About this Recording
NA434312 - THOMAS, D.: Essential Dylan Thomas (The)


The voice of Dylan Thomas, on paper or on a recording, is unmistakable. His rich play of language and images informed all his work and it was reflected in his distinctive manner of performance which, like his life, was large and vivid. All this rightly made him a personality as well as a poet – certainly, he left an unforgettable impression on all those he met. It was one reason why, in the latter part of his career, he was so popular on the American lecture and poetry circuit.

He was, perhaps, the first outstanding poet-performer of the recording era. Many of his recordings remain, from those he made for the BBC and also for the farsighted Caedmon label in the US. We owe a debt to the enterprise of both for marking Thomas’s unique talent and putting him in the studio, even though doing this was often a fraught, knife-edge business. He nearly forgot to arrive at the BBC studios on his first engagement – when radio was live! – and his first Caedmon recording was a similarly improvisatory experience. The two Caedmon founders, Barbara Cohen and Marianne Roney (just 22 years old), had pursued him with telephone calls and eventually persuaded him, with a $500 advance and 10 per cent royalty deal thereafter, to fix a date to record. He failed to show on the scheduled day, but did make the next date (22 February 1952) at the Steinway Hall in New York. The recording engineer was Peter Bartók, son of the composer Béla Bartók. Thomas recorded poems and, when he realised there was space left on the LPs, added Memories of Christmas.

This, of course, is a marvel for history but presents a particular challenge for subsequent performers of his work. Performance, like fashion, is shot through with the style of the period, and Thomas’s style was declamatory and grand, in a way that can sound dated in the 21st century. His recorded poetry readings were often closer in style to public performance for an audience in a hall than for the intimate, one-on-one situation of an audiobook. Yet his natural talent and his charisma make his recordings speak to us across the decades, giving us a unique insight into the way in which the poet himself thought of his work.

So actors coming now to his stories, poetry and broadcast programmes, which they will undoubtedly have heard and absorbed, have to put their memories of his inflections and his personal dramatic view to one side, in order to let their own expression sing. This wasn’t the case with the first BBC recording of Under Milk Wood. None of the actors who went into that studio in January 1954 had heard Thomas’s own performances in New York – so they could come to it entirely fresh.

Yet the The Essential Dylan Thomas is designed to celebrate the many facets of Thomas himself, which is why we have brought together this unusual programme featuring great historical recordings as well as new performances, given by some of the finest Welsh actors of our time. Actors speak for their day, and poets for all time. In the end, we hope that you will find the conjunction as vivifying to listen to as we did to prepare.

Under Milk Wood – A Short History

On 25 January 1954, the BBC’s Third Programme broadcast a new ‘Play for Voices’ by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who had died suddenly two months earlier in New York. The work was called Under Milk Wood, and it was recognised instantly as something quite out of the ordinary, both in terms of the drama itself and the performance.

It presented, in a remarkably vivid, engagingly elliptical way, a portrait of a small Welsh town, Llareggub. Here was a 24-hour slice of a community cut through the strata of small-town life to bring the listener past the front doors, past the niceties, into the hearts and minds of the people themselves. We’re let into their thoughts, memories and feelings with the outside world running its own concurrent existence.

Now, half a century after that first transmission, it has become a classic of radio, perhaps the greatest radio play ever – an unforgettable ‘comedy of humours’, as the critic Kenneth Tynan called it. It was, without question, the pinnacle of creativity in British radio, coming at a time when the medium had not been marginalised by TV, when millions still gathered around their ‘wireless’ to listen as a family.

Under Milk Wood casts such a strong shadow over Dylan Thomas’s work that, in the 21st century, it is easy to think that it emerged fully formed in a short space of time, a moment when writer, performers and medium met and gelled into a classic event. But this was not really the case. It was a very special event, certainly. Everyone who participated in that recording was aware that something special was taking place. It might have been partially fuelled by the dramatic circumstances: the recent death of Thomas himself, an unequivocal feeling that here was a script that was much more than just an ordinary 90-minute radio play, and the fact that Richard Burton, the young classical actor of the moment, lead an outstanding cast. And there was a highoctane atmosphere in the studio itself for many reasons: five days of rehearsal had been set aside – an unusual length even in those days – and there was a fair amount of pre-recording (including children’s voices from Dylan Thomas’s hometown of Laugharne); by contrast, Richard Burton himself was only able to come to the final rehearsal because of Shakesperean commitments at the Old Vic; and while at least it was not a live broadcast – transmission was the following day – it was in the early days of tape, and editing opportunities were fairly minimal.

