Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Invader Prince

Above is a 1976 advert for a Welsh car, the Gilbern Invader Prince. As you can see the insignia is a Welsh dragon and draped across the bonnet is a lady resplendent in traditional Welsh costume. The setting is Cardiff castle. Why does the notion of a Welsh car seem so odd? It probably has something to do with our colonial conditioning - there is, after all, no reason whatsoever why such a phenomenon shouldn't exist.

Giles Smith, a butcher from Church Village, Pontypridd, certainly wasn't constrained by such defeatist thinking. He along with German engineer Bernard Friese formed a company called Gilbern and set about producing Welsh motor cars. At first, circa 1959, they constructed their GTs in an out building behind Smith's butcher shop. In 1961 they moved to Llantwit Fadre, purchasing some disused pre-fabs at the former Red Ash Colliery site. In 1967 they produced the Gilbern Genie. In 1968 they were taken over by the ACE group best known for their slot machine manufacturing empire.

The Mk1 Invader followed and at the 1970 London Motor Show they announced the Mk11 version. There was also an Invader Estate. During the early '70s there were further changes in ownership and, sadly, during the oil crisis and 3-day week the company got into financial difficulties. By March 1974 the company had ceased trading. Given that Gilbern had by then gone out of business I'm not quite sure how the 1976 Invader Prince came into being, but as the above advert shows they were still heavily promoting their "Welshness" as a selling point.

If you want to find out more about the history of Gilbern check out this rather good and very comprehensive website. Petrol-heads will also find there some great pictures of the various models produced.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Egg on her Face

If, as with me, the name Margaret Thatcher makes you feel physically sick then this will warm the cockles of your heart.

In 1984 during the miners’ strike the Iron Lady deigned to make one of her rare trips across the border. She was attending the Welsh Conservative Conference at the Grand Pavilion, Porthcawl. Her arrival was greeted with a chorus of verbal abuse from the 300 members of the South Wales Miners’ Wives’ Action Group who had gathered outside.

While Maggie went inside to address the blue rinse brigade the Dyfed Farmers’ Action Group turned up. They were fuming. Police road blocks had deliberately delayed their arrival. To make matters worse their request for a private meeting with the Prime Minister was refused. Along with the miners’ wives they waited behind the metal barrier for Thatcher to come out.

When she did finally emerge into the bright sunshine a barrage of eggs, butter and tomatoes rained down on her. The Chairman of the Bridgend Conservative Association was in the eye of the storm, he said: "I was thanking the Prime Minister when bang - over came the eggs."

The missiles hurled across the promenade soon found their target. Thatcher’s black and white spotted dress was covered in gunk, and yolk splattered her face and hair (see pic). Police and Special Branch hurriedly formed a protective cordon around her before a waiting car whisked her away from the angry crowd. Surprisingly no arrests were made.

Whoever was responsible for egging Margaret Thatcher that day, I salute you.

You Really Got Me

It's one of the most infamous dust-ups in the history of rock and roll and it happened in downtown Cardiff.

In May, 1965, the Kinks were headlining a show at the city's Capitol Theatre. During the climax of their opening number You Really Got Me, angry guitarist Dave Davies rushed over to Mick Avory's drum kit and gave it a good kick. Apparently he was still fuming over a fight they’d had the previous night in Taunton. Unsurprisingly Avory was not best pleased with Davies's behaviour and retaliated by hitting him in the face with a hi-hat pedal. Davies collapsed on the stage, his face a mask of blood. Girls fainted. Avory, convinced he had just murdered his bandmate, fled the arena and disappeared into the Cardiff night. He would remain on the run for several days. With hundreds of excited teenagers still screaming their heads off the curtain was drawn across the stage. An announcement was made that the Kinks would not be appearing for the second house at 8.30pm and that the Yardbirds would now be headlining.

Meanwhile over at Cardiff Royal Infirmary* Dave Davies was having 16 stitches sewn into his face. Outside the hospital dozens of teenagers had gathered to wait for news of his condition. Sam Curtis, the group's road manager, was left to explain the incident to the police who were keen to arrest Avory for grievous bodily harm. He managed to convince them that it was all just a prank that had gone horribly wrong. He later gave this highly imaginative explanation of the evening’s shenanigans to the press: "The boys were trying to get some variety into their act. The idea was that Dave would kick the drums. Mick was then supposed to pick up whatever came to hand and bring it down close to Dave's head. Dave was then supposed to turn around and say "you nearly got me" but the idea went wrong." Hmmmmmnn.

*For another example of Cardiff Royal Infirmary's unique place in rock and pop history click here.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Welsh Mobile Disco Advert

J'adore this mobile discotheque advert taken from a Welsh magazine in 1968. The strap-line is a delight: Can supply non-stop dancing at reasonable rates.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Polanski in North Wales

Where was Roman Polanski during the Tate-La Bianca murder trial? In Wales, mostly. While Charles Manson and his Family were outraging the world’s media back in LA, Polanski was busy working on his next movie project: a version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Given that his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, had been brutally stabbed to death at their Cielo Drive home, some thought his choice of subject matter a tad tasteless. After all Macbeth is one of the most bloody plays in the whole of literature and even includes a gruesome stabbing scene.

