Sport in Welsh film

Photograph of cameramen filming a boxing match

Last updated: 27 October 2009

Sport, especially boxing, soccer and rugby union, have been staples of Welsh films virtually since the movies began - but it is hardly surprising that the fight game took pride of place up to the 1920s, with Wales boasting so many World and British champions.

The first sports film shot in Wales was a boxing match at a Cardiff Military tournament in August 1896 by Birt Acres and the footage is now thought to have been found in a recent discovery of several of the Barnet-based filmmaker's short films.

The oldest extant soccer film in the world was shot by Rhyl's Arthur Cheetham at the Blackburn Rovers-West Bromwich Albion match in 1898 (though the images look suspiciously like out takes), and the earliest surviving football international film anywhere is Wales v Ireland, 1906, at the Racecourse ground, Wrexham, made by Mitchell and Kenyon, Blackburn. Four of the eight goals scored (in a 4-4 draw) are captured.

The teams are seen clambering over a bench to enter the field and certain match officials wear caps. The great Welsh goalie LR Roose is prominent in footage but legendary Wales winger, spindly, matchstick-chewing Billy Meredith who played for both Manchester City and Manchester United in his career, was noticeably absent. He was suspended facing match-fixing allegations.

A few surviving images from the Wales v England match of 1912 (result: 0-2) may help compensate, shot from Meredith's wing as he fires in crosses. The Welshman also appeared in a fictional feature, The Ball of Fortune (1926), with British silent star Mabel Poulton, but only one minute is known to exist with Meredith leaving opponents flatfooted in a dizzy dribble.

A Rhyl Town v Amateurs match, 1898, apparently shot by Rhyl's Arthur Cheetham, seemingly doesn't survive and documented films of Aberdare-Porth (1903) and Cardiff-Swansea (1905) are among the extensive soccer 'casualties' lost films of early silent days.

There is newsreel footage of Freddie Keenor and his Cardiff team making history as the only Welsh club to win the FA Cup - beating Arsenal in 1927 1-0 at Wembley - and shots of the ensuing celebrations in Cardiff.

Evidence of rugby union international footage of Wales' matches in 1901 and 1902 and film of the Cardiff Horse show, a popular crowd attraction, from 1902, 1906 and 1908 is confined to sketchy newspaper references. The Pwllheli Horse show was also screened in 1902 by Fred E Young, estates manager for Solomon Andrews, Cardiff's tramways king.

Back in 1897 boxing on screen had pulled in crowds in Wales, for the World Heavyweight title fight between Cornwall's Bob Fitzimmons and America's James J (Gentleman Jim) Corbett, shown at Oswald Stoll's Philharmonic Hall by the Veriscope projector, with a lecturer explaining events (also a common feature for years, of silent fiction films).

In 1899 Chas. W Poole's United Amusements screened, at Swansea's Albert Hall, the Fitzimmons-James J Jeffries fight at Coney Island, New York.

As two- and three-reel fiction films developed it wasn't surprising that a clutch of boxing champions including the world's best flyweight, Rhondda's Jimmy Wilde - 'The Tylorstown Terror' - and 'Ghost with a Hammer in his Hand' James Corbett, Bombardier Billy Wells and Jess Willard, should play leads in silent dramas. Wilde starred in A Pitboy's Romance (1917) directed by AE Coleby and Arthur Rooke. This British film had some screenings, but is now long lost.

Enthusiasm for films featuring actual bouts by Welsh boxers continued to be immense and in 1907 an audience at Cardiff's Andrews Hall cheered lustily when city hero Peerless Jim Driscoll, later a British featherweight Lonsdale belt winner, was shown polishing off former bantamweight world champion Joe Bowker with a Sunday punch in London some days before.

Driscoll also appeared demonstrating his skills in The Art of Boxing documentary in 1920. Pontypridd's Freddie Welsh's 1909 fight with Johnny Summers and 1910 winning non-title contest with Jim Driscoll were caught on film, together with Welsh's British title fight with Jack Daniels and his bout with Packy McFarland the same year. His 1914 lightweight world championship-winning fight with Willie Ritchie also survives.

Certain Jimmy Wilde films exist, including his final World championship defeat, after years as title-holder, at the hands of Pancho Villa in 1923. Film historians still seek the Webster Cartoons' animation short of Wilde from the same year.

Film of another Welsh pugilist hero Jack Petersen's fights in the 1930s, including celebrated battles with Len Harvey, have been donated to the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales, Aberystwyth.

The images of Tommy Farr's brave, unavailing battle with Joe Louis for the World heavyweight crown in 1937 are also, thankfully, extant.

The Welsh passion for rugby union - evident in dozens of archival films and clips from broadcasters over the decades - permeates Marc Evans' lively if flawed S4C feature film Ymadawiad Arthur (Arthur's Departure) where he ingeniously married this enthusiasm of his almost modern hero to Arthurian mythology.

Fictional Welsh comedies revolving around sport include the BBC's 1978 feature-length Grand Slam, director John Hefin, with Hugh Griffith, Windsor Davies et al. and Ealing's Run For Your Money (1949), with Meredith Edwards and Donald Houston as miners who win a competition for tickets to an England v Wales Twickenham international but almost predictably never see the match when waylaid by a spiv crook and his moll.

Ffilmiau'r Nant, of Caernarfon, made several series of their S4C comedy comedy C'Mon Midffild (C'Mon Midfield) (from 1988 onwards) - and, ultimately, a feature of the same title (1992). The company earned accolades for their 1992 S4C feature Cylch Gaed (In The Blood), firmly in the tradition of boxing movies, with naïve hopefuls trying to fight their way out of the poverty trap and falling prey to corruption. This unassuming film had its own pleasing conviction and the lead Rhys Richards landed a BAFTA Cymru Best Actor award.

The most compelling fight documentary from Wales remains Claire Pollak's 1986 Turning Pro, about south Wales valleys youths lured by penury and family problems into the professional ring. It's a raw-edged film tackling wife-beating issues and including astonishing footage of a one raw recruit to the pro ranks at ringside talking to camera of his shock discovery that his opponent has been switched at the last minute.

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Mark Kermode

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