Dylan Thomas’ Début on Air

On the 9th of November 1953, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas died  in New York. Famous for such poems as ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ or ‘And death shall have no dominion’, Dylan is also remembered for his exceptionally fruitful collaboration with the BBC. Between 1943 and 1953, Dylan made approximately 145 appearances on air, reading poetry and prose. The ‘Reminiscences of Childhood’, his first BBC broadcast, was aired on the 15th of February 1943.  

It is said that on that day, John Pudley, a poet who also worked for the BBC at the time, “found Dylan in a somewhat distraught state in a public house in London only an hour or so before he was due to broadcast from Swansea. Pudney most competently took Dylan to Broadcasting House, arranged that the cables be rearranged, and the broadcast, Dylan’s first, went out on time.” (Constantine Fitzgibbon, Life of Dylan Thomas).

From recollections of Roy Campbell, one of the BBC producers, Dylan appears to have been quite a character to work with: “Dylan was the best all round reader of verse that I ever produced… [he] only had one weakness – he could not read correct poets like Pope or Dryden. He was best at the ‘wild and woolly’ poets. I used to keep him on beer all day till he had done his night’s work and then take him down to the Duty room where the charming Miss Backhouse or Miss Tofield would pour us both a treble whiskey as a reward for our labours. It was with Blake and Manley Hopkins that Dylan became almost Superman: but we had bad luck with Dryden. Dylan had got at the whiskey first and he started behaving like a prima donna. He insisted on having an announcer instead of beginning the program right away as we used to on the Third Program.

There were only two minutes to go and I rushed back to the studio and found Dylan snoring in front of the mike with only twenty seconds left. He was slumped back in his chair, with an almost seraphic expression of blissful peace. I shook him awake, and, to his horror and consternation, began announcing him in my South African accent, but trying to talk like an English announcer, with my tonsils, in an ‘Oxford accent’. Dylan nearly jumped out of his skin with fright and horror: and was almost sober when he got the green light, though he did bungle the title as Ode on Shaint Sheshilia’s Day; but after that his voice cleared up and I began to breathe again.” (Ralph Maud, On the Air with Dylan Thomas: The Broadcasts).

On the other hand, John Arlott, who also worked with Dylan spoke of “his very real integrity which made him a perfect touchstone for a producer… He took production like a professional actor and, when he stepped up to the microphone to read, made a happily extravagant figure. Round, with the roundness of a Tintoretto urchin-cherub, and in a large, loose tweed jacket, he would stand, feet apart and head thrown back, a dead cigarette frequently adhering wispily to his lower lip, curls a little tousled and eyes half-closed, barely reading the poetry by eye, but rather understanding his way through it, one arm beating out a sympathetic double rhythm as he read.” (Maud).

As much as Dylan’s radio persona has contributed to many colourful and rampant legends on his life, let’s not forget what he should really be remembered for – his beautifully woven poetry and prose. The fragment of his first broadcast is an excellent example of Dylan’s exceptional sense of observation of life and his poetic sensitivity.        

Reminiscences of Childhood

(First Version)

I was born in a large Welsh industrial town at the beginning of the Great War: an ugly, lovely town (or so it was, and is, to me), crawling, sprawling, slummed, unplanned, jerry-villa’d, and smug-suburbed by the side of a long and splendid-curving shore where truant boys and sandfield boys and old anonymous men, in the tatters and hangovers of a hundred charity suits, beachcombed, idled, and paddled, watched the dock-bound boats, threw stones into the sea for the barking, outcast dogs, and, on Saturday summer afternoons, listened to the militant music of salvation and hell-fire preached from a soap-box.

This sea-town was my world; outside, a strange Wales, coal-pitted, mountained, river-run, full, so far as I knew, of choirs and sheep and story-book tall hats, moved about its business which was none of mine; beyond that unknown Wales lay England, which was London, and a country called ‘The Front’ from which many of our neighbours never came back. At the beginning, the only ‘front’ I knew was the little lobby before our front door; I could not understand how so many people never returned from there; but later I grew to know more, though still without understanding, and carried a wooden rifle in Cwmdonkin Park and shot down the invisible, unknown enemy like a flock of wild birds. And the park itself was a world within the world of the sea-town; quite near where I lived, so near that on summer evenings I could listen, in my bed, to the voices of other children playing ball on the sloping, paper-littered bank; the Park was full of terrors and treasures. The face of one old man who sat, summer and winter, on the same bench looking over the swanned reservoir, I can see more clearly, I think, than the city-street faces I saw an hour ago: and years later I wrote a poem about, and for, this never, by me, to-be-forgotten ‘Hunchback in the Park’.

The hunchback in the park,

A solitary mister

Propped between trees and water

From the opening of the garden lock

That lets the trees and water enter

Until the Sunday-sombre bell at dark,

Eating bread from a newspaper,

Drinking water from the chained cup

That lets the trees and water enter

Until the Sunday-sombre bell at dark,

Eating bread from a newspaper,

Drinking water from the chained cup

That the children filled with gravel

In the fountain basin where I sailed my ship,

Slept at night in a dog-kennel

But nobody chained him up.

Like the park birds he came early,

Like the water he sat down,

And Mister, they called, Hey Mister,

The truant boys from the town

Running when he had heard them clearly

On out of sound,

Past lake and rockery,

Laughing when he shook his paper,

Through the loud zoo of the willow groves,

Hunchback in mockery

Dodging the park-keeper

With his stick that picked up leaves.

And the old dog sleeper,

Alone between nurses and swans

While the boys among willows

Made the tigers jump out of their eyes

To roar on the rockery stones

And the groves were blue with sailors,

Made all day until bell-time

A woman’s figure without fault

Straight as a young elm,

Straight and tall from his crooked bones

That she might stand in the night

After the locks and the chains

All night in the unmade park

After the railings and shrubberies,

The birds, the grass, the trees and the lake,

And the wild boys innocent as strawberries,

Had followed the hunchback

To his kennel in the dark.

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