The sense of anticipation surrounding the occasion was underlined by the unusual interest of Harley Usill, far-sighted founder of the spoken-word record label Argo, who agreed even before the recording to release the broadcast as an LP. His judgement was unerring: it is said to have sold over two million units – on LP, tape and now CD – over the years.

Though sudden in its final appearance, Under Milk Wood was the culmination of a life’s work for Dylan Thomas. It has been called the ‘Welsh Ulysses’, and Joyce’s masterpiece certainly did lay seeds in Thomas’s mind. As early as 1932, in conversation with his mentor Bert Trick, Thomas mused about doing a ‘Welsh Ulysses’; and there are clearly similarities: one town, 24 hours, the inner speech interwoven with exterior world, and the sense of everyday events as mythical. His word sense was also shot through with humour: it was as early as 1932 or 1933 that Thomas first came up with the name of Llareggub for the town. When Crick was surprised at such a Welsh word, Thomas advised him to read it backwards.

And it was as ‘Llareggub’, and later ‘The Town That Was Mad’, that the concept of 24 hours in a small town survived and mutated over the following two decades. Llareggub is in fact the name of a woman who appears in a stark story called The Burning Baby that Thomas had written in the 1930s; but there are many instances of words, names, phrases and, above all, atmospheres that first appear in stories, poems, scripts, letters and conversations before eventually reaching their final and finest form in Under Milk Wood.

Throughout the 1940s, Thomas played with the idea of ‘Llareggub’. Initial sketches concentrated on painting pictures of the town and its inhabitants. Then he considered adding a storyline based on a Welsh town enclosed by barbed wire and called ‘The Town That Was Mad’. He had mentioned that it was to be partially based on Laugharne, the Welsh sea town that he had made his home. Thomas even considered a play in which people of Laugharne would play themselves. ‘They are so convinced that they’re absolutely sane normal people. I think they’d be delighted to prove this on stage,’ he told his friend, the writer Richard Hughes.

Parallel to his private life as a writer was Thomas’s more public life – as a drinker and carouser, of course, but also as a performer. He began recording for the BBC in 1937, though the first broadcast was not auspicious: he forgot about the recording and had to be dragged out of a pub to a studio. He did not record again for nearly two years. But it was clear that he did have a natural and distinctive talent for reading poetry, particularly his own, but also that of others. Over the next few years his became an increasingly familiar voice on the wireless, and it extended beyond poetry as he began to devise programmes of a different nature – observations on life and documentaries of all kinds. Though his broadcasting work was punctuated by his active social life, there was no doubting the charisma that crossed the airways.

Musing about Wales, especially the Wales of his youth, became quite a regular occupation. In 1943 he wrote Reminiscences of Childhood for the BBC Welsh Service, about Swansea. In 1944 he wrote and broadcast Quite Early One Morning, which presents his view of another Welsh town, New Quay. Here was the voice of the personal narrator, a foreshadowing of Under Milk Wood, both told in Thomas’s idiosyncratic singing style:

Quite early one morning in the winter in Wales, by the sea that was lying down still after and green of grass after a night of tar-black howling and rolling, I went out of the house where I had come to stay after a cold unseasonal holiday…

The town was not yet awake…

It is in Quite Early One Morning that Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard first appears, saying: ‘Before you let the sun in, mind he wipes his shoes,’ one of the unforgettable lines in Under Milk Wood; also present are ‘bombazine black’ and ‘the big seas of dreams’, the kind of rich imagery that epitomises Dylan Thomas, Welsh no matter how he sounded, redolent of rhythm and chapel.

The following year, there was another affectionate look backwards at his childhood (perhaps more imaginary than true) in Memories of Christmas, which was broadcast on BBC Wales’s Children’s Hour. Shortly after this came The London: ‘a day in the life of Mrs and Mrs Jackson, Ted and Lily, of number forty-nine Montrose Street, Shepherds Bush, London, W12’. This mixed narration with fantasy, and in form, if not Welsh content, it was an important precursor of Under Milk Wood. Thomas’s biographer Andrew Lycett, in Dylan Thomas: A New Life, points out that in the same year, Edward Sackville-West asked, in the New Statesman ‘why this remarkable poet had never attempted a poetic drama for broadcasting’.

With the benefit of hindsight, an unmistakeable head of steam was gradually building. In 1947 came Return Journey to Swansea, which steps even closer to Under Milk Wood. Here, personal narration and short character scenes are intermingled effectively and naturally. It is full of wit – sometimes against the narrator himself with his ‘cut-glass accent’ – and poetry, of course. The character interpolations have that immediacy which makes the form so successful in its more famous incarnation.

