First Dwelling: From Lady Cholmondeley to Jack the Donkeyman
It was several months before I heard from Dai Cwc again. He chided me for ending my last blog in such a tantalising way. Who was this ‘distinguished son’ of Wales? Where exactly was his country home? And what did he or it have to do with Under Milk Wood?
Well, the country home was in the village of St. Nicholas-at-Wade, on the Isle of Thanet, Kent. The distinguished son was Thomas Jones, who had a house there. Jones was a Rhymney boy who left school at fourteen for a local iron works; he subsequently became a professor of economics, Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet under four prime ministers, founder of Coleg Harlech, chairman of Gregynog Press, principal founder of the Arts Council, founding editor of Welsh Outlook, President of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and a great deal more as well. Jones, often referred to as the King of Wales, was widely regarded as one of the most powerful men in Europe in his time, whilst his biographer thought him one of the three greatest Welshmen in public life in the twentieth century.
“What’s this got to do with Dylan Thomas?” was Dai’s brief response.
Dylan had gone to St. Nicholas in 1948 to do an outside broadcast for the BBC’s Country Magazine programme. He was living at the time in South Leigh, just outside Oxford. He took the train to London, and then the sleeper on the Thanet Belle to Margate, a long journey for Dylan and an expensive one for the BBC.
“Why does this bother you?”
“Why choose Dylan and not someone who lived closer? He really didn’t have much experience in outside broadcasts. And he’d only done one programme for Country Magazine before. So why send him all the way to St. Nicholas?”
“You think Thomas Jones pulled a few strings?”
Jones was almost as well connected in the literary world as he was in politics, and he was certainly up to speed with that young Swansea garage mechanic who had so quickly made the pages of the mink-and snooded Tatler. At a literary party in May 1936, Jones had chatted with Richard Church, the poetry editor at Dylan’s publisher, who told him that “there is a young Welsh poet in town, Dylan Thomas, gifted but tuberculous.” Some time later, at the London home of Lady Cholmondeley, Jones met the Duchess of Kent, who “thoughtfully guided the conversation to the poetry of W.H. Davies and Dylan Thomas.” And it wasn’t all social chit-chat: Jones knew Dylan’s work well enough to mention him in a 1941 article on the Welsh way of life.
Dylan’s own way of life at South Leigh, to where he and his family had moved in August 1947, is well caught in Colin Edwards’ interviews with local residents. The time there was a key period in the development of Under Milk Wood. He worked on the play through 1948 and, by March 1949, many of its characters were already in place: the organist, the two lovers who never met but wrote to each other, the baker with two wives, the blind narrator and the Voices.
But Dylan also had to undertake work that brought in money, and contracts for BBC programmes were important in this. So, on the morning of June 10, he arrived in St Nicholas to take part in the Country Magazine programme, which the BBC had described as a ‘Special Number’; he used the day, and the next, scouting around for local people who could feature in the programme, which was to be held in the village pub. There was one rehearsal of four hours on June 12, and another of three hours on Sunday June 13, the day of transmission on the Home Service. Dylan wrote and edited the script – his handwritten alterations are all over it. He also compèred the programme:
“We’ve rigged up a sort of studio here in The Bell – I might say an ideal studio – with bar billiards, dart boards, push penny (shove halfpenny’s big uncle), smoky ceiling, oak beams, wickerwork hatrack, piano with yellow teeth, on the wooden walls a buffalo head askew – probably shot charging round a corner – beer here and there, mostly there – quiet old St Nicholas at Wade…’tis brilling in the wade this morning – a few slithy coves at the end of the room…”
As compère, of course, he had to introduce both St Nicholas and the Isle of Thanet to the listeners. So he duly provided a potted account of the area; it is more back-of fag-packet stuff rather than the studied tourist guidebook of the kind that appears both in his 1946 Margate broadcast and in Under Milk Wood. Then followed conversations with a number of locals, though he doesn’t mention Thomas Jones or the village’s other celebrity, Molly Bernhard-Smith, founder of the Twenty-one Gallery. The local newspaper was so excited by the event that it published the story on the front page on June 15 and then again three days later on the inside. You can read all about it here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1i9NwdgaV6zxVH_h1L-2D1ypwI06X9oy3/view?usp=sharing
“Was there any creative squirt?” asked Dai. “Given that Dylan was working on Milk Wood when he did the broadcast.”
“He describes the Thanet resorts as ‘cockle-and-winkle seaside landladied and sandladied places’.
“Well, that’s pretty squirty.”
“And Jack Brown of Margate introduces himself as ‘I’m Jack the Donkeyman.’”
“Bringing to mind Milk Wood’s ‘I’m Tom-Fred the Donkeyman.’”
