Mar 27, 2011

'Filming Owain Glyndwr' by David Barry

About David Barry:-  David Barry (born 30 April 1943) is a Welsh actor. He is best known for his role as Frankie Abott, (the gum-chewing mother's boy who was convinced he was extremely tough), in the LWT sitcom Please Sir! and the spin-off series The Fenn Street Gang, He has appeared in several films, notably two TV spin-off movies - Please Sir! and George and Mildred. David is now an author with two novels and an autobiography under his belt, Each Man Kills, Flashback and Willie The Actor.

About Flashback:- "David Barry's autobiography spans almost five decades of theatre, film and television experience. As a 14 year old he toured Europe with Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in one of the most prestigious post-war theatre tours. Vivien Leigh took a shine to him and he saw both sides of her close up. One minute she was sweetness and light, and the next she became a screaming harridan as she publicly berated Sir Laurence. In his early twenties, he starred as Frankie Abbott in the hit television sitcoms Please, Sir! and Fenn Street Gang, and those days are recounted with great humour. Hilarious events unfold as he describes working with dodgy producers and touring with argumentative actors. His is a story that covers everything from the pitfalls of working in live television to performing with hard drinking actors. 'Imagine yourself travelling - as a member of the company - with a train-load of top stars to the great cities of Europe.'" Daily Express.

Filming Owain Glyndwr ( an excerpt from 'Flashback', reproduced by kind permission of the author )

Made for television back in the 1980s, Owain, Prince of Wales, was shot back-to-back, a Welsh language version for showing on S4C, and an English version for Channel 4. The production company was English, as was the director, James Hill, and the brief they had been given by S4C was that they wanted bilingual actors who had never appeared in Pobl Y Cwm the Welsh language television soap opera. I had never appeared in the programme, and I speak a little bit of Welsh, having been brought up by fluent Welsh-speaking parents in North Wales, so my agent suggested me to the casting director who was based in London. Normally, if an actor is not known to a particular director or producer, the actor is required to interview or audition for the part. But they were finding it difficult to cast some of the smaller roles in this costume drama, because most Welsh speaking actors had presumably appeared in the Welsh soap opera at some stage. So I was accepted for the role of Second Soldier merely on the recommendation of my agent.

When the two bulky scripts dropped onto my doormat a few days later, I immediately read the English version with interest. There was no point in trying to read the Welsh version, as I had lived in England since my early teens and my Welsh was now very basic. But I knew I could cope with learning six lines, which was all my part amounted to.

I had often thought this great Welsh hero was a good subject for an exciting historical drama. But as I slowly turned the pages, mouth agape, I became more and more disappointed. Whoever had written this, or conceived of the idea, seemed to be trying to create a family adventure along the lines of the old Fifties and Sixties series Ivanhoe, William Tell and Robin Hood. There was even a corny scene in the script, straight out of a John Ford western, where the hero exits a castle on horseback, along with his sidekick Rhodri, who spots one of Henry IV’s snipers up a tree, about to kill Owain with an arrow. Rhodri fires one from the hip and fells the sniping archer, whereupon our hero salutes his friend and thanks him. “Diolch, Rhodri.” And how do you do a John Wayne drawl in Welsh?

Halfway through the script, desperately disappointed, I gave up reading it, and only bothered reading my own character’s lines. I knew this particular film was going to be a sad, bad experience, but little did I know of the farcical events that lay in store for me.

A week later I caught the Holyhead train from Euston Station, and had been instructed to get off at Llandudno Junction, where a film unit car would meet me to transport me to my hotel ready for filming on the following day. It was there I met Martin Gower, the actor who would be playing First Soldier. Our characters seemed to be the comedy relief, a sort of double-act of two inept soldiers who end up being pushed into the river by Owain and his merry men in this travesty of a historical epic.

During the drive along the beautiful Conwy Valley we got to know each other, and I discovered that Martin’s upbringing was similar to my own, having moved to England when he was quite young, with a Welsh tongue that was terribly rusty. But we thought we could cope with our six lines each, especially if we helped each other out in the hotel that evening.

Most of the cast and crew stayed in hotels in Betwys-y-Coed, but Martin and I were quartered in a beautiful country manor hotel at Dolwyddelan, about four miles from Betwys. As it was unusually perfect weather, we became rain cover. Most of our scenes were interiors, so we were kept on stand-by in case it should rain. It meant that in those pre mobile phone days we couldn’t leave the hotel and had to hang around all day, eating and drinking. It was such a hardship, tucking into a salmon freshly caught in the nearby salmon leap by one of the waiters.

