I haven’t seen my old university pal James Ellis since his graduation, about four years ago. We met in October 2009, when we were both doing Combined Studies at the University of Glamorgan. We were studying the same psychology modules, and we hit it off immediately. I think we could see each other as kindred spirits – outgoing and talkative, quite widely read, fairly polymathic, interested in a broad range of music, rather eccentric, and neither with ‘conventional’ sexual tastes.
When I had to crash out of my course halfway through my second year, it became apparent that I wouldn’t be able to graduate on schedule (if ever). Knowing how disappointed I was, James invited me to be his guest at his own graduation the following summer. We’ve since kept in touch via Facebook, and we’ve made tentative plans to meet up whenever I go to Cardiff, but he always seems to be busy with even more projects than I manage to juggle.
James writes regular reviews for a student newspaper called The Sprout, and has recently been involved with a number of offbeat theatrical productions in between trips to London for orchestral performances. I singularly failed to take advantage of London when I had the chance. James has made the most of living in Cardiff and thrown himself headlong into as many creative ventures as possible.
About a month ago he created an event on Facebook: an evening of music and drama in a small venue in (old) Cardiff Bay, to mark the 150th birthday of the French composer, writer, artist and general oddball Erik Satie. He sent me an invitation, and I ticked the ‘Interested’ box for the time being.
I confess that at the time I knew next to nothing about Satie. I knew one of his best-known piano pieces; I knew that Brian Eno had quoted his maxim about wanting ‘music that could mingle with the knives and forks at dinner’ in the sleeve notes to Discreet Music; I knew that he was regarded as a sort-of spiritual leader by the minimalists and the Ambient Music movement. And that was about it.
About a week later James shared the event again, adding that there were only limited seats left. I decided to take a chance and go down, regardless of what was in store. The tickets were £8.00 a throw. I thought it would be an intriguing change from an average Aberdare Tuesday night (on which nothing exciting happens if you’re lucky). I ordered my ticket, and then emailed my very good friend (and fellow proofreader) Rob H. to see if he’d be interested in coming down as well. How’s this for a small world? Rob and James already knew each other through attending various concerts in Cardiff. Rob ordered his ticket as well, and I emailed James to let him know we’d both be coming on the night.
That was on the Tuesday afternoon. In the evening I called into the Glosters for a pint, and Jason C. was there. After chatting about all sorts for a while, I mentioned the Erik Satie evening. Jason knew even less about Satie than I did, but he agreed with my assessment of an average Tuesday in the Valleys. He gave me the cash, and I went online and booked another ticket straight away. And then there were three …
Jason and I set off from Aberdare on the 1552 train yesterday. Sort of. A low-loader had dinged the bridge just south of Aberdare Station, and the road was closed while the police sorted the accident out. I was half-expecting the trains to be cancelled while Network Rail engineers inspected the structure, but in the event the train arrived about ten minutes late. There are ‘recovery times’ built into the timetable anyway, so we made it into Cardiff only marginally behind schedule. We changed trains, caught the shuttle service to Cardiff Bay, and went in search of the venue.
My A-Z of Cardiff is so old that it doesn’t even show the barrage, never mind the Roald Dahl Plass development, the Welsh Assembly, the Millennium Centre, or any of the tourist hotspots that have sprung up in this previously run-down and neglected part of town. (Even the station is still labelled as ‘Bute Road’.) It does show Mount Stuart Square, though. Rob and I had both looked it up online, and found that Sunflower and I was on one corner. Jason and I soon found it, but we were way too early for the start. We decided to walk as far as the barrage to kill time.
I must admit that I don’t know old Butetown very well. There are some marvellous Victorian buildings in the area – some in much better condition than others – and even though they don’t qualify for the Vanishing Valleys project, I’ll be photographing them in due course. Just look at the former offices of the Capital and Counties Bank.
We found our way to Roald Dahl Plass, walked across the steps of the Senedd building, followed the footpath past the famous Norwegian Church, and hugged the edge of the bay as it curves around towards the barrage. We passed the new Doctor Who Experience, which is housed in something only marginally smaller than an aircraft hangar. It’s odd to think that the Cardiff docks, part of which is now home to BBC Wales’s production facilities, are still are a working port as well – albeit with a fraction of the shipping that passed through here in its heyday.
