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Gareth Jones

IN Liangadock I met a strolling player, a true descendant of the harlequins of the Middle Ages, bringing with him to the Towy Valley the glamour and pathos of Punchinello and of Columbine, dazzling the youth from the villages around with the glare and romance of the footlights.

Here, indeed, was a personality, a figure 50 fascinating, flitting across the scene for a week in so secluded and so puritanical a place as Liangadock. That the townlet was in the midst of a feast for the eye and the mind I had seen by a notice which announced: “The Carlton Players, the famous dramatic repertory company,” who were to act “A Great Eastern Romance, Allah’s Orchard— exceptionally fine pathos, great comedy; The Life of an Actress—a fine domestic drama; Wanted—a Wife, Orphans of the Storm, and other masterpieces of the English stage.”

I sought out the players, and it was thus I met Billy Vernon, the comedian. He was short and wiry, and quick in his movements, like an india-rubber ball. He had a dark narrow head, and above and beneath his eyes there were blue and black daubs of the previous night’s paint.

Speaking with a strong Lancashire accent, he told me the secrets of his profession.

“‘Auntie Fannie’ is my gag,” he explained. “I come on and I shout, ‘Auntie Fannie, whoop!’ ‘Auntie Fannie, whoop!’ and it goes over splendidly. But in Wales you have to do something special to get the audience on your side. So I sing a song called ‘Home,’ and I ask the audience what it means, and they shout ‘Cartref! ‘ So I say, ‘I’m now going to sing it in Yorkshire,’ and I sing:

Wel mae’n hoff gen i gartref,

O le bendigedig yw cartref! It gets them every time.”

And he sang in a sweet tenor voice.

“So you sing in Welsh,” I said.

“I am Welsh, and although my stage name is Billy Vernon my real name is Jenkins. My wife’s grandfather was Liewelyn Lloyd, Pontypridd, the old Welsh comedian. And that reminds me of a story.”

He told me how, at Briton Ferry, he had met an old man of 74 who had never seen a play in his life. He, therefore, took the old man to see “The Maid of Cefn Ydfa,” in which he (Billy Vernon) sang “Gwenith Gwyn.” After the play the old man came out greatly moved, and said to the singer:

“There is only one man who could sing that song so well, and he was Tom Jenkins, Sketty.”

“That’s my father,” said the actor. The old man was amazed, and said, “Then you are my nephew, for Tom Jenkins, Sketty, was my brother.”

The actor had his connections with Wales and certainly knew the Welsh audience well. I asked him first what he thought of the country audience, and his reply was sharp: “They respond more to emotion than wit. In comedy they want the really old-fashioned slapstick stuff. They cannot see a subtle burlesque gag. In drama they don’t like seeing murders in the country, and they prefer a poisoning. But what goes down well is singing, but it’s got to be original because the Welsh are very critical.”

“And what about the colliery districts?” I asked. Billy Vernon replied, “When you act there you must remember that the audience always has a sense of grievance. If you voice that, you are its friend. So I sometimes come on and I say, ‘I was walking past a colliery when I picked up a thruppeny­bit. I takes it to the manager. He says to me, ‘What yer bothering me with that for?’ and I replies, ‘Well, I thought one of your miners had lost his weekly wage!

The colliery audience is also very critical in Billy Vernon’s opinion and will on hearing a singer say, “John Jones in our street can sing as well as that!” He recalled an incident in a mining village when his company was playing “The Garden of Allah,” in which a sandstorm takes place on the stage. This is arranged by the dropping of sawdust from a barrel behind the wings. Billy had gone to the back of the hall to observe the scenic effects, when he heard an unemployed man, who only paid threepence to get in, remark, “Jawks, it’s only sawdust!

Our comedian immediately turned to him with the shaft: “What the — do you expect for threepence? Blinking camels?“

The Welsh audience revels in pathos. After “East Lynne” one of the women present came up to the comedian with the words, “Oh, I enjoyed it lovely; I cried all the time.”

Some of the rich farmers who sometimes attend are, however, disconcerting, for they have a habit of staring at the footwear of the actors in order to see whether they are down at heel. But Billy Vernon is no snob. “I do not believe in playing up to the swells who can afford to pay a shilling for their seats,” he declared to me with dignity. “My duty is to the 150 who pay their threepennies.”

Indeed, my travelling comedian is a democrat to the core, and his wit is certainly more likely to arouse the cheers of the gallery than it is to tickle the more delicate wit of the stalls.

With a dramatic gesture my strolling player bade me adieu. I had had a glimpse into another world, the world of the footlights, with its own philosophy, with its old traditions going back to long before Shakespeare, with its mixture of humour and pathos, and with its keen study of the whims of the crowd. What a discovery in the calm beauty of the Towy Valley! And how fitting that a real comedian should ring down the curtain over my search for personalities in Wales!

 September 16tb, 1933

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