Although Macbeth is, of course, set in Scotland Polanski decided not to shoot there - too many electricity pylons, apparently. Instead most of the location shots were done in north Wales. So, in November 1970, Polanski found himself in Llan Ffestiniog village hall personally interviewing locals for work as extras. A wide range of hopefuls turned up from elderly retirees to juveniles. Polanski chose 40 and took the names and addresses of 500 others who could be called upon for odd days work here and there. One former trade union shop steward, Dai Roberts, ended up having a row with the notorious director over the rate of pay. £3 per day, he believed, was too low.

Disgruntled extras wouldn’t be Polanski’s only problem during the shoot. Over the coming months the region experienced torrential downpours and the various Welsh locations soon turned into vast quagmires. Polanski, though, cleverly incorporated the bad weather into the aesthetic of the film. In the very worst of the storms he could be seen ankle-deep in mud and manure issuing instructions to his numerous cast through a loudhailer. If he could endure the "shitty weather" then so could they. One local man whose land was being used would claim (and get) compensation for stress caused by the filming. Polanski referred to such people as "fucking parasites".

The film itself was bankrolled by Hugh Hefner and the Playboy empire. They were kind of hoping for a Rosemary's Baby 2. Instead they got an arthouse movie that went over budget and over schedule. Although a commercial flop Polanski's Macbeth has retrospectively been recognised as one of his finer cinematic efforts. It has some signature Polanski touches - why, for instance, have just the three witches when you can have 15-20 naked hags?

The most famous anecdote about the making of the movie concerns one of the Welsh juvenile extras. Apparently Polanski always took a hands-on role when it came to smearing actors with blood. He used a tried and trusted cocktail of instant coffee, glycerine and gravy. Polanski instructed the blonde-haired child (who was playing one of Macduff's slaughtered family) to lay down while he applied the 'blood' mixture. When he enquired what her name was, she replied: "Sharon."

*Talking of Charles Manson, if you happen to be in Cardiff on Sunday, March 15, get yourself down to Gwdihw (a new bar on Churchill Way) where you can see a screening of Manson, the Hendrickson/Merrick documentary made in 1972. There will also be some Charles Manson-themed music. The event starts at 8pm.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

FOTL at the Vulcan

This Youtube combines two of my favourite things: the superb new single by Future of the Left entitled The Hope that House Built, and the Vulcan pub which is over 150 years old.

As you can see the video features a donkey, an owl, a fish, and a lizard of some description. A typical night down the Vulcan, then. Nice to see the pub's famous urinal in action too. And doesn't the ship's wheel on the wall look just great.

Plans are afoot to turn this splendid Victorian boozer into either a car park or a new, as yet unspecified, development. Christ on a bike. Shame on the short-sighted council if, in the blink of a property developer's eye, another piece of Cardiff's heritage is wiped from the map.

If, as expected, the Vulcan is razed to the ground this summer, then this apocalyptic video might well be its cultural epitaph. You can find out more about the Save the Vulcan Campaign here.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Black Power in Wales

The Welsh Black Power movement emerged in Cardiff in the Spring of 1968. Chalked notices went up in the Butetown area of the city telling of a meeting to be held at St Mary's church hall. 40 men turned up and a black workers' solidarity group was immediately formed. Assurances were given that the organisation would be non-violent. The Race Relations Board, they claimed, was totally ineffectual and "nothing but humbug to black workers."

A member of the executive committee commented: "Our aims are to combat racial discrimination and we believe the only way we can do this is to meet it with black power. We are a Marxist group associated with no other party. There is a great deal of discrimination against coloured people in such places as the docks and trade unions, and this is what we want to stop."

And they weren't all hot air either. In 1970 they targeted the Top Rank venue in Cardiff because, they alleged, the management had a policy of barring the majority of black people from entering. 400 people had to be evacuated from the premises when a series of co-ordinated smoke bombs were set off. 4 people were taken to hospital. Forensic analysis showed that the acrid yellow smoke billowing from the club originated from distress flares.

A letter handed to the press by members of the Welsh Black Power movement stated: "We do not relish the methods we have had to adopt but we find ourselves with little or no choice. The Top Ranks's (racist) policy is being systematically reinforced by the police. The Top Rank is not alone in this practice of social racism, which is often pursued to the point of violence. The majority of clubs are also involved." The Top Rank denied having a racist door policy but they were now under close public scrutiny and so it was a victory of sorts for the protestors.

I've no idea if the Welsh Black Power movement was involved in other direct action during this period or, indeed, whether they eventually officially disbanded. If you were once a member of the organisation get in touch, I'd love to hear more about this fascinating part of Wales's secret political history.

Happy St David's Day

Photo: Llandaff North, this morning.

Happy St David's Day or, as we like to say down on the street, Dydd Gwyl Dewi hapus.