“The broadcast also mentions a village of pigeon fanciers, none of whom own any pigeons.”
“Brilling in the wade? That’s Jabberwocky, isn’t it?”
I sighed, and sighed again. It was time to get back on track. And back to specifics: “Is there one particular radio programme you’d choose?”
“Choose as what?”
“As an influence on Milk Wood?”
“The Wise Fools of Gotham.”
Written by the distinguished author and playwright, Lawrence du Garde Peach, it was a re-working of the old stories about the the Village of Fools, Gotham in Nottinghamshire, where the villagers feigned madness to keep King John and his court at bay. It was broadcast on the Home Service in August 1942, at the very time when Dylan was developing his own ideas about Llareggub as a village of the mad.
And what radio programme or individual, asked Dai, would I choose, as an influence?
“Another Port Talbot boy. Philip Burton, midwife to the first half of Milk Wood. More on him in a month or two.”
“And a programme?”
“I’d go for the Country Magazine broadcasts, and that’s what I want to dwell on next.”
“That surprises me.”
“I want to know everything possible about what Dylan was listening to at the time he was thinking about Milk Wood. The play’s aural pedigree, if you will.”
“Did he even have a wireless?”
“He was seldom without one. It was as much for Caitlin’s dancing as for him. He even hired one in Italy, though I think that was mainly for the cricket.”
Second Dwelling: Dylan’s Wireless Background
Country Magazine, said the BBC’s Geoffrey Bridson, “was the most popular series that Features Department ever mounted.” Such was the programme’s appeal that it spun off a separate series, Songs from Country Magazine, as well as two television programmes and three books.
The programme ran fortnightly on Sunday afternoons, often with repeats, from 1942 to 1954; as such, it coincided with a large part of the period when Dylan was developing his ideas for Milk Wood. We can’t be sure it was a programme he listened to, but it’s very likely he did: he compèred two of its broadcasts, and his friends and colleagues produced many others.
The series had been devised to show that both town and country were pulling together in the war effort; it followed on from a strong pre-war interest within the BBC, particularly after 1935, in broadcasting features about village and small town life. This resulted in several radio series such as Provincial Journey, Village Opinion, and The Village, not to mention a large number of programmes on villages in other countries.
Country Magazine provided community portraits of villages and the people who lived in them. One of its founders, A.G. Street, said it
“painted in sound a faithful picture of its subject…the farmer, the farm worker, the butcher, the doctor, the retired colonel, the saddler…could and did rub shoulders…and broadcast, not what the producer might want them to say, but what they themselves wanted to say.”
But it was not as spontaneous as Street suggests; there was always a script produced by the compère or producer that was based on prior conversations with locals, as well as a day of rehearsals. And the programmes all had a well-established format: country people talking about their work and life, interspersed with country sounds and country songs i.e. local folk tunes, and all held together by the compère. Desmond Hawkins, the wildlife broadcaster and one of Dylan’s editors and drinking companions, had taken part in a number of the early programmes, and was struck by both its novelty and effectiveness:
“Coming up with just a sound picture was quite a novelty and the one I remember…had nice background noises of a farming village, animals and cattle lowing and so on, and then…church bells sort of sounding across the meadow and then suddenly in the foreground a mistle thrush singing. I was very impressed with this. It seemed to me something that we could do, that books and newspapers and the other media couldn’t do. So this was a germ for me, and a very important one.”
The musicologist, Frank Collinson, had been appointed as Country Magazine’s musical director from the outset, and he toured the countryside with his tape recorder before each of the programmes. The songs were not seen as simply interludes between the passages of talk but were integral to the character and popularity of the programme.
Dylan could hardly have been unaware how much the listening public enjoyed the carefully crafted mix of dialogue and song. It’s tempting to wonder if the programmes could have been a factor in the way he himself so successfully interwove dialogue and singing in Under Milk Wood. Note that it was Country Magazine’s mix of local people and folkloric songs that Dylan envisaged for his perfect pub:
“Everybody’ll want to go to Quid’s Inn…and I want to go myself. I want to hear the village and the village singers…to hear, not sopping dance lyrics, but, affectionately guyed, such ballad-concert favourites as ‘Drakes Drum’ and ‘King Charles’…I want to hear, very much, the medley of all English country accents…”
Country Magazine’s founding and principal producer was Francis Dillon; he had given Dylan his first part in a radio drama in 1941, and thereafter produced him off and on through the 1940s, even chasing him for a Light Programme script as Dylan was getting ready to leave for America on his last trip. Dillon was just Dylan’s type, bohemian, freethinking and a man who liked his pint, as the Sunday Pictorial noted:
Francis Dillon, the man who has gathered the farmers, basket makers, cowherds and glovemakers together, is … a homespun type, wears corduroys and a fisherman’s hand knitted guernsey in Portland Place bars, drinks beer, and doesn’t like the idea of getting publicity in the Press.
