Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Marlene Dietrich in Wales

Even before she arrived in Wales in 1973 Marlene Dietrich was buttering up the locals. In a newspaper interview she gushed: "The men are the sexiest in the world, starting with Richard Burton. It must be a terrific country. I read works by Welsh poets and I've discovered the atmosphere of Wales; it's different, marvellous." She then went on to give my favourite quote ever about Welsh miners: "I feel for Welsh coal miners. I wish I could hug them all and bring them up out of the darkness. It is such a terrible life and I want to take them home and find something else for them to do. They are special people with a poetic soul."

Dietrich slipped into Cardiff virtually unnoticed. The ticket collectors at the train station paid little attention to the old lady in a denim suit and matching cap who scuttled past. Eyebrows were only raised when a chauffeur-driven limo turned up to whisk her off to a suite at the Angel Hotel. There she ignored the 4 bottles of champagne that awaited her, preferring instead a glass of vichy water and ice. Her personal maid began to unpack the 12 monogrammed suitcases which had been sent ahead.

The elderly glamour puss was in town to perform a week of shows at the New Theatre. At some point she'd let slip that she wanted to hear a Welsh male voice choir. Big mistake. When she arrived for the opening night she was greeted by no less than TWO male voice choirs who regaled her with Myfanwy. Poor woman. A man called Dai Francis presented her with a necklace on behalf of South Wales miners - it had a tiny miner's lamp on it. She would wear it on stage that night. Amazingly she wowed her audience with 18 numbers, including classics like Lili Marlene, Lola, and Falling in Love Again. Not bad for a 70 year-old. Afterwards an estimated 300 people met her at the stage door where they treated her to a rendition of We'll Keep a Welcome in the Hillside.

Her series of shows was a triumph and on her last night she really turned on the Teutonic charm: "This is a beautiful country and I love your appreciation of music and the arts. I am very unhappy to be leaving Wales." Tearfully she continued: "There is no country like Wales. You have more appreciation for artists than anywhere else in the world." By now she was really laying it on with a trowel: "Not only is this country beautiful but the people, too. I want to thank you with all my heart for your kindness and the love you have given me." A rose was tossed onto the stage; grown men burst into tears; more male voice choirs arrived.

As amusing and unlikely as this coming together of German melodrama and Welsh kitsch was, Dietrich was actually more sincere than one might imagine. Cynics will be surprised to learn that in various biographies her affection for Richard Burton and the bond she felt with Welsh miners is reiterated.