forward for Cross Keys and won one Welsh cap against France in Cardiff in 1956 (Wales won 5-3 to clinch the Five Nations Championship). On the flimsy basis that a few local girls wet their knickers over his defined musculature at Pandy Park, narcissistic, deluded Rex promptly ditched his rugby career and headed to Hollywood to become a movie star. But the only role he landed worth mentioning was as the King of Wongo in 1959’s The Wild Women of Wongo – low-budget shlock that to this day is a permanent fixture on ’10 Worst Films Ever Made’ lists. He settled in Miami and died there of a massive heart attack.

RACHEL ROBERTS (1927-1980)
The life of Rachel Roberts from Llanelli was ruined by her addiction to the most dangerous, most destructive and easiest to obtain drug of all: alcohol. She rocketed to stardom in the 1960s with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), a touchstone of kitchen-sink realism directed by Karel Reisz (1926-2002), and This Sporting Life (1963), a British New Wave prototype directed by Lindsay Anderson (1923-1994). She won the Best Actress BAFTA for both films, but her triumph had ominous portents of what lay ahead: in both films she portrayed lusty, troubled women unable to cope with life – a little too close to her own biography for comfort. In the 1970s she had more success in another grim Lindsay Anderson film O Lucky Man! (1973) and in Australian-made Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). But all was not well behind the scenes: her tumultuous marriage to Rex Harrison (1908-1990) had ended in chaos and Roberts, entering chronic late-stage alcoholism and showing all the symptoms of alcohol dementia, relocated to the US in 1975 in a pathetic attempt to rekindle the relationship (by then Harrison was on to his sixth wife). Increasingly obsessed, clinically depressed and wildly manic, she committed suicide in her Los Angeles home by swallowing a caustic substance mixed with barbiturates. She was 53.

RAY SMITH (1936-1991)
Ray Smith from Trealaw, Rhondda Fawr, was a reassuring presence in living rooms thanks to myriad TV roles across 30 years. He appeared in only nine films but still made a mark, usually in character as amiable, working-class and unambiguously Welsh. A dedicated Plaid Cymru activist and campaigner throughout his life, he died too young of heart failure when only 55.

QUEENIE THOMAS (1898-1977)
Now almost entirely forgotten, Cardiffian Queenie Thomas was an early star of UK silent films, appearing in 44 between 1915 and 1930. The coming of sound brought her career to an abrupt halt as her abrasive Kairdiff accent clashed with her carefully constructed public image as “England’s (sic) Mary Pickford”. All the newsreel footage and photographs of her doing suitably ladylike things wrapped in furry menageries of dead animals, gently taking to the ice in mufflers at St Moritz, hinting at indiscretions with wide-eyed come-ons or pouting suggestively as a sprightly flapper were soon deposited in the dustbin of history and Queenie, on to her second husband, returned to obscurity in a South Kensington mansion flat.

RACHEL THOMAS (1905-1995)
The very embodiment of the ‘Welsh Mam’ in scores of TV programmes and films, Rachel Thomas never left Wales. Born in Pontardawe, died in Cardiff, she knew instinctively that Wales was enough and that whatever was happening elsewhere was happening here. Learning her craft in eisteddfodau and chapel, she appeared in nearly every significant Welsh film of the 20th century (The Proud Valley, The Halfway House, Blue Scar, Valley of Song, Tiger Bay, Under Milk Wood) to secure an enduring place in the nation’s heart.

NAUNTON WAYNE (1901-1970)
With his excruciatingly posh accent, Naunton Wayne played nice-but-dim, mild-mannered upper-class Englishmen in a sequence of popular British comedies and mystery thrillers. His breakthrough came in the 1938 Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) thriller The Lady Vanishes, as supporting character Caldicott alongside Basil Radford (1897-1952) as his equally cricket-obsessed friend Charters. The pair repeated a similar double-act in no less than seven other films, defining cinema’s version of hooray-henry Englishness right through to the 1950s. All the more surprising then that Wayne was actually a Welshman, born Henry Davies, the son of a Pontypridd solicitor. He changed his name by deed poll in 1933 – an era when to be Welsh was perceived as a handicap by a certain strata of social climbing middle-classes. His more-English-than-the-English persona was a typical consequence of this obsequious over-compensation process.

ANDY WHITFIELD (1971-2011)
Amlwch-born Whitfield’s promising career was cruelly truncated when he was struck down by late-stage non-Hodgkin lymphoma just 18 months after the initial cancer diagnosis. He had moved to Australia in 1999 and was making a name for himself as a leading man in soapy TV dramas and formulaic big-screen thrillers. Ironically his best performance was as himself in the posthumously-released 2015 documentary Be Here Now.

BEN WILLIAMS (1892-1960)
Few actors kept as busy as Ben Williams from Swansea, who appeared in no less than 180 B-movies between 1933 and 1957. The very definition of the bit-part actor, many of his roles were uncredited, non-speaking or very minor cameos in hosts of British low-grade quota quickies. Ironically, the highlight of his acting career wasn’t in films or in England but back in Wales in 1954 when he played Mr Pritchard in the original BBC radio production of Under Milk Wood.

EMLYN WILLIAMS (1905-1987)
Primarily famed as a highly successful playwright of 30 entertaining, naturalistic Welsh-set dramas, most notably Night Must Fall, The Corn is Green, The Druid’s Rest and The Wind of Heaven, Emlyn Williams of Pen-y-ffordd in Flintshire also found time to be a top-flight actor on both stage and screen. His film appearances were infrequent but always fascinating, particularly in two Hitchcocks, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Jamaica Inn (1939), in the lavish, MGM produced, Oscar-nominated The Citadel (1938), directed by King Vidor (1894-1982), and in The L-Shaped Room (1962), a sombre and gritty groundbreaker directed by Bryan Forbes (1926-2013).

RHYS WILLIAMS (1897-1969)
Swansea-born Rhys Williams had already carved out a decent stage career in the UK when he was hired by America’s paramount film director John Ford (1894-1973) to serve as a technical adviser and Welsh language consultant on How Green was my Valley, set in a Welsh mining community. The rest, as they say, is history. Ford was impressed enough to offer Williams the part of Dai Bando in the movie, so making him the only Welsh actor in a cast of Americans, English, Irish and Scots, and the sentimental classic went on to win the 1941 Best picture Oscar. Thus Williams became the first actor to make his debut in an Oscar-winning film. From this unplanned start he launched a stellar career as a supporting actor in Hollywood, which included parts in another Best Picture winner, Mrs Miniver (1942), and three other Best Picture nominees, Random Harvest (1942), The Bells of St Mary’s (1945) and Julius Caesar (1953), in an extraordinary total of 76 films. On top of this were appearances in over 70 TV series, making the jovial, weather-beaten features of Rhys Williams the best-known Welsh face in the USA for well nigh 30 years.