A Poet In New York premieres Wednesday, October 29 on BBC America

Thomas was a great poet whose blazing life and premature death left both a considerable poetic legacy and an enduring reputation for bad behavior. He was also quite fat. Playing him was both a wonderful acting challenge and a great opportunity to eat things that I would normally have to avoid.Tom Hollander
Date: 10.09.2014     Last updated: 10.09.2014 at 16.13
Category: BBC Worldwide
The final days of Dylan Thomas’ tragic life are examined in a film by acclaimed screenwriter Andrew Davies, starring Tom Hollander

A life filled with passion, fame and the harsh realities of addiction is the story behind Dylan Thomas (Tom Hollander, Rev., In The Loop), one of the most renowned poets the world has ever seen. The creator of some of the most memorable lines in the English language, his brilliance, popularity and electrifying tours made him a much-loved celebrity in the US. But his failing marriage, heightened fame and wild, hard-drinking lifestyle led to his untimely death in 1953 at the age of just 39.  Marking the centenary of his birth, A Poet in New York, written by acclaimed screenwriter Andrew Davies (Little Dorrit, Bridget Jones Diary, House of Cards),explores the adored poet’s final days in New York City.  A Poet in New York premieres Wednesday, October 29, at 8:00pm ET as part of BBC AMERICA’s Dramaville.

“Thomas was a great poet whose blazing life and premature death left both a considerable poetic legacy and an enduring reputation for bad behavior,” said Tom Hollander. “He was also quite fat. Playing him was both a wonderful acting challenge and a great opportunity to eat things that I would normally have to avoid.”

Set in New York City and Laugharne in Wales, A Poet in New York begins with Dylan (Tom Hollander) arriving in New York on his fourth and fatal visit to rehearse, write and party. He is on his way to Hollywood to write an opera with famous composer Igor Stravinsky. But, before Dylan heads west, he has to earn enough to fund the trip, so he fulfills a commitment to take part in a production of the recently completed Under Milk Wood at the prestigious Poetry Centre in Manhattan. What might have been a triumphant new departure in his career and life, turns instead into a requiem for a man whose life has spiraled out of control.

With his marriage to the love of his life, Caitlin (Essie Davis, The Slap, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries), in shambles, illness plaguing him, no money, and wholly unhappy with his life, he spends countless hours partying hard, drunk and disillusioned. His life then comes to a premature end on a smog-ridden November day in New York’s Greenwich Village, at the young age of 39.

Moving between his gritty present in New York and beautiful backdrops of the poet’s past life in his hometown of Laugharne, the film, directed by Asiling Walsh (Room at the Top), explores how Dylan’s experiences made his life virtually untenable and examines how his destructive personality played into his own demise.

A Poet in New York is a Modern Television production for BBC Cymru Wales. It is produced by Ruth Caleb and executive produced by Griff Rhys Jones.

 

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CAST CREDITS AND PRODUCTION CREDITS

Dylan Thomas                          Tom Hollander (Rev., In The Loop)

Caitlin Thomas                         Essie Davis (The Slap, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries)

John Malcolm Brinnin               Ewen Bremner (Great Expectations, Trainspotting)                  

Liz Reitell                                  Phoebe Fox (The Musketeers, Switch)

Writer                                     Andrew Davies(Little Dorrit, Bridget Jones Diary, House of Cards)

Director                                   Aisling Walsh (Room at the Top, Loving Miss Hatto)

Producer                                  Ruth Caleb (A Short Stay in Switzerland, Born Equal)

Executive Producer                  Griff Rhys Jones (Smith and Jones, Greatest Cities of the World)

 

A Poet in New York is a Modern Television production for BBC Cymru Wales.

