How did Dylan Thomas help Britain's wartime propaganda?

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1. A poet at war

Dylan Thomas is famous for his masterful wordplay and colourful private life. But his work as a scriptwriter during World War Two, penning powerful propaganda films in support of the war effort, is less well-known.

It is not surprising that Thomas was attracted to working in the film industry. He had an early love of film, inspired by his childhood visits to the Uplands cinema in Swansea. In fact, one of his first published works was an essay on film in his school magazine.

However, when you explore his personal beliefs, it becomes clear that he was unlikely to involve himself in the war effort willingly. It was only as the war progressed that circumstances forced him into becoming part of Britain's wartime propaganda machine.

2. 'An aggressive pacifist'

At the start of World War Two, Dylan Thomas was a poet at war with himself. To understand his dilemma we need to look at the contradictions in his personal politics.

Archive film footage courtesy of IWM and BFI. Images courtesy of Getty Images and Emrys Jones/CGram Software Ltd

3. Dylan's wartime dilemma

Due to his poor physical health, Dylan Thomas was graded C3 in his wartime army medical. This placed him among the last groups of men to be called up for active service.

He had flirted with registering as a conscientious objector, but the usual grounds for refusing conscription were on religious or nationalist convictions, and Thomas could not in all honesty claim either.

He also disliked the idea that he might be sent to work in a munitions factory, writing that he would "rather be a poet any day and live on guile and beer".

However, his pre-war income from poetry and reviews had more or less dried up, and his letters to friends increasingly included appeals for money. In a letter to Vernon Watkins in the summer of 1940 he wrote: "Ta for the great pound, I heard it singing in the envelope."

In 1940 poet and friend Stephen Spender organised a whip-round among Thomas's literary admirers to clear his debts, but by the following year he was experiencing financial problems once again and forced to sell his treasured notebooks of early poems in order to raise some money.

With a wife and son to support, living solely as a poet was not an option. Thomas needed a job, and he found one with Strand Films, at the time one of the biggest producers of documentary films in Britain.

It's unclear when exactly he began working for Strand, probably in the autumn of 1941, but what is beyond doubt is that scriptwriting propaganda films was a financial lifeline. During the next few years of his life, it became an important new creative outlet for him too.

4. Personal politics and propaganda

The Ministry of Information produced a range of films. Some were public information films, while others sought to boost morale, giving the hope that a better, fairer kind of Britain would emerge after the war.

Archive film footage courtesy of Imperial War Museum

The Ministry of Information tried to ensure that the social vision of the documentary makers was kept in check. Dylan Thomas was responsible for a number of these forward-looking scripts, and the films made an important contribution to the debate on the direction of post-war reconstruction.

5. Dylan's filmography

Dylan Thomas had a lifelong love of film and he worked for several film companies in his lifetime; during the war with Donald Taylor at Strand Films and then Gryphon films, and later with Sydney Box at Gainsborough Films.

Thomas's earliest wartime scripts covered a range of topics. Balloon Site 568 was a recruiting film for WAAF barrage balloon operators, while others were designed to advise on wartime life. One example was New Towns For Old, which discussed the re-planning of British towns after the war.

A number of Thomas's films from 1945 focus on a future after the war. A City Reborn details the plans to rebuild the blitzed city of Coventry, while A Soldier Comes Home looks at the psychological readjustment necessary for wives and husbands after wartime separation.

Some of Thomas's work has been lost. The propaganda short Is Your Ernie Really Necessary? was a parody on the wartime slogan "Is your journey really necessary?" It was too surreal for the censors at the Ministry of Information, who refused to pass it for exhibition, and the film has sadly since disappeared.

Some of his work, particularly the later, feature-length scripts, was never made into films during his lifetime, although his writing was admired. Thomas's script for the Doctor And The Devils, based on the 19th century Edinburgh murders by Burke and Hare, was one of his first to be published.

Between 1941 and 1944 Thomas's creativity was mainly channelled into his scripts, though there were a handful of poems written in direct response to the war.

Constant travelling didn't help. Thomas sometimes had to visit filming locations, and when he was working in London, tried to get away to see his young family as often as he could. His surviving wartime letters were written from no fewer than 28 different addresses.

6. The effect of propaganda on his poetry

Dylan Thomas's role as a propaganda scriptwriter sometimes allowed him to use his poetic talents to great effect.

The commentaries for Our Country and Wales: Green Mountain, Black Mountain were written partly or wholly in verse. These should be considered a part of Thomas's poetic canon.

There are some similarities in the imagery employed in the script for Our Country and the poem Ceremony After a Fire Raid, which were written at the same time.

From the script for Our Country:

And all the stones remember and sing/The cathedral of each blitzed dead body that lay or lies/In the bomber and dove flown over cemeteries/Of the dumb heroic streets.

From Ceremony After a Fire Raid:

Among the street burned to tireless death/A child of a few hours/With its kneading mouth/Charred on the black breast of the grave

Despite the constant distractions whilst scripting during the war years, Thomas slowly built up his next collection of poems Deaths And Entrances (1946) – without doubt, one of his finest.

One poem in this collection can be considered as one of Thomas's great war poems. A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London, like A Ceremony After a Fire Raid, used the old genre of the elegy. This poem spoke in a new, more direct voice – perhaps shaped by his work on propaganda films – and is one of his great 'death' poems; consolatory without being patronising and complex but approachable.

7. Was the war 'good' for Dylan's writing?

Now that you know more about the wartime work that Dylan Thomas undertook, which of the opinions do you think most accurately reflects the influence of the war on his writing?

Jack Lindsay, a wartime contemporary of Thomas

"(The war years) did much to widen his experience and his sympathies. ... He denied that his scripts had at all affected his poems ... But I still think his film-work did help to make him think more directly about the political world and that it thus played its part, together with his reactions of pity and terror to the actual war, in begetting such poems as 'A refusal to mourn the death, by fire, of a child in London’. More importantly it stirred his dramatic sense, made him want to find a cinematic sweep of objectively based images, and these led on to Under Milk Wood." (From Meetings with Poets by Jack Lindsay, p.30.)

Professor John Goodby, Dylan Thomas expert

"Most of early 20th century writing, modernism particularly, is set up in opposition to popular culture, which is seen as completely trashy and trivial. Dylan never really accepted that, and so working as a film scriptwriter allowed him to leap across the gap as it were. Caitlin Thomas always thought that Dylan was wasting his talent ... and that there were a lot of good poems gone west because of that. I think that's probably true up to a point, but I think that writers sometimes do things without even knowing why they're doing them. And it advances their art, or it takes them to a different place." (Transcribed from an interview with Professor John Goodby for the BBC.)