Comedy in Welsh film

The dearth of good, popular cinema feature comedies from Wales has been of increasing concern to film fans, pundits and screen historians in recent years. It's a chastening reflection on the nation's live-action film humour that, since the 1980s, the country's creative animation short films have taken the honours, netting a shoal of international Festival awards.

Cardiff-based Joanna Quinn, above all, has shown what might be done when imagination is allied to humour, a strong point of view - and, in her case, enviable drawing - 2D - skills.

Detail from Joanna Quinn's Body Beautiful.Detail from Joanna Quinn's Body Beautiful. Image © Joanna Quinn.

Quinn and regular writer Les Mills have given south Wales valleys women a vibrant voice - and an unforgettable, if slightly non-PC role model in roly-poly heroine Beryl (from Girls' Night Out (1987), Body Beautiful (1990) and the classic Cartoon d'Or (European 'Oscar') winner Dreams and Desires-Family Ties (2006).

Quinn's films have tackled genre politics with enthusiasm and brio and in Britannia (1993) she supplied a gallows-humour assault on both Britain's Empire colonisation of Victorian days and Thatcherite parallels and aspirations. This film fulfilled all the animation purists' criteria, won countless admirers and inspired with its maturity, metaphors, startling metamorphoses and line-drawing fluidity.

Live-action short films, from the colleges, broadcasters and the former Sgrin Cymru at Cardiff's Mount Stuart Square, have all helped to keep screen humour from Wales alive.

Steve Sullivan's BAFTA Cymru short film winner A Heap of Trouble (2001), nudged the nation's funny bone with his group of nude male power-walkers striding around an unbelieving, but amused suburban Cardiff community, while Phil John's Suckerfish (2000), though attracting accusations of sexism, proved a neatly nightmarish come-uppance odyssey for one macho male character.

The strongest comedy feature to emerge from Wales in the 1990s - Kevin Allen's drugs and violence - preoccupied Twin Town (1997) contained as much to deprecate as admire, with its assault on Welsh traditional values and sacred cows. Its overwhelming cynicism, as we're invited to see events through the eyes of two jack-the-lads, was depressing at times but the film's sheer gusto deserved praise. Rhys Ifans confirmed his talent for screen comedy and there was much to admire in the narrative structuring, and the movie's comic-strip approach.

Sara Sugarman's Very Annie Mary (2002) was heavily promoted in Wales and had its admirers, chiefly for its location work and Jonathan Pryce's performance as a man with classical music talents and ambitions (befitting the Welsh actor's lauded performances in London West End and Broadway musicals).

Sugarman made Confessions of A Teenage Drama Queen (2004) in America, aimed at a lower-teenage girl market. The film had few pretensions but also creative grace notes, and almost a surfeit of energy and confidence - and surprisingly perhaps, landed impressively high US box office returns.

Taffs Well talent Chris Monger, a promising experimental filmmaker at Cardiff's Chapter Film Workshop in the late 1970s/early 1980s, also enjoyed critical success, at least in America, after Shirley MacLaine expressed interest in one of his first feature screenplays and starred in his Waiting for the Light (1990), a likeable blend of magic fakery and political tension set against the background of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Monger again struck a chord with The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill but Came Down A Mountain (1995), his first Welsh-based mainstream cinema feature, which recalled the Ealing Studio comedies and contained performances to savour from Ian McNeice as a florid- faced incorrigibly drunk mapmaker and Tenby's Kenneth Griffith, in virtually a swansong performance, as a deliciously pragmatic minister. This tale of resourceful, roguish villagers anxious to prevent their local mountain from slipping off Ordinance Survey maps held broad appeal.

The 1980s was notable chiefly for Coming Up Roses (1986), from director Stephen Bayly and writer Ruth Carter. It seemed to owe much to the hilarious 1957 British comedy The Smallest Show on Earth but also contained abrasive comments on the Thatcher government's devastation of the south Wales mining industry and the threat of Capitalism to small town valleys cinemas. In Bayly's film Dafydd Hywel and Iola Gregory were superb as the local cinema fleapit staff steadfastly resisting so-called 'Progress' in the best Ealing manner.

In the past 30 years depressingly few Welsh cinema comedies have challenged the appeal of John Hefin's 1978 BBC TV drama Grand Slam.

Ryan Davies and Ronnie Williams.Ryan Davies and Ronnie Williams.

No comedy series has quite grabbed Welsh TV viewers (both English- and Welsh-language) as much as Ryan and Ronnie/Fo a Fe, in the 1970s, with Ryan Davies and Ronnie Williams - but the outstanding post war mainstream movie comedy set in Wales remains Only Two Can Play (1962).

Peter Sellers and Kenneth Griffith could scarcely have been bettered as incongruous but equally hapless neighbours in this Bryan Forbes adaptation of Kingsley Amis's novel That Uncertain Feeling, set around Swansea. Sellers' lecherous but sexually under-achieving male was a joy, but Griffith's lumpen, accident-prone neighbour proved just as eye-catching in a film with an unusually strong cast (Richard Attenborough, Mai Zetterling), directed by Sidney Gilliat.

Charles Frend's A Run for Your Money (1949) was a genuine Ealing comedy, with Meredith Edwards and Donald Houston as two rugby-fan miners waylaid by con artists on an abortive visit to Twickenham, and Hugh Griffith as a drunken sot peripatetic harpist.

Rachel Thomas, epitome of the 'Welsh Mam' in innumerable TV and cinema films, landed her finest cinema role in Valley of Song (1953), as a contralto miffed at her exclusion from her annual role at the Eisteddfod, and splitting a west Wales village into warring camps.

The big disappointment of the last three decades was Andrew Sinclair's misbegotten Under Milk Wood (1971), with Richard Burton and Ryan Davies traipsing around in doleful tandem in as joyless a 'poetic comedy' as Wales has ever produced, The 1991 Welsh animation feature version, directed by Les Orton for Cardiff's Siriol company on a relatively spartan budget, at least conveyed a love, and appreciation of the strengths, of Dylan Thomas' perennially popular radio play.

Any Welsh feature film comedy list still seems under-nourished - given the nation's prolific output of early-screen humour. The first Welsh humorous short Arthur Cheetham's Rhyl-based 1899 EH Williams and his Merrie Men, with black-faced concert party entertainers performing a School slapstick sketch, was a film recording of a stage act.

William Haggar, the great Pembroke-based fairground showman and film pioneer made the first true original comedies from Wales - including his Mirthful Mary trio of films for Gaumont (1903-1905) featuring a corpulent hellraiser played by an actress called 'Mog' (still officially unidentified). Haggar's other comedies included his lone trick film, using stop-motion techniques, DT's, or The Effects of Drink (1905).

Unfortunately, all these films with the exception of Cheetham's, are lost - and the same fate has seemingly befallen The Dustmen's Holiday, Will Kellino's 1913 Swansea film of then-well known national music hall entertainers Seth and Albert Egbert.

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Mark Kermode

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