 

ANDREW DAVIES ON WRITING A POET IN NEW YORK 

It felt like destiny when Griff Rhys Jones approached me with the idea of writing a film about Dylan Thomas for the centenary of his birth. Dylan had been my early inspiration to become a writer. I remember the first time I came across his work, which was when I had to learn by heart and recite “The Hand That Signed the Paper” for a verse speaking competition in our school Eisteddfod. I fell completely under the spell of his grand sonorous rhythms, and I hoovered up all I could read about him. And to my delight, I discovered that his childhood was very much like mine: he had grown up in a Swansea suburb, his father a teacher at Swansea Grammar School: I grew up in Rhiwbina, Cardiff, my father a teacher at Cardiff High School.  His poems and stories brought to life and celebrated the things I knew about too: the South Wales countryside, the sea, avoiding bullies and chasing girls on Gower Coast beaches like Rhossili and Three Cliffs Bay.  In a way, I felt he’d given me permission to be a writer.

Griff’s original idea was to make a documentary-style drama about the last days of Dylan’s life in New York – ten days or so of ecstatically received performances, one-night stands, alcoholic benders, vomiting fits, asthma attacks, blackouts, coma and death.  There’s an ongoing controversy about what actually killed Dylan Thomas.  Was it really the “eighteen straight whiskies” he said he’d drunk on the fateful night, or was it brought about by Dr. Feltenstein with his “winking needle”? Or was it an insulin crisis brought about by undiagnosed diabetes?  All fascinating stuff, but what I wanted to do, as well,  was celebrate his life, his uniquely winning personality,  his passionate  and stormy relationship with his wife Caitlin, and of course, his unforgettable poetry.  After all, that’s why we’re interested in him.

Dylan was a famous poet by the ‘50s, but then as now, there was little money in poetry, and Dylan was hopeless at managing the money he had.  But America in the ‘50s was a new world of opportunity and temptation.  There, he could make relatively huge sums by giving readings and performances of his work to packed audiences.  Students worshipped him, women flung themselves at him and new friends surrounded him plying him with drink and drugs; it was party after party, every night. It was a world away from his peaceful working life in Laugharne, sitting in his writing shed on the cliff overlooking the glittering estuary, with Caitlin, his daughter Aeronwy, and his little son Colm.

So I needed that contrast between the chaos of New York and the serenity of Laugharne, but I also wanted to flash back to Dylan’s childhood. There would be a little group of key characters around Dylan: Caitlin, of course,  and Areonwy; John Malcolm Brinnin, the American poet and entrepreneur who brought Dylan to America and was more than half in love with him; and Liz Reitell, who was Dylan’s work assistant, nurse and lover on that last trip to New York.  Caitlin, of course, was the heart of his life. She was Irish, beautiful, passionate, a dancer who had given up her career to be with Dylan and bear his children, and she was as wild and unconventional as Dylan himself. She had been model and mistress of the celebrated bohemian artist Augustus John before she met Dylan. John, 30 years her senior, was not best pleased at having his muse stolen by this scruffy impecunious little Welsh poet. But it was love at first sight for Dylan and Caitlin, and so it remained through Dylan’s life and beyond it, despite all the quarrels, the infidelities (on both sides of the marriage) and Caitlin’s bitter resentment of the way Dylan shirked his domestic responsibilities and hogged the limelight.

I prepared myself for writing the script by reading 30 or 40 books by and about Dylan, Caitlin and Aeronwy, and I spent time in the key locations in West Wales and Greenwich Village, New York.  The Chelsea Hotel, where he stayed on all his New York trips, was being redeveloped as an apartment block, though the exterior was still its iconic self. The White Horse Tavern, Dylan’s favorite New York pub and the location for his final epic drinking bout, was looking sadly run down, but it was easy to imagine him there propping up the bar. (He wouldn’t have come very far up it, being only five feet three inches tall.)

On that last trip he was in poor health, heavily in debt and fearful that his poetic gift had deserted him. Not only that, but he had reached a point where he could neither live with Caitlin nor live without her. He had been commissioned to write an opera with the great composer Igor Stravinsky, but rather than being thrilled by the prospect, he was terrified. But only those closest to him knew that. In public, he dazzled his audiences, made new friends wherever he went – he had that ability to make people feel they were the most important one in the world to him while he was with them. He could make audiences weep with his poetry, fall helpless with laughter at his wit. At 39 he was a pudgy, pouchy wreck of his former self, with bags under his famously beautiful eyes, and a cigarette perpetually drooping from the corner of his rosebud mouth. Sweet and tender one moment, rude and dismissive the next, charismatic, infuriating, and on a one-way trip to oblivion.