Some thirty editions of Country Magazine were about communities in Wales, with Welsh producers and compères. These included T. Rowland Hughes, as well as Dylan’s friends and colleagues such as Philip Burton, (who produced eight of them), Wynford Vaughan Thomas and Aneirin Talfan Davies. When Dylan was living in South Leigh, and thinking about Llareggub, four Welsh editions of the programme were broadcast nationally, three of them made by Philip Burton.
There were, of course, a small number of other radio series that ran alongside Country Magazine that strived to create community portraits, including the Billy Welcome series, devised by Geoffrey Bridson, which ran on the Home Service from July 1941 to June 1945, with three programmes produced by T. Rowland Hughes at the BBC in Cardiff. Billy was a lad from Halifax, usually played by Wilfred Pickles, who wandered the country looking for work, meeting ‘ordinary folk’ on his journeys. Billy came to Wales on his wanders, including one round the Rhondda in April 1945.
Another was Village on the Air, which ran weekly from October 1948 to May 1950. The BBC holds very little information on this programme, and I’ve not yet turned up any scripts. The aim of the programme, said the BBC at its launch, was to create ‘sound-pictures’ of village life from interviews with residents. An early review of the broadcasts mentioned that Village on the Air aimed at capturing the atmosphere, rather than the drama, of village and small town life. The Narrator, it said, “is cock-of-the-roost and he has in his power the secret of capturing our attention so that imagination can more freely wander.”
These, then, were but a handful of the programmes that may have formed part of Dylan’s wireless background as his ideas on Under Milk Wood were developing. But we cannot include The Archers amongst them; as Dai Cwc pointed out in my last blog, The Archers did not start broadcasting nationally until January 1951, by which time Dylan had already written most of the first half of Milk Wood.
Country Magazine scripts: BBC Written Archives Centre, Reading.
My thanks also to Ben Jones, grandson of Thomas Jones, as well as Nigel Deacon, Madeline Keyser at the Lilly Library (D.G. Bridson archive) and staff at the BBC Written Archives Centre and the National Library of Wales. And to Moira and Chris Sanders for their lovely Normandy gite, La Jolière, where this blog was finished.
- Dai Cwc on my last blog: http://www.discovery.sites.k-hosting.co.uk/cheltenham-mariposa-wander-along-road-llareggub-guest-blog-david-n-thomas October 2017
- Richard Church, Lady Cholmondeley, Duchess of Kent: see Thomas Jones (1954) pp 202 and xxii respectively. Jones on the Welsh way of life: Western Mail April 17 1941
- Interviews with South Leigh residents: see Thomas (2004) pp124-139.
- For a fuller account of Dylan’s work on the play at South Leigh, please go to https://sites.google.com/site/dylanthomasandnewquay/birth-of-under-milk-wood
- St Nicholas script: BBC Written Archives Centre, Reading. There is a full account of the broadcast in the Thanet Advertiser and Echo, June 15 1948.
- L. du Garde Peach: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L._du_Garde_Peach
- The mad town/village : see my https://sites.google.com/site/dylanthomasandnewquay/dylan-and-the-town-that-was-mad
- Radio for Caitlin’s dancing: see letter to Charles Fisher, July/July 1938, Collected Letters. On hiring a wireless in Italy – see various letters e.g. to John Arlott, June 11 1947.
- Songs from Country Magazine was broadcast between 1944 and 1954.
- Several radio series on country life: for example, Ourselves by Ourselves October –December 1933, Provincial Journey April 1935-February 1938, Village Opinion February 1936-October 1937, The Changing Village October-November 1935, Our Country Correspondent October 1935-April 1937, The Village October-December 1936, In the Village Hall October-December 1938 and Discovering Wales March 1936-November 1939.
- A.G. Street quote: in Dillon (1950)
- Desmond Hawkins: interview for Wild Film History, 1998. Drinking companion etc: see Dylan’s letters to Hawkins and Andrew Dally’s article at https://dylanthomasnews.com/2013/08/22/desert-island-dylan/
- Quids Inn: Dylan’s letter to Ted Kavanagh, Februay/ March 1951.
- Dillon in the Sunday Pictorial: see his entry in the Oxford DNB.
- Village on the Air, a review: Western Morning News, December 15, 1949.
- D.G.Bridson (1971) Prospero and Ariel, Gollancz
- F.Dillon (ed.1950) Country Magazine, Odhams
- T.Jones (1954) A Diary with Letters 1931-1950, OUP
- D.N. Thomas (2004) Dylan Remembered 1935-53 vol 2. Seren
Featured image © David Anstiss and licensed for reuse under this creative commons license.