Hedd Wyn: The Lost War Poet
Producer / Director
The main challenge that faced us as we began the process of structuring the documentary was obvious, to do justice with one of Wales’ most enduring stories. It’s a story that has been pored over for generations, one that generated an Oscar nominated film during the early nineties, followed by an excellent biography written by its screenwriter, the poet Alan Llwyd.
We decided to try and strike a balance between the obvious drama inherent in Hedd Wyn’s life story and a more factual analysis of his life and work; but without forgetting the man himself. Who knew that Hedd Wyn used to compete in local eisteddfodau in order to get his hands on the not insubstantial cash prizes offered at the time, providing him with beer money with which he would indulge his mates in speed-drinking sessions? Having grown up on the Hedd Wyn ‘myth’, this was definitely one aspect of his character I hadn’t heard of; and more’s the pity. I suppose it sort of made him more ‘real’, somehow less hallowed.
The ‘myth’ referred to is one that began to be cultivated almost immediately after his death. In an uneasy parallel to the intrusive tendencies of today’s popular press, The Daily Sketch sent journalists to his home less than two weeks after the official announcement of his death. Almost unbelievably, they had all his eisteddfodic chairs carried out in front of the house, and had his mother and sisters pose next to them for the article’s accompanying photograph. Hundreds of commemorative poems were published in the local and national press and letters of condolence flooded in to Yr Ysgwrn, by people the family had never met. His death had touched the national psyche – it became the symbol for the tragic waste of young Welsh talent.. As his biographer Alan Llwyd stated memorably, and I paraphrase, he seems more alive in death than when he was alive.
A question often asked about Hedd Wyn is “What would he have achieved had he lived?”, and while it is one that we ask in the programme, it is of course rhetorical, an impossible one to answer. One thing that can be said is that “Rhyfel” (War), the poem Hedd Wyn is mainly remembered for today shows the hallmarks of a new, modernist approach, a style he would no doubt have further explored had he lived. His winning poem “Yr Arwr” is often cited as the last great Romantic poem in the Welsh language. After the horrors of WW1, there would be no going back.
So what will we all remember from the filming?
Seeing the work being carried out over the past few years at Yr Ysgwrn, Hedd Wyn’s home, and its outbuildings has been hugely impressive. The Snowdonia National Park Authority staff have been extremely accommodating with our numerous last minute requests to film; on what was essentially a building site! The amount of work that has gone into transforming the site into a visitor centre has been astonishing, but you would never guess, such has been the sensitive way in which it has been conducted.
It was of course a privilege to film the Black Chair at Hugh Hayley’s workshop in St.Clears, the restoration work having just been completed on it. Another humbling experience, undoubtedly, was bearing witness to the futility and waste of war in amongst the hundreds of stock still gravestones at Artillery Wood cemetery in Ypres.
Hedd Wyn: The Lost War Poet will be broadcast Saturday 5 August at 9pm on BBC Two Wales. It will also be available on BBC iPlayer.