Dylan Thomas died the week before I was born. He might just still be alive, if he had looked after himself, like one of those ancient First World War veterans, perhaps, who went through hell and then ate strained vegetables into advanced old age.
Some chance. In the year that we celebrate the centenary of his birth, I thought it fitting to pay tribute to the life that raged against the dying of the light and burned in the pubs and cellars of Soho, despite that flame being extinguished in New York when he was only 39.
Last year I sat in my study overlooking Fitzroy Street, with his granddaughter Hannah Ellis, discussing plans for a TV film I wanted to produce with Tom Hollander as Dylan, called A Poet in New York. We started musing on his London life, his metropolitan excesses and his ramblings across this crowded urban landscape.
Conway Street, where he had lodgings, was just over the way. The Wheatsheaf pub, where he met with Caitlin and laid his head in her lap to swear his undying love, is down the road on the curve of Rathbone Street. The Fitzroy Tavern, where he held a conversational court that allowed no dissenters, is on the corner of Charlotte Street. This was the world he had to force himself to renounce from time to time: a world of “coloured shirts, too much talk and too little work” that he dragged himself away from to get peace in the marshes of Laugharne.
This was what fuelled his particular fuse for at least half his short life, growing up in pubs, clubs and downstairs drinking dens. It was a shouing, hollering, bohemian roustabout inland- sailor lifestyle. This was the one that I wanted to make a film about, because forces of sanctity and hagiography now hover over the shade of Dylan Thomas.
There are too many polite personages and keepers of the flame, smoothers out and protectors of the man who want to brush him down and put him up on the shelf with the immortals, and into anthologies as a safe “romantic” poet. These people call Do not go gentle into that good night “elegiac”, as Malcolm Muggeridge did in an old Monitor, because they have never read it aloud, as he meant it to be read, and understood its harsh, life-affirming howl of regret.
Dylan Thomas was no academic poet. He didn’t take any conventional road to a provincial university and a teaching job. Nor was he a particularly polite person. Reading about his trips to America in John Malcolm Brinnin’s account, or Andrew Lycett’s biography, or even Caitlin’s own bitter threnody, the man who emerges is a familiar figure to anyone who has played poker late at night in the Groucho Club, or been challenged to snooker by Lennie the Hat, or found themselves in Marylebone police station at two in the morning.
There are plenty of people I have marvelled at for their self-centred, egotistical, damn-you reckless balls: Soho mountaineers and surfers. He would have recognised them. Thomas hung out with the hacks and the artists.
He liked to frighten the bourgeoisie. If introduced to high table at university, he wasted no time in producing something deliciously obscene. If he was given a room for the night he stole shirts. If left alone, he went to a strip club. He revelled in Johnnie Ray. He lay in bed eating sweets and reading Mickey Spillane. He hardly let a day pass without trying to cadge money off someone. He hated hard and he loved harder. He entertained, he competed and he jousted into the late, late hours.
During the Blitz, as he and his fellow night watchmen roamed to the French pub, one trailed behind and got blown away by a bomb. What a story to tell. What a drink-fuelled rocky route to climb. And, of course, like all hard-drinking fun- seekers, as time went on he found the edges fray- ing and the companions fading away, the drink becoming his major prop and only loyal mate. There are plenty of revisionists who want to deny this. Eighteen whiskies would have been impossible. OK, so it was only ten, then.
The best corrective to a picture of alcoholic Aeronwy’s own account of growing up in the refuge of Laugharne, with her daddy. There, Caitlin locked him in the famous shed every morning. The pub and a pint of bitter became a quieter version of the black holes of north Soho, but it was this connection with the showmen – Augustus John, the Roberts, MacBryde and Colquhoun, Richard Burton, and other actors, artists and poets – that gave him his performing edge.
He had come out of amateur theatricals as one of the Swansea “Kardomah Gang” and became what Stephen Fry has described as “a gentleman amateur” – a bit of reading on the radio here, writing documentary propaganda there, flam- boyantly parading his talents everywhere. But most of all he was a serious, dedicated, hard working, pernickety, obsessive, word-cudgelling poet. When he went to New York they loved him for that. He was the new Charles Dickens. His readings were applauded. His fruity panache filled houses. He was adored by “ardents”, as he called them. He squired his assistants in the Chelsea Hotel and held court, to the utter disgust of his wife, in the White Horse Tavern.
But he is not a representative of poetry clubs and high-minded earnest nature-worship. If he had been, his poetry wouldn’t have the kick it does. He refused to be grappled into the company of the Surrealists, though there was a sense of disassociation and free subconscious in every- thing he wrote. He saw himself as Rimbaud. He staggered around the demimonde with a whis- key in his hand and dirty limerick in his head.
The New York visits remind us that he was an international star, and one with a rock-star lifestyle before such a thing was associated with musicians. He worked on Under Milk Wood for four years for an American audience. It was first read aloud by New York actors. I am afraid we can’t wipe all that away to try to make him “really, a quiet spiritual person”. I’m sure he was. Aren’t we all in the mornings, recovering from the White Horse with a beer and raw egg?
But we should not deny it is that spirit that infuses and drives his later poetry. Under Milk Wood is a successful piece, unlike The Cocktail Party, because of its demotic tone. It allows a fantasy poetic inspiration to the ordinary bloke.
“Welsh whimsy” is what Andrew Davies, the writer of A Poet in New York, puts into Dylan’s self-loathing mouth, and it may be that, but it also recognises that all people have poetry in their dreams, not just “poets” and English literature graduates. It’s why it continues to grab audiences and raise hairs on the neck.
So the drama is there to celebrate the creative ferment that lives around mean streets, dark alleys and crowded pubs as much as under the apple boughs. Even though the lost land of content may be the subject, it’s the dirty urban grind that takes the toll. But in the end it’s the poetry that matters. Andrew Davies took what could have been a depressing story and somehow gave it an arc, a tragic sweep. We were privileged to watch him mould the material to give us the sweet essence of the man and his creative genius. And Andrew did something that he wanted to from the very beginning: he put the poetry centre stage.
A few weeks ago I watched the final cut of A Poet in New York at a preview press screening. The moment where Tom Hollander takes hold of Fern Hill and articulates the thick, fruit-laden imagery of the verse into a beautiful, chiming reading full of sound and emotion, is just trans- porting. Dylan may have played hard but he scrubs up well.
I think amongst the drinking and sad decline we portray, it will be the poetry that people will genuinely remember from this production. And that is because it is filled with a hard, uncompromising lust for life.
Griff Rhys Jones is supporting Dylan Thomas in Fitzrovia, a festival celebrating the life and work of the poet. For more details see dylanthomasfitzrovia.com
A Poet in New York, Sunday 9:00pm on BBC2