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As the summer rain streams down my window, I think of Wales, the land of my ancestors, the soggy song-strewn Principality, and I think of Pip Broughton’s BBC TV version of “Under Milk Wood'” – broadcast on Sunday last – which was quite wonderful. If you missed it, hi you forthwith and without delay to the BBC iPlayer, where you can catch it now, but only for four more days. Usually when a director comes up with a new “concept’ for a production of a classic, the heart sinks. One thinks dispiritingly of Mike Bogdanov’s Shakespearian warrior nobles setting off on foot to do battle at Shrewsbury in modern pin-stripe suits, presumably up the M6 motorway…But Ms Broughton’s idea was to take Dylan Thomas’s “play for words”, written for 1950s radio and shift it into the digital age, with actors contributing via Macbook laptops from various parts of the world.
There by the Welsh seaside was the incomparable Michael Sheen, giving fresh intensity to the famous opening speech, so familiar from the original Richard Burton recording – and there smiling gently at his laptop screen, waiting to pick up the narration was another brilliant Radagrad, Matthew Rhys, sitting at the bar of the White Horse Tavern….in New York. And then, adding more words from Thomas’s village of Laugherne, came the gorgeous Celtic lilt of Aimee-Ffion Evans, a new and lovely face amongst the “community of Welsh performers” presenting the play. OK, some of the casting was a bit eccentric – our Ioan Gruffudd and Kimberley Nixon personified far too much youthful beauty to express the hopeless never-to-be-fulfilled passion of Mog Evans and Myfanwy Price, and the matchless groomed glamour of Katherine Jenkins didn’t quite fit as a penniless single parent with multiple offspring – but hey, none of that mattered, not a whit as there were so many riches. I had no problem at all with gruff Captain Cat being portrayed by a septuagenarian singing legend. When Sir Tom teamed up with Nia Roberts as Rosie Probert (“I am forgetting that I was ever born…”) this viewer was lost, the tears streaming like the rain streaking my window today…
June has come in with rainclouds in its wake, but in May we had some glorious days of sunshine, and I returned to my roots in Wessex. My provenance is a bit muddling: early childhood in Cardiff, youthful years in Hull – but, because it was war-time and my dad was stationed as a fireman in Portsmouth Harbour, I was in fact born in Bramshott, Hampshire, where the local manor house had been turned into a maternity hospital. My sister Olive lives now at Alton – where she is a guide at the Jane Austen Museum – and an old friend and colleague, the actress Jane Hayward, lives near Midhurst, so visits have been in order.
It has been, to coin a phrase, the return of the native. My sister and I went on a visit to Portsmouth – the first time we had been together there since she used to wheel me along the promenade in my pram. She admitted a rush of guilt when she remembered her ten year-old self walking – for a dare – along the top of the sea-wall, pushing the pram with me in it! No wonder I’ve spent a life racked with insecurity.
As rather belated compensation she treated me to a tour of the Historic Dockyard, which makes a terrific day out, highly recommended. Portsmouth harbour is still an important working Royal Navy base, so you can tour the decks of a Victorian battle-ship, marvel at the Tudor artefacts rescued with the “Mary Rose” (in an amazing self-contained museum, where you can watch the restoration of the ship’s hull still in progress), visit Nelson’s HMS Victory, and take a boat tour of the harbour to see the modern warships standing by to defend us from attack. In the picture the Victory is on the right, and the modern ship nearby is HMS Defender, one of a new breed of high-tech surveillance craft which cost a billion pounds apiece.
For that, a guide told us, we’ve bought into a system which can detect any flying objects anywhere in Europe, including golf-balls. Which I, for one, find very comforting. I wouldn’t put it past Putin to have droves of Cossacks standing by with niblicks and putters, ready to bombard Western Europe with golf-balls. He’s probably practising even now, with his shirt off.
Olive also took me to the Jane Austen museum at Alton, and to nearby Chawton House. Both were part of an enormous estate which Jane’s brother Edward inherited from a distant cousin. I didn’t know anything of this, and both places provide fascinating insights into the world of Regency England. Jane Austen was one of eight children in a family of quite modest means, so her brother being chosen to inherit considerable wealth must have been a bit like winning the lottery. In those days property and land could only be passed down through male heirs, so ageing gentry without sons would scour their family records to find male relatives with provable genetic links whom they could nominate as heirs. Deals would then have to be done – in Edward’s case he was adopted at the age of 12 by distant cousins of their father, on the understanding that when eventually he inherited Edward would change his surname to theirs. So Edward Austen became Edward Austen Knight, the owner of the Chawton House estate, plus estates at Steventon and Godmersham in Kent.
There’s much to be learned, and some lovely things to see, at both houses. As well as being a literary genius, Jane had a really interesting family – for example two of her six brothers joined the navy, and both became admirals. Olive has researched and written quite a lot about Jane’s family. She’s also investigating an intriguing possible link between a naval element in our family and another historic figure, the commander of the “Terra Nova”, the ship which carried Captain Scott’s famous last expedition to the Antarctic. By coincidence, by the quayside at Portsmouth we found a statue of the good captain, complete with dog. Watch this space for further reports.
I’ve just discovered a (presumably pirated) You-tube version of the opening sequence of UMW at
Under Milk Wood (full version): http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/search?q=Under%20Milk%20Wood
Jane Austen museum: http://www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk
Chawton House: http://www.hha.org.uk/Property/1286/Chawton-House
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard: http://www.historicdockyard.co.uk/?gclid=CjkKEQjwh7ucBRD9yY_fyZe398gBEiQAAoy4JDCjWAnC7fPJc6udvm3RgF5OT9ojNyF4WjsSnTmuP9Hw_wcB