When they eventually decided to use us in a scene, we were picked up by “Mr Jones the Taxi” who was ferrying many of the cast here and there. As we headed for the production office at Llanrwst, where the make-up department and wardrobe were based, Mr Jones told us that he had been involved in many films, most notably The Inn of the Sixth Happiness which had been shot in the Snowdonia region, where they built an entire Chinese village on the hillside near Beddgelert. Mr Jones reminisced about the halcyon days of chauffeuring Ingrid Bergman around the Welsh mountains, when films were films and they were well organised. “Not like this lot,” he opined. “This lot don’t seem to know what they are doing.”

And to prove him right, when we got to the Llanrwst production office, one of the runners was gabbling into his walkie-talkie about some lost portable toilets, which should have gone to the current location, but which had gone in the opposite direction, and loads of actors and crew were now clutching the cheeks of their backsides tightly.

When I was kitted out in my chain-mail, I went to make-up, and was reminded that perhaps I had only been cast because I fitted the brief – no Pobl Y Cwm appearances and a smattering of Welsh – but was actually miscast. I was supposed to be a tough soldier, one of Henry IV’s mercenaries, about to rape a fair, local maiden until rescued by Owain. The make-up girl stared with concentration at my face and declared, “You look like Noddy. You look so cute. How am I going to make you look tough?”

I suggested a scar, but in my balaclava-like helmet there wasn’t really much room left on my face. I continued to look cute.

As soon as we were ready, one of the unit cars drove us to one of the locations, the impressive Gwydir Castle, a 15th century fortified manor house less than two miles from Llanrwst. As the film had at least been blessed by sunny weather, exteriors were being filmed in the courtyard of the castle. At first glance, a film set can be misleadingly impressive in a costume drama, and you almost believe for a moment that you are stepping back in time. Until you notice all the technical paraphernalia, or an actor in doublet and hose smoking a cigarette or tucking in to a bacon butty.

As soon as we arrived on the set, we became acquainted with some of the other actors, and noticed a strange atmosphere, almost as if the cast were method actors and resented the English production company and crew. We soon discovered the reason for this when we were told by one of the actors that he had approached the director just before they were due to shoot the Welsh version of a scene, and asked if he could change a couple of lines, as they were tongue twisters. But the director, apparently pushed for time, had said dismissively that he wasn’t too bothered about the Welsh version and could they just get on with it. Of course, word of this spread like wildfire throughout the cast, creating a lot of resentment. Some of the actors had re-christened the production company “Mickey Llygoden Films.”

When the director heard this, and asked what it meant, he wasn’t pleased when he discovered Llygoden translated to “mouse”.

Also staying at our hotel up in the hills was Dafydd, the location caterer, with whom we drank in the evenings; which probably explains our preferential treatment on the set at lunchtimes, when we were offered a surreptitious “livener” in our orange juice.

Dafydd, had an assistant, Tom, who helped with the cooking in the chuck wagon. One morning I noticed Dafydd was struggling on his own. I asked him what had happened to Tom. Looking over his shoulder and lowering his voice, Dafydd replied, “Tom had to go back to Caernarfon to sign on.”

Outside our hotel was a small station. The railway ran from Blaenau Ffestiniog via Betwys-y-Coud to Llandudno Junction, and one night the three of us decided to go to Betwys-y-Coed by train, and drink with some of the other actors and crew at their hotel. We would have to share a taxi back, and I had Mr Jones’s number on a scrap of paper. Just before midnight it looked as if the bar was shutting, so I went and telephoned Mr Jones to order our taxi. His number rang and rang and rang. I thought he must have been busy working, as it was now pub turning-out time. But when I returned to the bar, and told the barman that there was no reply from “Mr Jones the Taxi”, he looked at his watch and said, “Oh, you won’t get Mr Jones now. He takes tablets.”

So we walked. The following day, feeling a bit jaded, as soon as lunchtime came around, Dafydd stuck another “livener” in our orange juice.

I never did see the end result of our film and my tough soldier performance. But a friend saw it, and I was told I looked rather sweet.

Usually, when actors work in a large budget made-for-television film, over the years they receive small cheques for repeats or sales abroad. I don’t think I ever received a residual cheque for Owain, Prince of Wales, so presumably, and deservedly, it sank without trace.

Perhaps one day some screenwriter and film company will do justice to the Owain Glyndwr story, a great tale of intrigue, politics, double-dealing, love and war. Of course, as almost everyone knows, Glyndwr vanished, and nobody knows what became of the man. It was almost as if he deliberately created his own legend status. And there is no evidence that he was betrayed or assassinated, so a film ending remains open to interpretation. Now there’s an intriguing thought, and it’s just given me an idea!

Filming Owain Glyndwr was an extract from David Barry’s autobiography “Flashback”, in which he writes about a childhood in North Wales, and touring to theatres in Cardiff, Swansea, Porthcawl and Llandudno. “Flashback” is available from price $14.95.

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