There is no more famous novel about the South Wales Coalfield than Richard Llewellyn’s debut, How Green was My Valley, published in 1939. Immediately popular, it was transformed into an Oscar-winning Hollywood production, directed by John Ford, in 1941. Indeed, at the 1942 Academy Awards, it was the triumphant film: nominated for ten awards including best picture and best director, it won five of them (notably best picture, best director, and best supporting actor for Donald Crisp for his portrayal of Gwylim Morgan). It was filmed again in 1960, this time for BBC television, in a series starring Eynon Evans (as Gwylim), Rachel Thomas (as the ever-suffering Beth), and Henley Thomas (in the lead role of Huw Morgan). That series is now lost, the victim of the BBC’s policy of wiping its tapes in the 1960s and early 1970s. The finest adaptation, from 1975, however, has survived, but more about that in a little while.
The novel tells the story of Huw Morgan, a young boy of about ten, and his experiences growing up in the South Wales Valleys. In its pages are the chapels with their Liberal-conservative deacons, radical miners and the emerging miners’ federation, the choirs, boxers and rugby players, frustrated teachers and ministers, and the put-upon mams and sisters. It is a romanticised version of the past, nostalgic but lacking in its grasp of what had really happened in South Wales in the years leading up to the First World War. Llewellyn, born in the commuter town of Hendon in Middlesex to an exiled Welsh family, had no first-hand understanding of the coalfield and nor did he ever really want one, his was a vision of Wales that had disappeared replaced with a nation out of control.
In the opening of the novel, too, Huw Morgan is leaving, ‘going from the Valley’. Much of the narrative in that initial chapter is peppered with turns of phrase such as ‘in those days’ or ‘back then’. It’s a reflection on the past because, as Dai Smith has written, ‘only the past has any real meaning in the novel’. Nearly 450 pages later (in the current Penguin Classics edition), as the novel closes with the famous words ‘How green was my valley, then, and the Valley of them that have gone’, we find ourselves thinking over the stream of myths that have arisen about the coalfield and its people, not the least of which is a whole lot of young people sneaking off to have sex on the mountain. At least in Solomon and Gaenor (1999), a film that tackles some of the themes present in this novel with a better sense of realism, the star-crossed amours sneak off to a barn for their love-making.
One of the most significant sub-themes in the novel is the emergence of socialist thought and socialism as focus for political articulation. Llewellyn presents it as less a battle of wills than a battle of generations. Gwylim Morgan, the head of the family, seeks pragmatism; he is the very model of modern Labour-Liberal. Here’s a sense of his politics: ‘Our wages must come down. They [the owners] are not getting the price for coal that they used to, so they cannot afford the wages they did. We must be fair too’. His son Davy, on the other hand, is presented as a firebrand who refuses to accept any conciliation and must always get his own way. Socialists had, in the words of Huw Morgan, Llewellyn’s own voice in the novel, brought ‘ugliness and hate and foolishness’ into the valley.
It’s significant, then, that the novel ends in 1910 amidst the industrial unrest that troubled much of South Wales that year, notably the Cambrian Combine dispute that engulfed the Rhondda. There’s a quiet nod to the Tonypandy Riots, too, but only to repeat one of the great legends: ‘Mr Winston Churchill is sending soldiers up here’ to deal with the ‘thousand men [who] attacked the colliery to have the blood of the police in the boiler house’. Huw, true to form, becomes a scab along with his conciliatory ‘see it from their side’ father. To ensure the safety of the pit, Gwylim goes underground to keep the water pumps going; but he gets trapped by the rising tide. Huw desparately searches for volunteers to help rescue his father but all he gets are insults – ‘we will cut your throat and send your guts to Churchill’. Gwylim’s death, with Huw by his side, thus marks the passing of the old, pragmatic Wales, the innocent valley of the hard but uncomplicated past.
In the mid-1970s, BBC executives decided to commission another dramatization of How Green was My Valley. Seen as a prestige production, it starred Stanley Baker as Gwylim Morgan, Sian Phillips as Beth Morgan, Ray Smith as the boxer Dai Bando, and Gareth Thomas (soon to be of sci-fi classic Blake’s 7 fame) as Rev Mr Gruffydd. Although watched by just 2-3 million, relatively few people by the standards of the time (Doctor Who normally commanded 10 million at least), this series is by far the most political and significant version we have available. At its core is not Richard Llewellyn’s romancing of the past, but a far more realistic grasp of the life and times of the Morgan family. Except, this is not Huw Morgan the scab and Gwylim Morgan the conciliatory lib-lab and Beth Morgan that archetypical Welsh ‘mam’, as Llewellyn wrote them, far from it; this, in actual fact, is the Morgan family into which the series dramatist, Elaine Morgan, had married in the 1940s.