We walked on past the Captain Scott Expedition Exhibition (pardon? – Ed) and made our way towards the barrier. There were loads of people jogging and cycling on this stretch. Neither of us could see the point of doing that, when a decent stretch of the legs has much the same effect.
There are terrific views across the bay. I shared my first ever panorama of Cardiff Bay with you in ‘Flipping Pictures‘ a few years ago; the sun was out and the sky was blue. Yesterday the sky was grey, and the sun was playing hard to get behind a bank of ominous clouds. It was refreshingly blustery, but the rain was holding off. We pressed on regardless, and once again our comic timing let us down.
I’ve never seen the Cardiff Bay Barrage in action, so to speak. This amazing feat of civil engineering consists of a set of sea locks separating the relatively calm bay from the choppy waters of the Bristol Channel, just a few metres away. Every so often the road surface lifts on hinges to allow boats to come and go. There are traffic signals nearby, presumably adapted from a level crossing, which stop everything in its tracks when a vessel needs to pass through. We were still a few minutes away when I saw the masts of a yacht making their way slowly from the sea into the lagoon. By the time we reached the barrage itself, the road had returned to its normal position and the traffic was starting to move again.
We were halfway across the barrage when we spotted the yacht making its way into Penarth Marina, on the west side of the bay. The sea lock was still empty, though, and I was able to get a decent photo of the extraordinary sight.
At the western end of the barrage there’s the old Custom House, now converted into a couple of upmarket restaurants, and a shockingly derelict building beside it. We wondered why on earth it had been allowed to fall into disrepair, when a shrewd investor would have transformed it into apartments to die for. We had time to kill, and we wondered about having a pint in Penarth. The trouble is that neither of us really know our way around, and we didn’t want to be late for James’s show. We decided to retrace our steps and have a pint closer to the venue instead.
While we were passing the Millennium Centre on the way back, I spotted a familiar face. My friend Cerian does a lot of work with young musicians, and she was in town for a rehearsal with BBC Wales. Jason and I still had the best part of an hour to kill, so we found a pub called the Packet and decided to call in for a pint. It’s quite a large old-school pub on a corner, rather reminiscent of some of the East London pubs I remember from my first student days. The prices were reasonable (for Cardiff) and the lager wasn’t bad (for Cardiff), so I made a mental note of the place for future reference. We sat in the beer garden and had a chat before making our way to Sunflower and I.
It’s an odd place: rather a grand old building filled with tables and chairs, a couple of grand chandeliers, shelves lined with books and ornaments, and – in the middle of the room – a baby grand piano. By day it’s a flower shop and tea rooms; by night it becomes a venue for occasional live music. The young guy on the door (who we presumed was the owner) ticked our names off the guest list, and we made our way inside. To my surprise, Rob was already there, having gone directly from the station.
The venue was already fairly full, and James was bustling about putting last-minute preparations in place. I grabbed him for a couple of minutes and introduced him to the other guys – although he and Rob already knew each other vaguely, of course. We let him get on with things and found a space at the end of a long table and sat down to look at the programme for the evening. A few more people came in after us, including another of my friends, the versatile and gorgeous singer Cat Southall. How she and James know each other is a mystery, but he’s mixing with all sorts of creative people in Cardiff, so I suppose their paths were bound to cross at some point.
The performance of Medusa’s Trap started without fanfare or fuss. There wasn’t even a curtain for the cast to hide behind. Instead, they were performing in a small area in the middle of the room, with only a couple of armchairs as props. The main character, Baron Medusa (played by Tom Seymour), was ‘on stage’ pretty much the whole time, while the others came and went throughout. From overheard snatches of conversation during the interval, I gathered that they’re mostly involved with the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. I’ll namecheck them all, purely for journalistic accuracy: Polycarpe was played by Luke Hereford; Astolfo by Tom Roderick; Frisette by Gemini Anderson; Jonas by James himself; the prepared piano was played by Philip May.
