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The Beach of Falesa, a film for voices by Dylan Thomas

Alison Hindell

Editor's Note: The Beach of Falesa is an unfilmed screenplay by Dylan Thomas based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson. It received its world premiere, newly adapted for radio, on Radio 3 Sunday 4 May 2014 at 10pm marking the centenary of his birth.

Listen for 7 days on BBC iPlayer

The Beach of Falesa is part of the BBC's Dylan Thomas Centenary

Dylan Thomas (photo taken at the BBC in November 1948)

I first came across this little-known script by Dylan Thomas when my stepdaughter moved into a new house in a suburb of Sydney.  The previous owner had left behind a lot of stuff but there on a dusty bookshelf was a slim novella entitled The Beach of Falesa, by none other than Dylan Thomas.  Fiona knew I had made a new version of Under Milk Wood some years ago, as well as another previously unbroadcast radio script by Thomas called The Art of Conversation and that I would be interested in this find.  I had never heard of it and assumed it was a work of prose until I opened it and saw that the long descriptive passages, very much in Thomas’s inimitable voice, were interspersed with dialogue laid out as a drama script: it seemed to be a screenplay.

Richard Burton recording Under Milk Wood in August 1963.

A bit of research revealed that it was indeed that: a screenplay, based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, and written in 1948 but never filmed.  Published in various editions and collections over the years, and owned for some time by Richard Burton who hoped to get it made, it hadn’t found an outlet.  You can speculate that was because it would have been expensive to make as it’s set on a South Sea Island, or because a lot of screenplays never actually make it on to a screen, but with the centenary celebrations looming, I thought there might be an opportunity to bring it to dramatic life at last - on radio. 

Tropical Island

The opening lines are: ‘It is the hour before tropical dawn on the hushed, grey, open sea.  A boat glides by like a shadow, the moon going down behind her tall sails.’  Immediately, not only is a vivid picture conjured up, but the voice of Dylan Thomas (or possibly Richard Burton) comes to mind, along with the opening lines of Under Milk Wood which would follow this work a few years later.  Under Milk Wood, ‘a play for voices’, is one of the most famous radio plays ever written and it occurred to me that this piece would work as ‘a film for voices’ if we retained that beautiful prose voice as the Narrator in this radio realisation.  I’m delighted to say that Matthew Rhys took on the role and we had a slightly surreal and disembodied recording day as he sat in a studio in NYC and I sat in a studio in Cardiff and we recorded him ‘down the line’: every time the door opened in New York, we heard a blast of Manhattan streetscape – a truly radiophonic experience!

The Beach of Falesa (1963 Ballantine Books Edition)

The other cast members, led by Matthew Gravelle and Nicky Henson, had recorded the dialogue in Cardiff earlier that week and were unanimously enthusiastic about the script, for its plot, atmosphere, sense of mystery and the use of language, as well as for its dark Dylanesque humour.  He also writes insightfully about the power and effect of drink and conjures up the landscape vividly and accurately for someone who never travelled to this part of the world.  He makes Stevenson’s plot clearer and stronger and invents some new characters, including a Welsh missionary who makes the immortal claim, ‘I’m the only man in the world who can use the Welsh hwyl in Polynesian dialect’.  But the premise remains the same as the original:  Wiltshire arrives at the trading post of Falesa to set up a store to trade for copra.  But he discovers the island is run by the malevolent Case and his cronies who have beguiled the islanders with trickery and fear of ‘diablerie’ into dealing only with them.  Wiltshire realises he is, for some reason, tabu and sets out to uncover the secrets of the island.  The book cover above (from a different edition to the one I used) sums up the essence fairly accurately!  Under Milk Wood meets Heart of Darkness might have been the movie pitch had it been made.

Listen to the world premiere of The Beach of Falesa on Sunday 4 May 2014 on BBC Radio 3 or for 7 days on BBC iPlayer

The BBC's Dylan Thomas Centenary