Friday, July 28, 2006

Crazy Cock in Corwen

It is amusing to imagine Henry 'Crazy Cock' Miller trundling through the sleepy Welsh market town of Corwen in 1953. Passers-by are unlikely to have paid much attention to the bald bespectacled American much less considered him an arch pornographer or sexual revolutionary. Yet the anonymous figure shuffling up the hill was one of the most controversial authors of the Twentieth century.

So what exactly was he doing in North Wales? Well, Miller was on a pilgrimage - his intended object of worship none other than ageing half-forgotten writer John Cowper Powys (see pic), then living in a modest council house at 7 Cae Coed, Corwen. JCP's influence upon Miller's career had been profound and this unlikely journey amounted to a debt of thanks.

Miller's road to Corwen really began in 1916 at New York's Hudson Theatre when he first saw JCP lecturing on Dostoyevsky. Powys, an inspired orator and born actor, energized the young American to such a degree that it convinced him to become a writer. Miller became a regular attender, a tongue-tied literary groupie who finally plucked up the courage to shake his idol's hand after a talk given at the Labour Temple in 1917.

At first glance Powys might seem like a peculiar choice of hero for the American especially as their backgrounds are so dissimilar. Yet the two writers had many things in common not least a shared love for Rabelais and Dostoyevsky. There were other bonds. Both authors were extremely prolific almost as if the process of writing itself was the ultimate expression of their lust for life. Above all the two men were literary sensualists who shared the same philosophy of spirit.

In 1952 Miller's admiration for Powys was formalized when he wrote passionately of his work and influence in The Books in my Life. Miller struck up a correspondence with Powys and soon afterwards made his only visit to Wales.

At the time JCP was an old man, his popularity as a writer already on the wane, his pitch irredeemably queered after eschewing the London literary scene and nailing his colours firmly to the Welsh mast. He'd chosen to live in Corwen after 30 years of lecturing and writing in the US. It was in this simple bungalow that he would pen some of his weirdest and most mythical books including Porius (a study of Merlin), Atlantis and The Inmates.

So what did Miller discover on the other side of that door at 7 Cae Coed in the shadow of the Berwyn mountains? The same JCP he'd idolised as a youth of course, still faithfully writing every day but now living on a pittance. They reminisced about their first encounter in New York and Miller listened with great interest to Powys's theories on the lost city of Atlantis.

When the American departed for home Powys sent him a blackthorn walking stick through the post as a souvenir of their meeting. Delighted with the gift Miller carried this treasured possession on his regular morning, noon and evening walks. And after his unlikely pilgrimage to Corwen he must have understood the symmetry of the gesture - a piece of gnarled Welsh wood in the cool blue sunshine of Big Sur California.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Stanley Baker: Portrait of an Actor

If you should come across a copy of Anthony Storey's Stanley Baker: Portrait of an Actor (1977) then you're in luck. This rare hardback - if it's in good nick - is worth well over a £100. Not bad for a fairly trashy biography.

What surprises me is that this is the only biography of the Welsh actor out there. Given that he starred alongside everyone from Gregory Peck to Ursula Andress; had a fascinating working relationship with exiled American film director Joseph Losey; and was a pal of London gangster Charlie Richardson, you'd have thought someone might have seen the potential for a new Baker biography.

Anyway, next time you're scanning the shelves of your local charity shop keep your eyes skinned - you might just pick up a bargain.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Theatre of the Absurd

When Eugène Ionesco arrived in Wales in 1974 it must have felt like he'd stepped into one of his own absurdist dramas.

Here to collect a £1000 international literary prize from the Welsh Arts Council he first had to spend a fortnight attending various functions in his honour. And Wales it seemed had gone completely Ionesco crazy.

There was the Ionesco Festival and Ionesco Forum in Cardiff. There were book signings and lectures. He travelled to Lampeter, Aberystwyth and Bangor. He sat through French, English and Welsh versions of his own plays... even though he spoke little English and even less Welsh.

He was interviewed in French by an academic from Aberystwyth University with the result screened on ITV Wales. The voice of the enfant terrible of French theatre was dubbed into Welsh.

In a country where literary endeavour has rarely strayed beyond the bounds of social realism this sudden overwhelming celebration of the experimental must have seemed somewhat, well, absurd.

Still, the 61 year old soldiered on and eventually at a ceremony in Cardiff Castle he received his hard-earned cash. The following morning he left for Paris.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Imogen Thomas Makes History

Big Brother 7 contestant Imogen Thomas is set to become Wales' best-known porn star. A particularly ungallant ex-boyfriend of the Llanelli beauty has apparently flogged a home-made bluey of them to a porn company. What a cad.