What can I say? It’s a one-act play with bizarre dialogue, a slightly surreal situation, a handful of musical intervals, and a dancing monkey (played by James himself). By the halfway point I could see why the Surrealists and Absurdists would have looked on Satie as a kind of godfather. I can’t say I entirely understood it, but it was certainly well done and extremely French (in a nice way). The only problem we had (from our perspective behind the stage, so to speak) was that Mr Seymour was rather soft-spoken, and we often found it difficult to catch his lines. Still, it was just an appetiser for the main course.
During the interval Dr Caroline Potter of Kingston University gave a brief talk about Satie’s life, work and legacy. She’s written a book about him, which has just been published. (How on earth James had managed to invite her to speak remains a mystery. His networking skills put mine to shame, to be honest.)
The second part of the evening was a recital of some of Satie’s music, starting with probably his best-known pieces, Gymnopédie 1 and 2. I was in very slightly more familiar territory here. Mr May played most of the music during this second part, but James played a couple of his own brief minimalist (and quite experimental) compositions. A young girl named Lynne Phillips joined Mr May for a couple of fearsome-sounding piano duets, and the rest of the company either sang or played as well. Between costume changes, changing sides on the piano, singing with a pet rat on one’s head (seriously!) and almost trashing the piano, it was a pretty weird concert all told.
At the end of the performance we had a slice of birthday cake, sang ‘Happy Birthday’, had a very brief chat with James while he was helping to clear up, and made our way back to the station in time for the last train home.
On last night’s evidence there’s no doubt that we’re producing some fine talent here in Wales, and it was great to see some of them performing in an intimate – albeit unusual – setting. Weeping Tudor Productions are planning more Satie festivities over the next few months, and I’m hoping to support them if I can fit them in around my other commitments. I’m so proud to see one of my good friends doing something which he’s clearly passionate about, and it’s good to know that my other pals are willing to support something a bit out of the ordinary as well. Watch this space (or check out Weeping Tudor on Facebook for more details of their calendar) …
(By the way, did I mention that the tall, slim, attractive and red-haired Ms Anderson could very easily be my next ex-girlfriend if she plays her cards wrong?)
In which The Author realises he should have started his project a lot earlier
Yesterday I answered a ‘Tech Support’ call from my old friend Geoff E. We bumped into each other in Aberdare Library last week, and he mentioned that his old Windows XP-powered laptop was starting to show its age. I offered to call round and have a look at it. Even though I’m not as techie as some of my friends, I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks over the years. I thought I might be able to squeeze a bit more life out of it.
Geoff’s daughter Anna and I have been friends pretty much since I did my A Levels, thirty years ago this summer. She lives in Swansea now, but we still keep in touch via Facebook, usually exchanging Doctor Who-related nonsense. Her parents still live in Aberdare, and we run into each other quite often.
Since he retired, Geoff has been able to devote more of his time to the Cynon Valley History Society. As we both spend hours in the ‘Reference’ section of Aberdare Library, we often have a chat about this and that. Last week, he told me that his old laptop kept freezing when he was in the middle of something. He was understandably concerned that it was on its last legs. The laptop in question is technically the History Society’s property, and that was why Geoff wanted to pick my brains. We both agreed that it seems a shame to write it off simply because the security patches for Windows XP have dried up.
By a happy accident, Western Power Distribution have been working on the overhead supply in my street for a while. Yesterday morning they needed to turn the electricity off from 9.30 until lunchtime. That was a good excuse to get out early, and call round to Geoff’s house to see the extent of the problem for myself.
I’ve only been to the house once before, in 1999, when he was able to do Dillons Bookstore in Cardiff a huge favour. Simon Callow was coming to the shop to read from and sign his book Love Is Where It Falls. At the time, Mr Callow was starring in the one-man show The Mystery of Charles Dickens at Cardiff’s New Theatre. I knew from our previous conversations that Geoff was an avid collector of theatrical memorabilia. I phoned him on spec to see whether he had any suitable playbills or programmes which we could borrow as a backdrop for the signing session. As things turned out, I’d inadvertently struck the mother lode.
