‘What do I make?’ Mali says. ‘I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could … I make parents see their children for who they are and what they can be … I make them question. I make them criticize … I make them write. I make them read, read, read …Teachers make a goddamn difference!’ he says.
And that’s how I felt after reading Angela V John’s The Actors’ Crucible, a biography of the town of Port Talbot and its ever expanding tribe of renowned actors, that have emerged over more than a century, but also of its enablers – those unsung heroes who helped to nurture talent in schools, youth centres and youth theatre.[i]
Drama didn’t play a role in my life growing up in Port Talbot. Not unless you include my mother’s recollection of me hanging out of her bedroom window at the age of five begging the neighbours to rescue me because, ‘My mother is beating me!’ ‘Melodramatic’, I remember her saying about me. Often.
I do have a memory of one of my first Drama classes, around 1971, at Sandfields Comprehensive School when the teacher dropped the record arm onto Edwin Starr’s ‘War’ circling on the turntable of his Dansette or Decca and told us to move around the hall and ‘improvise’ to the music. I had absolutely no idea what he meant – I was very literal at that age – or any idea that in the room with me were two of Port Talbot’s future actors of theatre, film, radio and television: Francine Morgan and Derek Hutchinson.[ii]
There is much already published about Port Talbot’s most famous film and theatre stars – Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, and more recently, Michael Sheen – but John’s coverage of them in Part One - Before They Were Famous[iii] takes a more intimate and investigative approach than any celebrity biography. She explores their lives in relationship to their ancestry, their education and the social history of the years they lived in the town, as well as drawing on her own memories of growing up in Port Talbot, of family connections and shared experiences. They become inextricably linked to place, to the grit and grandeur of a steel-producing town and its institutions that shaped their futures.
Those institutions were both educational and cultural, the ‘crucibles’ fired by inspirational educators and guides for almost a century. Some of those people are known to the world: amateur actor, playwright and schoolmaster, Philip Burton who provided his ward, Richard Jenkins, with the name that would make him famous. Others may only be remembered by a few: Leo Lloyd, a traffic yardmaster at the steelworks whose passion was producing plays at the Taibach Youth Centre and who Richard Burton acknowledged as the person who convinced him that acting was ‘infinitely fascinating’.[iv]
Anthony Hopkins’ dramatic interest was ignited in 1955 by a visit to the town’s YMCA where he met Cyril Jenkins, the producer for the YMCA Players. Jenkins gave him his first part which he thanked him for in a letter 20 years later: If you hadn’t I probably would never have gone into the Theatre profession.[v]
Michael Sheen’s Port Talbot born parents moved their family back to their hometown in the late 1970s and his commitment to the stage was encouraged and shaped by his secondary school Drama teacher, Ken Tucker, and through his involvement with the West Glamorgan Youth Theatre Company under the guidance of Godfrey Evans, who himself had been encouraged in the mid-1950s by Leo Lloyd to join his Taibach Youth Centre Drama Group.
These are just a few of the many people behind the scenes, names that do not appear in the Appendix of Fifty Port Talbot Actors at the back of the book. But having read the preceding pages I am sure I can hear them, between the biographical lines, their influence and cheer, their advice and enthusiasm.
The Actors’ Crucible may well be written around a specific town and the astonishing extent of its dramatic success but John’s book is also a study of the power of education to change lives. Its theme transcends the worlds of film and theatre and propels us to remember the people in our own lives who urged us to grow into ourselves.
When I first started to write, at the late age of 30, I enrolled on an Adult Education course, anxious for direction on a path that felt so intimidatingly wide. The man who gave me both those things, and so much more, was Tony Weeks-Pearson. He was the man who showed me I could.
‘What do teachers make?’ They make us believe in ourselves. They make the fertile ground for us to flourish. They make possibilities become realities.
The Actors' Crucible is published by Parthian Books (2015)
[i] See front flyleaf
[ii] See Appendix pp159-164