Call me cynical but I'm not entirely surprised by this sordid revelation. Nevertheless cultural history has inadvertantly been made here - if I'm not mistaken this is the first known example of Welsh celebrity porn.

The 23 year old former Miss Wales can be seen getting up to all sorts in the imaginatively titled: Imogen Home Sex Video. If you want to further investigate Miss Thomas' contribution to Welsh popular culture click on the above link but remember you must be over 18 years of age.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

James Dean and the Girl from Cwmgwrach

In 1953 method actors James Dean and Rod Steiger starred in a US television programme called The Evil Within alongside Margaret Phillips from Cwmgwrach.

Because of James Dean's presence (he played a lab technician) the episode has subsequently acquired cult status but it is Phillips who steals the show. As Steiger's drugged-up wife, in this updated Jekyll and Hyde story, she demonstrates the full range of her thespian abilities.

The Welsh-speaker got her big acting break on Broadway in 1948 when Tennessee Williams cast her in the lead role of his drama Summer and Smoke. Critics were lukewarm about the play itself but enthusiastic about Phillips' performance. Further appearances on Broadway were followed by a move into television, including a part as Regan in a small screen version of King Lear (1953) in which Orson Welles hammed it up in the title role.

Oddly, Phillips never took her talent to Hollywood, preferring instead the theatrical life of the East coast. One of the few films she did appear in was A Life of her Own (1950) with Lana Turner and Ray Milland. I'm guessing Ms Turner didn't star in many films alongside TWO people from the Neath area!

Phillips' successful stage and TV career was a long way from her life in the small mining village of Cwmgwrach. As a child she acted in plays at Neath County School and won prizes for recitations in both English and Welsh at local eisteddfodau and Urdd competitions. She also participated in concerts at her local place of worship, the Siloh Independent Church.

It was the intervention of WW2 while on a visit to New York that set her on the road to stardom. Instead of returning to Cwmgwrach as planned her fearful mother made the 16 year old stay in America. She finished her high school education in the Bronx and then enrolled at the Woodstock Summer Theatre. The rest is history.

Margaret Phillips died of cancer in New York in 1984. She lived in Manhattan.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Sincerely Humphrey Bogart?

When Knock on any Door hit Welsh cinemas in 1949 local newspaper the Cardiff Times and Weekly Mail had a special promotion. They were giving away 500 autographed photos of the film's main stars: Humphrey Bogart and John Derek (future hubby of Bo).

Now I don't believe for one second that Bogey actually sat down and wrote: To all readers of the "Cardiff Times and Weekly Mail" sincerely Humphrey Bogart 500 times - presumably he did the one and it was mass copied - but whatever the authenticity of the signatures the snaps make for interesting items of memorabilia.

And 500 of these beauties are knocking around South Wales somewhere - anyone got a spare?

Monday, July 10, 2006

Suits you Dylan

Apparently the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea will be exhibiting a suit worn by the Welsh poet shortly before his death in New York in 1953.

To some this might sound a bit like a barrel being scraped but I must confess to finding the morbidity of it quite appealing. Sadly punters will not be allowed to don the relic but we can content ourselves with looking for beer stains in the tweed.

The suit in question didn't actually belong to the poet but to a neighbour at the Chelsea Hotel - abstract painter Jorge Fick. Thomas was an inveterate borrower of other people's clothing even when the lender was of a different size - Vernon Watkins and Mervyn Peake being prime examples.

Of course the suit exhibition does make you wonder how far they are prepared to go with this kind of relic-peddling. A drunken Thomas once infamously urinated into a flower pot at a party given by Charlie Chaplin and attended by Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe and Thomas Mann. If you happen to know the current whereabouts of this flower pot please contact the Dylan Thomas Centre - I'm sure they'd be delighted to hear from you.

Meanwhile, if you're into dead men's clothing do not go gentle into that good Oxfam shop - get down to the DTC this August instead and enjoy some necrophilic sartorial thrills.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Girl from Tiger Bay

If you thought Shirley Bassey was the original 'Girl from Tiger Bay' you'd be quite wrong. A few years before Bassey started making a name for herself this pulp novel (see pic) was published featuring Gwen Jones from Tiger Bay. Written by Roland Vane (pseudonym of pulp writer Ernest McKeag) it is a quite staggering piece of racism as the blurb on the back demonstrates:

Why are certain types of white women attracted - apparently irresistably - towards coloured men? The question has intrigued scientists, psychiatrists and social workers for centuries. Now Roland Vane in this frankly realistic novel, delves into the reasonings of a woman of this type.

Born in a Cardiff slum and reared in the sordid sophistication of "Tiger Bay", his heroine finds herself drifting, through no fault of her own, into the arms of the only individual who has ever shown her kindness - a coloured man!

