Welsh film history: 1970-79

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Last updated: 05 March 2010

The 1970s, seen from today's vantage point, might be seen to mark the first modern decade of genuine Welsh production.

There was no Nouvelle Vague-style epiphany, just the arrival of one powerful indigenous feature, Karl Francis' Above Us The Earth, and the first stirrings of new bodies and institutions producing films and interested at last in creating some semblance of a National film culture.

Francis' cautionary film was raw in places but invigorating, political and passionate, as it delved into the background to the closure of the Ogilvie Colliery in the Rhymney Valley. It issued implicit warnings of the broader threat to the south Wales coalfield as temptations were placed the miners' way and national union leaders seemingly all too easily acquiesced in coalpit closures.

Other political movies from outsiders ensured that the valleys communities were represented on screen faithfully at long last. Women of the Rhondda (1973) emerged from the London Women's Films Group and allowed elderly interviewees to speak movingly to camera on their experiences of the General Strike and the 1930s Depression, and of female roles generally in their community.

The film also explores the role of the Co-operative Women's Guild and one woman talks of her wartime role in armaments factory work, giving her confidence to form a trade union branch. The film is pleasingly unpretentious, but has disarming conviction.

One new Welsh-based filmmaker emerged in the decade - Gwent's Stephen Weeks, with Gawain and the Green Knight (1973), a robust version of the Arthurian drama and medieval poem with Murray Head as Gawain and Nigel Green as his adversary. Given a bigger budget to make the same subject a decade later by Cannon (Golan and Globus) Weeks delivered what many considered an inferior film - Sword of the Valliant, with Sean Connery and Trevor Howard.

A numbing disappointment was Andrew Sinclair's Under Milk Wood (1971) with a understandably lugubrious Richard Burton seen traipsing around Wales virtually speechless in tandem with comedian Ryan Davies (squandered as hapless second banana). The film, strangely devoid of life or any sense of Dylan Thomas' joie de vivre seemed a ragbag of half assimilated ideas, though there were performances of merit from Peter O'Toole (Capt. Cat), Siân Phillips (Mrs Ogmore Pritchard) and Angharad Rhys (Gossamer Beynon).

Two films from legends of French cinema had special relevance to Wales. Francois Truffaut's Anne and Muriel (1971) was shot through with emotive scenes and angst and proved a powerful if slightly depressing study of doomed romance and happiness with two girls sharing a fateful trip to the Welsh coast.

Perceval le Gallois (Perceval of Wales) (1978) made by another director linked for ever with the French New Wave, Eric Rohmer, proved an almost perversely esoteric version of Arthurian legend set on a single stage set and offering more philosophy than action (it reminded some of films by ascetic fellow Frenchman Robert Bresson).

The relatively short-lived Ffilm Bwrdd Cymraeg (the Welsh Film Board) began operations - initially from discussions at Gregynog - and distributed some work of merit including Wil Aaron's Yr Hen Dynnwr Lluniau (The Old Photographer), a compelling little study of one of Wales' great photography pioneers Cardigan-born John Thomas, and Aaron's amusingly broad comedy Gwaed ar y Ser (Blood on the Stars).

Alan Clayton, later to make impressive dramas for HTV, produced Newid Ger (1979) (Changing Gear) a sensitive study of a gradually developing romance between a widow and her husband's long time friend, a survivor of the crash which killed her spouse. The script came from Euryn Ogwen Williams, later S4C programme editor and commissioner.

The new Board provided hope that Welsh filmmakers would be nurtured on projects which could find their way into cinemas and community screenings, but the launch of S4C all-too-soon rendered their role largely superfluous.

In 1974/75 the first Welsh Arts Council films subcommittee started with a shoestring budget of £10,000 and spent about £7,500 on film production - a seemingly pitiful amount today. WAC in the 1970s did finance the first video films to appear made through local communities and Cardiff Street Television emerged, later brought under Cardiff's Chapter Arts Centre umbrella.

In the 1980s both Chapter's film and video workshops were to do stimulating and valuable work and Chapter nurtured such talent as south Wales director Chris Monger, whose later cinema features included Hollywood's Waiting for the Light (1990) and the UK Welsh set comedy The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain (1995).


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