That was the Dylan I wrote – but who in the world could play that bundle of contradictions? Who could plumb the depths that Dylan plumbed and still make the audience love him? It seemed impossible, until someone suggested Tom Hollander, and instantly the problem was solved. Tom was small and curly haired like Dylan (comparing photographs you can see a startling resemblance.) Tom is of course a brilliantly versatile actor – but best of all he has the gift to be outrageous and loveable at the same time. Would he do it? We waited with bated breath. Yes, he would! What’s more, he nobly undertook to gain 21 pounds in weight, eating more pies and puddings than I care to think about. Dressed in rumpled tweeds, with a bow tie and that dangling fag in his mouth, he was Dylan to the life. He also captured Dylan’s sonorous posh-Welsh voice to the very essence. And he got to the heart of the man, too. His performance was one of the best I’ve ever seen by anybody in anything.

My favorite memory from the production was when we were filming in Laugharne, on the estuary below the Boat House, Dylan and Caitlin’s home. The day had started fine, but a drizzle had developed into that steady West Welsh rain that was clearly there for the rest of the day. Tom as Dylan was sitting on an old rowing boat, telling his ten-year-old daughter the magical story of how he first met Caitlin, while Essie Davis, as Caitlin, stabbed in the mud for flatfish and eavesdropped on the conversation. The film crews were huddled under a makeshift shelter, assistants were holding huge umbrellas over Dylan and Aeronwy and Caitlin. “Action!” The umbrellas were whipped away, the rain poured down, and Tom did his stuff, getting wetter and wetter with every take. Nine or ten takes, and each one brought a tear to the eye. Lovely.

TOM HOLLANDER ON THE CHALLENGES FACED:

I thought I’d be alright as long as I could do the voice. That seemed to be the challenge. That’s generally what happens when I do anything. I think if I know what the character sounds like then everything else will follow. Because he’s a very well recorded performer, it was very easy to discover what he sounded like as a recording artist. It was harder to find out what he sounded like as a man. I sense that he was putting on a performing voice, a declamatory poetry style, but he can’t have been talking like that in real life. Or maybe he was.

There aren’t many people around who knew him so I asked Robert Hardy, the actor who was best friends with Richard Burton, who was one of Dylan’s biggest fans. I spoke to him and he said he did have a bizarrely fruity voice. He said it was preposterously posh. I had to find a voice, one that would plausibly take you to a world he lived in without alienating you that he sounded so strange.

The other challenge clearly was that it was going to be very difficult to shoot it, because we only had 18 days, and Andrew had written a big time jump between 1936 and 1953. I couldn’t see how we were going to achieve that. He then wrote it so that we were going back a little bit to a little less specific time. Then there were weight implications – he bloated and bloated so in 1936 he was very different than he was in 1953. So we reduced that time difference, we just cut back to happier times rather than a specific date and weirdly I started to lose weight. That was accidental, maybe self-consciously, but weight was falling off me in the last week as we shot those earlier scenes. And we also had costume tweaks and tricks.

I didn’t want to do it initially because of the filming schedule and six-day weeks. I’ve done it before and I’ve found it so punishing, I couldn’t face it. But Aisling Walsh the director said ‘I know it’s horrible but I know how to do this I’ll do it by being prepared. I’ll know exactly what I want to do each scene’, and broadly speaking she did. We cut scenes out in pre-production too so the stuff that we did, we could do well, rather than being over scheduled and messing it up, and having to hit it and hope. So we didn’t hit it and hope, we had a plan.

HOLLANDER ON IF HE SYMPATHIZED WITH THOMAS AND THE WAY HE WAS:

It’s a sympathetic portrayal of self-destruction and it allows you to get inside him. It’s an eloquently done car crash but because the poetry is mixed in, it’s not just the car crash. I think maybe that’s why it works. Tales of self-destruction themselves are often not fun to watch, but it’s because you see the two things at the same time - you see the poetry and everything that was greatest about him at the same time as you’re seeing him destroy himself.

 

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