Return Journey also demonstrated how an atmospheric, descriptive piece could stand on its own with the slimmest of plots or driving storyline. Here, the unifying thread is a search for a lost time. Thomas was not to abandon the idea of a plot for Under Milk Wood for some time, but he was firmly in control of the medium of radio broadcasting.

In 1949 he sent a poem, Over St John’s Hill, to an Italian literary magazine, Botteghe Oscure. This published work in Italian and English and was run by Marguerite Caetani, Princess di Bassiano. It was the first contact between the two and the poem’s publication was to result in other collaborations. In 1952, very short of money, Thomas sent the first half of a script entitled Llareggub: A Play for Radio Perhaps, asking her, desperately, for £100. It didn’t contain a trace of what he still thought would be the plot – a town enclosed by barbed wire – but was just an evocation of a town and its people. The storyline would come, he thought.

The script had advanced with the support and help of the BBC producer Douglas Cleverdon. Initially, ‘The Town That Was Mad’, as discussed by Thomas and Cleverdon in 1950, was to have a storyline involving a town that was certified mad under post-war legislation. The townspeople would have to prove their sanity in court, cross-examined by blind Captain Cat. But none of this appeared in the script sent to Botteghe Oscure.

Cleverdon had already worked with Dylan Thomas, recording Thomas’s own poetry and also that of Milton. His role over the next three years until its first performance was crucial – teasing out the script from an increasingly ailing Thomas, guarding it, and finally bringing it into brilliant daylight through the original BBC recording (and a second recording some years later). Without Cleverdon, it would probably not have happened. At one point Cleverdon (a former bookseller in Bristol) even tried to get the notoriously unreliable Thomas a job at the BBC, when the poet was in even greater financial straits than normal. He asked that Thomas be put on the payroll for six weeks so that he could finish Under Milk Wood. When this was deemed unacceptable, he suggested paying Thomas five guineas per thousand words (at this point, a series was being discussed) and if it were not finished he, Cleverdon, would cover the payments from his own salary. Ultimately this was not necessary, but the commitment shown by Cleverdon was exceptional.

Equally important in the genesis of Under Milk Wood were Thomas’s American contacts. In 1950 Thomas made his first trip to the USA and became a hit on the poetryreading circuit. His presence, his reading manner and his poetry combined to create an impact in a similar way as happened with Oscar Wilde 70 years before. One of his principal champions and supporters was John Brinnin, a poet himself but also director of the Poetry Center at the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association in New York: the YM-YWHA society. He invited Thomas to read there and to organise further readings. Brinnin was to play a much greater role than simply a facilitator: it was his encouragement in New York (and sometimes in the UK) combined with Cleverdon’s efforts in London that ensured the completion of Under Milk Wood.

In September 1952 Brinnin met Thomas in a pub in North London. It was there, during a discussion about programme options for another American tour, that ‘Llareggub’ was mentioned. It would provide, Brinnin suggested, a very different evening from that of a poetry selection: how was it going? Thomas said he could have it nearly ready by March in time for a performance by May. This would give American actors a chance to get to grips with the parts. It was also in this conversation that Thomas suggested a different title – ‘Under Milk Wood’ – as ‘Llareggub’ might be a bit obscure for American audiences. And so it became.

In April 1953 Thomas sailed for New York. He was met by Elizabeth Reitell, nominally assistant to Brinnin at the Poetry Center, but a well-connected and nononsense New Yorker. It was her job to make Under Milk Wood happen – which meant ensuring that it was written and that a cast was there, rehearsed, to perform it.

Thomas fulfilled various poetry and lecture engagements in Boston, all the while working on the script. He gave the first solo reading of Under Milk Wood in Harvard on 3 May and continued a busy series of appearances. A week before the scheduled performance at the Poetry Center he rehearsed with the cast, making small changes to the script: Butcher Beynon chased after ‘squirrels’ rather than ‘corgis’ with his cleaver – changes meant for America only. He encouraged the actors with ‘Love the words, love the words’.

He was still travelling constantly, reading poetry, addressing students and living on the edge. The day before the first performance, Thomas was in Boston. He came back into New York by train on the morning of Thursday 14 May and arrived in time for a rehearsal. He then made other small alterations to the script, working it into presentable form.

Elizabeth Reitell, in a talk called Portrait of Dylan Thomas given on the BBC’s Third Programme in November 1963, recalled:

The curtain was going to rise at 8.40pm. Well, at 8.10 Dylan was locked in the backroom with me. And no end to Under Milk Wood. He kept saying ‘I can’t, I simply can’t do this.’ I said, ‘You can, the curtain is going to go up.’ Strangely enough, he wrote the very end of Under Milk Wood then and there, and he wrote the lead-up to it. He would scribble it down, I would copy it, print it so that the secretary could read it, hand it to John Brinnin, and hand it to the secretary, to do six copies. We all jumped into a cab finally and got over to the theatre at half-past eight and handed out the six copies to the actors.