This book is not untypical. After WW2 when the pulp fiction industry boomed there was a demand for British versions of American thrillers. What they needed were believable settings in which these lurid fictions could take place and Tiger Bay, long since demonised, fitted the bill perfectly. As well as Girl from Tiger Bay (1950) by Roland Vane there was Tiger Bay (1946) by David Martin; and Once in Tiger Bay (1947), Return to Tiger Bay (1950) and King of Tiger Bay (1952) by JM Walsh.

It wasn't just the pulps either, a dubious feature in Illustrated magazine entitled Tiger Bay Fights Thugs (1953) carried some suspiciously posed-looking photographs and a questionable story about an arms cache. In 1959 the film Tiger Bay was released remaining, until the building of the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff's main cultural reference point for those living outside the city.

What these books etc have in common is that none of their authors were actually from Cardiff. It would take another 50 years for local writers to redress the balance and properly fictionalize the city and its docks.

As for Bassey herself she too was exploiting the Tiger Bay tag. Her debut single Burn My Candle (at Both Ends) (1955), written especially for her, is an extended sexual metaphor which was banned by the BBC for containing the word 'sex'. However, despite being marketed as a Docks girl and playing up to the risque stereotype "Our Shirl" was in fact brought up in Splott. Little wonder perhaps she preferred the more romantic sounding sobriquet of 'Girl from Tiger Bay'.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Houdini Nicked in Newport

The first time he met Newport police, in 1905, Harry Houdini ended up in jail. No crime had been committed - he was merely accepting their challenge to escape from a police cell.

Of course this was all good publicity for Houdini who was appearing at the Lyceum Theatre. He duly arrived at the police station, was stripped of his clothing, and double-locked into cell number 9. Five and half minutes later he reappeared fully clothed having escaped his cell, opened the adjacent one to retrieve his togs, and unlocked the door to the corridor where he met an astonished Chief Constable.

Houdini's next run-in with Newport's finest, in 1913, proved to be less amicable. Again he was on tour, this time at the Newport Empire (see pic). Wanting to drum up interest for his show Houdini did what any self-respecting self-liberator would do and decided to throw his manacled body off Newport Bridge into the River Usk!

However the Chief Constable refused to sanction such a stunt and a compromise was reached where it was agreed Houdini would walk to the bridge but be turned back by police at the last moment. Houdini would get his publicity and the authorities wouldn't have a dead escapologist on their hands.

On the day of the pretend jump however a very large crowd had gathered on the bridge and Houdini, ever the showman, decided to go ahead with the stunt. Evading the assembled Peelers he snuck onto the bridge and, heavily manacled and in bathers, leapt up onto the balustrade and threw himself into the Usk. At first there was no sign of the renowned escape artist but to the crowd's great delight he emerged triumphant from the muddy depths sans chains. The police were NOT amused and nicked him for causing an obstruction.

A week later at Newport Police Court the case was heard. What though was the point of banging-up the world's most famous self-liberator - after all, hadn't he escaped from a Newport cell once before? The case was dismissed.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Cardini - the Suave Deceiver

Wales has produced some quality magicians over the years - Merlin for instance and Tommy Cooper - but my favourite Welsh conjuror is Cardini, the Suave Deceiver. His act - much imitated since - was to dress up as a monocled and slightly drunk toff who to his own bafflement starts producing out of nowhere cards, billiard balls and lighted cigarettes.

Despite the monocle, top hat and tails, Richard Valentine Pitchford came from very humble beginnings. He was born into a poor family in Mumbles and had to take menial jobs as a child to help make ends meet. When the Great War came along he enlisted and it was during the horror of the trenches that he perfected his card routines. Because of the bitter cold he wore gloves which increased his manual dexterity. When an enemy bomb nearly killed him in 1916 he spent 18 months recuperating in hospital where he further honed his magic skills.

After the war he became a full-time magician, emigrating to Australia for the benefit of his health. It was here that he came up with the name Cardini. He then moved to America where he met Swan Walker who was to become his wife and glamorous stage assistant.

By now the Cardini persona was fully formed. He had decided to drop speech from the act altogether which seemed to increase the comic power of his performance. Crowds loved him - they enjoyed watching this snooty, drunken toff become more and more exasperated as he produced items from thin air. It gave people a rare opportunity to laugh at the wealthy and in many ways his act can be read as a critique of the decadent and idle rich. After the complex stagings of the Houdini era it was also refreshing to see Cardini bringing magic back to a simpler, more humanistic level.

The high point of his career was probably his stint at the Radio City Music Hall in New York. He also performed for 10 months at the London Palladium.

The Suave Deceiver retired in 1966. He died in 1973 in New York State.