Monthly Archives: May 2014

To begin at the beginning…


Until this month’s centenary of Dylan Thomas’ birth, I had never actually heard or seen his play Under Milk Wood. The BBC Cymru Wales’ multi-starred version demonstrated vividly what I have missed.

The language of the play seems so similar to that of James Joyce in Ulysses. Full of the same rich word-blends and alliterations and assonances and sibilants, full of the same descriptive lists and  saucy sensual observation and  quirky names. Except for one thing: Under Milk Wood is almost always immediately able to be understood and appreciated!

This version had a few production touches which didn’t add anything for me. The device of showing some performers at laptops seemed a contrived way to acknowledge the play’s origins as a radio broadcast. Likewise, placing one narrator in a New York pub merely because Dylan Thomas had sometimes drunk there. And although Katherine Jenkins used her singing voice capably as Polly Garters, her own persona is a bit prim and wholesome for the lines her character was speaking.  However, plenty of appropriate deliveries elsewhere, rich but not ripe.

This Under Milk Wood made an interesting comparison with the 1972 film. The latter was made 40 years closer to the world which its author experienced  and this is apparent in many ways in which it looks and sounds.  Although its publicity must have boasted about the appearances of Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O’Toole, the performances of less famous actors seem more fitting and striking to me, plus the fact that it clearly the pet project of a forgotten director, Andrew Sinclair.

This Dylan Thomas centenary draws attention to the fact that the poet himself has become a bit forgotten.  Yet during my youth, he was a very palpable literary ghost. One change came with the passing of the actors of his generation associated with his work, notably Burton. Another was surely the reduction in the male working-class influence in British society, of which the Welsh were once such a visible part: employed in coal and steel, enjoying the dominance of the Welsh rugby teams.  The deceased Thomas seemed to be part of that culture; male and iconic.  Since then the more prominent Celtic culture has tended to come from Scotland or Ireland. Thomas’ poetry sounds a bit too rhetorical or operatic now, compared to Seamus Heaney’s variety and subtlety, as does his reading style. But Under Milk Wood has aged well.



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Seeing what people will do unbribed


The witty rhyme about the malleability of the British press, written by one of the less well remembered poets of World War One, Humbert Wolfe, was reproduced recently in a BBC news report from Africa.

The spirit of Humbert Wolfe is certainly present in two great examples of similar satire in Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister.

First, in an episode about embarrassing political memoirs, senior civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby warns government minister Jim Hacker that it is totally inappropriate for governments to try to put pressure on a judge so that he might decide in its favour. How then to ensure that the government gets the result it needs, wonders Hacker. Sir Humphrey’s solution: of course, you find a judge who doesn’t need pressure put on him.

Second, the exchange which shows how Sir Humphrey instinctively knows what action to take in order to guarantee his promotion. When the retiring Cabinet Secretary says that the important skill in government is not so much knowing the correct answers as knowing the correct questions, he asks him, “What will you be doing when you retire?”

There was a time when I felt that you could learn all you needed to know about UK government and politics from a few episodes of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister.  Although the world of Westminster has changed in many ways in the interim 25 years, in just as many ways it has probably stayed the same.


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The National Theatre in Scotland


That  the first fifty years of the UK’s National Theatre has produced work of considerable richness and variety was demonstrated both by the surveys by the press  and public reminiscences by actors and directors.

My own principal acquaintance with the NT came through their regular performances in Glasgow during the 1980s and 1990s.   These visits, possibly devised as a riposte to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s innovative annual residency in Newcastle, coincided with my increasing appetite for theatre and provided opportunities to see some great plays and great actors.

1983 was definitely the annus mirabilis. Peter Hall’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest was centred around Judi Dench’s performance as Lady Bracknell, which was much praised for its unusually youthful effervescence and which transferred successfully to a later film.

Other members of a peerless cast were Martin Jarvis, Nigel Havers, Zoe Wanamaker, Elizabeth Garvie and Anna Massey. Jarvis and Havers, although 30 years older, are repeating the roles this year, so they must have equally fond memories of the experience.

In tandem with The Importance of Being Earnest  was Bill Bryden’s staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Paul Scofield as Oberon and Jack Shepherd as Puck. Bryden, with whom I share a home town in Greenock, was in his pomp at that time as director of the National’s Cottesloe theatre and creator of such ensemble shows as The Mysteries and Lark Rise with their traditional music and earthy community values, and this Dream used many of his regular company.

I saw some other fine productions during this period. For example, Much Ado About Nothing, with Michael Gambon and Penelope Wilton; Mrs Warren’s Profession with Yvonne Bryceland;  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Lindsay Duncan and Ian Charleson;  Warren Mitchell in Death of a Salesman; and a small-scale show based on George Orwell’s writings called Orwell’s England.

Another was Paul Scofield in Othello. This was the tail end of the era when it was socially and artistically acceptable for Othello to be played by a white actor in black make-up. Then, too, the role of Iago had lower status than at present, so I am happy to name Michael Bryant who was brilliant in the part. “The Ryan Giggs of the early National Theatre”, as he was wittily described here to personify his overlooked but pivotal contributions.

Despite that Othello, other NT casting did acknowledge changing social and political ideas.  I am sure there was a production of Pinter’s The Caretaker with an all-black cast, and when I did finally catch Richard Eyre’s universally acclaimed production of Guys and Dolls in a touring version in Edinburgh, it included an African-American Sky Masterson in the later famous Clarke Peters.



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