He rushed through an ending – which became the final ending. At 8.40pm, he walked onto the stage with five American actors, and the premiere of Under Milk Wood was underway. Thomas read the First Voice, the Reverend Eli Jenkins and other small parts while the American cast shared the rest, performing in a mixture of English and attempts at Welsh – all with an unmistakeable New York twang. The spoken-word publishing company Caedmon, who had already released LPs of Thomas, was on hand with a single microphone and an ordinary tape machine to record the event.

It was a success. It was fresh, inventive and entertaining. There were 14 curtain calls and a second reading some days later at the Poetry Center. By the time Thomas returned to the UK, news of the success had preceded him, and his agent David Higham and Cleverdon were both keen to ensure a prominent English premiere.

Under Milk Wood was still not finished. Thomas, back in Laugharne with his family, continued to work on it while also working on a BBC programme, the long-term project of an opera with Igor Stravinsky (whom he had met in America), and various poems. In September he was back in London to prepare for a flight to New York. He visited Cleverdon on 15 September carrying the handwritten manuscript of Under Milk Wood. Cleverdon immediately set a secretary to type it out, returning it to the author afterwards. The following day, Thomas rang Cleverdon in a panic, saying that he had lost the manuscript somewhere. Fortunately, Cleverdon was able to say that he could provide a copy for him to take to New York. Some days later, after Thomas had already left, Cleverdon tracked down the manuscript in a Soho pub.

Thomas took part in two further performances of Under Milk Wood at Kaufmann Auditorium sponsored by the Poetry Center on 24 and 25 October. Again, he made certain small changes to the text to accommodate American speech (‘gypsies’ were substituted for ‘gyppos’) and shortly after he celebrated his 39th birthday, on 27 October. Engagements, parties and a lot of drinking followed – and he fell ill. On 5 November he lapsed into a coma and he died in hospital on 9 November.

Plans for the BBC recording of Under Milk Wood had already been made. Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices had been through many guises in the 20 years since the first germ of an idea mentioned to Bert Trick, but for much of that time it was seen as a play for radio. Radio was such a prominent part of Thomas’s life – not least as a source of income – that he repeatedly emphasised the medium for which it was designed.

He sold early drafts to Botteghe Oscure, at his death he was working on an abridged form for the American magazine Mademoiselle, and on his return from the first performance in the Poetry Center his agent and the publishers Dent discussed bringing it out in book form.

Meanwhile, Cleverdon was assiduously and determinedly ensuring that it would be heard on radio. The death of Thomas did not deter him. The BBC could draw on experienced radio voices from BBC Wales for the character parts. Daniel Jones, the Welsh composer, close friend of Thomas and his literary trustee, was commissioned to prepare the music and children from Laugharne to sing the songs in pre-recorded sessions.

In his authoritative book on Under Milk Wood – The Growth of Milk Wood – Cleverdon says unequivocally: ‘Had Dylan lived he would have taken the part of the First Voice in the broadcast productions.’ The favourite to take his place was Richard Burton, the young Welsh star (fortunately in London where Under Milk Wood was to be recorded) in the Old Vic’s Shakespeare season. Cleverdon finalised the script, incorporating some of the changes made by Thomas in New York, and sent it to the Director General of the BBC for censorship clearance. It was deemed fit to record in its entirety though in the end a few words were cut.

The music was recorded on 15 and 16 January at Laugharne School. The introduction of tape some years before enabled these children’s songs to be prerecorded and mixed in later – but most of the sound effects were done live in the studio at the time of the recording.

Five days of rehearsals were scheduled – an unusually long period even for those relaxed days – from Wednesday 20 January to Sunday 24 January. Burton was playing Hamlet at night and rehearsing Coriolanus during the day so he hadn’t time to attend rehearsals. In his book Cleverdon says that he pre-recorded Burton reading the narration and used this recording during rehearsals; but Richard Bebb, who read Second Voice, denies this (see Richard Bebb’s account). Perhaps Cleverdon confused this recording with the 1963 version that he made subsequently. However, Burton did join the cast on Sunday morning for the final rehearsal, and the recording in the afternoon. It was clearly a hugely creative time, but also fraught. Daniel Jones, as literary trustee, refused to allow a few extra speeches, written by Thomas in New York, to be incorporated in the BBC performance, despite pleas by Cleverdon. They have since been reinstated in the ‘definitive’ edition of the play.