Geoff very kindly lent us a tiny part of his treasured collection, including some programmes dating from the time when the great Welsh actor Emlyn Williams was doing his own one-man show based on Dickens’ writings. I remember calling to the house one evening after work to pick them up, and being amazed by the sheer volume of material he’d collected over the years.
I’m pleased to report that the signing was a great success, and all credit goes to Trish for organising it. Mr Callow was charm personified, and he was fascinated by the pieces from Geoff’s collection. As a ‘thank you’ gift, we treated Geoff to a copy of the history of the National Theatre, which Mr Callow signed with a personal dedication. He also signed Geoff’s battered old copy of Being an Actor, and remarked, ‘This book has obviously been well-loved.’ He was right.
Anyway, Geoff showed me some more of his collection while we were waiting for the laptop to run a couple of diagnostic utilities. Anna’s mother Olga made us lunch and supper, we shared a couple of bottles of beer, and I eventually got home much later than I’d originally expected. It was a most enjoyable day spend in excellent company, and I’d like to thank them both for their hospitality.
Needless to say, since the advent of Ebay and Amazon, Geoff’s collection has increased in size considerably. As well as all his books, programmes, playbills, prints and photos, he’s accumulated a large number of postcards relating to the theatre. We spent a good while looking through some of his folders, and he outlined the stories behind some of the pictures.
We live in a time when theatres in South Wales are closing, being threatened with closure, or operating a ‘reduced programme’ (see The End of Culture and some of my other recent posts.) Similarly, small cinemas are being squeezed out of the market by out-of-town multiplexes. It was poignant, therefore, to see so many reminders of an era when every sizeable community in the Valleys boasted at least one theatre and/or picture house.
Geoff showed me several old photos of colossal Victorian theatres in Cardiff, which must have seated well over a thousand people apiece. Here’s one example: the New Theatre in Cardiff has a seating capacity of 1,144. I think I’ve only seen it full to bursting point once, when Jerome Flynn played Tommy Cooper in John Fisher’s uproarious show Just Like That. It’s hard to imagine that there must have been a dozen or more similar venues in the city centre alone.
Geoff showed me pictures of theatres/cinemas in Treherbert, Ebbw Vale, Blackwood, Hirwaun, Aberaman, and a host of other towns throughout Wales. Nearly all of them have gone now. Similarly, he has loads of pictures of superb Art Deco cinemas; nearly all of them have been demolished, or converted into something else. When I was younger, the Rex Cinema in Aberdare used to show films on Saturday mornings, and I remember the queue stretching halfway down Victoria Square. The last film I saw there was Pink Floyd: The Wall, in 1982.
The Rex itself featured as the run-down fleapit in the Welsh-language comedy film Rhosyn a Rhith, in 1986. Now it’s a car park. When I was growing up, the Palace Cinema used to be clearly visible from the sitting room window of Mams’ and Dads’ flat in Hirwaun. The flats were demolished ages ago. So was the Palace. So it goes…
Geoff also has a large collection of photographs showing some of the acts themselves – a bewildering roll-call of long-forgotten song and dance troupes, jugglers, conjurers, mind-readers, comedians, vent acts, dog acts, monologists… in short, the kind of fare that would be familiar to anyone who remembers the BBC TV show The Good Old Days.
Performers like those were the meat and drink of popular entertainment until the 1960s. The spread of television slowly killed off the variety circuit, until only ‘summer season’ in seaside resorts all over Britain survived. (That’s an era which was perfectly captured in another BBC TV series, Hi-De-Hi!).
Needless to say, Geoff has postcards of the Butlins holiday camps at Barry and Pwllheli, showing their massive theatres at the centre of the complexes. Barry Butlins was demolished in 1997; the site at Pwllheli closed the following year.
I vaguely remember seeing a summer season show in Torquay, when I was thirteen or fourteen. Jim Davidson topped the bill and the singing duo Peters and Lee supported. I’m not sure whether it was the same summer, or a different one, when Ray Alan and Lord Charles were on the bill. Another time, in Blackpool, we saw Little and Large, with an up-and-coming lunatic named Michael Barrymore some way down the bill.
That was over thirty years ago. The must-see family outing for the summer holidays is probably the theme park, bowling alley, or Hollywood summer blockbuster (in 3D, of course), except in a handful of popular seaside towns. Well, we saw shows in 3D when we were kids – and we didn’t even need special glasses!