It might have been rather different had the series been written by the man the BBC had initially wanted, Emlyn Williams. But Williams was a dramatist for the theatre – notably Broadway – and as such ill-suited to the more confined requirements of television. In his place, at last minute, came Elaine Morgan, who had written nine episodes of the popular Dr Finlay’s Casebook and half a dozen Maigret episodes through the 1960s. To help write the narrative, she drew on the diaries of her father-in-law, John E. Morgan, who had, in her words, ‘been there in the thick of it’. Johnny’s politics and sentiment are clear, particularly in the character of Ianto, played by Keith Drinkel. The experiences of Elaine’s husband, Morien, whose early life was spent housebound surrounded by books, are also fused into narrative as Huw Morgan finds himself bed bound after an accident and must teach himself from books. But it is Elaine’s politics and understanding of the past that is really on display in the series, right from the first episode’s overt expressions of feminism. As she explained to the Radio Times:
The women were by no means downtrodden. Inside the home they had the power. It was their standards that upheld and determined personal relationships. They had a hard job keeping the community clean, sober, out of debt and sane. They were tough and strong-minded. How else could they keep their families together through long strikes?
The novel has nothing like that sentiment, but Elaine was comfortable in taking liberties for she knew the world of the coalfield rather better, having grown up in Pontypridd, and rightly believed in the necessity of giving voice to women rather than leaving them shrouded in myths.
Finally, there is the location in which the series is set. In this, the influence of Johnny again comes to the fore. Whereas Richard Llewellyn had based his novel on discussions he had had with the people of Gilfach Goch, Elaine Morgan appears to shift the setting to a version of Johnny’s home, Ynysybwl, with characters travelling up, over the mountain, from real-life locations such as Maerdy. The filming locations, of course, never really reflect this but the mental geography of Elaine Morgan’s How Green was My Valley definitely places Llanwynno mountain at the centre of the story. It was a world known intimately by the show’s lead actor, Stanley Baker, who grew up in Ferndale amidst the depression of the 1930s and the revolutionary fervour that fuelled perhaps the most famous ‘Little Moscow’ in Britain – Ferndale, Maerdy, and nearby Tylorstown all had Communist councillors in this period. Indeed, by 1935, every councillor in Ferndale was a Communist. No wonder that, as Baker reflected in 1975:
The political section of the Ferndale public library was always empty. I remember how exciting it was to listen to the men standing at street corners, talking for hours and hours … about government, about bosses, about what they were going to do. There was a feeling of revolution in the air.
For Baker, whose Labour politics were always readily apparent, and Elaine Morgan, the task in the series was to show to the wider public just how this kind of situation came about. The episodes are therefore reminiscent of a dramatized form of history; not the kind of myth-laden soap opera that Llewellyn’s novel can readily be turned into. It’s for this reason, then, that the 1975 series is fondly remembered and still feels very fresh to modern audiences. Its purpose remains just as important today as it was in the mid-1970s, perhaps more so. Then, as now, we need to grasp our history, from the condescension of posterity or simply from the mythology of those with the tools to spin such myths, and ensure we fully understand the world that our ancestors strove, often in the hardest of circumstances, to create. We owe them that much, at least.
In recent months, I have been thinking a great deal about how the history of industrial South Wales has been presented by those who were not ‘official’ historians. I’m struck by the intimate network that links the collection of material that I have been gathered, whether those ‘unofficial’ historians were novelists, dramatists, or union officials turned writers. It’s also quite apparent just how central the Rhondda, Pontypridd, and Ynysybwl were to the construction of those ‘unofficial’ histories. How Green was My Valley encapsulated those earlier histories and presented, in essence, a summary for an audience that knew the myths but not the realities. This ‘alternative’ route into the past was, in 1975, extremely significant because by that point the historiography of industrial South Wales simply did not exist: Gwyn A. Williams’ fiery Merthyr Rising came out in 1978, Dai Smith and Hywel Francis’ ground-breaking The Fed in 1980, Hywel’s Miners Against Fascism in 1984, Gwyn’s When Was Wales? in 1985, and Chis Williams’ Democratic Rhondda in 1996. What was seen on television, therefore, laid the foundations for a re-consideration of the history of South Wales – as it’s now available on DVD, it’s easier to start out on that journey than ever it was.
Sadly, historians in the rest of Britain have never really ‘got’ what went on in South Wales at the beginning of the twentieth century; the people of the valleys remain, if they ever appear at all, as footnotes shrouded in the mythology perpetuated and encapsulated by Richard Llewellyn’s How Green was My Valley. Now, I don’t want to end this post on a sad note, so let me say instead that it’s time for us all to throw the novel aside and to pick up the real history of South Wales. And what better place to start than here.
Elaine Morgan passed away on 12 July this year, I offer this post as my own small tribute to her memory and to her work. I corresponded with Elaine briefly just before her major stroke two years ago, talking with her about Johnny and Morien and her own career. She was one of the remarkable ones and the Valleys really are quieter for her passing.