The other major difference between the BBC broadcast version and the ‘definitive’ edition is the use of First Voice and Second Voice. Thomas clearly split the part of the narrator between two actors for the BBC version that he handed to Cleverdon before travelling to New York. According to Bebb, this was not for any textual or dramatic reason, but because it was part of an unspoken tradition within BBC Radio to try to employ as many actors as possible. In all the performances given by Thomas himself, and in subsequent recordings, and in virtually all performances, there has always been only one narrator.

The cast was a mixture of professional and semi-professional, even amateur, actors. At the heart was a core of professional actors, most of whom were highly experienced in the special art of radio performance. Richard Burton was already the leading young actor of his day. Nurtured by his adopted father Philip Burton (a school teacher turned radio producer and occasional actor), Richard had been a child actor and, despite being relatively young at this stage, knew the ins and outs of a radio studio like an old professional. It was this that enabled him to feel relatively confident in stepping in to do First Voice with virtually no rehearsal. He found it a tougher task than he had imagined, but was able to draw on his radio experience and natural talent to produce one of the most charismatic performances in radio history. Another especially vivid performance came from Hugh Griffith, an established figure who effectively used his gravely voice to create a unsurpassable blind Captain Cat.

Bebb, another young Welsh actor, had just joined the BBC Radio Rep. – that changing group of actors who expect to be called in at any moment to read a letter, a quote, play Romeo or a part in a modern drama. Versatility, quick thinking, natural talent and an awareness of the microphone as a friend are the requisites for a job with the BBC Radio Rep., which still exists. He read the part of Second Voice.

Gwenyth Petty was a young actress based in BBC Wales, and, with many of her colleagues, came up to London to take part in this production.

I was in Cardiff when I remember being told that there was a production being planned for the Third Programme. It would mean a week in London. I was pleased because my boyfriend was a medical student at St Thomas’s. There was a lot of traffic between the BBC Rep. in Wales and London. I went into Studio 2 and there was Douglas Cleverdon with the script spread out on the grand piano. We had no idea the impact that work would have.

Petty read for Cleverdon and was invited to London to join the cast of Under Milk Wood, playing Lily Smalls and Mrs Dai Bread One. In that first BBC recording also was Sybil Williams, Burton’s wife, a gifted actress in her own right – she played Myfanwy Price.

The BBC recording used a varied cast to create a rich soundscape of a Welsh fishing village. There were experienced professionals, such as Hugh Griffith who played Captain Cat, and Rachel Roberts. Many of the other actors were, strictly speaking, amateurs in that they earned their living in other ways. One example was the aforementioned Philip Burton, who recited the poetry of the Reverend Eli Jenkins with aplomb. These semi-professionals or amateurs appeared regularly on BBC Wales and knew how to create and project distinct characters.

All these different strands came together to make a legendary recording. From its first broadcast on 25 January 1954 it was acknowledged as something extraordinary and it established Under Milk Wood as a classic, to be repeated many times a year for many years. Though it may have found its perfect milieu, it wasn’t long before stage versions appeared. Cleverdon was involved in the first UK stage production which opened at the Theatre Royal, Newcastleupon- Tyne on 13 August 1956 and then travelled to the Edinburgh Festival. The parts of First Voice and Second Voice were brought together and played by Donald Houston. The production reached London in September and played for seven months. Cleverdon then directed the first US stage production which opened on Broadway at the Henry Miller Theatre on 15 October 1956.

In 1963, Cleverdon made a second recording of the play for the BBC. The intention was to present a ‘full version’ reinstating speeches which Jones had refused to allow in 1954. Once again, Cleverdon turned to Richard Burton as the single narrator. Some of the original cast came back, but sometimes in different parts. Hugh Griffith was Captain Cat again; Gwenyth Petty played Rosie Probert and reprised Lily Smalls; Rachel Thomas (wife of Rex Harrison) who had played Rosie Probert earlier switched to Mrs Pugh and reprised Mrs Willy Nilly. But while it may have been textually more correct, and had improved technical standards, this second BBC recording couldn’t match the spirit and magic of that first recording.

Burton later made a video recording of Under Milk Wood. Anthony Hopkins and a carefully chosen cast, produced by George Martin, then made a brave attempt at putting a different, modern spin on it for another commercial recording in the 1980s.

However, despite certain raw moments, audible edits, and sonic limitations of the period, the original 1954 recording remains by far the one to hear. It is one of those rare occasions when the greatness of the work is matched, not just served, by the greatness of the performance – and fortunately, the BBC microphones were on hand to record it.

By Nicolas Soames

Close the window