Another postcard shows what might be a repertory company, photographed during a stint in South Wales. Repertory companies were the proving ground for young actors back in the day; they toured from small town to small town, living in ‘digs’ of various quality, performing one play while rehearsing another. At the end of John Schlesinger’s 1963 film Billy Liar, Billy and Liz find themselves at the railway station at midnight, waiting for the train to London. The camera hovers briefly on a nearby table, where a small group of people are arguing about accommodation. I shouldn’t be at all surprised if these minor characters were supposed to be a rep company, heading off to a new town and a new production.
In the first volume of his autobiography A Better Class of Person, John Osborne paints a vivid, sometimes funny, but often rather depressing picture of his life in rep. I was very surprised to learn that Geoff hasn’t read it. I’ve promised to lend it to him; I think he’ll thoroughly enjoy it.
(Incidentally, one of Geoff’s treasures is a programme for the first production of John Osborne’s dramatic milestone Look Back in Anger. It has a cover price of 6d – it’s probably worth considerably more today. We looked through his old copy of Theatre Review for the first half of 1956, and it was pleasing to see that, right from the start, it was recognised as a revolutionary piece of British drama.)
Geoff’s thinking of compiling an illustrated history of Welsh theatres; I suggested a few publishers which might be interested in such a project. I hope he manages to fit it in between his many other interests. It would be a fascinating archive of a lost era, and an indictment of a planning process which has allowed our architectural and cultural heritage to be obliterated in such a cavalier fashion.
Yesterday’s trip down Memory Lane pointed out (once again) that I’ve left it far to late to embark on my Vanishing Valleys project. I now know that I should have started it not just a few years ago, but a few decades earlier. Here’s a particularly topical example of the industrial-scale vandalism which has been allowed to happen all over South Wales since the 1960s.
The ever busy Cynon Valley History Society published two books called Aberdare: Pictures from the Past, the second volume appearing in 1992. Thanks to their diligent research, I’m able to tell you that Aberdare’s Temperance Hall was built in 1858, at a cost of £3,000 donated by the Total Abstinence Society. It could accommodate an audience of 1,500, and also contained a six-bedroom temperance hotel and a coffee house. It hosted public meetings and entertainments, including operettas, minstrel shows and appearances by General Tom Thumb, amongst others.
Subsequently, it became the Palladium Cinema, then a bingo hall, and is now being demolished to make way for flats and a supermarket. It appears that the superb classical frontage will be retained, but the interior has been completely destroyed:
Please bear in mind that this demolition is taking place in the heart of a ‘conservation area’. So much for that!
As for Aberdare’s sole surviving theatre/cinema, here’s an exclusive preview of forthcoming attractions at the Coliseum:
Look at that long run where there are ‘no films’. Welcome to Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC’s brave new world of the ‘reduced programme’! Admittedly, the new X Men film is there at the end of June – for one evening and one afternoon screening. If I blink, I’ll miss it. All I need to do to avoid spoilers in the meantime is to keep well away from Facebook, the papers, and film reviews on the radio; we’re getting it a full month after it hit the screens in the rest of the UK.
After that, no doubt, we’ll return to the same menu of kids’ flicks and action blockbusters, which are pretty much guaranteed to put bums on seats. And much as I love the Colstars, do we really need another revival of Guys and Dolls?
I confidently predict that things will get a lot worse in the next few years. I told you a few months ago that both the New Theatre and Saint David’s Hall in Cardiff are threatened with closure. If the big venues in the city centre are haemorrhaging cash, in spite of their thousand-plus capacities and extortionate ticket prices, what hope is there for places like the Coliseum? Maybe I should finally bite the bullet and buy a television – because there’s precious little else happening in the way of entertainment in Wales.
If I were Geoff, I’d hold fire for a little while before submitting my book to a publisher. At this rate, the long list of Wales’s lost theatres will need a few more entries.
Being a Non-Linear Account of the Life and Opinions of The Author, Cross-referenced and Illustrated, with Occasional Hesitations, Repetitions and Deviations.
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